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Affluent Christian Investor | December 8, 2023

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Jesus vs. The Judeans, Not Jesus vs. The Jews

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

N.T. Wright has suggested that the proper translation of ‘iudaeos’ in the New Testament is not “Jews,” but rather Judeans. I think he’s right. The category Judean is simply not equal to the category Jew. Certainly not all Jews were Judeans, and it’s arguable that not all Judeans were Jews. These are separate but intersecting sets. Wright’s point is important in that it helps undermine the arguments which have been made by Christian anti-Semites in the past. I find that laudable, but it is not my main objective here. My focus here is on the economic implications of the distinction. I’m especially interested in the differences between Jesus’ childhood home, Galilee, and the place of his death, Judea – the differences in their political economy and the light that this sheds on the different messages he preached in the two provinces.

Here’s an interesting passage which helps illustrate, in all in one place, the problem with the collapsing Jews into Judeans:

NAS John 7:1 And after these things Jesus was walking in Galilee; for He was unwilling to walk in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill Him.

2 Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was at hand.

(Jn. 7:1-2 NAS)

If we use the usual translation, ‘Jews’ we end up with nonsense. Why would Jesus avoid Judea in order to avoid assassination by all Jews? There were many, many Jews in Galilee as well. It was a predominately Jewish area. Archeological evidence regarding Sepphoris, the most prominent city in Galilee and the center city near which Jesus grew up (in Nazareth), shows a predominately Jewish city, and the rural areas and small villages were even more Jewish.  If Jesus was threatened by all Jews, he would have gone to pagan territories such as the nearby Decapolis (a region which he sometimes visited and in which he had followers). But, instead, he went to Galilee.

See how much more sense it makes to translate ‘iudaeos’ into the English word which it already sounds a lot like, ‘Judean’:

NAS John 7:1 And after these things Jesus was walking in Galilee; for He was unwilling to walk in Judea, because the Judeans were seeking to kill Him.

2 Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was at hand.

(Jn. 7:1-2 NAS)

He avoided Judea because he was afraid of the Judeans. Now it makes sense.

By the way, the fact that the passage mentions the Feast of Booths, is also suggestive. Booths, or Succoth, was a ritual enactment of Israel’s trek in the wilderness during which SOME of Israel rebelled against Moses and even wanted to kill him. It seems like the Gospel writer may want to be calling that memory into the minds of the readers in order to show a parallel between the reactions of some to Moses and the reactions of some to Jesus. But the operative word here is ‘some’. Not all Israelites meant to kill Moses and not all Jews meant to kill Jesus. In fact, Jesus was very popular with ‘the multitudes’ and you can’t get a multitude in First Century Israel without it being made up mostly of Jews. Jesus was a Jewish folk hero. It was a specific group, the Judeans—which is to say, those associated with the economic and political system of one part of ancient Israel, Judea, which was centered on Jerusalem—which were most consistently hostile to Jesus.

A greater knowledge of Biblical history would make it less likely that people would fall into the Jews=Judeans error. Judea is named after one and only one of the 12 tribes of Israel. It has such a distinct identity, that ten other tribes separated themselves from it under the tyranny of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (the issue was excessive taxation). One small tribe had been absorbed into Judea, so that’s why the number of tribes do not add up to 12. Judea had been politically and culturally distinct from the rest of the Jews for roughly a thousand years before the time of the New Testament.

Judea was less equal as a society, with more great concentrations of wealth among political elites and more gigantic agricultural conglomerates, with consolidated farms with absentee landlords. Professor Ralph Fiensy is one of the leading experts in the archeology of Galilee and he provides a good overview:

“Further south, The Great Plain – giant agricultural combines politically granted to absentee landlords – see parables

“Probably higher levels of taxation because Judea was taxed directly by Rome (Publicans start showing up when Jesus moves south)…

