Saturday, November 25, 2017

Beggary in the Bible

The Bible has very little specific to say about beggars (prōsaitai; "beggars, panhandlers, mendicants") and the practice of begging (prosaiteō and epaiteō). It has more to say, however, about the poor (ptōchoi), those who are economically disadvantaged and oppressed, or disillusioned. But the poor are likely a social class, corresponding to Lenski's peasant class who lived at or near the bare subsistence level.1 By contrast beggars would likely be in the expendable class, people who live at the very bottom of every agrarian society.2
            Searching begging-specific words in the Septuagint of the Protestant Old Testament (Greek Septuagint manuscripts are older than the Hebrew Bible manuscripts), the following passages use begging-specific words: Psalm 109:10 (being reduced to begging is a curse on a wicked man). In the Old Testament (Catholic) Sirach 40:30 (begging is described as a shameless enterprise); Sirach 40:28 ("it is better to die than to beg").
            In the New Testament begging-specific words are used six times: Mark 10:46-52: the son of Timaeus (bar Timaeus), a blind beggar "sitting by the road," is healed by Jesus.3 The Gospel of John has the story of a blind man (John 9:1-40), whose friends and neighbors had seen him as a beggar who "used to sit and beg" (John 9:8).4
            The parable of Jesus about the steward of a rich man (in my judgment misnamed "the "Dishonest Steward," Luke 16:1-7), who complains when he is fired: "I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg" (Luke 16:3). Note that he was fired on the basis of a rumor and had no prospects for the future. Indeed, taking up begging by necessity would in effect be a death sentence, since it would thrust him into the ranks of the expendables.5
            Luke has another similar story (it is not called a parable) about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It is not a story about a beggar but rather a story about a poor man (ptōchoi), Lazarus, who lay at the rich man's gate full of sores, desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table (Luke 16:20).
            No doubt many of those in the peasant class (ptōchoi) were often reduced to begging (1 Sam 2:31-36, Psalm 37:25, Exod 23:10) or chose to sell themselves into slavery (Lev 25:39-42, Deut 15:11-14), since they had no other options. The peasant class (ptōchoi) receives more attention than do beggars in the gospels. The gospel writer we have dubbed Luke, for example, writes into the heart of his paper protagonist, Jesus, a special place for the poor (ptōchoi) unmatched by the other three gospel writers (the ptōchoi appear in Mark [5x], Matthew [5x], John [4x], and in Luke [10x]).  And it seems that Luke simply overlooks beggars as the subject of Jesus' care and concern; for example:
Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, which includes captives, the blind, the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
The kingdom of God belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20).
Jesus sent a message to John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Luke 7:22).
The wealthy are told that when they give a banquet they should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13).
The rich ruler was told to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).
Zacchaeus said that he was giving half of everything to the poor, and would repay those he defrauded four times the amount he cheated them (Luke 19:8).
            But Beggars receive no consideration in these litanies about the disadvantaged. On the other hand, the Bible has nothing to say about the modern problem of panhandling as a professional vocation.6 People who stand at major intersections of your city, weather permitting, warmly dressed and carrying handwritten signs each appearing highly similar are a far cry from the expendables of antiquity. But their presence still raises the question of how should one respond to them.
            The same question came up once when working in Egypt. Our Muslim expatriate Palestinian driver was asked by one of our company about a tragic beggar sitting beside the road. She asked, "Saadi, how much should we give him in Egyptian pounds?" Saadi replied: "That's between you and your God!"
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Lenzki, Power and Privilege.
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 182-83 for a brief discussion of the social classes.
3In the parallel passage in Luke 18:35 he is called "a blind man sitting by the road begging." Matthew does not have the story of bar Timaeus, the beggar, but has a story of the healing of two blind men (Matt20:29-34; 9:27-31).
4John has turned what was originally a story about the healing of a blind beggar into a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees.
5Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 145-62.
6Millar, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 93-94.


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Given the specificity of your references to "beggar," what are your thoughts about the following, as translated by the Jesus Seminar, Scholar's Version, with both sayings also being voted upon by the Seminar as authentic to Jesus [Red, 75-100%; Pink, 50-74%]. (The five Gospels, Polebridge, 1993). Are these sayings also about “begging”?

