Jennifer Quigley, Divine Accounting: Theo-Economics in the Letter to the Philippians (ThD Dissertation, Harvard Divinity School, 2018).
In the ancient Mediterranean, the divine was an active participant in the economy. Gods and goddesses were represented as owning goods, holding accounts, and producing wealth through the mediation of religious and civic officials. In Divine Accounting: Theo-Economics in the Letter to the Philippians, I investigate how early Christ-followers used financial language to articulate and imagine their relationship to the divine. I use a variety of epigraphic, papyrological, and literary evidence to examine the use of financial terms that are found throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians. What sorts of human-human and human-divine relationships are described?
Our modern scholarly categories of theology and economics were not so clearly delineated and separated in antiquity. Many texts, documents, and objects instead demonstrate what I call theo-economics, or an intertwined theological and economic logic in which divine and human beings regularly enter into transactions with one another. Imagine, for a moment, no separation between economy and theology, between theologia and oikonomia, between accounting for god(s) and an accounting of the ordered world. We have significant evidence in antiquity that divine and semi-divine beings were understood as having vibrant materiality within the economic sphere, and that the gods were understood as economic actors, with whom humans could transact.
When we turn to theo-economic language in New Testament and early Christian texts, then, we need to understand such language in its broader context. In the Greco-Roman Mediterranean we find divine activity in human economics, a divine economy with its own commodities and transactions, and the ability of humans to effect activity within that divine economy. One especially fruitful text for considering theo-economics is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which is suffused with financial language the valences of which have largely been overlooked by scholarship. My dissertation explores this theo-economic language, focusing especially on passages in which God or Christ are engaged in transactions among Paul and the Philippians. In addition, the dissertation traces one direction in the early Christian exegetical afterlife of the letter’s theo-economic themes.
My introduction begins to develop a model of an ancient theo-economy in which gods and humans both play an active role. To help re-orient our thinking towards seeing theo-economic language in our New Testament and early Christian texts, I first explore some of the contexts in which the gods and human transacted in antiquity. I introduce these contexts through objects: inscriptions, documents, coins, and other material evidence. First, I describe some theo-economic contexts which temples provide, including banking, storage, and land management. Second, I consider examples of non-temple related transactions. These material comparanda lay the groundwork for the analysis of Philippians throughout the rest of the dissertation.
Chapter One, entitled “The Venture of the Gospel,” considers the theo-economic language of Philippians 1. I focus on the financial valences of koinōnia, a term often translated as “sharing” or “fellowship,” but largely deployed in antiquity in contracts, including land leases and marriage contracts. I consider some of these legal and financial materials to help demonstrate how koinōnia discourse is functioning in the letter. By thinking about the broader context of the term as one in which parties share risk and reward, we can better understand how a koinōnia in the gospel may have been heard and received as a venture. A focus on the “venture of the gospel” in Phil 1:5 also helps explain the language found in Paul’s discussion of his imprisonment as a contribution to the prokopē (“prosperity”) of the gospel venture (1:12). Thus, even Paul’s statement that “living is Christ and dying is gain” in Phil 1:21 has an underlying theo-economic logic. I clarify this logic in contrast with 1 Corinthians, where we find ekklēsia discourse as Anna Miller has shown. In Philippians we instead read koinōnia. That is, 1 Corinthians uses a political term to describe the organizational relationships among the members of the community, while Philippians uses a theo-economic term to describe the organizational relationship between Paul and the Philippians. I conclude with an excursus on Philippians 4, arguing that only within the full theo-economic picture of Philippians 1 can we understand Philippians 4’s language of abundance and lack in relation to the Philippians’s financial support for Paul.
