The Margins to the Centre: the Poor and Jesus

David McLoughlin starts by looking at the wider context of Roman Occupation in Ancient Palestine. He uncovers rampant extortion and manipulation of the economy by the powerful, at the expense of the poor.

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The Galilee of Jesus was divided by tensions of a structural nature: social, political and economic – Jews/Gentiles, rulers/ruled, rich/poor. This was the result of two imposed rules – the Kingdom of Herod and the Reign of Rome. When Jesus preached a different Kingdom, he found eager ears among the mass of the people. But he also inevitably provoked serious concern in those who had vested interests in maintaining the other two “Kingdoms”. 

As a tektõn, (Greek for a craftsman), Jesus and his father Joseph may have taken part in the construction of Sepphoris which was 6 km from Nazareth. Destroyed in 4 BCE by Quintilius Varus it was reconstructed by Herod Antipas as the capital during Jesus’ lifetime, until he founded Tiberius in 19 CE as Galilee’s new capital, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as a much more secure escape route. It had a theatre that could seat 5,000 people and a Basilica that bears a remarkable likeness to some of the larger Tesco’s! Although its site bears witness to traditional Jewish ritual practices (such as ritual baths) it bore all the hallmarks of sophisticated Hellenistic culture. Jesus’ teaching certainly shows awareness of culture and theatre or “playacting” in Matthew 6:2, 5,16; Mark 7:6, Lk 13:15; of serious banking such as in the parable of the talents in Luke 19:11ff, and of courts for debtors which Josephus mentions as being based in Sepphoris in Antiquities of the Jews.14,91. These are all specific to Hellenistic rather than Jewish culture. The silence of Jesus and the gospels on Sepphoris as such remains fascinating.

The Land, the Rich and the Poor

The greater part of traditional Galilean economics depended on agriculture and fishing. Ownership of the land was a key element, as indeed it remains in any peasant society, except in Palestine there is the added religious significance that the Land is primordially God’s gift to Israel and so belongs ultimately to God alone and to the Jewish people as God’s chosen tenants. The archaeological findings in Galilee show a gradual shift from smallholdings to the emergence of vast centralised estates. (Josephus speaks of these in his Vita ,71). There were great estates just north of Sepphoris, so in walking distance of Nazareth, and Josephus tells how the village around Gischala has to pay part of its harvest in Imperial taxes. 

We know that members of Jesus extended family were smallholders. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (3, 20,1-6) tells of how the emperor Domitian had the grandsons of Jude, one of Joseph’s sons, so Jesus’ nephews, brought before him to question whether they were truly of Davidic descent, and to ask about the possible coming of Christ. They acknowledge their Davidic ancestry and give an account of themselves but the Emperor decides that they are of no significance and lets them go. The reason? They had such little land and their hands and bodies were those of manual workers. So Jesus’ extended family included agricultural workers like most people. We hear so much in the gospels of craftsman and fisherman because they were the only other significant types of workers. Jesus is a tektõn, and such people according to Justin Martyr, made ploughs and yokes. They were craftsmen who could work either stone or wood, although there was little wood in Palestine. 

The collusion of the Temple and the Priesthood

Although the people of Galilee had to pay tax to Herod and various duties on produce to Rome, they were still required by the Priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem to pay tithes and offerings to the Temple and the priesthood. The gospels start with a picture of Jesus as the devout son of devout observant parents who make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that it is the most natural thing in the world for him to consult the priests and elders when he is 12 years of age, but as his public ministry develops, his critique of the Temple and its manipulation becomes ever more severe. In this he is ahead of his time. The Talmud, (later collection of post-Temple Jewish wisdom), has a lament relevant here:

“Woe is me because of the house of Boethus
Woe is me because of the staves.
Woe is me because of the house of Annas.
Woe is me because of their whisperings.      
Woe is me because of the house of Kathros
Woe is me because of their pens.
Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael ben Piabi.
Woe is me because of their fists.
For they are High Priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in-law are temple overseers, and their servants beat the people with clubs.”
(b. Pesahim 57a; t. Menahot 13:21)

The Tribute Money by James Tissot. 1886-1894. Watercolour. Brooklyn Museum, USA.

The Great Tradition Deconstructed

Jesus’ analysis was merely ahead of the game. What the quote points to is the use of violence, the keeping of records of debt, manipulation of Temple positions, and the use of rumour to control the people. It is in his parables that Jesus begins to open this up. In doing so he challenges the “Great Tradition” that among the leaders of his people is the accepted account of how things are, history as it were from above, an imposed ideology that legitimises the domination of the masses by a wealthy and powerful elite. “Great Traditions” are nearly always urban-based and written down since the written text is always seen as more powerful and of course needs its interpreters and scribes. At the heart of the “Great Tradition” in Jesus’ time is the emphasis on ritual purity and the following of all the Sabbath laws, this is the sign of a truly paid up child of Abraham. John the Baptist had already railed against this legitimised corruption of the national myth in Luke 3:7 –

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming retribution. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves “We have Abraham as our Father”, because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Yes even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.”

Jesus will confront this elitist use of Abraham in the “Great Tradition” and subvert it in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus which we will look at in the second article. What Jesus is doing is picking up on what some scholars call the “little tradition” the oral tradition of the illiterate peasants which in however inchoate way they identify with, the tradition of the protesting prophets, and of the Creator God and his covenant with Creation. Always he seeks to sharpen and deepen what they already know. In doing so he is awakening them to areas of their faith that have been underplayed or forgotten, he is giving them back their own history, a sense of themselves under God. But not the God they have access to via the manipulation of Jerusalem’s Temple authorities but rather the creator who is as close to them as a beloved Abba, and who establishes them as wanted children. He is trying to break the negative picture they have had imposed upon them by those who control them, and which they have partly internalised, such as the rich are blessed by God and the poor are poor by the will of God. 


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