Klaus Issler, professor of Christian formation and theology, Biola University
Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.
How economically poor was Jesus, or Paul, or Philemon, or Phoebe? New scholarly efforts in the last decade have sought to provide better answers these questions. Scholars have proposed models for understanding economic classes in the New Testament era.
These models offer important background that we ought to share with our students as we teach the New Testament. This article introduces one particular model, and collects a variety of suggestions for placing New Testament figures at differing economic levels.
Steven Friesen, professor of biblical studies at the University of Texas-Austin developed a seven-part Poverty Scale, first published in 2004. Bruce Longenecker, professor of religion at Baylor University has welcomed the model:
In particular, with its variegated categorization, Friesen’s taxonomy offers scholars a discursive framework from which to analyze data, in three helpful ways. First, its sevenfold construction assists in the avoidance of a simplistic binary modeling of the ancient world. Second, and relatedly, the scale is workable for practitioners in its relatively restricted number of differentiated levels; we simply do not have the relevant data to be much more refined in assigning economic levels . . . . Third, Friesen’s adjusted scale offers a discursive frame of reference that goes a long way in avoiding the terminological imprecision that has often plagued scholarly debates (as noted above with regard to terms like ‘the lower class.’). In view of these three advantages, the next generation of scholarship on the first urban followers of Jesus will do well to put a scale of this kind front and center in its deliberation. [Profiling, p. 45, emphasis added]
Longenecker re-labels Friesen’s seven designations as Economic Scales (ES1-ES7). ES1 represents Imperial Elites; ES7 is Below Subsistence Level, those whose own economic production was insufficient to keep them alive, leaving them constantly dependent upon others. Longenecker also makes some adjustments to Friesen’s model in the percentage of the population believed to be at each scale.
Below, Table A introduces the Friesen/Longenecker model. Table B includes New Testament names likely to belong to each of the seven Economic Scales.
Table A: Economic Scales of the Greco-Roman World (by Friesen, adapted by Longenecker)
|A. Scale||B. Includes||C. Income Needed||D. Pop % (Friesen)||E. Pop % (Long.)||F. Early Church %|
|ES1 Imperial elites||Imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons.||—-||0.04%||0|
|ES2 Regional or provincial elites||Equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers.||—-||1.00%||3%||0|
|ES3 Municipal elites||Most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants.||25,000 – 150,000 denarii||1.76%||0|
|ES4 Moderate surplus resources||Some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans||5,000 denarii||7% (est.)||15%||10%|
|ES5 Stable near subsistence level (reasonable hope of remaining above subsistence minimum)||Many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families.||For ES5-6In Rome: 900-1,000 denarii||22% (est.)||27%||25%|
|ES6 At subsistence level (often dropping below subsistence minimum in bad times)||Small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (especially those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners.||In a city: 600-700 denariiIn the||40%||30%||35%|
|ES7 Below subsistence level(dependent)||Some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners.||country 250-300 denarii||28%||25%||30%|
A. Friesen’s seven-part numerical categories, using Longenecker’s term Economic Scales (ES)
B. Friesen’s description of kinds of work roles fitting each category
C. Friesen’s estimates of annual Income needed in Rome by a family of four (adapted from another source), “based on 2,500 calories per day for an adult male, and include nonfood expenses such as housing, clothing, and taxes.”
D. Friesen’s estimates of each category’s percentage of the Greco-Roman population
E. Longenecker’s estimates of each category’s percentage of the Greco-Roman population
F. Longenecker’s estimates for the Jesus followers during the time of the Apostle Paul
Table B: Suggested Assignments of New Testament Figures to Economic Scales
|A. Scale||B. Names||C. Scripture||D. Location|
|ES1 Imperial elites||[Proconsul Sergius Paulus-?]-a/-b||Acts 13:6-12||Paphos, Cyprus|
|ES2 Regional or provincial elites||Dionysios the Areopagite (2-3)-aNot a few of the Greek men of high standing (2-3)-a/-bNot a few of the Greek women of high standing (2-3)-a/-bWomen of high standing (in the city)-a /(3)-b||Acts 17:34Acts 13:50;Acts 17:12;Acts 13:50;Acts 17:12;Acts 17:4||AthensBeroeaBeroeaThessalonica|
|ES3 Municipal elites||Asiarchs (3-4)-b (also see above)||Acts 19:31||Ephesus|
|ES4 Moderate surplus resources||[Chloe-?]-a/(4-5?)-bCrispus-a/(4-5)-bGaius-a/-b(Jailer, unnamed) -?-aLydia -?-a/(4)-bTitius Justus-aErastus (4-5)-a /(4)-b
Saul (Paul)’s family background-b
|1 Cor 1:11Acts 18:8;1 Cor 1:14Rom 16:23;1 Cor 1:14Acts 18:22-36Acts 16:13-15Acts 18:7Rom 16:23
1 Cor 16:17-18
Rome (or Ephesus?)
Rome (or Ephesus?)
|ES5 Stable near subsistence level (reasonable hope of remaining above subsistence minimum)||Chloe’s people-a (also see above)Stephanus (5-6)-aThe household of Stephanus (5-6)-a(Many) saints in Corinth (5-6)-aChurches in Galatia (5-6)-a(Many) brothers (and sisters)-aJesus (prior to public ministry;lower end of ES5)-b
Apostle Paul (5-6)-a: Acts 18:3-8;
|1 Cor 1:111 Cor 16:17-181 Cor 16:15-161 Cor 16:1-21 Cor 16:1-21 Thess 4:11Mark 6:3
2 Cor 11:1-12;
1 Thess 2:1-12
|ES6 At subsistence level (often dropping below subsistence minimum in bad times)||(also see above)(Many) saints in Corinth-aThe assemblies of Macedonia-aOnesimus (6-7)-a/(5-7)-bThose who do not have food for the Lord’s supper-aJoseph and Mary, parents of Jesus-b||2 Cor 8:12-152 Cor 8:1-6Philem 10-191 Cor 11:22Luke 2:24||CorinthMacedoniaEphesus? Rome?CorinthIn Jerusalem|
|ES7 Below subsistence level(dependent)||Apostle Paul-a||Phil 2:25-30||Rome? Ephesus? Caesarea?|
a: From Stephen Friesen
b: From Bruce Longenecker
(2-3) Number in parenthesis indicates name could fit in either Economic Scale; name is listed only once
? = possible assignment
Information about the scales and reasons for placement of names comes from the following resources:
Steven J. Friesen:
“Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New Consensus,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (2004): 323-61.
“Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society,” Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Susan Holman, ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker (2008): 17-36.
“Exposing the Economic Middle: A Revised Economy Scale for the Study of Early Urban Christianity, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2009): 243-78.
“Socio-Economic Profiling of the First Urban Christians.” In After the First Urban Christians: The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later, edited by Todd Still and David Horrell, London/New York: Continuum (2009): 36-59.
Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Graeco-Roman World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (2010), especially chapter 3, 36-59.