    Matthew 5:42a
    Give to the one who begs (Gk: aiteo; lexicon transla: ask, ask for, request) from you; [Red]
    Luke 6:30a
    Give to everyone who begs (Gk: aiteo) from you; [Red]

    Matthew 5:42b
    and don't turn away from the one who tries to borrow from you. [Pink]
    Thomas 95
    If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. [Pink]

    Further confusion: Matt 5:42ab appears to be written in poetic parallism, characteristic of the Jewish scriptures. So we have two statements illuminating the same concern. Does Matthew mean to equate begging and borrowing?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good Morning Gene!
      Thanks for the question. Although most of the uses of αιτεω in Septuagint are translated "beg," the situations depicted are not presented as the outstretched hand of an expendable beggar by the roadside. Rather they are presented as non-beggars making a request for something in their behalf. αιτεω is a request word and not a beggar-specific word.
      I would not have translated αιτεω with "beg" in the verses you named. Such a translation is misleading.
      I agree that Matthew is equating the actions of requesting and borrowing (for example, a loan of money that hence must be returned). You have raised the cultural practice of giving and receiving in the ancient Semitic world. Whatever that cultural practice amounted to was is the context in which all these kinds of sayings should be considered.

  2. Good Morning Charlie,

    1) Can you explain why it is important to you that beggars be distinctly named and listed by Jesus in the Gospels? Why can't they be included with the "poor?" Why do they deserve a special designation?

    2) How do you determine whether a beggar is the victim of tragic circumstances? Do you have any qualms about giving money to able-minded and able-bodied people who don't wish to work for a living?

    3) Your freind's question "How much should we give?" is interesting. Why the word "should?" Who has the moral authority to determine the amount of resources humans are obligated to give other humans- and do they get to pass judgment on people who do not meet that obligation?

    Thank you as always! Elizabeth

    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      1. The issue is not particularly "important" to me, but in light of the problem that Springfield is having with the homeless begging for handouts at major intersections, I became curious as to what the bible had to say about beggars. Beggars are of course less than poor. The poor have a place in ancient society. Beggars do not but are expendable to ancient society, and they have a special designation that distinguishes them from the poor. But sometimes as I pointed out in the essay the poor in ancient society are reduced to begging.
      2. I cannot answer the question if you are talking about beggars in ancient society--too little information, although the so-called "dishonest steward" found himself reduced to manual labor (which he says he could not do) or begging--I would call that a tragic situation. If you are talking about modern beggars who live off the grid you would have to ask them about their situation.
      Yes in the past I have given money to apparently able-bodied panhandlers and/or taken them to a restaurant to buy them a meal or had them eat at my table with my family or given them what food I had available--but to be honest I am less likely to do any of that today. Note that they may appear able-bodied but the effects of mental deficiency may make them unemployable although they appear able-bodied--so one cannot always tell.
      3. The word "should" was my choice to shorten "what was appropriate to give to beggars in Egyptian culture." Note that Egyptian authorities (like American authorities) discouraged giving money. The "Moral authority" for giving under such circumstances always lies with the person faced with the need. But I would like to point out two sayings of Jesus in the matter (paraphrased): Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. and Give until your own belly is grumbling from lack of food.
      "Get to pass judgment": Passing judgment on others because of what they do or do not do is never a good idea, since one cannot know their situations or the demons and angels that drive others.

  3. Thank you Charlie. I still don't see a difference between beggars and poor people. In other words, I know there are scriptures exhorting humans to "feed the hungry, clothe the poor." However, I never saw a scripture that read "Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor- but don't give anything to the beggars." I just always assumed that if the Bible humans encourages humans to "give" to the poor, that certainly includes beggars.

    I also assumed that both beggars and poor people were expendable in ancient society- I wasn't aware that that was not the case.

    Many thanks, Elizabeth

  4. Hi Elizabeth,
    In an agrarian society the poor have possessions and a place in society even though many lived at the bare subsistence level (live from hand to mouth, as it were). Beggars have nothing. They are not a part of society and live a marginal existence at the far extremities of life beneath the poor and just under the degraded and unclean classes (according to Lenski's study).
    I cannot tell if the gospel writers included beggars among the poor, because they do not mention them in connection with the poor as they do other needy groups (captives, blind, lame, lepers, deaf, maimed). They do mention them as a separate grouping using special linguistic designations and this distinguishes them from the poor.