Virtuous Bribery? Care for Prisoners in the Early Church
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Virtuous Bribery? Care for Prisoners in the Early Church

St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred at the jaws of wild beasts in the Roman colosseum sometime around 110 AD.

In her historical study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, Helen Rhee offers the following interesting historical tidbit with regards to how early Christians were able to minister to their imprisoned brothers and sisters who awaited martyrdom:

Bribing the prison guards, which must have cost a certain amount, features frequently enough in the Christian texts. The impressive visiting privileges and hospitality Ignatius [d. 110] enjoyed at Philadelphia and Smyrna with the local Christians and the delegations from three other churches were likely gained by bribery as well…. It apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians; rather, it constituted a necessary part of supporting the prisoners since it enabled the churches to maintain contact with them (and thus to tend to their needs) and allowed the guards to be more favorably disposed to the Christians. Thus the Didascalia (19) … ordered the community members to spare no efforts to procure both nourishment for the condemned Christian prisoner and bribes for the guards so that everything possible might be done for his or her relief.

For those who are curious, the text from the Didascalia, a third century Christian community manual, reads as follows:

You shall not turn away your eyes from a Christian who for the name of God and for His faith and love is condemned to the games, or to the beasts, or to the mines; but of your labour and of the sweat of your face do you send to him for nourishment, and for a payment to the soldiers that guard him, that he may have relief and that care may be taken of him, so that your blessed brother be not utterly afflicted. [italics mine]

While Rhee notes that bribery “apparently did not raise any moral qualms among Christians” in the early Church, no doubt readers today may not so easily approve of the above direction to make provision for bribing guards. How might we better understand this anomaly? What measure of prudence guided this practice?

First of all, it seems clear that apparently certain goods were valued over others. Would the Church have approved of this bribery if it did not value the relief and care of those imprisoned for their faith more than keeping oneself unsullied from such questionable exchanges? Thus one may see the actions in question to be an instance of Martin Luther’s dictum: “Sin boldly!” The point, of course, not being to endorse a libertine ethic but that in the mess of life some compromise is unfortunately necessary for the sake of greater goods, and in Christ we can boldly pursue those greater goods knowing that he has ransomed us from all sin.

That is certainly one possible explanation, but I find the following to be more likely. In his response to the pagan Celsus, who had published a book attacking Christianity, Origen (d. 253/254) defends the Christian practice of breaking the law by refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods (which he views as demons), writing,

And we are not to believe in demons, although Celsus urges us to do so; but if we are to obey God, we must die, or endure anything, sooner than obey demons. In the same way, we are not to propitiate demons; for it is impossible to propitiate beings that are wicked and that seek the injury of men. Besides, what are the laws in accordance with which Celsus would have us propitiate the demons? For if he means laws enacted in states, he must show that they are in agreement with the divine laws. But if that cannot be done, as the laws of many states are quite inconsistent with each other, these laws, therefore, must of necessity either be no laws at all in the proper sense of the word, or else the enactments of wicked men; and these we must not obey, for “we must obey God rather than men.”

According to Origen, Christians may break the law when the law itself is corrupt, that is, when the law contradicts “the divine laws,” which to Origen included the natural law and likely is not merely a reference to the Mosaic law. Could, then, the situation of bribes be something similar?

The basic presumption seems to be that not being allowed to visit the imprisoned was a manifest injustice. If paying a guard to overlook that barrier helped to remedy the injustice, then so be it: after all, Christ commands his followers to visit the imprisoned, thus the bribe allowed them to keep a just law by breaking an unjust law, which is “no [law] at all in the proper sense of the word.” Again, what law is the guard subject to, a just or unjust one? If he is willing to overlook an unjust one for a price, the price is regrettable but the opportunity is not. Lastly, it is the guard who requires the bribe; no doubt the Christians would gladly not have paid it if it had not been required.

The question then becomes, are all bribes evil, or can a bribe be either virtuous or vicious, just or unjust? It would seem by their practice that early Christians denied the former premise (“all bribes are evil”), accepting the latter. Would we do the same today? Are their actions, under either explanation (or any other), justified?

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.