Let me dispel a common myth: no, Christianity did not bring the idea of charity to the Western world.
The concept of charity and concern for the poor was already fully developed before the Christians borrowed the notion from their pagan and Jewish peers. It’s evident in Jewish wisdom literature, Cynic discourses, Stoic and even Epicurean moral theory, Aristotelian generosity and magnanimity, and the Greco-Roman institutions of philanthropia and euergetism. (On the role of influences on Christianity explaining its features generally, see On the Historicity of Jesus, Element 30, pp. 164-68). The idea of charity, welfare, the common good, sharing wealth, helping the poor was heavily ingrained throughout all ancient societies before Christianity. The Christians added nothing new. All they did was boast of being better at it. Which may have been as dubious a claim then as now. The data show poverty only increased under the Christians. For almost a thousand years.
In fact social welfare in antiquity was extensive, often including subsidized and sometimes free medical care, food supplies, educational scholarships, income subsidies for the poor, and disaster relief (on some of this, see Chapter 8, and index, “charities,” in my Science Education in the Early Roman Empire); as well as access to fresh water (which required massive outlays for aqueducts and associated delivery and storage systems), and other urban infrastructure, like roads and libraries, which were free to the public. Public baths and toilets were not free, but heavily subsidized for the benefit of the poor, and sometimes indeed free (on holy days). Private charities were likewise everywhere, from burial and dinner clubs, to guilds and religious fraternities, to secular and sacred hospices. Advanced hospitals with hygienic arrangements, scientific medical staff, medicinal gardens, baths, latrines, and libraries were free to slaves and soldiers—and may have been available to the public for a fee, just as today (Science Education in the Early Roman Empire, p. 109, n. 286); otherwise, healing temples provided scaled-fee services with all the same features (Asclepius, 2.173-80; Charity & Social Aid in Greece and Rome, pp. 132 & 172, n. 156), with a big dose of fake “miracle medicine” of course; but that’s also what the Christians sold, so again, little difference.
Christians were no different from the pagans. Within just a few centuries the Christians became defenders of continuing material and social stratification, rather than champions for ending poverty. In other words, they became pretty much just like the pagans they claimed to be superior to. And they never really had anything better to offer as models for benefaction and charitable action.
The Philosophy of Charity
The notion of charitable giving and support for the poor was already built into the social system and ideology of pagan antiquity. See Poverty in the Roman World, pp. 60-82 (published by the Cambridge University Press in 2006). The sharing of civic resources was a standard moral assumption of every nation-state, including public mining proceeds, food production and supply, and beyond, with many kinds of private and public philanthropic food and cash charities (ibid., pp. 6-8 and 45), implemented on a scale far beyond anything the Christians could achieve—until they took over the government and continued what the pagans started. All of this was the physical realization of ancient pagan thought.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 4.1 is entirely devoted to the virtue of “generosity” (eleutheriotês), and in section 1155a19-22 of NE 8, Aristotle outright says friendship ought to be “felt mutually by members of the same species, especially among human beings, for which reason we praise philanthropists.” Indeed, Aristotle’s views were more sophisticated and practical than any promoted by early Christians: see Judith Swanson, “Aristotle on Liberality: Its Relation to Justice and Its Public and Private Practice,” in Polity 27.1 (Autumn 1994): 3-23.
The Christians had the obscure tale of the widow’s mite. The pagans had a fully intelligible philosophy of it:
The word ‘generosity’ is used relatively to someone’s means; for generosity resides not in how much one gives, but in the moral character of the giver, and this is relative to the giver’s means. There is therefore nothing to prevent the man who gives less from being the more generous man, if he has less to give than those who are thought to be more generous, yet who have not made their wealth but inherited it; for in the first place, the latter sort of man has no experience of want, and secondly all men are fonder of what they themselves have achieved, as are parents and poets. It is not easy for the generous man to be rich, since he is not apt either at taking or at keeping, but at giving it away, and he does not value wealth for its own sake, but as a means to giving. (Aristotle, NE 4.1)
Gosh. It’s as if the Christian notion of charity was invented by Aristotle. Hmmm.
