Lynn Cohick contrasts Graeco-Roman patronage with Jewish and Christian giving.
The notion of charity – that is, giving to those in need – is certainly something that the Christians took from the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, where God encourages all of his followers to give to others. I think what the Christians did, as they thought about Jesus’ example, is they wanted to give to those who could never return it back. And that’s the idea of giving to the poor.
Now there was giving in the Graeco-Roman world: patronage. When wealthy people gave to the city, they would give to make big buildings, or to put on festivals. And even when they gave food, like in these festivals, they didn’t give everybody the same food – they gave the wealthy people better food, and sometimes the poor didn’t get anything. When the Christians gave, they specifically targeted the poor; in part because, I think, Christ’s own persona, if you will – his own being – was as one who was poor. Even though he was a king. And the Christians tried to live that out, to see themselves also as poor and in need of God’s care – and so then extending it to those around him who were poor.