Paul’s Collection for the Saints in Jerusalem: An Essay

The collection has been described as occupying a “central place in [Paul’s] work among gentile churches… [becoming] a defining emblem of his apostolate.”1 It was certainly “one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projects,” looming large within the Corinthian and Roman letters, “both theologically and practically.”2 The collection for the saints of Jerusalem does beg an important question: just what was it about the collection that meant that Paul was willing to sacrifice his very life to accomplish it? 3 Why did he devote such time and energy to the project? It is clear that meeting the concrete economic needs of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem must form part of our answer to this, but this essay shall demonstrate that we must not only ask what it means to say that economic factors were not foreign to Paul’s mission, but also go on to question specifically what it was about meeting these economic needs through the collection that meant Paul was prepared to devote years of his ministry to it.We find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians what, most scholars agree, is likely to be the oldest text about the collection.4 Here Paul writes a polemical narrative of the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1–10), adding that the council had asked him to do one more thing: remember the poor. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 that Paul had instructed Galatian converts to set aside money on the first day of each week for the collection.5 The prominent position given to this phrase “only the poor” (μόνον τῶν πτωχῶν ἵνα μνημονεύωμεν) draws the phrase to the attention of the reader. Interestingly, however, the rest of Paul’s letter to Galatians remains silent on this subject. 6 As there seems to be little to no mention of “the poor” in this letter one could conclude, with Sze-Kar Wan, that Paul’s willingness to emphasise it is evidence that he took the charge to ‘remember the poor’ seriously as an “integral part of his apostolic mission”7 without need for further explanation in the rest of the letter.

Scholars are widely in agreement that at least sections of the Jerusalem church in the first century experienced “chronic poverty.”8 We have little evidence as to why the saints in Jerusalem had so many poor among them, whom they themselves could not help, nor are we given a direct reason as to why Paul was eager to help them.9 Whilst the reference to the ‘poor’ in Galatians 2:10 is notoriously difficult to pin down, meaning perhaps either the economically poor or the eschatologically poor,10 further references to the “poor among the saints of Jerusalem” in 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:26 do seem to make it clear that there was at least some part of the Jerusalem church that was poor in the economic sense. Whilst economic hardship may have precipitated the request for funds, the length of time Paul took to complete the collection (most likely around a year and a half11) might well indicate that it was intended to relieve not one specific crisis but rather a more chronic need amongst the Jerusalem church. Yet many also question whether the collection was “merely charity to relieve the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church”12 or whether there were broader factors at work. It is difficult, for example, to account for the rich vocabulary of 2 Corinthians 8–9 only through a concern for the economic plight of the Christians in Judea.13 We must also recognise the possibility that the saints in Jerusalem chose, by way of self-definition, to describe themselves as the humble poor, waiting for eschatological deliverance, as well as a descriptor of their financial position.

open quotesThe collection was one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projectsclose quotes

The economic benefit of the collection for the Jerusalem church may well not have been of primary importance. Whilst we cannot confidently determine the monetary results of Paul’s collection, there are several factors at play that may indicate that the “actual sum of money was not extraordinarily large.”14 The contributing region of Macedonia, for example, was itself suffering under “severe poverty, aggravated by the persecution to which the Christians there were being subjected.”15 It is also likely that Corinth, the chief city in Achaia, probably gave a “meagre contribution”16 – Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 16:3 that he was arriving in only a short time to organise the delivery trip to Jerusalem, giving little time for substantial contributions to be organised. Despite the significant delay in Paul’s plans, evident in his needing to mention it again some time later in 2 Corinthians, it does seem unlikely that large amounts of money would have been able to be organised.

It is immediately striking, when reading the longest discourse on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9), once again how little the “supposedly dire situation of the poor in Jerusalem is used in the appeal.”17 This may well have been because the plight of the Jerusalem church was well known to the Corinthians and could thus be omitted, but the decision not to draw especial attention to their economic needs would seem extraordinary when Paul seems so eager for the Corinthians to participate. One reason for this may well be to do with Paul’s desire to “decouple the Corinthians’ contribution from the patronal expectation that the Jerusalem church could become obligated to them as a result of the gift.”18 Decades of research have shown that Roman patronage was a highly influential factor in the Corinthian congregation.19 In the light of Paul’s insistence on the priority of the Jewish people in Romans, Paul goes to some length in Corinthians to avoid any suggestion that gifts to the Jerusalem church would imply any level of submission by Jerusalem to the gentile churches. In reiterating to the Corinthians that all generosity and wealth come from God, and that in providing for the needs of the ‘holy’ they are ultimately rendering thanks to God, Paul is presenting a theological argument that undermines any temptation on the part of the Corinthians to view their gifts to Jerusalem along Roman patronal lines.20 It can therefore be seen that in Corinthians, Paul “consciously disengages the Jerusalem church from the gentile churches, so that the former would not be placed in a direct obligatory relationship to the latter.”21

