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Focus On: Paul's Collection for the Poor in the Church at Jerusalem

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Paul's Collection for the Poor in the Church at Jerusalem

Paul B. Duff
The George Washington University

Surprisingly, the practice of collecting money at Christian worship services is almost as old as Christianity itself. Within a few decades of Jesus' death, the apostle Paul initiated a collection of money from communities he visited to support impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. Paul attached great significance to this project; so important was the collection to him that he even risked alienating those churches that he had founded in order to complete it. But, considering how vital the project was for Paul, it is remarkable that he mentions the collection directly in only a few places, primarily in the Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:19:15; cf. Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25–31). Furthermore, the book of Acts nowhere unambiguously refers to it, although a few passages may point to it indirectly (Acts 11:27–30; 24:17)1. Thus, due to the paucity of evidence provided by the New Testament, a detailed picture of the collection is beyond our grasp. We can, however, sketch the broad outlines of the project with some confidence.

The beginnings of the collection go back to a meeting held between Paul, Barnabas, and the leaders of the Jerusalem church. The meeting took place in Jerusalem in the mid–first century (ca. 48 CE). Prior to the meeting, Paul and Barnabas had been working in the area of Antioch and they journeyed to Jerusalem as representatives of the Antiochene church. Accounts appear in Gal 2:1–10 and Acts 15:1–29. Since the two accounts do not match precisely, Paul's account should be accepted as more historically reliable.

The meeting in Jerusalem occurred due to a debate over the status of non–Jews in the Antioch church. Some believed that non–Jews1 should be welcomed into the church only if they converted to Judaism; others, however, were content to allow them to be incorporated into the community as non–Jews. In order to settle the matter, Paul and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem to consult with the leaders of that church. Those leaders, described by Paul with the honorific title "Pillars" (Gal 2:9), consisted of Peter, a disciple of Jesus; James, Jesus's brother; and John, probably John, the son of Zebedee, another of Jesus's followers.

According to Paul's account of the meeting, the Pillars essentially agreed with Paul that non–Jews could remain as such when they joined the church; in Paul's words, the Jerusalem leaders "added nothing" to his gospel message (Gal 2:6). But Paul's account also suggests that two conditions accompanied the Pillars' approval of Paul's message. The first is described in Gal 2:9: "[Barnabas and Paul would henceforth] go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." That is to say, Paul (and Barnabas) were probably restricted to evangelizing among non–Jews while the "Pillars" would lead the missionary efforts aimed at the Jews. In effect, the problem of Torah–observant Jews and non–Jews in the same movement was solved by splitting the community of believers into two camps, one Jewish and the other not.

The second condition is expressed in the final verse describing the meeting: "[The Pillars] asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do" (Gal 2:10). It is broadly agreed that Paul's phrase "remember the poor" refers to a one–time collection of money raised among the believers in Antioch to be given to "the poor" in Jerusalem3. While it has been suggested that the label "poor" may have been an honorific title for the members of the church in Jerusalem, it more likely represents an accurate descriptor of their situation4. The collection was intended not merely as a symbolic effort meant to demonstrate unity among the different churches; it also addressed a genuine need in the Jerusalem community.5

Sometime after the Jerusalem meeting, an incident took place in Antioch that was to have significant consequences for the collection's future. This incident is narrated by Paul in Galatians: "But when Cephas [i. e., Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self–condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'" (Gal 2:11–14). As this narrative demonstrates, sometime after the Jerusalem meeting, Peter–contrary to his former practice–refused to eat with the non–Jewish members of the Antioch community.

While the issue of dining may seem somewhat insignificant to us, to the members of the church in Antioch, it carried considerable consequences. This is because the community's worship service took place over a meal. In short, while the people from James were in Antioch, Peter refused to worship with the non–Jews in the community. Paul apparently viewed Peter's action as a violation of the previous agreement and consequently accused Peter of hypocrisy. Unfortunately for Paul, the Antiochene community seems to have sided with Peter.6

In response, Paul broke with Barnabas (cf. Acts 15:39), left the Antiochene community, and headed west to pursue his own independent missionary agenda from that point on7. The Antioch incident seems to have spelled the demise of the agreement between Paul, Barnabas, and the "Pillars" that had been established in Jerusalem. Obviously, Paul considered Peter to have reneged on the agreement. But, Peter certainly must have believed his own actions to be justified. After Paul's confrontation with Peter, the latter likely viewed him as a liability, an uncontrolled and uncontrollable renegade who could not be trusted to put the interests of the gospel before his own.

