Friday, February 12, 2010

Economic Status and the New Testament

When I was in grad school, a coon's age ago, a common wisdom was emerging concerning the economic status of the early Christians. Works by Gerd Theissen and Wayne Meeks indicated mixed communities with a small number of fairly affluent persons, a mix of entrepreneurial tradespersons and merchants, and a substantial number of the truly poor and of slaves. First Corinthians 1:26 said it all: If "not many" of the Corinthians were powerful or of noble birth, then a few must have been.

More recently, however, research by Justin Meggitt and Steven Friesen has painted a picture that's far more grim. The overwhelming majority of ancient people, they argue, were profoundly poor. Relative affluence applied only to the fewest people, Christians included.

All of us tend to cling to the models with which we were "raised," and I'm no exception. But something's long bothered me about the notion that (practically) all the early Christians were desperately poor. First, I must say I've never done an iota of independent research into ancient living conditions. But here are my reservations. For one thing, it seems to me that the argument for nearly universal poverty depends more on models than on empirical evidence. Second, the NT documents are full of calls for almsgiving, stories about banquets, conflict between more and less prosperous believers, and communication between churches over expansive distances. Finally, it seems quite a few ancient people decorated their houses, which suggests some measure of leisure.

A fairly recent multi-author volume by classics scholars is just now making its way down to us NT scholars whose research lies outside ancient economics: Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, editors, Poverty in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). There's also the 2007 Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (ed. Walter Schiedel, Ian Morris, Richard P. Saller). These authors largely agree that the Roman economy didn't do all that badly during the first and second centuries CE, and that poverty was not nearly so universal as some would maintain. See Willem M. Jongman's essay on "Consumption" in the Cambridge Economic History. On the other hand, things declined dramatically in the ensuing centuries. Even recent scholarship on economics in early Christianity (it seems to me) hasn't fully engaged this new work. (See Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood, eds., Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009].)

For now, I'll consider this a live conversation. But it has tremendous implications for the interpretation of many NT documents.

20 comments:

David May said...

I agree that empirical evidence might suggest less wide spread poverty and more relative “economic” well being. I base at least part of this perspective on the voluminous amounts of coins minted in the Roman world. Carlos Norena notes that “. . . imperial coins were produced on a near-industrial scale and circulated throughout the whole of the Empire . . . and therefore reached the widest possible cross-section of the Empire’s population (“The Communication of the Emperor’s Virtues” The Journal of Roman Studies 91 [2001]). Consider just this simple example during the reign of Vespasian. It has been estimated that 357.6 million denarii (silver coins) were minted during Vespasian's reign which would mean an average of 37.6 million per year (Richard Duncan-Jones, Money and Government in the Roman Empire [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 168). Several some ones have to be getting and using these coins. Add to this number the aurei (gold coins), sestertii (large bronze coins), dupondii (brass-copper coins), quadrantes and asses (small denomination copper coins), and also the prolific provincial coinage minted by large cities currying the favor of Rome and the imperial family, and one gets a better sense of the ubiquitous circulation and influence of coinage in the Roman Empire.

Greg Carey said...

Thanks for that, David. Very helpful.

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