Aristotle goes on to praise this model of generosity as definitive of the good person and the good life, and denounces its contrary extremes: meanness (not giving anything to charity, or giving too little) and prodigality (giving too much, e.g. risking bankruptcy, or to the wrong people, e.g. criminals and flatterers, or for the wrong reasons, e.g. for praise rather than the good it produces). So here we have charity and giving as principles at the foundation of Western philosophy. (See T.H. Irwin, “Generosity and Property in Aristotle’s Politics,” Social Philosophy and Policy 4.2 [April 1987]: 37-54.)
The Epicureans, likewise, promoted frugality and generosity, and accepted the poor and illiterate into their schools and clubs. The Cynics even more so. And the Stoics developed an extensive philosophy of the moral duty to be giving and generous and to help the poor. Eclectics who cobbled together personal philosophies from all the schools of thought did likewise.
Cicero extensively advocated giving surpluses to the needy and helping the poor (On Duties 2). Seneca, the famous Stoic and quintessential philosopher of the Roman Empire, likewise argued that we should readily give alms even to anonymous beggars, and ever be ready to help the needy, and not because of pity, but rationally, as an expression of our good nature (see: On Anger 1.9.2; On Clemency 2.6.2; On Benefits 3.8.3, 4.10-11, 4.29.2-3, 5.11.5; and Moral Epistles 120.2). Musonius Rufus, the most revered philosopher of the Roman Empire, was even more adamant on this virtue of charity, to the point of arguing men should not even own slaves, so as to steal the labor of others, but do their own work or pay for it like everyone else. A point nowhere made by Jesus, anywhere in the New Testament. Altogether, Rufus preached that “to help many people” is “much more commendable than living a life of luxury,” and that “evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbor.” So none of that was invented by Jesus.
Even before Christianity came along to steal those ideas, Seneca’s father famously wrote that “among those laws that are unwritten, and yet set in stone…are the obligations on all to give alms to a beggar and throw earth on a corpse” (Seneca the Elder, Controversies 1.1.14). That statement alone demonstrates how ubiquitous was the common agreement on this point, before Christianity even existed, in the very empire they inhabited. Clearly, the Christians did not introduce it. Generosity had always been a virtue. Greek eleutheriotês was emulated by Roman liberalitas. Greek euergetês was emulated by Roman beneficentia. The Romans even introduced the virtue of mercy (clementia), acting on which also produced charity. And these three Latin virtues, mercy, beneficence, and generosity, together constituted humanitas, producing what we now call “humanitarianism” (see, for example, Cicero’s, Tusculan Disputations 4.43-57 and Academica 2.44.135).
As Seneca himself wrote to posterity, and his friend Lucilius:
It is indeed worthy of great praise, when man treats man with kindness! Shall we advise stretching forth the hand to the shipwrecked sailor, or pointing out the way to the wanderer, or sharing a crust with the starving? … Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped. (Seneca, Moral Epistles 95.51.)
Tossing a coin to a beggar, Seneca said, is literally the least anyone should do, to the point that it hardly warrants praise; because anyone who wouldn’t do that, should simply be condemned (On Benefits 4.29.2). A virtuous man, Seneca says, will certainly do far more than so paltry a minimum:
He will bring relief to another’s tears, but will not add his own; to the shipwrecked man he will give a hand, to the exile shelter, to the needy alms; he will not do as most of those who wish to be thought pitiful do—fling insultingly their alms and scorn those whom they help, and shrink from contact with them—but he will give as a man to his fellow-man out of the common store…and he will not avert his countenance or his sympathy. (Seneca, On Clemency 2.6.1-2.)
Kinda sounds like Jesus. Don’t you think?
