The economic context of the New Testament world was very different for that of the Old Testament. During most of the Old Testament era Israel was an agrarian society. Most of the books in the New Testament were addressing urban contexts. The social stratification and economics were different as a result. (1)
There were essentially two classes in the Greco-Roman society of the New Testament. There were essentially two classes of people: the upper classes (honestiores) and the lower classes (humiliores). As a baseline for what follows, consider that the subsistence level of income for a laborer with a small family was about 250 denarii a year.
The upper class included the following strata:
Senatorial Class - They accounted for maybe two-thousands of one percent of the total population. To be a member of this class you must be born to one of a few select families and have an estate of at least 250,000 denarii.
Equestrian Class – They accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the total population. You must have an estate of 100,000 denarii
Decurion Class – Technically not a class, these were the members of the municipal councils (curiae). Thus, they were limited in number in each municipality. You must have an estate of at least 50,000 denarii, be a freeborn citizen and not be involved in a dishonorable trade. The Decurions were expected to underwrite the construction of public works and sponsor festivals and feasts out of their own pockets. (We get our term museum “curator” from this economic group.)
Upper class wealth was largely concentrated in land and the wealthy lived in mansions (domi) on their large estates. Farming, politics and military command would have been considered acceptable occupations for these classes. Trade and finance were looked down upon although many in this class were engaged in it on the side. By adding the three classes together we can see they were less than one percent of the population.
The lower classes could be divided into two categories: The respectable populace and the poor. Many of the respectable class were artisans or merchants. Some became soldiers. Some slaves of wealthy owners ran business on their master’s behalf. If emancipated, such a slave could be quite wealthy but they would be barred from entry into the upper classes, although their descendants might one day be welcomed. People who had made money in business might also become quite wealthy but be shunned from the upper classes. The respectable populace made up less than ten percent of the population.
The lower classes lived in multi-story apartments (insulae). For those who attained some measure of wealth, they might be able to afford a luxury apartment within these complexes. These apartments might contain multiple rooms with space for servants.
The remaining ninety percent of the population lived on a few hundred denarii a year in good times. Most of them lived in small crowed apartments. Furthermore, when it came to legal issues no Roman of a lower status could take a Roman of higher status to court. The police existed to keep order in the city to the benefit of the wealthy and disputes among lower classes were of no concern unless they began to disturb the peace of the wealthy. There was no protection of wealth so the poor often took to burying their wealth in secret places to keep it from thieves and ruthless authorities. At the bottom of the ladder were slaves, who made up ten percent of the total population or more in the first century.
Mass meetings were not permitted by authorities in Roman cities except for certain types of societies: professional, religious, household and burial. Each had varying degrees of regulation. Personal and economic freedom was tenuous for the great masses of the population.
Furthermore, the concept of a growing stock of wealth generated by productive labor was a foreign concept to the ancient world. Wealth consisted primarily in land. Therefore, if you wanted more wealth you had to get it or take it from someone else. The economy was a zero-sum game. One benefits only at the loss of someone else.
In short, there was no broad middle class as there is in our day in the USA. There was little protection of property rights for the masses and certainly no concept of equal justice for all. Hope of a different economic life was beyond even the imagination for most and class distinctions were much more rigid than in our day. There was no concept of growing economic wealth shared across the populace. This is the world into which Jesus and the writers of the New Testament spoke.
We see nothing like the Jubilee Code offered in the New Testament. What we do see is the appearance of the Jesus messiah, the one that the Jews believed would return and restore the shalom reflected in the Jubilee Code. As we saw in the previous post, Jesus explicitly identified his mission with jubilee in Luke 4.
We find little new teaching about economic issues in the New Testament but do find a great deal said possessions and wealth. The refrain is constant: Put your trust in God and be sure you aren’t owned by your possessions. Do what is right.
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Matt 6:24
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Mark 10:25
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Luke 9:25-26
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 1 Tim 6:10
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. James 5:1-6
The New Testament is largely a reaffirmation of the principles taught in the Old Testament. The wealthy are not necessarily told to abandon their wealth. Jesus and Paul were both financially supported by some women of means. We know that some of the New Testament churches were meeting in households clearly indicating the upper classes among the early Christians. Yet we so no blanket statement that having great wealth in and of itself is wrong.
The New Testament strategy for transformation appears to one of subversion not revolution. It is the subversion through mutual submission to each other that I wrote about in my Paul’s Subversion of the Empire post last month, examining the Household Codes. Economics ceases to be about using private resources for personal aggrandizement and becomes an adventure in using human and financial resources to enhance the lives of others we enhance our own, all in a stewardship relationship to God.
(1) You can find out more about Greco-Roman economic life in: James S. Jeffers. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1999. (Concerning associations see 71-88. For social status see 180-196); David C. Verner. The Household of God: The Social World of the Pastoral Epistles. (SBL Dissertation Series 71). Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983. 47-63)