02.03.03 Economy – In Western culture today there is, for the most part, a large middle class of people, a small upper class of extremely wealthy people, and a class of poverty-stricken people. In many non-Western countries, the middle class is smaller and the poverty is the largest. However, in the first century biblical era the economic-social structure was quite different. The religious and government leaders comprised a small powerful wealthy upper class. A vast majority of impoverished people were subsistence peasant farmers who barely eked out a living from a small plot of land. There was also a small group of destitute people – the blind, lepers, and others who generally had health issues of some kind. These were also the ones Jesus referred to as “the poor” (Lk. 18:1-19:10). Therefore, instead of having a Western social structure that was small upper class – large middle class – small lower class, in the first century it was small upper class – larger poverty class – small destitute class. There was also a small middle class that emerged who consisted of merchants.
The livelihood of the average first century Jewish peasant centered primarily on producing or obtaining food. It was the commodity most often bought and sold. While currency was available, it was generally used only to pay Roman and temple taxes. The price paid for needed services or products was determined by bartering as price tags did not exist. Food markets were only in the larger cities. To date, archaeologists have not found any evidence of shops or markets in small rural villages. No ancient writings have been found with reference to an agoranomos, the government inspector of shops and markets who was appointed to a village. Nearly anything that was needed by a family could be secured within the village, or most certainly, in a neighboring one. The village economy was self-contained. However, not all scholars agree with this. Some feel that the taxes and rents were so high that many families had to work in a second craft for additional income. Frequently, such endeavors produced a village that had a specialty such as pottery. The high Roman taxation created economic slavery and was the leading cause of frequent revolts by the impoverished peasants.
Imported products were exclusively for the rich. The city of Sepphoris, a mere three miles from Nazareth, was a community of wealthy Greeks and Romans who enjoyed a wide variety of imported goods. This was in sharp contrast to the average village community where impoverished living continued generation after generation. Seldom did a village break out of this cycle. Tabgha, located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is believed to have been a rare exception to the village trade. This community produced salted fish that was shipped by camel caravan throughout the eastern Roman Empire. A growing number of scholars believe Capernaum was also an exception in that it may have had an industry of manufacturing basalt grinding stones. Seldom was there any hope for a change to a better life.
The teachings of Jesus are filled with economic lessons of life. He taught that one must first consider the needs of others (Mt. 25:31-46; Jn. 3:17-18), place one’s economic needs second to devotion to God (Mt. 6:19-21, 24), to seek the holiness and righteousness of God, and “all these things will be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33). He demonstrated that every spiritual condition of mankind has a material manifestation.
Banking did not exist as we know it today. However, the wealthy did place their currency funds in the temple, which served as a bank. This was typical of all ancient Near Eastern cultures (now called ancient Middle East cultures). Most notable was the temple of Diana in Ephesus, which was the central bank for a third of the Roman Empire. In Jerusalem, the temple had divided funds for sacred and secular uses. When Pilate took funds from the temple to complete the aqueduct, the people rebelled. Josephus said that they rebelled because Pilate stole the more valuable sacred monies, rather than private funds. The maintenance of the infrastructure of Jerusalem – the walls, water-channels, towers, storm sewers, maintenance workers and street sweepers – were all paid for by the temple, not the Romans. The irony is that when Pilate raided temple funds to complete the construction of the aqueduct, he essentially finished the work that the religious aristocrats were supposed to do in the first place.
Prior to the reign of Herod the Great there was limited prosperity, low unemployment, and high taxation. Note the words of the historian:
When he took the kingdom, it was filled in an extraordinary flourishing condition, he had filled the nation with the utmost degree of poverty; and when under unjust pretenses, he had slain any of the nobility, he took away their estates and when he permitted any of them to live, he condemned them to the forfeiture of what they possessed. And, besides the annual impositions which he laid upon every one of them, they were to make liberal presents to himself, to his domestics and friends, and to such of his slaves as were vouchsafed the favor of being his tax gatherers, because there was no way of obtaining a freedom from unjust violence without giving gold or silver for it.
Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.2 (307-08)
Upon his death, the construction projects ended and the economy went into a recession until his sons continued various construction projects in their respective districts. But none of them had the administrative or engineering skills of their father. The nation was demoralized by the Hellenistic inroads and impoverished by the high taxation – Judea alone had to pay 600 talents annually.
The economy recovered somewhat by the time Jesus began His ministry. However, outdated Roman laws did not help the matter either. The enforcement of obsolete usury laws had spread financial ruin over the entire empire. Forced sales made property almost worthless as bankruptcies spread far and wide. Courts from Rome to Alexandria and beyond were filled with men imploring the repeal of outdated financial laws, and in the meantime, investors kept their money. Prosperity and businesses were paralyzed. Wealthy merchants were reduced to beggars and the poor became poorer. Many who could not pay their debts died of starvation in prison, and in Rome, their bodies were thrown into the Tiber River. Even the historian Tacitus wrote of the financial distress that was upon the people. The economy for the Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere wasn’t much better. This economic situation coupled with the theological conflicts the Jews had with the Romans, set the stage for rebellions and riots, as well as the expectations of the m/Messiah. Therefore, when Jesus spoke of forgiving debtors or finding buried treasures (probably hidden from tax collectors), He was speaking of real-life issues.
. Price tags on merchandise and food products were invented by John Wannamaker in the 1860s, after he opened his department store in Philadelphia. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanamaker’s Retrieved July 9, 2015.
. Safrai, The Economy of Rome. 56-58, 231.
. Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee. 74-76.
. Packer and Tenney, eds., Illustrated Manners and Customs. 330-39; See also Packer, Tenney, and White, eds. Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts.
. See the discussion on a possible private banking system in 05.05.04. Furthermore, see 05.05.04.V1 “Professor Gary Byers and Dr. Paul Wright discuss what scholars believe was a private banking system affiliated with the religious establishment in the temple. Introduction by Dr. Bill Heinrich.”
. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? 64-65.
. Josephus, Wars. 2.9.4.
. Since Jerusalem was considered to be a Holy City, the streets were swept every day (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 26A and Pesahim 7A). The Valley of Hinnom had a dump site by the dung gate where all the filth was thrown. With the exception of rose gardens, gardens were not permitted in the city because they required dung (Mishnah, Maaseroth 2.5; Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 82B). This illustrates to what measures the laws of purity were taken by the time of Jesus.
. Mishnah, Shekalim 4.2.
. Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.4 (320). That was a huge sum and, according to Tacitus (Annals 2.42), in the year A.D. 17, the provinces of Syria and Judea begged to have their taxes reduced, but their petition was denied.
. Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.4 (320). That was a huge sum and, according to Tacitus (Annals 2.42), in the year A.D. 17, the provinces of Syria and Judea begged to have their taxes reduced, but their petition was denied. See also 02.03.03 “Economy.”
. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:352-53.
. Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:353-54.
. Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome 6.9, cited by Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ. 1:355.
. For further study of loans, debts, and how first century Jewish courts ruled, see the Mishnah and the chapter titled Baba Bathra.