Max Weber on 2 Thess 3:10 – If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.

A few years ago, I published an article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly on 2 Thessalonians 3:10 where it is stated “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” My essential argument is that the “let him not eat” statement was a formal indication of excommunication for persons who refused to work.

Little did I know that the inimitable Max Weber–one of the towering intellectuals of the early twentieth century–weighed in on this passage himself:

Almost all prophets have been supported by voluntary gifts. The well-known saying of St. Paul, “If a man does not work, neither shall he eat,” was directed against the swarm of charismatic missionaries. It obviously has nothing to do with a positive valuation of economic activity for its own sake, but only lays it down as a duty of each individual somehow to provide for his own support. This because he realized that the purely charismatic parable of the lilies of the field was not capable of literal application, but at best “taking no thought for the morrow” could be hoped for. (Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization [New York: Free Press, 1967] p. 363.)

Is he right? I don’t know, but he offers an intriguing theory. Were there indolent “charismatic missionaries” hoping for a handout and refusing to do any real work? Well, 2 Thessalonians does not provide evidence for this, but the Didache does! This absurdly early Christian document (first century!) was lost for centuries, but rediscovered in the 1873 hiding in a monastery library somewhere in Constantinople. In it, we find the following almost humorous warning:

In regard to ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets,’ act according to the doctrine of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day. But, if necessary, let him remain a second day. But, if he stays for three, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle departs, let him take only enough bread to last until he reaches shelter; but, if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. (Didache 11:3-6; Francis X. Glimm, “The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 180.)

I don’t know if Max Weber was aware of this text from the Didache, but it does support his interpretation of 2 Thess 3:10. Perhaps there were wandering “apostles” and “prophets” some of whom were legit and some of whom were trying to get a free lunch. The Didache puts a firm limit of two days on any prophet’s stay–any more and he’s false! I don’t know if these prophetic freeloaders really came in “swarms” as Weber supposes, but they must have really been walking around the first-century Christian world, such as it was.


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