By contrast, while the Christians started out communists who believed in the total redistribution of wealth (Acts 4:34-35; enforced through fear, by the Stalinesque murder of non-compliers: Acts 5:1-11), within a few centuries, Christians were back to reinforcing social stratification by wealth: the poor should stay poor; the rich deserved to be rich; and only crumbs would pass from the latter to the former. At the level of nation-states, no Christian society has ever been organized otherwise since. Even today, Christian hospitals do not tender their services for free, but charge the same as for-profit ventures; and only a tiny fraction of the homeless are given a home, while most Christians live in the equivalent of palaces compared to the majority of the world’s poor; and Christian efforts to feed the hungry are another microscopic facade, serving so few of those in need that the secular state has to intervene to feed them instead, in vastly greater numbers than the entire Christian community of America can deign to offer. (See The Myth of Christian Charity.)
In fact, poverty only rose under Christian care. I demonstrate this in my chapter on the Dark Ages being an actual thing, in Christianity Is Not Great. But as Dominic Rathbone found, the evidence extends even earlier: before the collapse of the economy in the third century, and subsequent Christian take-over of the government in the fourth century, there was much less poverty in the Roman Empire than had been assumed. The extent of it in the fourth century, when the Christians were in charge, was actually new (in “Poverty and Population in Roman Egypt,” Poverty in the Roman World, pp. 100-14). Before that, contrary to Christian rhetoric, there really weren’t that many destitute widows, for example. Almost all on record had support in friends, family, remarriage, and even in some cases by living together and supporting each other. Emergency state food and tax relief was common when needed, but notably, it was not routinely needed. Meanwhile, when poverty increased under the Christians, they instituted no policies to fix that. To the contrary, they praised poverty as virtuous. It wasn’t even a problem Christians were seeking a solution for.
There isn’t really anything significant that Christianity introduced to the West in respect to the virtue and reality of charitable giving, the sharing of wealth, or the helping of the poor. They talked a lot about how awesome they were. But as to actual values, they didn’t say much that hadn’t already been said before, often more astutely. And they didn’t do much that wasn’t already being done before. And until Deists of the Enlightenment started chiding them, they never even proposed a solution to poverty, much less attempted one. (Notions of charity were also developed in the East, independently of Western thought altogether: e.g., see Rome and China, pp. 121-36.)
Apologists will tend to confuse ancient Christian rhetoric, for reality. Christian apologists were liars, as much then as now. They would make up claims of fabulous martyrdoms, just as readily as they made up claims of Christian superiority in charitable acts and giving. No data supports those claims. The reality appears to be the pagans were no less charitable. They organized their charity differently, but practiced it on an extensive scale. They were just as kind, just as helping, just as noble, as their Christian peers. With the collapse of the economy, the empire the Christians inherited was a dying corpse, that they just kept barely alive for a few more centuries, with ever-increasing income disparity. In the wake of that, poverty rose to nightmarish extremes. Which led to much Christian hand-wringing over it. But they never actually did anything about it. They never saw poverty as a problem to solve. They developed philosophies of charity and institutions for helping, but those never differed in any significant way from what the pagans had before then. And they had more, only because there was more poverty.
I often hear the claim that Aristotle never included charity among his virtues. Which is astonishing because it is in fact one of his fundamental virtues, extensively discussed in an entire chapter of his book on moral theory. I often hear the claim that no one cared for or about the poor before the Christians came along, that philanthropy didn’t exist, that social welfare wasn’t a concern. Which is astonishing because in fact the Greeks and Romans were famous for inventing these things, and implementing them quite extensively compared to previous empires. In fact our very word “philanthropy” comes from them! Many Roman and Greek philosophers wrote extensively on generosity and charity and concern for the poor, as being fundamental to the good person, definitive of the moral life. Jesus did not say a single new thing in that respect—except in his radical pacifism and communism, declaring you should give everything away, and never fight even in self-defense, never sue anyone, and never resist a thief, or even enslavement (Matthew 5:38-42; Matthew 19:21-24)…a model of radical charity that Christianity never implemented on any relevant scale.
With respect to how one should use their wealth, I am unaware of any Christian apologist on the planet today who actually lives as Jesus commanded. They live, rather, exactly according to what pagans commanded.