Jesus vs. Crony Capitalism

Posted: Sep 12, 2018 9:55 AM
Jesus vs. Crony Capitalism

Ancient economies are often called 'political economies', because they are dominated by political elites. This domination by political elites tends to happen in agrarian societies because agrarian economics requires dependence on land, which by nature immobile and vulnerable to invading armies or forced confiscation, whereas financial wealth is more liquid. David Fiensy, author of Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy explains:

Ancient agrarian societies tended to be structured around two groups: the takers (i.e., the elites) and the givers (i.e., the large class of rural peasants). The total makeup of these societies was complex. The society included several socioeconomic classes and subgroups (as we will attempt to establish below), but these classes and subgroups were oriented toward one of the two main groupings—the takers or the givers…"

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 10

Basically, 2-3 percent lived off of the efforts of 97-98 percent. It's an upside-down top. It's not just a matter of taxes (though taxes were important), but also a matter of rents obtained through political power: large landed estates were frequently royal land grants made to politically connected friends. Large plantations in Israel were often given as favors from either Herod or Caesar.

The second part of agrarian societies—that is the remaining 98 percent—consisted of the peasantry, artisans, merchants, and the criminal and beggar elements. Lenski offers a table that illustrates his understanding of agrarian societies.4 The table looks rather like an upside-down toy top. The very narrow part of the top, which projects above the rest, represents the upper class. The fat part of the top represents the majority of the population: the rural peasants, and the village and urban craftsmen and merchants. A peasant was a subsistence farmer, who not only provided his own maintenance, usually by working in family units, but also, with what little surplus he produced, supported the elite class to whom he was in some way in subjection.5 His support of the elite class came in the form of taxes or rents (or both) on the use of land. The peasants were by far the largest group, since ancient agrarian technology required about ten people in the country to produce enough food to enable one person to live away from the land.6 The smaller group in the fat part of the top was the group of merchants, craftsmen, and day laborers that lived in the urban centers or villages. The craftsmen or artisans composed 3 to 7 percent of the total population in agrarian societies.7

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 36

Joshua Berman argues in Creating Equal that ancient Israel's law (Torah) stood out from the rest of the region—and the world—by instituting powerful measures to inhibit the power of the extractive classes to take wealth from the productive classes.

The new order articulated in [the Pentateuch] stands in contrast to a primary socioeconomic structure prevalent … throughout … the ancient Near East: the divide between the dominant tribute-imposing class and the dominated tribute-bearing class...


However, despite Torah intentions: ancient Israel embraced a more extractive society, as the prophet Samuel warned in 1 Samuel 8 when the people of Israel demanded 'a king like the other nations.' They were warned that, indeed, they would get exactly what they wished for, a king LIKE THE OTHER NATION'S kings: one who would extract taxes, military service and indentured service of various kinds from young women.

In fact, the extractive nature of the Judean system reached such a high climax several generations later (under the reign of David's grandson, Rehoboam) that the rest of Israel seceded from the South in order to avoid excessive taxation. Apparently top-heavy extractive economic models in Judea go back a thousand years before the time of Jesus.

Part of this was raw state power:

…on every male between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five, on every female between twelve and sixty-five. For Judea this tax might have been one denarius per person (based on Mark 12:13-17). Or it could have been one denarius plus a percentage of the movable property, i.e. animals, slaves, ships, and wagons,14 There were also house taxes and duties on produce brought into Jerusalem (Ant. 18.90, 19.299).15 The point is, taxation seems to have been a greater burden in Judea than in Galilee. Whether it was so much greater as to lower the standard of living significantly in Judea vis a vis Galilee, is the question. We know that in 17 CE Judea appealed to Tiberius for tax relief (Tacitus, Ann. 2.4216). Thus, direct taxation from Rome seems to have contributed to a lower standard of living.17  

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 122

In addition to taxes there were rents which also were often non-voluntary extractions of wealth due to raw state power, in that large estates were frequently created by conquest or grant due to political favoritism.  Rents were a considerable portion of income from those who worked on the farms:

Finally, the peasant was compelled to pay a portion of farm produce to the tetrarch or the absentee landlord…The amount of rent the tenant farmers paid to the landlords ranged from one-fourth to one-half of the crops.25

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 74

But part of it was a matter of religious manipulation (or honor, depending on one's opinion of the legitimacy of the religious establishment), in which voluntary offerings were sent to the Temple elites in Jerusalem in exchange for some perceived religious benefit:

The peasant villager was also obligated to send tithes, wave offerings, and temple taxes to the temple in Jerusalem. The villager received nothing economic (in the physical sense) in return for this flow of goods. But, as J. K. Davies points out, there are "non-physical flows" that play a role in the economy.23 For example, a person who donated a sum of money to a village might receive back only the nonphysical flow of increased honor…

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 74

Keep in mind that tithes had moved from being voluntary to coerced via the threat of force shortly before the time of Jesus.