We might therefore conclude that in the Corinthian correspondence the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church features in the background, not in the foreground, of Paul’s argument in his letter precisely to uphold his vision of κοινωνία and ἀγάπη amongst the Jewish and gentile churches, rather than allow this to be jeopardised by alternative patron-client systems of social relations amongst the churches. Paul refers to this work as a ‘ministry’ (διακονία)22 and as one that evidences the grace at work amongst them overflowing in a generosity towards others in response to the generosity of God to them in salvation. It is expressly not, therefore, that the economic needs were merely a convenient vehicle with which to promote ecumenical unity between Jewish and Gentile converts as some seem to infer,23 but rather came from a desire to ensure that the gift was made in a way that reinforced his vision of inter-racial Christian κοινωνία. Paul also shows a sensitivity to the Corinthians’ own financial resources (8:12–15) and to the “suspicions always likely to hang around such financial transactions (8:19–21; 9:5).”24

open quotesan intensely practical expression of ἀγάπηclose quotes

Paul employs the noun κοινωνία three times25 with reference to the collection, and the verb κοινωνἐω once.(Rom 15:27) This was one of Paul’s “preferred phrases for speaking of the life of the Christian community.”26 Paul’s frequent use of the term in connection with Christian community, and especially connects it with the supplying of needs whether spiritual27 or material.28 Nickle argues that in applying the term to his collection Paul was “clearly emphasising that it was a direct expression of Christian fellowship that his churches were contributing relief funds to Jerusalem.”29 The use of the collection as an expression of unity is unpacked most fully in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to which we must now turn.

In Romans Paul imbues the collection with theological meaning that suggests that in the light of the fact that the Gentiles have received a share in the Jews’ spiritual privileges, they should now also share their own material benefits. Paul’s vision of the collection, in Romans, is that it is a massive symbol and prophetic sign “blazoned across half a continent, trumpeting the fact that the people of God redefined around Jesus the Messiah is a single family.”30 Now that they are a single family in Christ, they must live as such and live by the principle of practical ἀγάπη. Paul seems to be more than aware that this gift, a sign of the unity redefined around the Messiah, might be rejected by the Jerusalem church for the very reason that it had originated from Paul’s uncircumcised churches and thereby “reckoned to be tainted, to have the smell of idolatry still upon it.”31 There may also be a very practical awareness by Paul that if he advocated separation from the Jewish synagogues he might draw attention to the early church in a way that might risk it losing the privileged status granted to Jews under Roman rule.32 In Romans 11:17–24 Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to allow both for the “commonality and diversity that then existed in the Christ communities at Rome”33 whilst also being used to oppose any gentile movement that might pride itself on its independence from Israel. Paul, therefore, is consciously seeking to avoid “escalating [any] process of self-definition [that might precipitate] the final separation between the synagogues and the house churches”34 and seems eager to maintain unity across racial boundaries.

We must be wary of treating Paul’s Jewish heritage statically as if his ethnicity was merely an interesting cultural artefact. Indeed in Romans particularly he seems willing to emphasise, in Becker’s words, “the salvation-historical priority of Israel and Jewish Christianity over the Gentiles.”35 Yet the voluntary nature of the gift must surely negate the view held by some, such as Karl Holl, that the collection was a “shameful imposition, which revealed [Paul’s] subservience to Jerusalem.”36 It does seem likely that agreement over the collection at the Jerusalem Council was hammered out “in the context of an intense wrangling over ethnicity”37 with at least two opposing views on the incorporation of the Gentile believers. On the one side was the maintenance of traditional Jewish ethnic boundaries based around the outward signs of circumcision and dietary restrictions to fulfil the Torah. On the other was Paul’s concern with “redefining Jewish group boundaries to include gentile converts,”38 through a faith-centered reading of the Abrahanic covenant with the “new law of Christ – to love each other – replacing the centrality of the Torah.”39 For Paul, ἀγάπη was the basic modus operandi for the new Jew plus Gentile movement with Christ as its head.

