Re: [Synoptic-L] Virtue and Poverty
- To: Synoptic
In Response To: Chuck Jones
On: Virtue and Poverty
CHUCK: As an artisan, Jesus was in the social class below peasant and
above untouchables and beggars.
BRUCE: Mark tells us only that Jesus's father was a carpenter,and that
the family was a large one. From that, I get a sense of solid economic
background. That Jesus himself sponged on his followers seems likely,
but from choice, not necessity. All his followers were people from
what I would guess to be the same comfortable stratum; not indeed
landowners (is that what "peasant" means here?), but entrepreneurially
well fixed: commercial fishermen and civil servants.
CHUCK: The fact that he was quite poor--he would have regularly lived
through days in which he did not have enough to eat--is omitted from
the interpretation of his teachings to an extent that astonishes me.
BRUCE: Since those "facts" are not in Mark, and thus were presumably
not of exegetical interest to Mark, I can only second the modern
exegetes who accept Mark's own scale of the importance of things.
CHUCK: For example, Jesus had nothing to renounce, so he cannot be a
model of financial self-sacrifice on behalf of others (this action may
have merit, but Jesus cannot be its model).
BRUCE: Jesus could presumably have gone into the carpentry trade, and
done all right for himself. As (probably) the oldest son, that would
have been the natural thing, and there was a lot of building going on
at this time, so the commissions might have been attractive. If I have
to visualize, I can easily see Jesus turning down some work, had he
chosen that option, and perhaps he did choose it for a time; we pick
him up only when he has committed himself to following John the
Baptist, when he was already about thirty. Lots of unaccounted for
time preceding that.
When he calls Simon and the others, he is presumably asking them to
renounce THEIR current livelihood, and come to live as he does. His
summons is all Mark records, not choosing to dwell on his personal
example, but I don't get the sense that economically speaking, he was
calling them to do anything he hadn't himself already done. Is there
evidence - Markan evidence - to the contrary?
CHUCK: Likewise, the Jesus vs. Empire that's been emerging in the last
5 years, begs an important question too. If Jesus' program was about
"distributive justice," then it was about improving his own financial
and economic situation. Is that really what his teachings would
BRUCE: Concerns of the last 5 years don't concern me; I am involved in
a historical investigation. That Jesus has been turned into a banner
for many modern social causes, from many modern pulpits, is a fact
about the modern world, but it does not constitute a presumption, one
way or the other, about Jesus. Giving wealth to the poor, in Mark as I
read it, has two possibilities: Alms (where you keep your wealth but
give a little to the poor to demonstrate the virtue of charity,
leaving yourself economically intact) or Renunciation (where you
become dependent on others for your daily livelihood). Much in Mark,
in fact everything in Mark that I can recall at the moment, suggests
that Jesus urged the latter. And to those followers who took this
seemingly drastic step, did he promise destitution and beggary?
Not at all. He promised them restitution within his movement, where
all possessions would be shared, and where a new family (consisting
only of converts and pure persons) would replace the old. Nothing, in
short, would be lost, on the contrary, the renunciator would be way
ahead - there is a hauntingly similar passage in the Confucian
Analects, but never mind if you don't know it already. And in
addition, of course, for those who accept the Jesus call, there is the
final bonus of life everlasting.
If you credit the economic soundness of the proposed terrestrial
community (later evidence is that in fact it led to poverty, whence
the Ebionites), and if you accept the supraterrestrial premise, then
that can only be called a good business deal, even in hard cold
As for "financial self-sacrifice on behalf of others," that to me is
mixing the two above categories. What Jesus recommends to the rich
young man is not to benefit the poor, but to rid himself of
possessions that are in the way of his benefiting himself in the most
important way imaginable: eternal life.
Much in Mark (retained or developed in later Gospels, but that is
somewhat off the point) shows economic awareness, and uses canny
business thinking as a model for what religious thinking should be.
The new commandment against fraud is very much a businessman's way of
thinking, is it not? Those defrauded would be glad to have that
preached, but it was to the defrauders, as I gather, that Jesus was
primarily preaching it. I find that the Markan Jesus is comfortable in
that kind of world, and in that kind of discourse; he just offers
something different and better - but different in ways that the rich
are prepared to weigh and appreciate.
Buddhist mendicancy tends to be much more extreme, though peculation
does develop later, in the period of Buddhist monasticism, and is
greatly chastised in large tracts of the relevant Vinaya literature.
Though the parallel is not exact in detail, I think it deserves at
least minimal acquaintance by those who would really understand where
the Markan Jesus, or any other Jesus, is coming from, and going to.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
There was no personal income tax back then. The owner of the land was taxed on the harvest, not the workers on the land. The more you tax the owner, the less is left for wages. This was far from the only dynamic in play in the poverty of peasants, but that's the way it worked.
--- On Fri, 4/9/10, Jack Kilmon <jkilmon@...> wrote:
I have to admit that by modern example killing the geese that lay the golden
eggs seems just as stupid now as it was then.
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