The Rich-Poor Divide Not So Extreme in Jesus’ Day

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by Neil Godfrey

en:Lower Galilee
en:Lower Galilee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the discussions on the economy of Galilee in the time of Jesus, the presence or absence of large land-estates must play a significant role. Based on a reading of the parables attributed to Jesus, one could conclude that there were many estates of significantly large size and that they contributed to the economic conditions of Galilee causing loss of land and a growing rural proletariat. (From the abstract to “Did Large Estates Exist in Lower Galilee in the First Half of the First Century CE?” by David A. Fiensy, published in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10 (2012) 133-153)

This is indeed the image that has been conveyed by scholars like John Crossan and James Crossley who have applied theoretical models of socio-economic development to the Galilee region and concluded that extremes of economic oppression and divides between rich and poor were critical in explaining the appeal of Jesus’ teachings.

More generally, however, many have taken the implications of Jesus’ parables as clear evidence of the economic conditions of early first-century Galilee. This is so regardless of whether they have accepted the parables as having been literally spoken by Jesus himself.

David Fiensy informs us that scholars have assumed that the parables attributed to Jesus spoke of real economic conditions in Lower Galilee in the time of Jesus ever since the publication, in 1928, ‘Grossgrundbesitz in Palästina im Zeitalter Jesu’, Palästina Jahrbuch 24, pp. 98-113, by Johannes Herz.

Specifically, several of Jesus’ parables assume that there were large agricultural estates in ancient Palestine/ Israel. Certainly these estates were not as large as the celebrated ones listed above, but they were large enough to require tenant farmers, agricultural slaves, and bailiffs to care for the landowner’s farm.

Luke 16:1-7 speaks of debts of 100 measures of oil and 100 measures of wheat. According to Herz, such an amount could only be lent from an estate of at least 160 olive trees and 40 acres of wheat.

Similarly, great wealth and large estates are implied in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30 / Luke 19:11-27), the Parable of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43 / Matt. 18:24-34) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:21-35).

Still other parables depict scenes on a large estate. The Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk. 12.16-21), for instance, describes an estate owner hoarding grain in a manner reminiscent of an account in Josephus (Vita 119) about the granary of Queen Berenice. Lk. 17.7 refers to a man’s servant plowing his field for him. Mt. 20.1-15 describes a large landowner who has so much land he must hire day laborers to work it. Lk. 12.42-43 alludes to a wealthy man who has a bailiff to run his estate.

The presence of large estates in Lower Galilee is crucial for understanding the society in the early decades of the first century. Their existence implies exploitation and dispossession of the small farmers and laborers. If they did not exist then we can infer “most peasants still lived on their own land and controlled their own economic destiny.”

This has significant implications for theories that relate Christian origins to Jesus’ appeal to economically oppressed and destitute — or some such variant of a Marxist hypothesis as we find in the works of the likes of Crossan and Crossley. Do economic conditions in Lower Galilee really contribute to our understanding of Christian origins? Continue reading “The Rich-Poor Divide Not So Extreme in Jesus’ Day”