The collection was an intensely practical expression of ἀγάπη bringing the Jewish and gentile congregations together and symbolizing an “emerging universalizing society” operating “along Jewish lines which in effect brought all Gentiles into the metanarrative of Israel.”40 Whilst upholding the Jewish salvation story, Paul rejected any hint of cultural chauvinism in criticizing both “those who would close the door on the Gentiles or insist that Gentiles adapt to Jewish norms before they would be included.”41 Sze-Kar Wan therefore sees the collection as both a statement against Jewish ethnic exclusiveness as well as a symbol of resistance towards and criticism of any system, including the Roman imperial order, which might stand against allegiance to Christ the Jewish Messiah. Seen through these eyes, the collection is part of a wider vision for Paul of Jewish and Gentile congregations together “daring… to reorder economic life together along unabashedly transcendent, universalizing principles.”42 This analysis does make some sense of a Paul who, as a Roman citizen and an ethnic Jew in a subaltern community under Roman rule, worked hard to set up communities of people who were citizens of a new and different sort of empire in which Jesus was lord and Caesar was not.43

Many scholars have been quick to point out that Paul’s collection reflected several aspects of contemporary Judaism, particularly in its organisation from the Jewish Temple tax. Nickle emphasises its similarities in both the external elements as well as in its symbolic significance. He argues that it was precisely because the “symbolism of the Temple tax corresponded so precisely with the hopes for the unity of the Church with which Paul had invested his project” that he was led to borrow and use so many other aspects of that tax.44 He maintains that Paul deliberately arranged his collection for the Jerusalem community as a parallel to the collection for the Temple, and in particular asserts that Paul probably made advantageous use of the protection provided under the special concessions granted to Judaism by the Roman government. If Paul had publicly differentiated between his collection and the other usual contributions sent to Jerusalem, his collection would probably have been judged illegal by the Roman authorities.45

Tellbe usefully points to the Temple tax as a Jewish identity marker that had an important social meaning in that it served an important reminder for the Diaspora Jews of their primary affiliation and so became a “concrete expression of first-hand loyalty to the Jewish nation and its religious leadership.”46 In other words, it was a way of declaring yourself a Jew and to be reckoned to be one by your neighbours. We must ensure that we keep at the forefront of our minds that Paul’s collection was a voluntary collection. However, through the lens of Tellbe’s analysis we could view the collection as an expression of Christian identity: an identity as a community formed around Christ to express in practical ways the rule of ἀγάπη. Tellbe’s analysis does overstep the mark, however, when expounding Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1–10. Here he points out that Paul does not mention anything about the Temple tax when addressing the obligation to pay taxes. Tellbe implies through this that “Paul in practice implicitly affirms the autonomous religious identity of the Roman Christians vis-à-vis the Roman Jews.”47 He seems to be suggesting that because Paul does not mention the Temple tax within Romans 13, a passage that explicitly addresses the Christian relations with the Roman authorities (rather than Temple authorities), Paul is therefore hinting that the Roman Christians had an identity entirely separate to Roman Judaism. We should rightly heed the warning of Campbell that this is an argument from silence and may say as much about the Jewish-Gentile mix in the Roman church as it might do about Paul’s attitude towards the Temple tax.48

open quotesThe collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testingclose quotes

The significance of the collection for Paul is further emphasised if we accept Wright’s assessment of Paul’s attitude towards Jerusalem. Wright argues that Paul had a “clear awareness that the days of Jerusalem, as he knew it, were strictly numbered.”49 We must be careful not to automatically assume that this, for Paul, meant that he was envisaging this as the ‘Parousia’, the end of the space-time order to take place within his lifetime, but that there was an imminent judgment due on the Jewish world, and by extension Jerusalem, that gave Paul’s mission such urgency.50 In the fallout from this, he argues, Jewish non-Christians, and not a few Jewish Christians, may well lay the blame at the feet of this early Christ movement for undermining Torah obedience though mixing with pagan idolaters. In return, gentile believers may well celebrate the demise of a nation that could have been perceived to have been opposed the true gospel. Wright contends that Paul was aware that such an event would split the church down the middle “along the very seam which Paul spent most of his time stitching up.”51 The collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testing.

