the seeds of revolution
In the first century, Galilee and Judea were under the control of the Roman Empire and its unparalleled military might. A client king appointed by Rome ruled Galilee and a Roman governor ruled Judea. It was a time of revolution.
The traditional Hebrew culture was under pressure from the economic practices and social values of Greco-Roman civilization. The upper-class Jewish elites in Jerusalem were allured by the dazzling culture of Greece and Rome. Greco-Roman architecture was evident in newly built public facilities in the cities of Jerusalem, Sepphoris and Caesarea. Young Jewish men began participating in Greek athletics in the nude, offending traditional Hebraic values. Some Jewish youth tried to have their circumcisions reversed to appear more like young Hellenistic Gentiles.
A split was developing in the country between the value systems of the wealthy Greek-speaking Hellenic Jews (about 5% of the population) and the peasant class of traditional Aramaic-speaking Hebraic Jews (over 95% of the people). These peasants were commonly known as “am ha’ eretz,” the people of the land.
In an agricultural economy, land is the only real source of wealth. The Hebrew people considered the land of Palestine to be a gift from God. The stories of the Hebrew Torah recount the conquest and invasion of the land under the leadership of Joshua and the subsequent division of the land among all the tribes and families. The land was considered a patrimony to be passed down from generation to generation. It was not to be sold since the land belonged to God alone. However land could be lost through indebtedness.
The Roman economy of commercialized agriculture was impoverishing these peasants at an alarming rate. Small peasant farms were being consolidated into huge estates owned by a handful of wealthy families in the cities. The means of consolidation was debt and foreclosure. Debt was a major issue for first-century Jewish peasants.
the economics of empire
By the first century, global empire was transforming the economic landscape. For centuries, the Hebrews had a traditional agrarian economy, raising sustenance crops on small farms. In this type of economy, the Hebrew elites who lived in the cities and who controlled the Jerusalem Temple took about 50% of agricultural production from the peasants in the form of tithes and taxes. But when the Romans introduced commercialized agriculture, the elites took the land itself from the peasants. Commercialized agriculture depends upon consolidation of the land into large estates, so that agricultural production becomes more efficient. The benefits go to a small number of wealthy landowners in greatly increased profits.
The wealthy elites needed cash to support their lifestyles, so they converted small farms into large vineyard estates and shipped wine back to Rome. Only the rich had the means to establish large vineyards because they required tending for three years before they produced a usable crop.
Freshwater fishing was also becoming commercialized under Rome. Archeologists have discovered the ruins of fish processing plants around the Sea of Galilee. In these facilities, fish was both salted and pickled, or prepared into a kind of salsa for shipment to Roman markets. The commerce was again controlled by wealthy elites.
When we speak of the wealthy Jewish elites, we are talking about a small group of wealthy families that included the aristocratic high priests of the Jerusalem Temple. They formed a conservative political and religious group called the Sadducees. The gospels often refer to them as “the chief priests and the elders.” Although Judea was ruled by a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, the day to day operations were entrusted to the wealthy oligarchy.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Sadducee families owned most of the land throughout the country. In addition, they were in charge of the Temple treasury—essentially the national bank. Thus they controlled the economy.
Members of the Sadducee party also formed the Sanhedrin, or national high court. They cooperated closely with the Roman governor and kept a tight lid on any potential liberation movements in the country that might threaten the status quo and their privileged positions.
Debt was the tool by which they consolidated their estates. Small farmers needed money for taxes collected by both Temple and state. During times of drought or poor harvests, they were often forced to borrow from the rich who loaned money to them at interest, in violation of the traditional Hebraic laws. Their land was given as collateral on these loans. When the farmers could not pay their debts, their property was taken. The debt records were kept in the Jerusalem Temple.
the downward spiral
The peasants were moving in a downward spiral from small freeholder to tenant farmer to day laborer to beggar or bandit. When they lost their land through foreclosure, they might be allowed to stay on and work for the new master. If not, they had two options.
One option was to become an artisan like a potter or weaver or carpenter. Jesus and his family fell into this group. They were dispossessed peasants. They had no land. Jesus, like his father, became a builder (in Greek, a tekton) and worked in stone and wood. For members of the artisan class, if there was a demand for their skills, they survived.
The other option for landless peasants was to become a day laborer—to stand at the village square or town gate and hope for a day’s employment, a day’s wages, and one more day’s bread to eat. Because work was sporadic, only the strong survived this occupation. Starvation and illness quickly took their toll. (The next time you hear the parable about the day laborers in the vineyard, pay closer attention. And don’t assume that these peasants associated God with the wealthy vineyard owner. Peasants found nothing good, righteous or holy about rich land barons.)
The final stage in the spiral was to become a beggar or bandit. Beggars were completely destitute. Widows, orphans, lepers, and those too ill to work fell into this category.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” he wasn’t talking about the working poor. He used the Aramaic word meaning completely and utterly destitute, those who had no means of support and survived only through the mercy of others. The destitute would be blessed when the reign of God arrived, because the reign of God creates a great leveling of society in which the poor are lifted up and the rich are brought low to meet in the middle. Jesus saw it as his task to plant the seeds for its coming.