The economy of the Jewish nation at the time of Jesus was not complex when compared to modern economies, but it did contain several interesting dynamics that we should be familiar to better understand the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah. While money and financial strength were powerful influences, the wealthy and royalty contributed greatly to the economic health of the nation. These individuals, using land ownership, taxation, and laws, controlled the economy, so that much of the economic benefit flowed upward to them. For example, “Herod the Great claimed twenty-five to thirty-three percent of grain within his realm and fifty percent of the fruit from trees. Direct taxation included poll taxes in money. Also, Herod imposed indirect taxes on transit trade and market exchanges.” [i] To generate income as required by the taxes, the Romans contracted the responsibility of collecting taxes to tax collectors. These men were viewed as tools of the Roman occupation and were, by and large, unscrupulous. There was a large poor class, approximately seventy percent of the population, who were only able to attain minimal living standards and meet their essential needs for food and shelter. Jews also had a tax of ten percent that was for the priests and Levites, ten percent for the temple sacrifice, three and one/half percent for the poor, and a beka, or half a shekel, for the temple. “The burden of unpayable taxes led to a lucrative business for loan sharks. Foreclosing on property followed inability to repay loans and led to people being sold into slavery, or worse, languishing in debtor's prisons.” [ii]
In population centers such as Jerusalem, Tyre, and the various Greek cities, “royal and administrative patrons spent great sums on public works projects, employing large numbers of masons and other workmen.” [iii] Herod used his position and wealth to generate jobs and contributed to the exchange of money during his reign. “He increased security in the land by means of strongholds and settlements; he extended the civilized areas by colonization; he promoted the commercial life of the country by founding cities and building harbors, especially by the building of the Temple.” [iv] All of these activities resulted in the transfer of hard currency to those who constructed the various cities and buildings. While the Temple was under construction, the economic condition of the entire area was beneficial to all. However, upon completion of this massive project, around 62-64 CE, an economic disaster occurred with the sudden unemployment of many thousands of laborers and craftsmen. When no work could be found, the resulting discontent was possibly a factor that contributed to the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which ultimately led to the utter destruction of the temple in 70 CE.
In the business world of Palestine, because of the impact of Hellenism, Greek was the tongue of choice. Common or Koine Greek was a simplified Greek that enabled people from different parts of the world to communicate. Use of a single tongue greatly increased commerce and trade for the entire known world around the Mediterranean. Using Koine Greek, a merchant could travel to the far lands, purchase goods, return to his home country, and sell his wares. Roads were built throughout the empire connecting major cities. This ease of movement coupled with a common language led to an explosion of wealth and prosperity as well as the introduction of new products and delicacies previously unknown throughout the Mediterranean region.
Another aspect of the economy at the time of Jesus was the belief and attitude toward economic distribution. Their view of wealth and prosperity was diametrically opposite to the concept in the United States of an ever-expanding economic condition. The attitude in the first century was of “a world of limited goods; everything that exists is perceived to exist in limited and fixed amounts that simply cannot be increased by either more hard work or greater intelligence and diligence. In fact, any augmentation can take place only by depriving others.” [v] This paradigm is also known as zero-sum gain. A practical illustration of this attitude is the scenario in which a farmer enjoyed a year of supremely abundant harvests. When this happy event occurred, community expectations were that he would be generous to the needy because his excess in some way contributed to their plight. “The zero-sum nature of ancient economy - the persistent belief that if some part increased, another had to decrease - led to a rather static productive and technological picture.” [vi]
Another limitation or restriction to generating income or capital was Talmudic laws against charging interest and usury on fellow Jews. In a similar way, the creditor was prohibited from demanding items of collateral upon which the debtor's livelihood depended, such as the carpenter's tools or the grinder’s millstone. Jewish law also stipulated the creditor could not “enter the debtor's house to take his pledge for himself; it must be handed to him outside, no doubt in order to avoid all appearance of seizure.” [vii] Another example of Jewish law impacting business was “laws against buying up grain and withdrawing it from sale, especially at a time of scarcity, are exceedingly strict. Similarly, it was prohibited artificially to raise prices, especially of produce. Indeed, it was regarded as cheating to charge a higher profit than sixteen percent.” [viii] The Jews were cautious in commerce, the exchange of money for goods and services, and ethical business practices. Even in that arena, the Talmud and Jewish law contributed to the world of the devout Jew.
Money and coins were common in the time of Jesus. “By New Testament times a remarkable variety of Greek, Roman, and foreign coins circulated in the Jewish nation. This was due in part to the longevity of coins, and the introduction of the coins of Roman soldiers brought to the Jewish nation from all over the empire.” [ix] Roman coins, used throughout the Empire, were stamped or had the etching of the reigning ruler. That was an affront to the Jews in that they believed this likeness of a man's profile or head violated the second commandment prohibition against making a graven image of anything in heaven or on earth. The most common coin was likely the denarius that was a flat silver piece approximately the size of a United States dime. At the time of Jesus, a denarius was the customary pay for a day's work as noted in the Parable of The Workers in the Vineyard. It was also the coin, Luke 20:21-25, with which the scribes and chief priests sought to trap Jesus into speaking subversion against the Romans. Referring to the same incident, Matthew notes the tax in question was a poll tax rather than a levy on goods or services. This tax was a particular “annoyance to the Jews, who felt that by paying it, they were acknowledging the authority of a foreign ruler.” [x] That Matthew alone records this incident is not surprising since his profession before becoming a disciple was that of a tax collector.
Another monetary system in existence at the time of Jesus was based on the Greek drachma. This was a silver coin weighing 0.13 ounces or 3.6 grams. The term “drachma” came from the word meaning “to grip” or “a handful” and referred to a handful of grain. The drachma was a fourth of a stater, one-hundredth of a mina, or six-thousandth of a talent. The drachma had the widest circulation in the years soon after the conquests of Alexander the Great, although this coin was known during the period of the New Testament as Matthew 17:24-27 notes. Boice notes that the Greek term for “tax” in this passage means “a head tax based on the tax rolls containing the names of all who were subject to it. It is from this word that we get the English word 'census'.” [xi] The second major unit of measure in this system was the tetradrachma, which was a weight of 0.51 ounces or 14.4 grams.
A common Jewish currency was the shekel that was a measure of weight in common use throughout the history of the Jews and a standard unit of currency in the first century. The shekel derives from the unit of weight used during in the First Temple period. This coin, weighing approximately 16 grams (0.5 ounces), usually had the words “Jerusalem the Holy” on one side and lilies, olive branches, or palms on the other side. Like other coins of the era, the shekel was based on weight. What is interesting is that there were two different sets of weights used by merchants. “A light set was used when purchasing and a heavy set when selling. This gave the trader a legitimate percentage profit and was not wrong in itself. It was mixed weights that were the problem or the deliberate use of false weights in order to cheat people.” [xii]
Several coins were based on the shekel, the two most notable being the beka, one-half a shekel, which was the temple tax paid by every Jew regardless of where they lived, and the pondion, one-twelfth of a shekel. The pondion was the customary pay for an hour of labor. As the typical workday was twelve hours from six in the morning to six in the evening, the pondion was frequently used to pay day laborers for several hours of work. The mina is also mentioned several times in the New Testament and was equivalent to fifty or sixty shekels. There is some debate as to the value of a mina, although the most common correlation is sixty shekels. The most expensive value was the talent and set to be equivalent to sixty minas. This, interestingly, was not a coin but a weight of precious metal; bronze, silver, or gold.
When the Jews returned from Babylon, they brought with them concepts of banking and business enterprise. “Money and commerce became more important to the Jews after the exile because they were no longer as dependent on agriculture as they once were; others controlled the land.” [xiii] Banks at the time of Jesus were fairly simple organizations when compared to the modern institution. The government had little or nothing to do with banks; rather these were private enterprises. Banks dealt with loans, borrowing, issuing notes, letters of credit, and conducting foreign currency exchange. A common practice was for a wealthy individual to invest money in a bank. In return, the bank would invest the funds in businesses, loans, and the like, generating income for those owning the bank and the investor. The parables of The Talents and The Money refer to this technique of investing funds. Taxation of various sorts and the process of purchasing items with different currencies meant that some mechanism was in place to exchange money of different nations or regions. This was particularly acute in Jerusalem where pilgrims from across the world would come to the temple to purchase and then offer sacrifices. “Not infrequently the twofold business of money-changing and banking was combined. Such 'bankers' undertook to make payments, to collect money and accounts, to place out money at interest - in short, all the ordinary business of this kind.” [xiv]
The Jewish nation possessed relatively little in the way of natural resources with which to trade with other nations. About the only way the nation could acquire raw materials or goods from other places was purchasing the commodities using hard currency. Toward that end, the temple tax provided necessary income to the government. Taxation, in particular, import and trade duties, provided a considerable amount of income to purchase goods and raw materials unavailable to the Jewish nation. Many essentials were imported from outside the nation's borders. This was particularly true of luxury items. Goods were imported from various nations around the Mediterranean, such as figs from Cyprus, linen and fine fabrics from Egypt and India and also from Babylon, which produced material woven from blue, purple, and scarlet material. Much of this was intended for the Temple and the garments of the priests. Frankincense, incense, cinnamon, and pepper came from Mesopotamia and Arabia. They also imported copper and iron, and in times of famine, grain and corn from Egypt. Jerusalem, because of the demands of the Temple sacrifice and religious activities, was a substantial importer. Imports included wheat, livestock, and oil. Other things that came to the holy city included wine, flour, and various other smaller animals also intended for sacrifice. Exports included olive oil, grain, wheat, and barley. Wine was also a plentiful commodity and was an export. Salt was plentiful, due largely to the Dead Sea, and this important spice was also exported to other countries.
The merchant was an integral component of economic life not only in the Promised Land but throughout the Middle East. They operated like wholesalers in that they would purchase large quantities of a product, for example, a particular spice, and divide it into smaller units for individual sales to their customers. Whether the merchant was in the country or the city, the customary practice was to barter the price of the item to be purchased. “The buyer offers a low sum for such, in his opinion, shoddy goods. The merchant asks an exorbitant price for his quality wares. Eventually, after much spirited negotiation, they reach a happy medium and the sale is made.” [xv] As there were few laws protecting the buyer from fraud or deceit, the adage “buyers beware” was particularly apt. Also, as can be inferred in the description of the society, virtually anything could be found for the right price, be it a slave from a foreign land or a sharp double-edged knife small enough to hide in the folds of a tunic.
As might be expected, several industries catered to those with money to provide an additional degree of opulence or comfort. An example of this was the vignette of the Pearl in which the merchant was seeking quality pearls and came across a specimen of such spectacular value that he divested himself of all the other pearls to afford the one pearl of tremendous value. These industries included “gold- and silversmithing, ivory carving, and dealing in ointments, spices, costly jewelry, silks, and expensive dyes.” [xvi] Whether merchants served as middlemen between the craftsman and the customer or direct interaction between the producer and seller existed, for the most part, is unknown. Likely, both arrangements were customary in that craftsmen fortunate to live in larger communities dealt directly with the customer while the merchant purchased and sold the wares of the craftsmen to those outside the local area or in other major cities. One of the earliest commodities utilized in this way was grain. This was because the farmer would not be willing to deliver his product to market to sell and the bakers and consumers also did not want to travel to the farm to purchase directly. Thus, the merchant would purchase the wheat, grain, or whatever the farmer had to sell, transport it to market, sell it, and make a profit on the transaction. Olive oil was another commodity that was would be frequently handled in this way. Another business that flourished at the time the speculator who would invest in the purchase or sale of goods and commodities whose production was dependent upon various factors. This practice could have been a factor in the parable of The Shrewd Steward in which the steward ordered the people who owed his master money in grain and olive oil to mark down the amount due.
Despite the variety of geographical conditions in the Jewish nation, thanks to the might of the Roman Empire, an extensive network of roads existed connecting cities and economic centers. Many of the roads, of course, were there in some form or fashion before the rise of the Roman Empire, but with the financial ability of the Roman civilization, roads were rebuilt or improved. The Romans also thought to add new roads to locations deemed important either for commercial or military purposes. While arduous and sometimes dangerous, “travel between virtually all parts of the empire was possible, and it was easier to go from Jerusalem to Rome in Paul's day than it was to travel from the East Coast to California in this country (United States) a hundred-fifty years (the mid-1800's) ago.” [xvii] In the first century, “six main arteries of commerce and intercourse traversed the country, the chief objective points being Caesarea, the military, and Jerusalem, the religious capital.” [xviii] From the establishment of these routes, taxes and duties of various sorts were applied to goods and persons travelling between different points, and this provided income to the nation. “Means of travel included the traditional pack animals, the donkey and camel, as well as two- and four-wheel carts. These latter vehicles, pulled by teams of oxen, were used to transport grain to market throughout the Near East. Chariots were also used by wealthy travelers and government officials.” [xix] For the poor, the typical mode of travel was by foot. Most people tried to make arrangements to stay at the homes of friends and family while traveling. If one was not fortunate enough to lodge in this manner, the inn was available for overnight stay, but travelers were responsible for their individual lodging and bedding. These facilities were fairly commonplace but were often places of prostitution and bandits. Travel by sea was also dangerous and arduous. Most only traveled via water at certain times of the year, but vessels were sufficiently large enough to carry several hundred passengers and many tons of cargo. Navigation had advanced to the point in the first century that sea-going vessels could sail out of sight of land to distant ports.
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