In conclusion, it is clear that the collection “was not just an example of poor-relief,”52 but it is certainly not less than an example poor-relief. Provision for the poor saints of Jerusalem was a clear demonstration that economic factors featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. The economic needs of the first Christians therefore lay close to the heart of his apostolic mission. To expend the time and effort that his collection must have required, it must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture. In the words of Wright, he must have seen it as “a major element in his practical strategy for creating and sustaining the one family of God redefined around the Messiah and in the Spirit.”53 Paul was eager, though, to avoid any sense in which meeting the economic needs of these first Christians might promote ethnic superiority or precipitate expectations of patronal subservience. As an ethnic Jew, Paul may well have constructed the collection to closely mirror the Temple tax, but in doing so re-orientated his gift to the Jewish Christians not around the temple itself but around his vision of a multi-ethnic Christ-movement that could withstand all pressure because of its unity in Jesus the Messiah.

Websites worth reading

Some books worth reading on the subject

  • Campbell, W., S., (2008) Paul and the creation of Christian identity, (London: T & T Clark International)
  • Bruce, F., F., (1993) ‘Paul in Acts and letters’, in Hawthorne, G., F., Martin, R., P., Reid, D., C., (Eds.), Dictionary of Paul and his letters, (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press), pp. 679 – 92
  • Dunn, J., D., G., (1998) ‘The Collection’ in Dunn, J., D., G., Dunn, The theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
  • Munck, J., (1959) Paul and the salvation of mankind, (London: SCM)
  • Nickle, K., F., (1966) The Collection: A study in Paul’s strategy, (London: SCM)
  • Sze-Kar Wan, (2000) ‘Collection for the saints as anticolonial act’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Taylor, N., (1992) Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
  • Tellbe, M., (2001) Paul between Synagogue and State, (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International)
  • Wedderburn, A., J., M., (1988) The Reasons for Romans, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)
  • Wright, N., T., (1994, 2nd edn.) ‘Jerusalem in the New Testament’ in P. W. L. Walker, (Ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, (Carlisle: Paternoster), pp. 53–77

  1. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194  ↩

  2. Wright (2005), p. 167. Paul makes reference to the collection in every one of his major letters (see Rom 15:25–28, 1 Cor 16:1–4, 2 Cor 8–9, Gal 2:10)  ↩

  3. Romans 15:31  ↩

  4. Munck (1966), p. 291  ↩

  5. “The term used here, λογεία (vv. 1,2), was commonly used for money collected for religious or cultic purposes, which is clearly the meaning here as well.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193–4  ↩

  6. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  7. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  8. Bruce, F., F. (1993), p. 686  ↩

  9. See Galatians 2:10. Munck (1959), p. 287  ↩

  10. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  11. “Accordingly to 8:10, the Corinthians had pledged to contribute to the collection a year earlier, an indication that the project had been delayed for at least that long.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194. If we include the events that resulted in the launching of this project, the time involved in the collection “spanned the entire period of his known public missionary activity from Antioch to Rome.” Nickle (1966), p. 100  ↩

  12. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  13. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  14. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  15. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  16. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  17. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  18. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  19. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 214  ↩

  20. See 2 Cor 9:12 and Taylor (1992), p. 203  ↩

  21. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 212 – 213  ↩

  22. 2 Cor 9:1; Rom 15:25  ↩

  23. See comments by Karl Holl as quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  24. Dunn (1998), p. 711  ↩

  25. Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; cf. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15  ↩

  26. Nickle (1966), p. 105  ↩

  27. Rom 15:27; cf. 1 Cor 9:11ff, 23; 2 Cor 1:5ff; Phil 1:7  ↩

  28. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:14f.  ↩

  29. Nickle (1966), p.106  ↩

  30. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  31. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  32. Thoughts adapted from Campbell (2008), p. 77  ↩

  33. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  34. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  35. Beck quoted in Wedderburn (1988), p. 74  ↩

  36. Such as Karl Holl quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  37. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 200  ↩

  38. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 192  ↩

  39. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 203 – 204  ↩

  40. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  41. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  42. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  43. These thoughts are adapted from Philippians 3:20 and Wright (2005), p. 170  ↩

  44. Nickle (1966), p. 99  ↩

  45. Nickle (1966), p. 87–89  ↩

  46. Tellbe (2001), p. 184  ↩

  47. Tellbe (2001), p. 188  ↩

  48. Campbell (2008), p. 78  ↩

  49. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  50. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  51. Wright (2005), p. 169 – 170  ↩

  52. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  53. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