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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Matt Skinner on the Trial Narratives

Just received my copy of Matthew L. Skinner's The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2010). Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all receive one chapter. Acts, in which Skinner is a recognized expert, receives three separate chapters -- but then again, Acts features lots of trial scenes. Skinner's approach is largely narrative-critical, informed by historical knowledge but primarily attentive to the stories' dynamic flow. Thus, each text is allowed to speak in its own voice.

I enjoyed the opportunity to read earlier versions of some chapters, so I can say a little about the book right away. It's a scholarly work, but the writing is clear and accessible: pastors, seminarians, and informed laypersons will be able to enjoy the book.

It strikes me that activists and denominational workers might want to read it too. Skinner is getting at the intersection between Christian identity and power. In many cultures, not least our own, trial scenes have provided the venue through which we explore ourselves, our values, and our conflicts.

How do the NT trial scenes depict the relationship between Jesus and his followers, on the one hand, and the authorities, on the other? Skinner characterizes the trial narratives as contributing to early Christian "self-definition" (158). The trial narratives insist that human authorities may seem overwhelming, but their authority does not rival God's. Faithful witness, such as that of Jesus and his followers, can expose the provisional nature of human power and promote an alternative path. Trials, even those with unjust endings, may in the long run serve to advance the gospel.

We'll benefit as well from recognizing the diverse portrayals of the authorities within the New Testament. Early Christians related to Roman and local authority in diverse ways. No one attitude toward political power accounts for the broad witness we find in the NT, just as no one theory of power can speak for all Christians and all times.