"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB)
That means 'all scripture', all the words of Scripture. That includes words like Nazareth, Galilee, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, Jericho, and Jerusalem…the names of the places in which the events of the Bible transpire.
If all of the details of the Torah, including individual letters…
…are important, than certainly place names in the New Testament are too. In the ancient world, publishing was extremely expensive. It was done by hand, one letter at a time, on expensive media. Words weren't wasted. Place names and other geographical markers are there for good reason. If we don't know what the good reasons are, that doesn't change the fact that there are good reasons. And if we want to have a full and deep understanding of the Bible, we need to find out why those names are used. And if we are keying in on the statements Jesus is making about economics and finance, then we are well advised to key in on the economic significance of the place names.
This happens automatically when we read things about the modern world. For example if you read a story about Pittsburgh in the 1950s, you are aware of the predominance of the steel industry. If you hear something about an executive, you are likely to default to the idea that he is an industrial executive, most likely metals. If you meet a worker in a uniform carrying a lunchbox, you probably don't have to be explicitly told that he is in a union and works in a factory. Read a modern magazine article or read a novel or watch a movie set in Silicon Valley, and you're primed to be aware of the preeminent tech industry. If a young man in a tee shirt comes out of a building in an industrial park and he hops into the back of a car (probably a Tesla) driven by someone else, and you have a pretty clear picture that he is a tech entrepreneur or manager even if no one says so. Cities are associated with their industries automatically in our minds: New York - finance and media. Hollywood - entertainment. DC - politics. Houston - oil. DC - flag pig, politics. Idaho - overalls, farming. You get the idea.
But do you get the idea if I mention Bethlehem? You think "birthplace of Jesus" because that is the association you're familiar with. But that was not the association with the city before Jesus was born there. The first readers of the Gospels did not see the word, "Bethlehem," and think of Christmas pageants. What did they think of? Well if they had economics on the mind, they'd think about the commercial base of the town. What was the local industry? What was the town known for? Answer: It was the breeding ground for lambs which would then be shipped to the Temple to be sacrificed?
Jesus, the lamb of God, who bears away the sins of the world, was born in a city identified in Rabbinical writings as a place set aside specifically for the raising of sacrificial lambs. According to Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah (referencing the Mishnah - Rabbinical commentary of the Hebrew scriptures) mentions that shepherding was a profession frowned upon. This is probably due to the fact that Rabbis felt that it was nearly impossible to guarantee that sheep would not wander off and feed on someone else's pastures, thereby stealing. So instead of simply disapproving of the enjoyment of pastures, they built a hedge against the entire profession.
But the Torah required sheep for the sacrificial system, so according to Edersheim an exception was made in Bethlehem an exurb of Jerusalem.
"…Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, “the tower of the flock.” This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible."
—Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, pp. 186-87
This is interpretive reality does not only pertain to Jesus' birth. We will see that paying attention to place names and other details which signify the occupations of people that Jesus encounters, shed a great deal of light on the things Jesus says. Jesus is no fortune cookie Confucius handing out randomly interchangeable maxims. He knew who He was talking to. He was a sophisticated and knowledgeable observer of place and time. He gave the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time. He knew where he was and to whom he was speaking, and we should too. If we want to understand the Gospels, we should know whom he was talking to, where and when.
But before we show that, we need to head off a misunderstanding. Whenever I talk about Jesus' economic and historical context, from time to time, someone gets kind of alarmed because they think that it is impious or anti-theological to talk about Jesus and money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Next up, I'll explain why.