While the demise of the Jerusalem agreement likely signaled the end of the collection at least from the standpoint of the Jerusalem church, Paul's collection efforts did not come to an end8. Evidence from his letters–in particular, the Corinthian correspondence—suggests that after he left Antioch, the collection took on more significance in his eyes. But the collection project also changed9. For Paul, the effort no longer represented the simple transfer of money from the Antioch community to Jerusalem. Instead, Paul attempted to involve all of the non–Jewish churches that he founded in the effort10. He believed that non–Jewish believers in those churches owed the Jews a debt of gratitude. In his words: "Indeed [the non–Jews] owe it to [the members of the Jewish church in Jerusalem]; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things" (Rom 15:27).

Unfortunately the progress of the collection in Paul's churches prior to the Corinthian correspondence is unclear. Paul makes no mention of it in 1 Thessalonians, his earliest extent letter, although in other letters he tells of a collection in Macedonia–a collection that no doubt included the Thessalonian church (2 Cor 8:1–5; 2 Cor 9:2; Rom 15:16, 26). We do know that Paul's efforts in Macedonia were ultimately successful and, as he tells us in 2 Corinthians, they exceeded his expectations (2 Cor 8:5).

Curiously, Paul makes no mention of a collection among the Galatian churches in his letter to them, despite his reference to the collection's origin at the Jerusalem meeting earlier in that same letter (Gal 2:10). He does mention in 1 Corinthians that he had given instructions for a Galatian collection (1 Cor 16:1), but those instructions appeared either in a letter that no longer exists or they were delivered orally. While we cannot be sure of the results of Paul's efforts to collect money in Galatia, it is probable that the Galatians ultimately failed to contribute11. In all likelihood, the Judaizing conflict in Galatia took its toll on Paul's relationship with those churches and consequently those communities withdrew their support for the project12.

We learn about the start of the collection effort in another of Paul's communities, in Corinth, at the end of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 16:1–4). There Paul instructs the community–most of whom must have had little money to spare—to set aside for the project whatever money they could afford on a weekly basis. In this way, they would be able to raise more money than by relying on a one–time collection, an option rejected by the apostle (1 Cor 16:2). Further information about the collection in Corinth appears in several places in 2 Corinthians. That document attests to the difficulty that Paul had in his collection efforts. We learn, for example, that the Corinthian collection proceeded by fits and starts; at one point, it seems to have been put on hold13. Unfortunately, discerning the progress of the Corinthian collection is complicated by the likelihood that 2 Corinthians is made up of more than one letter14.

However, one thing that seems clear in 2 Corinthians is that the collection effort in Corinth raised doubts about Paul's integrity among some members of that community. In several places, we see evidence that a number of Corinthians believed that the apostle was using the collection as a pretext to steal their hard–earned cash. We see such in Paul's insistence that he was not a "peddler of God's word" (2 Cor 2:17); in his denial that he practiced "cunning" (2 Cor 4:2); in his claim in one place that he "did not defraud anyone" (2 Cor 7:2); and in another that neither he nor those that he sent to Corinth were intent on swindling the community (2 Cor 12:16–18)15.

Although it is difficult to understand precisely the ins and outs of the controversy in Corinth, we can nevertheless be confident that the problems were eventually worked out and that the Corinthian collection was completed. We know this because, in his letter to the Romans, Paul tell us that he was about to travel to Jerusalem with the money that had been collected in Achaia, the province whose major city was Corinth (Rom 15:25–26). But in that same letter, Paul exhibits anxiety that the collection money from Achaia (and Macedonia, the province of Thessaloniki and Philippi) might not be accepted upon its arrival in Jerusalem. He therefore asks the Roman church to pray that his "ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints"(Rom 15:31).

What became of the collection? Was it accepted by the Jerusalem church? Or was it rejected by the Pillars, as Paul feared it might be? Unfortunately, no ancient source provides us with a reliable account of Paul's encounter with the Jerusalem leadership when he arrived with the collection. Consequently, scholars are divided in their opinions. Some think that the collection money was not accepted by the Jerusalem leadership; others think that it was; still others suggest that a compromise was worked out.

