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Understanding the Gospels: Part 5

Introduction

This is my fifth and final installment to my series, “Understanding the Gospels.” If you missed the earlier posts you can click Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. My hope is these posts have enriched your reading of the New Testament. I have stated in earlier posts that I have painted the New Testament world with a broad brush. If you would like to study the New Testament context further, I listed a couple of resources at the end of this post. I hope you enjoy learning about the socioeconomic context and the cultural dynamic of clean/unclean!

Socioeconomic Context

The socioeconomic context of the New Testament world is more comparable to a Third World context than our American context. Up to half of the total wealth in the Roman Empire belonged to 1-2% of the population. Talk about income inequality! Part of this was due to the social categories to which people were born into. At the top of the ladder was the emperor, followed by senators, equestrians (knights), and decurions (the top one hundred elite/wealthiest citizens of each city). These social groups comprised the upper class and made up approximately 5-7% of the population.

The middle class was made up of those in the society who made enough money to live relatively comfortably. This group consisted of priests, Pharisees, successful merchants, craftsmen, bankers, and tax collectors. This group made up roughly 15% of the population.

The rest of the population, about 70%, was simply trying to earn enough to feed their family each day. “Up to 70 percent of the population consisted of struggling farmers and fishermen or subsistence laborers working for others in fields or ‘factories.’”[1] The classes, with few exceptions, were static. Upward mobility was virtually unheard of. Further, since resources were viewed as limited commodities, accumulating wealth was viewed as selfish and threatening to the greater whole. In a group oriented society, this meant upwardly mobile individuals were looked down upon. (Capitalism would not have been a virtuous economic idea in the eyes of the earliest Christians.) At the lowest end of society were the outcasts and expendables. Jesus interacted with lepers and other individuals with diseases/illnesses that would have relegated them to the “expendable” class.

Not only did a person’s social status effect their economic circumstances, but taxes also played a significant role in the economic stability of a family. Taxes placed a heavy burden on the people of Jesus’ day. There was a tax for almost anything and everything: “sales tax 1%, sale of slaves 4%, inheritance tax 5%, import tax 2%, etc.”[2] In addition to Rome’s heavy taxes, a Jewish citizen also paid taxes to the Temple. Between Roman taxes and the tithes/taxes paid to the Temple “a Jewish citizen may spend as much as 30% of his income on taxes.”[3] This another reason why social networks and familial connections were such a huge priority in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day.

Clean & Unclean

“You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). Concern for ritual purity is rooted to the direct commands of God as found in the Pentateuch, as well as a fundamental belief that God (Yahweh) is holy. “Something ‘holy’ is beyond the sphere of the ordinary; it is whole, complete, and perfect, and therefore stands out as something ‘other’ and awe-inspiring.”[4] God desired for the people of Israel to be a people set apart and to be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, clean and unclean.

For something to be “common” does not mean it is unclean or defiled. For something to be “common” simply distinguishes it as ordinary and attainable to humans. Something “holy” refers to that which transcends the ordinary—that which belongs to the realm of the divine. For something to be clean means it is not defiled, defected, or polluted. Therefore, something that is holy is inherently clean, but something common can be clean or unclean. The common and the holy can interact so long as that which is common is clean. For example, a typical male Israelite could be common and clean a majority of the time, but a female Israelite would typically be common and unclean a quarter of the time due to her menstrual cycle.[5]

The significance of their understanding these distinctions was related to their identity. The Israelites were to be God’s set apart people – holy to the LORD (Deut. 7:6). Much of the OT Law distinguishes them from the surrounding nations as God’s chosen people. The nature of these distinctions created a social hierarchy. DeSilva states, “Within Israel an internal hierarchy was created on the basis of access to the holy God in his holy temple.”[6] The social hierarchy was as follows: at the top were the high priests, then the priests, the Levites, the Israelites, a Gentile convert, freed slaves, disqualified priests (illegitimate children of priests), Temple slaves, bastards, eunuchs, and those with damaged/missing genitals.[7]

Israel’s identity from the beginning was about their being a blessing to the nations and a light to the Gentiles (Gen. 22:18, Isaiah 49:6). Likewise, the hierarchical position of the priests and Levites was for a purpose as well—they were to serve on behalf of the community as representatives of God. By the New Testament period, the social hierarchies had become more concerned with power and prejudice than service and humility.

