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Dec 17, 2007


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Brad Cooper


You raise a number of important issues, many of which I have not considered at a very deep level (e.g., the patron/client arrangement of ancient societies, the idea of risk, etc.).

You give us a lot of food for thought. But to be honest, although I accepted the whole scheme of what you were saying when I first read it on a blog over at Jesus' Creed, I find that I am now questioning much of it.

Don't get me wrong. I still think that it has a lot of validity and brings a depth of discernment to these issues.

But I find myself questioning the extent of the difference between ancient civilizations and modern.

For instance, the land issue: Land remains an important economic factor even today. By contrast, there were wealthy individuals in the First Century whose wealth did not depend on land: merchants, etc.

Status mobility: What is the degree of difference here? I'm not sure. There are certainly rags to riches stories in modern society, but do they affect the majority of people? Upward mobility is not an easy thing for most. For most poor people, the old proverb approximates the truth: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." In ancient society, attachment to the right patron could mean that even a slave could become wealthy.

Did ancient people live at merely a subsistence level? Roman villas were quite ornate. Beautiful intricate mosaics on the floors....and walls covered with the animated scenes of Roman frescos. Elaborate bathing rooms and courtyards. The triclinium for entertaining guests at dinner, which was a regular part of ancient life. Etc. Public life in ancient Rome meant daily entertainments of all kinds: dramas, parades, numerous types of contests, elaborate public baths, etc. I could go on. But we should not think of ancient life as being consumed simply with subsistence--just working, eating and sleeping.

As for the idea of investment, there were certainly many merchants in ancient Rome. It is hard for me to imagine that they did not understand the risks associated with it. In fact, I am reminded of Jesus' parable about counting the cost: a man building a tower considering whether he will be able to finish it and the king considering whether he will be able to win a battle.

Well, this is just a little push back, Michael. I greatly appreciate your work here as always. May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Michael W. Kruse

Brad, I’m merely articulating my understanding here without providing lots of documentation. This series quickly becomes another book length discussion if I do so. I’m trying to stay on topic. Some of the comparisons you are making are to me like suggesting that little has changed between the Roman era and ours because in both eras we had four wheeled vehicles. :) You might want to look at these posts: Patronage and the Dance of Grace, The Status Game, and Honor and Shame. I think you are framing some of my remarks in either/or comparisons between then and now. Here are just a few observations.

With in Roman societies there were two classes of people: honestiores and humiliores (upper and lower classes). The honestiores were divided up into the senatorial, equestrian, and decurion ranks. The honestiores were no more than 5% of the total population. The other 95% of the population was made of up honestiores. This group was also stratified with the “respectable poor” at the top which included artisans and people engaged in trade, followed by agricultural and urban day laborers, followed by widows and orphans, and then by slaves. The respectable poor were maybe 10-15% of the population, meaning 80% or more bare subsistence workers. (Jesus and his closest followers appear to all be from the respectable poor status.) Bare subsistence living was the way of life for the vast majority of the Empire. We do not have 80% of our population living at bare subsistence.

Two senators from the first century are know to have had estates worth more than the total trade transacted in the Empire over the course of the year. Their villas, or plantations were the overwhelming bulk of their wealth. Bill Gates total net worth amounts to around 4% of American GDP. How much land does Gates own? How much of Gates’ wealth (or any other billionaire in the world) is directly related to land holdings and agricultural produce? Land is still important, especially to the average Joe, but it is not the driving factor of economic growth and wealth expansion.

As to Merchants, you could not be a part of the honestiores and be merchant, period! The only wealth that counted was your real estate. Trade was looked upon as a seedy detestable practice by the honestiores and the poor alike. They were a necessary evil. Some engaged in trade and finance, and had more resources than others but they were at the margins of society.

A study done about ten years ago looked at Americans who were in poverty over a 48 month period. 50% were in poverty for two to four months. Only 5.7% were in poverty for 36 months or more. One study done over a decade showed that of those that began in poverty, 86% jumped at least one quintile and 65% moved up two or more. A second study over fifteen years showed that 95% moved up one quintile and 80.3% moved up two or more. Studies show similar movements in and out of the highest quintiles as well. In Greco-Roman society, a small minority might make a one notch improvement from one generation to the next but becoming part of the honestiores was exceedingly difficult. Relative to American society, mobility was almost stagnate.

Finally, as to risk, you might want to check out my post on Giddens observations New Climate for Science. “Counting the costs” and assessing risk is not the same thing. Counting the cost requires that you accurately tally up the ledger and be sure you have enough cash on hand. Risk is about choosing between multiple opportunities that all contain considerable unknown factors. The idea that we can actually accurately quantify the risk of competing options (as opposed to seeing them in the hands of fate) was an utterly new concept.

Brad Cooper

Hey Michael,

Thanks for the feedback. I'm not trying to cause you frustration or more work. I'm just trying to struggle with some of these issues at a deeper level...because the more I think about them, the more certain things don't (at first blush) align with other things I know about the First Century. And while I know that a zillion things have changed since the First Century, there are two issues that cause me to question this: (1) not all change is substantive, (2) the more things change, the more they stay the same.....


Michael W. Kruse

I hear you Brad. I appreciate your questions. If you are thinking what you are thinking then others are too. Your feedback helps me think things through. I appreciate the push back! Peace!


In some ways, I agree with Brad. Abraham owned no land, but was wealthy because he owned a lot of breeding stock. The only way he could build up his capital was to consume his livestock slower than they bred. The main difference now is that capital can be owned indirectly through various capital markets and the types of capital are much more diverse. Nevertheless, then and now, the only way to increase income significantly is to increase capital.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Ron. This conversation tells me I need to think through how I can more accurately convey my thinking here. My bottom-line is that it took worldwide per capita annual income nearly 14,000 years to double from $90-$180. It thook the last 250 years to increase from $180 to $6,600. Something about economics has changed. I think the things I've addressed in this post point to what has changed and those changes affect our context versus the biblical context.

Brad Cooper


I think your definitely right about the economic picture changing. I'm just struggling to get a handle on the details and to understand just how that change has affected people.

I read several articles last night from IVP's Dictionary of New Testament Background. I would say that most of what I read supported your perspective. Some did not, though, and there is clearly some debate on these kinds of issues within the world of NT scholarship. (But then, what is not debated within the world of NT scholarship. ;) )

There are some things that still bug me, and I hope to do some more research on this issue. I think a major issue to be discerned is the definition of wealth vs. poverty. What does it mean to be wealthy? What does it mean to be in poverty? It seems there is a wide span of opinions today and it seems there was a wide span of opinions in the First Century. I would say that it is most important to discern what definition the NT writers had in mind.

Thanks for the conversation, brother. Peace.

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