“There certainly were large estates in Palestine as well. But were there such large farms specifically in Lower Galilee (the area from Nazareth on the south to the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee) where Jesus came from? So far the archaeological evidence says no. Yet, on the Great Plain, just south of Nazareth, there is both literary and archaeological evidence that large estates had been in existence already for three hundred years by the time Jesus was born. Jesus had only to look over the Great Plain from the edge of the Nazareth ridge to view some of these vast farms.  Perhaps Jesus’s observation of these estates furnished material for many of his parables. As mentioned above, Mar 12:1 -8, the parable of the Tenants, refers to a vineyard with tenant farmers, an absentee landlord, and several slaves who were sent to collect the rent. In order to support several tenant farmers, the vineyard must have been quite large. Luke 16:1-12 speaks of debts of one hundred measures of oil and one hundred measures of wheat, which would have required at least a medium-sized estate to produce. The same conclusion can be made with respect to the parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30=Luke 19:11-27), the parable of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43=Matt 18:23-34), and the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). These parables speak of large sums of money that imply great wealth. In the ancient economy one could possibly become wealthy as a merchant…”

Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, David Fiensy, pg. 70

Fiensy makes a good case that the Judean economy is what provided Jesus with fodder for a substantial portion of his parables, including a very interesting take on the Parable of the Rich Fool in which he finds an historical parallel in the granaries of a member of the royal family of Herod:

“Still others of Jesus’s parables depict scenes on a large estate. The parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), for instance, describes an estate owner hoarding grain in a manner reminiscent of accounts in Josephus (Life 71-72, 119) about the granaries “of Caesar” in Upper Galilee and of the granary of Queen Bernice on the Great Plain. Luke 17:7 refers to a man’s servant plowing his field for him. Matthew 20: 1-15 narrates about a landowner who has so much land he must hire day laborers to work it. Luke 12:42-43 alludes to a wealthy man who has a bailiff to run his estate. Matt 13:24-30 describes a farm that requires several slaves to work it. Finally, Luke 15:11-32 pictures an estate with day laborers and slaves. Clearly Jesus was familiar with what happened on these huge farms, but archaeologists have not found evidence for their existence in Lower Galilee itself.”

Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, David Fiensy, pg. 71

Part of the difference between the political economy of Galilee and Judea is the difference in taxation. Galilee had more of a heritage of independent self-rule under Rome rather than under direct Roman rule. For this reason, the best evidence is that Galilee was not subject to direct Roman taxation, whereas Judea was:

“…on every male between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five, on every female between twelve and sixty-five. For Judea this tax might have been one denarius per person (based on Mark 12:13-17 ). Or it could have been one denarius plus a percentage of the movable property, i.e. animals, slaves, ships, and wagons,… There were also house taxes and duties on produce brought into Jerusalem (Ant. 18.90, 19.299).15 The point is, taxation seems to have been a greater burden in Judea than in Galilee. Whether it was so much greater as to lower the standard of living significantly in Judea vis a visGalilee, is the question. We know that in 17 CE Judea appealed to Tiberius for tax relief (Tacitus, Ann. 2.4216). Thus, direct taxation from Rome seems to have contributed to a lower standard of living.17

16. Tacitus described Judea and Syria as fessae, “exhausted ” by taxes. See Finley, Ancient Economy, 90. Cf. Josephus, War 2.85-86; Ant. 17.204-205, 306-307 who reports that the people of Palestine/Israel complained about the taxes levied by Herod the Great …

17. “Taxes distort prices and thus the decisions of households and firms” (Mankiw, Principles of Macroeconomics, 9.) The author means that a centralized economy—one controlled by the government by heavy taxation—is the opposite of a free-market economy. Thus observations based on free markets may not apply to the ancient Palestinian economy if the taxation was unusually burdensome.”

Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, David Fiensy, pg. 122

So, Judea was a less entrepreneurial economy, more economically centralized, more politically centralized, higher-tax economic regime. Surely the differences in the nature of the Galilean vs. the Judean economy should be kept in mind when we read the Gospels, especially if we see that Jesus speaks differently about economics in these different places. Shortly, we’ll see that if one takes a close look at the details of the text, one finds that Jesus did, indeed, speak in identifiably different ways about economic and financial matters while in the different provinces.



Originally published on Townhall Finance.


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