In Chapter Two, “The Christ Commodity,” I turn to Philippians 2–3, focusing on the language of gain and loss in Phil 3:7–11. In this passage, Paul offers a divine-human accounting sheet in which his statuses are counted as losses so that he might gain the profit, Christ (Phil 3:8). I contextualize this passage by reading Lucian’s Lives for Sale, a text in which gods and humans participate in a human-divine slave market. Persons in antiquity sometimes considered the gods as a source of financial profits and losses, and sometimes they understood the gods to depend upon humanity for divine gains and losses. Most importantly, persons in antiquity sometimes discussed gods as commodities that could be bought, sold, or traded. I then map the complex theo-economic language at work in Phil 3:7–11 with respect to a variety of literary sources that use similar language of profit and loss to imagine human-divine interdependence. Paul juxtaposes this commodification of Christ with a claim to be in a koinōnia of suffering with Christ in order to attain resurrection from the dead. I argue that the commodification of Christ makes most sense within the larger themes of the letter, especially Phil 2:7, in which Christ is described in slave form. Paul thereby sets up a commodities exchange in which suffering gives him the proper status as currency to acquire Christ. The Letter to the Philippians thus represents an early data point for what will later emerge as a divine-human economy of suffering in early Christianity.
Chapter Three, “The Down Payment for Righteousness,” focuses on a later, related text, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians (Pol. Phil.). The letter’s seemingly disjointed themes—from its emphasis on the Philippian community as recipients of Pauline correspondence, to its focus on quoting the Pastoral Epistles in condemning philarguria (love of money), to its intense interest in right belief and practice, to its stark imagery of divine judgment—make sense when taken in a broader theo-economic context. I focus especially on Pol. Phil. 8.1–2, in which Polycarp introduces the idea that Christ is the “down-payment for our righteousness”, as a way to understand the interconnected theo-economic themes in this juridically-focused letter.
In my conclusion, I return to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, considering the ways in which a focus on theo-economic language helps us to better understand the letter. I also consider some of the broader implications of my approach for Pauline studies, for New Testament and early Christian studies, for Roman historians, and for the study of religion. By taking seriously the ways in which persons in antiquity understood themselves to be participating in transactions with the divine, we can begin to break down some of the scholarly categories that separate theology from economics.
Ultimately, my study adds a new framework of analysis, theo-economics, to New Testament and early Christian texts. This new framework allows a better understanding of major theological and economic logics in early Christianity, and the imbrication of themes such as poverty, labor, social status, cosmology, and eschatology.The framework of theo-economics also makes visible an emerging “economy of suffering” in early Christianity, which is present in the Letter to the Philippians and expands in multiple directions after Paul. Thus, my study has implications for New Testament and early Christian studies as well as Roman history, economics, and the study of religion.
David Wilhite coined this term in a chapter on Tertullian’s interpretation of Paul in Ad uxorem. “Tertullian on Widows: a North African Appropriation of Pauline Household Economics,” in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, ed. Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 222–24. Wilhite calls for a resistance against “modernist dichotomies…between religion and economics,” in order to “read Tertullian as very much concerned with both economic issues and religious ones –the line between the two often being imperceptible” (224). While I agree with Wilhite’s move to resist modernist dichotomies, his analysis is largely limited to human-human transactions, in this case, Tertullian’s discussion of ecclesial care for widows and orphans. God’s role in participating financially with the church goes largely unconsidered. To take a single example, Wilhite notes the language Tertullian uses of widows as married to God, offering “prayers as dowries,” and receiving compensation in the form of imperishable goods,” but does not explore further the implications of considering God as not only a husband but participating in a financial exchange with widows (prayers for imperishable goods) (233). The implications reach beyond Tertullian’s interpretation of Paul or ecclesiology to make strong claims about divine activity in human economics, a divine economy with its own commodities and transactions, and the ability of humans to affect activity within that divine economy.
My interest and approach to this topic have been influenced by the work of feminist materialists such as Jane Bennett, who have helped us to understand the interconnectedness of people and the objects around them, to get at the “vital materiality” of nonhuman things such as power grids and garbage dumps—and, I would add, economic forces such as “the market.” Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 9, 21. See also Karen Barad, who argues that “matter and meaning are inseparable” (Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter [Durham: Duke University Press, 2007], 3).
Anna Miller, Corinthian Democracy: Democratic Discourse in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).
Jennifer Quigley is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies and Louisville Postdoctoral Fellow, Drew University, Theological School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.