A major challenge for theological reflection on economics is the distance in time and space between First Century Palestine and Twenty-First Century America. We tend to read our context back into the Scripture. We assume people pretty much understood life as we do. That may be harmless with some issues but it can profoundly distort reflection on economic issues. So let’s highlight some of the key economic contours that shaped the First Century world.Most advanced agrarian societies in the ancient world were power pyramids. Wealth flowed up from the masses through a pyramid of hierarchical structures to a tiny minority at the top. First Century Roman culture was no different.
Most of the population lived at subsistence levels with 80-90% of the population engaged in agriculture. Some peasants had their own land but many were sharecroppers on the estates of the elite. Landholdings were small and were much less fruitful per parcel of land than today’s farms. Between half and two-thirds of the peasant’s production was extracted via taxes, fees, tribute, or outright extortion.
Most agricultural communities unaffiliated with large estates were small and self-contained. Roads and vehicles were poor quality and not conducive to significant vehicular activity. Transportation of goods was very limited and the minimal infrastructure that existed primarily served to transport produce out of the community, not bring goods in. Each family produced what it consumed in terms clothing, food, and shelter. Families and kin provided for each other as there was need and barter was the preferred mode of exchange when exchange was needed.
Needs beyond the basic necessities were mostly met through the patron and client relationship. A person of means would lavishly aid someone, indebting the recipient (the client) to himself (the patron). The client would then forever be in the patron’s debt and would show honor by doing the patron’s bidding when called upon to do so. The client would bring any clients and family he had under the patron’s patronage. As demonstrations of their power and benevolence, patrons would routinely take care of matters for their clients, creating further indebtedness. Sometimes patrons were unable or ill-equipped to address a particular problem, in which case brokers might be employed to negotiate services between patrons of a similar social class. Status was measured by the number of clients one amassed.
Cities were oppressive and mortality was high. The cities existed to serve the elite. The various artisans and workers in the city were there to carry out the work of wealthy patrons and masters. There was some exchange but primarily to take care of basic needs and no more. Excessive production and profitability only brought more extractive measures from those higher in the social pyramid. Slaves and laborers died young by the score but there were always more to bring in from the country.
In Palestine in the Time of Jesus, K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman point out that while we see several distinct institutions in society, ancient cultures saw only two: kinship and politics. Other concerns like religion, economics, or education were part of these two institutions. They sum up the core focus of economics in the First Century nicely:
The modern word economy itself comes from two Greek words, oikos and nomia, meaning “household management.” The modern word indicates the core concern of the ancients with provisioning and sustaining the family and the household. In agrarian societies, though, no family was and island to itself. Such societies always had elites who dominated other families; hence the larger economy was a political economy. (95)Economics for the peasants was a matter of provisioning the household through labor and barter exchange with a few close members of the community. Economics for the wealthy was primarily an exercise in determining how to extract the surplus from other’s work in order to sustain your estate. There was some trade, primarily of agricultural goods, but traded goods affected only a tiny minority of society.
What this all means in economic terms is that productivity, the production level per worker, was perceived to be within a fixed range. To get more production meant getting more workers. Getting more workers consumed more resources. Production and consumption were in a relatively constant range.
There were no incentives for the poor to innovate or invest in more productive methods. Meaningful property rights didn’t exist. Any excessive production merely invited the attention of the powerful who would extract the surplus in support of their armies, the construction of ostentatious edifices, and the pursuit of luxurious lifestyles.
The elites also had no incentive to increase productivity. If more goods were needed, more lands could be conquered, more people enslaved, and higher taxes could be levied. Thus, while the Romans may have excelled in the invention of new weaponry, water delivery systems, and construction, virtually all these innovations benefited the elite with little contribution to the greater society.
Rome was not unique. This general arrangement has been the norm for advanced agrarian societies for millennia (and is still present in many developing nations today.) The consequence was negligible economic growth. It took thousands of years for annual per capita gross domestic product to rise from about $90 (1990 purchasing power parity dollars) to $109 at Christ’s birth. Between then and 1750 it rose to $178. In 2000, it was more $6,600!
Therefore, the economy of biblical culture was a zero-sum game. The only way someone got ahead was at the expense of others. The idea that someone could become not only two or three times as productive as the norm, but ten times, fifty times, one hundred times … and more … was unfathomable. The idea that people might specialize in doing a narrow task to earn an income that would then be used to trade in a monetary economy with a virtually unlimited number of other people from around the globe who have specialized in doing other specific tasks was also utterly foreign. The simple idea that we might be able to invest our time and energy in improving our material lot with relative confidence that powerful people will not come and seize what we have produced was a rarely realized dream.
The two things that dominate our economy today are technological innovation and trade … two things unimaginable in the day of the New Testament. The economy is no longer a zero-sum game. Instead of becoming wealthy by taking from others, people can become wealthier because they become more productive. Instead of hoarding wealth in selfish contempt toward others, amassing wealth and investing it creates productive capacity that benefits the community. The question is, What would Jesus have taught if had come into a world where people could be empowered to develop economically productive lives and engage with countless others in mutually beneficial exchange?
It is my sense that a great many theologians who speak on economic issues have never taken a basic class in economics or even tried to educate themselves about rudimentary economic realities. Consequently, biblical ethics from an era of ancient agrarian societies is uncritically applied to a world that has radically changed. Combine this with an inappropriate tendency to see society as the family/household writ large and productive discussions between theologians and economists are all but impossible.
(For an excellent overview of the economy in Jesus' day see Hanson and Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflict, 2nd ed., particularly Chapter 4. Relatively concise with helpful direction to other resources.)