The book of Acts claims that when Paul reached Jerusalem, he was persuaded to pay for the release of four Jews from their vows. As Acts tells the story, Paul's payment was intended to prove to the members of the Jerusalem church that Paul still respected the Law of Moses (Acts 21:21–26). Although Acts says nothing about the collection here, some scholars see a compromise over its fate lurking behind this story, a compromise that would have enabled Paul to save face while, at the same time, relieving the Jerusalem leadership of the burden of deciding whether or not to accept money from Paul. While the possibility that such a compromise actually occurred should not be ruled out, it is also conceivable that the author of Acts created this narrative to cover up an ugly event involving those who had by his time become the heroes of the early Church.

Homepage image credit: St. Paul the Apostle (oil on canvas), Vignon, Claude (1593–1670) / Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy / Bridgeman Images.


1Keith Nickle suggests that an allusion to charges against Paul also exists in 20:33, where Paul tells the elders from Ephesus, "I coveted no one's silver or gold or clothing" (The Collection: A Study in Paul's Strategy [SBT 48;Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1966], 148).

2It is possible that the controversy arose because of Jewish Christians who had arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem.

3Paul's more formal designation for the effort was probably "the contribution meant for the saints," the label that he gives the effort in 2 Cor 8:4 and 9:1; see Hans Dieter Betz, 2 Corinthians 8 and 9: A Commentary on Two Administrative Letters of the Apostle Paul(Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 46.

4For "the poor" as an honorific title, see Dieter Georgi, Remembering the Poor: The History of Paul's Collection for Jerusalem (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 31-35.

5It is possible that food shortages in the area contributed to the need of the Jerusalemites. See, for example, Stephan Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in Paul's Collection (WUNT II, 124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 108–110.

6We can be fairly certain that the community sided with Peter because Paul would have surely informed his readers had they sided with him, particularly given the context of the letter to the Galatians.

7Dieter Georgi, Remembering the Poor, 45-46; Stephan Joubert, Paul as Benefactor, 121; cf. A. J. M. Wedderburn, "Paul's Collection: Chronology and History," New Testament Studies 48 (2002): 98.

8Alternatively, based on Acts 11:27–30, it has been suggested that the collection effort in Antioch had already been completed; see David J. Downs, The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul's Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts (WUNT II, 248; Tü bingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 33–39.

9See Wedderburn, "Paul's Collection," 98–99.

10It is unclear exactly what happened to the collection in Antioch. It is possible that a collection of money had been sent from Antioch to Jerusalem (by Paul and Barnabas) prior to the event narrated in Gal 2:11–14. It is also possible that the collection was completed in Antioch (by Barnabas, perhaps) after Paul left that city.

11When Paul mentions taking the collection to Jerusalem in Rom 15:25–26, he names areas that provided the money, but there is no mention of Galatian contributions.

12Wedderburn, "Paul's Collection," 103. However, it is also possible (although I think unlikely) that the collection was completed in Galatia before Paul wrote Galatians.

132 Cor 8:10–11 indicates that Titus (one of Paul's assistants) got the collection started but for some reason it was uncompleted for close to a year.

14There is no scholarly consensus regarding whether 2 Corinthians is one letter or more than one, and among scholars who opt for the latter view, there is no consensus regarding the number of letters (or letter fragments).

15The suggestion that some in Corinth suspected Paul of fraud does not always come across in the English translations. Nevertheless, the Greek verb pleonekteō, which appears in 7:2; 12:17; 12:18, typically means to "defraud" or "cheat." For more on the collection and 2 Corinthians, see Margaret M. Mitchell, "The Corinthian Correspondence and the Birth of Pauline Hermeneutics," in Paul and the Corinthians: Studies on a Community in Conflict: Essays in Honor of Margaret Thrall (ed. Trevor J. Burke and J. Keith Elliott; NovTSup 109; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 17–53; Margaret M. Mitchell, "Paul's Letters to Corinth: The Interpretive Intertwining of Literary and Historical Reconstruction," in Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches (ed. Daniel N. Schowalter and Steven J. Friesen; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 307–39; and Paul B. Duff, Moses in Corinth: The Apologetic Context of 2 Corinthians (NovTSup 159; Leiden, Brill, 2015), 76–91.

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