It is crucial to understanding where Jones and Pennick are coming from, I think, to see clearly that they are not interested in simply giving Christians whatever credit they might deserve for their charitable works. They feel compelled to claim, falsely, that the idea of helping poor people was not only foreign and strange to ancient Paganism, it was something viewed with hostility and even actively resisted by Pagans because "Pagan society was deeply stratified and snobbish."
However, Geoffrey Rickman points out in his Roman Granaries and Store Buildings, that in distributing food to the needy "in fact, the Church had taken upon itself, although in a smaller way, the distributions and frumentationes of the [Pagan] Roman Empire." [p. 157 - emphasis added] Centralized distribution of food, an absolute pre-requisite for the existence of cities in the first place, had, at least in Rome, always included free distribution of food to the poor and tight regulation of food prices. O.F. Robinson in his Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration goes so far as to state that food, "subsidized or free", along with amusements, were the true "opiate of the masses" in Pagan Rome. This is hardly an obscure bit of information known only to a few specialists, as anyone familiar with the origins of the phrase "bread and circuses" knows perfectly well.
Not only did Pagan Rome already have an extensive and systematic distribution system for providing food to the poor (and price subsidies for everyone else), centuries before Jesus came along, but this was done under the auspices of the Goddess Ceres. Interestingly, in addition to being the Goddess of Grain, Ceres is also sometimes (and not without justification) referred to as the Goddess of the Plebs, that is, the plebian class (which essentially included all Roman citizens who were not patricians). Some scholars have suggested that the frequency with which Ceres appears on coinage during the late Republic is evidence of attempts (by those in charge of issuing the coins) to garner the support of the plebs. The association of Ceres with the plebs probably goes back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic (for more on Ceres and the plebs see Barbette Stanley Spaeth's The Roman Goddess Ceres, especially the third section of the first chapter: The Early Republic, as well as the entire fourth chapter, which is devoted to The Plebs).
Elsewhere in this blog I have already discussed the strange notion of Christianity as a force for "social revolution" (here, here and here). Please see those posts for the gory details (and numerous references). The simple fact is, as everyone knows, that Christianity's "triumph" in the ancient world did not result in the springing up of egalitarian utopian societies - or even in modest, incremental improvements for slaves, the poor, women, or any other social group.
Jones and Pennick cite Robin Lane Fox's Introduction to his 1986 Pagans and Christians to support their statements about Christian charity (and the Pagan lack thereof). My 1987 Alfred Knopf hardback (American) edition of that book has a Preface, but no Introduction, and that Preface does mention Christian charity, but Fox's words do not in any way resemble those of Jones and Pennick. Fox also discusses charity later on, in his chapter on The Spread of Christianity (chapter 6). But as Fox points out in that chapter, where Christians had their "charity", Pagans had "philanthropy". And as far as "social revolution" goes this is what Fox has to say about the supposed idealism of Christianity concerning the less fortunate: "Christians did not always live up to it [surprise!], least of all in their attitude to the slaves whom they continued to own: if Christian women beat their maidservants to death, so an early council in Spain decided, they were to be punished with several years communion. The mild scale of punishment was hardly less revealing than the existence of such sinners." [p. 323] Fox also points out that Christianity inherited the practice of giving alms from "the synagogue communities", as well as inheriting the idealization of "abject poverty" from "its Jewish heritage". [p. 324]
More on Paganism, Christianity, and "Charity":
- On the Emperor Julian's supposed admiration and emulation of Christian "charity" (July 3, 2009)
- "An inescapable network of mutuality" (July 8, 2009)
- World Vision: Only Christians Need Apply (January 12, 2010)
- Comparing World Vision and Hezbollah (January 14, 2010)
- US Gov't Funding Cultural Genocide in Haiti (January 21, 2011)
- "Travesty In Haiti": The truth about Christian missions, food aid, etc (January 25, 2011)