This introductory chapter sets the scene by describing first the urban churches of the late empire, their likely size, income and other wealth, and geographical spread. It examines the diverse forms of poverty experienced in the late empire to distinguish those whose scant means afforded them a limited dignity, but who lived at risk of destitution in times of shortage or famine, from those beggars whom destitution forced into a dishonourable dependency. The chapter reviews past and present scholarship on Christian almsgiving, which was hampered in its infancy by confessional prejudice that saw in the preaching of redemptive almsgiving evidence of corruption from the pure charity of the earliest Christians. More recent scholarship has suffered from a tendency to examine practices separately from the meanings informing them.
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