I've just finished reading Watson, Deborah Elaine (2006) Paul's collection in light of motivations and mechanisms for aid to the poor in the first-century world, Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Thesis Online, here.
While benefaction was common in the Graeco-Roman world, it was not given to the poor, but to those who were able to reciprocate in some way. Watson states that concern for the poor "seems to have been largely absent from the Graeco-Roman world" (p12). In contrast she shows, from a wide range of documents, that the obligation to help the poor was a central feature of the Jewish faith. She then argues that the early Christians inherited this Jewish concern for the poor (I am inclined to think that they went even further than the (other) Jews). She concludes "this thesis has demonstrated the importance of aid to the poor as central to Jewish and Christian identity, and uncovered the surprising neglect of this crucial aspect of Jewish identity in the scholarly material" (p185).
In Gal 2:10 Paul writes, "They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do." Many suppose that the Jerusalem apostles were here placing an obligation on Paul, asking him to collect money as a condition for their acceptance of the gentile churches. Watson, however, rejects this interpretation (rightly, I think). She also (rightly) rejects any link between Gal 2:10 and Paul's collection of money from Macedonia and Achaia. Instead she says that "Gal 2:10 functioned more as a reminder to Paul to continue to convey to his church members this central aspect of the godly life about which Gentiles who came into the church without first having come through the synagogue likely would have been ignorant". Here I would wish to question Watson's assumption that the Gentiles in the church had not attended synagogue. However, Watson is right that when the apostles said "remember the poor" they were not making a deal with Paul, but were simply reminding him about this important aspect of the Christian faith.
Watson gives abundant evidence that sabbatical years were observed in the first century and caused real hardship for the poor. One such year was in 48/49 C.E., and followed a famine (Acts 11:27-30). My own view is that Paul and Titus organized the collection from (south) Galatia at that time (though not as part of any deal with the Jerusalem apostles).
Watson shows that money was transported in the form of coins and it had to be accompanied by guards. The party of 8 mentioned in Acts 20:4 would have had this security role.
It is unfortunate that Watson does not speculate on how the Roman authorities might have responded to Paul's Aegean collection, if they had learned about it. If, as Watson argues, the Romans would have found the concept of aid for the poor baffling, is it not likely that they would have been suspicious of Paul's collection, or even considered it subversive? Would they not have banned it, just as Flaccus forbade the delivery of the temple tax from Asia (p140)? Watson shows that aid to the poor was foreign to Graeco-Roman culture, and it seems to me that this makes it more likely that Paul's collection was of questionable legality. This, in turn, supports the view that the plot of the Jews of Acts 20:3 was an attempt to get the Romans to prevent the delivery of the collection (see here). The questionable legality of the collection can also explain why Luke does not mention it (to avoid getting his readers into trouble).
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