This Judean settlement contrasted with Galilee, which was a more free order, perhaps because it was not under as direct a Roman rule as Judea, or perhaps because it was a younger economy and therefore had not traveled as far along the normal course of development of ancient nations, in which extractive classes gradually grew at the expense of the productive classes. For this reason, Judea would have been an economy more distorted by state power:

Galilee was more recently settled than Judea and therefore had a newer economy…

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 122

Herod's level of taxation, estimated by Fiensy based on other tax rates which could be effectively imposed by Caesar in other similar regions, was 12%. However, this assumes that taxation was annual. There is a translation ambiguity which might indicate that taxation was bi-annual, which would make the annual rate half of that.

Finally, the peasant was compelled to pay a portion of farm produce to the tetrarch or the absentee landlord. The amount of the tax paid to Antipas is debated, but if we assume that it was at least 12 percent, we will not be too far off. The amount of rent the tenant farmers paid to the landlords ranged from one-fourth to one-half of the crops.25

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 74

In regard to religious manipulation, as opposed to overt use of force as a means to extract wealth, we have the example of a certain type of lamp, which appears to have originated in Jerusalem and yet was found throughout the entire region, perhaps due to some perceived religious potency:

Another interesting small find that supports the view that the village residents were not extremely poor—although this find is not exactly a luxury item—is the Herodian lamp. These lamps were undecorated and formed on a wheel, and their nozzles were hand pared with a knife. By an examination of the chemical composition of the lamps and lamp fragments found in several sites in Judea and the Golan (Masada, Qumran, Gamla) and especially in sites in Galilee (Yodfat and Sepphoris), it has been determined that a high percentage of these lamps were manufactured from clay from the Jerusalem vicinity. The lamps are especially frequent in the ruins of Jewish centers. Ninety-four percent of the Early Roman lamps from Yodfat, 93 percent of those from Gamla, and 80 percent of those examined from Sepphoris were manufactured from Jerusalem-area clay. The knife-pared lamps began appearing in the first century BCE, at about the same time that the stoneware vessels began to appear. Although there is local clay in most of these areas from which to manufacture lamps, the locals preferred lamps made from Jerusalem clay.30 Thus, the locals preferred to import their lamps, and perhaps to pay a higher price than for locally produced lamps, in order to fulfill (evidently) a religious purpose.31

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 91

The influential book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argues that economic domination by 'extractive institutions' which elites use to live at the expensive of classes excluded from political power is the most explanatory factor in the fall of nations. This thesis seems to fit in the case of the Israel of Jesus' time. Judea was a much more extractive society than Galilee and within a generation of Jesus' warning, Judea would fall, whereas Galilee would not. In fact, Galilee was the place to which many Judean religious elites fled after the destruction of Jerusalem.

For more on the Judean religious political establishment, particularly as centered in Jerusalem, please view this video interview.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Analysis of Jesus' financial commentary in Galilee vs. his commentary in Judea should not ignore the significant differences between the two regions. Especially relevant is that the Gospels record no confrontations by Jesus over wealth while He was in Galilee, but they do record a shift towards economic discussions as Jesus moves into Judea and towards Jerusalem. I have observed this pattern in Mark and in Luke but have not yet examined Matthew with this thesis in mind. The Gospel of John is generally considered not to be chronological and is not easily analyzed in terms of geography. As Jesus moves into Judean territory, not only do His topics shift towards economics, but His tone shifts as well. Jesus is more confrontational about wealth in Judea. Why? The natural explanation is the different economic systems and conditions in the different regions through which He travels.

Next, we will begin to look at specific encounters with: the Rich Young Ruler, the Tax Collector Zacchaeus, the moneychangers and with the religious and temple elite in general to demonstrate the difference in the ways Jesus deals with them.