It is suggested that the origination of the synagogue was during the Exilic Period as the Israelites sought to preserve their cultural and religious heritage. The synagogue became a place of worship, prayer, and the study of the Scriptures. The synagogue also became a sort of community center where educational, judicial, and political activities took place. Sometime during the Intertestamental Period it is believed that the sect that become known as the Pharisees also took shape. The Pharisees served as teachers of the oral traditions of the Torah in the synagogues.[8]

Since the fall of Israel and Judah was due to their unfaithfulness, the concern for Covenantal faithfulness manifested in strict Torah observance in matters of ritual purity. Faithful Torah observance was defined by the standards of the Pharisees. By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had developed 613 laws that were intended to aid in faithful adherence of Torah, but they became a legalistic burden. As Bartholomew and Goheen note, “careful attention to food laws, tithing, Sabbath keeping, and the choice of ‘acceptible’ mealtime companions—these all are parts of the Pharisees’ strategy to keep themselves pure.”[9] Jesus often breaks the “rules” concerning Sabbath keeping and mealtime companions, thereby infuriating the religious leaders.

Throughout the Gospels these infractions seem to indicate that Jesus is disobeying God’s Law. Since Jesus is God this presents a problem. I believe that Jesus is really challenging the scribes, the Pharisees, the crowds, and all who would follow him to actually understand the heart of God and to do his will. The scribes and Pharisees had become so consumed and paranoid about ritual cleanliness that they actually missed the heart of God.

Mathew further asserts that greed and social status also bolstered the traditions of the Pharisees. He writes:

For ordinary people the major hindrances to religious conformity to the demands of the purity system were economic. The daily life situations of the peasants continually exposed them to contagion, and most of them could not afford to spend their time or money or goods on ritual cleansing processes.[10]

The purity laws also drew distinct social lines and created groups of marginalized outsiders. So not only did the offenders pay for their uncleanness socially by being treated as outcasts, but they also had to pay economically for the offering that would render them clean.

In many ways, the “tradition of the elders” had become a means by which the religious authorities systematically oppressed the people. Jesus is condemning their hearts, not rejecting God’s Law. Jesus is condemning their motives, not discarding the importance of God’s holiness. God’s intention from the beginning was for His people to distinguish between that which leads to life and a right relationship with Him from that which leads to death and separation from Him. The Law was never intended to be divorced from God’s life-giving nature.

Suggested Reading/Resources

  1. The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey

  2. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, by Ann Spangler and Bruce Okkema

  3. The Drama of Scripture, by Craig G Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen

  4. IVP Dictionary of New Testament Background, by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (editors)

  5. thebibleproject.com

Questions:

  1. How might your understanding of Jesus’ audience and their socioeconomic status influence how you read his teachings?

  2. How does recognizing the social status of individual’s Jesus interacted with relate to how we treat people today?

  3. Is the modern day Church ever guilty of legalistically burdening people with rules God never intended? Explain.

[1] Adapted from Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 58–70. Retrieved from http://www2.bhpublishinggroup.com/readthebible/downloads/cdrom/Week_06/NT_Socioeconomics.pdf

[2] Moore, Mark E. (2003). Fanning the flame: probing the issues in Acts. College Press Pub. Co. (p. 113)

[3] Moore, Mark E. (2003). Fanning the flame: probing the issues in Acts. College Press Pub. Co. (p. 113)

[4] DeSilva, D. A. (2014). An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. (p. 114)

[5] DeSilva, D. A. (2014). An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. (p. 118)

[6] DeSilva, D. A. (2014). An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. (p. 118)

[7] Mathew, S.P. (2000). Jesus and Purity system in Mark’s Gospel: A Leper (Mk. 1:40–45). Indian Journal of Theology 42(2), 101–110. Retrieved from https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ijt/42-2_101.pdf. (p. 101)

[8] Bartholomew, C. G., & Goheen, M. W. (2014). The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (p. 120)

[9] Bartholomew, C. G., & Goheen, M. W. (2014). The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (p. 147)

[10] Mathew, S.P. (2000). Jesus and Purity system in Mark’s Gospel: A Leper (Mk. 1:40–45). Indian Journal of Theology 42(2), 101–110. Retrieved from https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ijt/42-2_101.pdf. (p. 102)

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