- To: GPG
Cc: WSW; Synoptic
On: Economic Jesus
Last year at SBL there was a session purportedly testing the water for an
"Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy" topic at future SBL meetings.
An offensively gigantic and Persianically splendid hall was reserved; about
20 turned up, your correspondent among them. The session was simply a
lecture; there was no "consultation," no interaction with those present;
insulting. Such comment as did ensue after the lecture was in considerable
part critical. None of which mattered; it was obvious the thing was IN. And
on the program for the coming SBL, what do we see? Scheduled sessions for,
you guessed it, Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy. Not one, not
two, not three. Five. My impression is that somebody up there knows somebody
else up there.
Content of the sessions is largely Roman economy and Galilean archaeology.
Nothing wrong with those topics in themselves. Those who have time to go can
tell the rest of us if criticisms of the inaugural lecture in both areas
have been taken into account. Myself, I seem to have time conflicts at all
Which is not to say that there is no interest in approaching Jesus
economically. Au contraire. Consider the gross features of the story. Jesus
handpicks five disciples (not twelve; that is a later myth, superposed over
the previous narrative in Mark), and from what sector? Commercial fishermen
and tax collectors: the suppliers and regulators of the trade routes. Into
what areas did early Christianity propagate? Apart from a few places within
a certain walking radius of northern Galilee, along the coastal and riverine
cities; that is, the commercial termini and entrepots. We should perhaps
speak of Maritime Christianity. What was the content of Jesus's message?
Among other things, he introduced a new commandment into the Mosaic Ten
(which he had previously reduced by omitting all the ones having to do with
Temple piety), namely, a commandment against fraud: not paying your workers.
How to deal ethically with the free labor market; a post-Mosaic question
approached in a creatively Mosaic spirit; here is Jesus's trademark as a
lawgiver (as I would have expounded ere now, but that SBL offering was not
picked up by the organizers last year).
Nor is this position a freak of Mark; it also turns up in the core of the
Didache (the Two Ways document), and in several other places. What,
according to Mark, was Jesus's program for the Temple? To hold splendid
sacrifices? No, to remove commercial pollution (animal sellers, currency
exchangers) so as to make it a fit site for the return of God to Israel.
What was the burden of Jesus's call to individuals? To sell everything they
had. What was one problem in the early Christian communities? They had sold
everything they had, and time was unexpectedly passing, and they were
hungry. What was Jesus's quarrel with the Pharisees? That under the cloak of
Moses they had countenanced the diversion of assets from the support of
parents, that under color of general piety they were defrauding (that word
again) widows and orphans.
Luke/Acts actually expands on these themes, but Mark is perhaps enough for
There is other stuff in Mark besides these economic indicators. From which
naturally arises a question: Are these other items original doctrine, or a
church overlay on earlier tradition? Primary or secondary? That is largely a
philological question, a question of text structure, and I have been working
on it. Report perhaps presently.
Meanwhile, it is fun to take a chartreuse marker and go through [a Xerox of]
Mark, and highlight everything that is NON economic in nature. Suppose one
has done that; how coherent is the rest of it? What is the most outstanding
comment, either quoted from Jesus or supplied by Mark, that would indicate
an original doctrine NOT based on the above economic perceptions?
Suggestions welcome as always.
There is a similar question with Confucius, and a similar use for a
chartreuse marker: Considering his original advice (and we might agree to
start with LY 4, just as with Jesus there is advantage in starting with
Mark), how much of it is compatible with the warrior ethos out of which he
came, and in which he himself remained all his life? How much of it involves
changed interests or perceptions; a different social stance or political
program? Suggestions are welcome here as well. The two traditions, Jesus and
Confucius, have their interesting parallels, not least of which is the fact
that both underwent what look almost like U-turn reversals of original
direction in the course of their respective first centuries of development.
Change is the price of survival.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst