We don’t keep the social and economic background of Jesus’ ministry in our minds

From “Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims” by Jennifer Garcia Bashaw – Fortress Press

Roman-occupied Judea was a place of suffering for most of its inhabitants. The Roman imperial world operated as a coercive hierarchy, a militarized agrarian system in which the government owned and controlled all the land they conquered. The conquered subjects were the producers who worked the land for the Romans as slaves and tenant farmers, while the Roman citizens consumed their goods and benefited economically from their toil. Roman citizens accounted for only 2 to 3 percent of the population across the Mediterranean world, but this percentage was even lower for territories at the edge of the empire like Judea. This meant that almost all of the Jewish residents of Judea and the surrounding areas were non-elites, who shouldered the heaviest burden of life’s perils – hard work, high taxes, floods, famine, and poverty – while the elites and their regional representatives benefited from their suffering.

The following diagram, based on recent New Testament scholarship on the subject, illustrates just how many people lived in poverty under this socioeconomic hierarchy.

  • Level 1. Imperial Elites – 0.04 percent of the population

 (imperial dynasty and Roman senatorial families)

  • Level 2. Provincial Elites – 1 percent of the population 

( wealthy, connected families, some retired military officers)

  • Level 3. Municipal Elites – 1.76 percent of the population

           (other comfortable families, some veterans, merchants)

  • Level 4. Moderately Resourced – 7 percent of the population

           ( some merchants, artisans, and veterans)

  • Level 5. Surviving Poor – 22 percent of the population

           (many merchants, artisans, and large shop owners, some farmers)

  • Level 6. Barely Surviving Poor – 40 percent of the population

(farming families, most merchants, and small shop owners)

  • Level 7. Suffering Poor – 28 percent of the population

(some farming and fishing families, widows, orphans, people with disabilitites, prisoners)

This chart reveals a devastating economy – 90 percent of the people in the Roman Empire lived in poverty. The barely surviving poor and the suffering poor were the kinds of people that Jesus called as disciples, the ones to whom he preached, the ones he fed and healed. Jesus himself was born in poverty and spent his entire ministry as a vagabond living off the resources of others.

Despite this historical reality, most American Christians rarely consider the poverty that Jesus and his disciples experienced. We don’t keep the social and economic background of Jesus’ ministry in our minds when we read the words he spoke or envision his interactions with the people.