“Almsgiving Delivers from Death”: John Chrysostom’s Connection of the Narratives of Tobit and Tabitha

David J. Downs, in his recent book, Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity, discusses the impact of the Septuagintal book of Tobit and the narratives of Tabitha and Cornelius in Acts 9:36–10:48 on the doctrine of atoning almsgiving. Although Downs discusses these texts in their original historical contexts, my paper will discuss the interpretation and connection of these passages by John Chrysostom. Chrysostom links the phrase, “Almsgiving delivers from death” in Tob. 12:9a with the raising of Tabitha in Acts 9 and the salvation of Cornelius in Acts 10. Corresponding to these connections, Chrysostom, in line with both Cyprian and rabbinic interpretations of “righteousness (tsedaqa)" delivers from death” in Prov. 10:2 and 11:4, interprets “death” in Tob. 12:9 as both physical and spiritual. (The term tsedaqa in Jewish thought had gradually become equated with almsgiving by the Amoraic period, roughly 200-500 CE). Chrysostom is also in agreement with rabbinic sources regarding the redemptive value of almsgiving, although neither Jewish nor Christian sources assert that almsgiving is the only way to deal with sin and its consequences. There are, however, two differences in emphasis between Chrysostom and the rabbinic commentators regarding their exegesis of the phrase, “tsedaqa/almsgiving delivers from death.” First, while rabbinic sources emphasize salvation from a literal death, Chrysostom tends to emphasize salvation from a spiritual death. Second, while both Talmuds maintain that tsedaqa cancels doom or saves from Gehenna or from an eternal death, none of them says that it cancels or saves from sin. Chrysostom, by contrast, claims that almsgiving “purges,” “cleanses,” and “frees” from sin, itself. This difference in emphasis can be explained, in part, by the fact that Chrysostom is referring to the phrase from its context in Tobit, which specifically mentions that almsgiving cleanses sin. The rabbinic commentators are only referring to the phrase in Proverbs as they chose not to include Tobit in their canon. However, the frequency and intensity with which Chrysostom and other Christian authors discuss almsgiving in connection with sin suggests that this difference is due to more than simply the canonical status of Tobit. It appears that rabbinic sources stress almsgiving’s ability to rescue one from the judgment due to sin while early Christian sources emphasize almsgiving’s power to free one from sin itself. My discussion will focus on Chrysostom’s Homilies on Acts 22.3 and Homilies on Genesis 55.4; y. Peah 1:1, 15b; b. Shabbath 156b; and b. Baba Bathra 10a–b.