Abbreviated version of a paper delivered at the Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy session; SBL Annual Meeting 2016.
It would seem that the study of “the ancient economy” is in a period of ferment. Three new SBL program units have been added since 2004 that treat aspects of the ancient economy: Early Christianity and the Ancient Economy, Economics in the Biblical World, and Poverty in the Biblical World. In the field of classical studies, the 2008 publication of The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World has effectively ushered in a post-Finleyan era in the study of Greco-Roman economies by incorporating methods developed in the field of New Institutional Economics. In what follows, we examine representative samples of three emergent methodological trends: (1) the turn toward New Institutional Economics in studies of Greece and Rome; (2) Roland Boer’s model of the economy of ancient Israel; and (3) K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman’s social-scientific approach in New Testament studies. These models differ significantly from each other and are drawn from what are often treated as three distinct fields: classics, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament studies. It is precisely the differences between the models that are most illuminating, however, and juxtaposing them quickly reveals the emphases—and omissions—that are specific to and that characterize each model.
The recent preference for the New Institutional Economics framework, henceforth NIE, evidenced in classical studies since the publication of The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World comes partly in response to what Richard Saller labeled a “conceptual rut” that had developed in the wake of Moses Finley’s classic work The Ancient Economy, first published in 1973. In the preface to The Cambridge Economic History, Ian Morris, Richard Saller, and Walter Scheidel cite Douglass North, one of the theorists instrumental in developing the NIE model. North “take[s] it as the task of economic history to explain the structure and performance of economies through time.” Performance indicates typical economic concerns such as the cost of production and the overall output of goods and services, whereas structure indicates the “political and economic institutions, technology, demography, and ideology of a society” (Cambridge Economic History, 1). Under the influence of the The Cambridge Economic History, enhanced interaction with contemporary economic models, including both neoclassicism and NIE, neoclassicism’s recent offshoot, has become de rigueur in classics.
The introduction of the NIE paradigm in the study of Greco-Roman economies may be viewed as a positive development inasmuch as it has enabled scholarship to escape the “conceptual rut” in which it had been entrenched. On the other hand, although NIE effectively critiques the undersocialized neoclassical economic model, it still carries strong traces of its theoretical forebear in that it focuses squarely on aspects of the economy conceived narrowly in terms of factors affecting market performance. Issues involving class relations and extra-mercantile modes of the transmission or extraction of goods such as patronage or the forcible seizure of booty and plunder receive less attention. Since NIE was designed as a tool for the analysis of contemporary market economies, those salient aspects of Greek and Roman economies naturally do not fall within NIE’s theoretical purview: they “fly under the radar” of the NIE model. In contrast, those aspects of the ancient economy constitute the very issues that lie at the heart of Roland Boer’s economic analysis in his book The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, published in 2015.
Boer takes his methodological cues from regulation theory, a Marxist mode of economic analysis that originated in France in the 1970s. Boer develops the notion of the sacred economy, understood as a complex set of social, economic, and political relations held together in part by ideological and cultural narratives about relations between god or the gods and human beings—the “sacred” in Boer’s sacred economy. Boer distinguishes allocatory systems that “function by the allocation and reallocation of labor and the products of labor” and extractive systems, which entail “the extraction of produce by those who do not labor from those who do labor.” Extractive systems draw resources either on the basis of expropriation: “the extraction of surplus from what one does not possess, but is possessed by another”; or exploitation: “the extraction of surplus from what one possesses: land, machinery, labor” (Sacred Economy, 235). Common forms of expropriation include plunder, the exaction of tribute, and taxation—the forms of expropriation characteristic of states. Exploitation occurs, for example, when hired laborers are paid less than the value that their individual labor contributes to the overall output of an enterprise, while owners retain the surplus—a mechanism characteristic of agricultural estates.
Market exchange, in Boer’s view, is an epiphenomenon—a side-effect—of empire-building. Since empires often demand that taxes be paid using the coin of the realm, Boer reasons, producers were obliged to sell their products to those who held coin—above all, to the military forces who were paid in coin. Boer writes:
We see again and again that the spread of coinage followed the path of an army receiving pay in coins. An excellent example is the later Roman army (second century BCE onward), as it expanded, in campaign after campaign, what would become the empire. With the Roman authorities demanding taxes in coinage, soon enough every farmer and hunter was exchanging goods with the soldiers for coins in order to pay those taxes. Provisions were supplied…. When this method was seen to work, it was applied to requisitioning just about everything…. Markets are therefore a by-product of government needs, rather than [as neoclassical economics would have it] government stifling the enterprise of markets. (Sacred Economy, 187–88)
One might fruitfully compare Keith Hopkins’s “taxes and trade” model explaining the growth of the Roman economy. Unlike Boer’s model, however, Hopkins’s does not entail the dubious assumption that goods sold to raise money to pay taxes were utilized solely for the provisioning of the army (“Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire,” JRS 70 : 101–25). Boer’s regulation model also bears some similarity with the “social-scientific approach” used by K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman in their influential textbook, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflict (2nd ed. 2009), which seeks to articulate “how a social structure or institution fits together, what its dynamics entail, where the conflicts lie, and who benefits from it” (Palestine, 8). Hanson and Oakman’s model provides an interesting counterpoint to NIE as it is currently utilized in classical studies in that, rather than focusing on the “economic growth” of Rome and Italy, it focuses on the economic extraction that took place in Palestine under Roman rule. Hanson and Oakman conceptualize the economy of Roman Palestine as pyramidal in structure: peasant producers at the bottom of the pyramid are compelled to transmit their surplus, in the form of taxes, upward to the emperor in Rome, who occupies the position at the top of the pyramid. Given this “upward” movement of the surplus of production, Hanson and Oakman characterize the economy of Roman Palestine as an “extractive economy” (Palestine, 105, 181–82).
In contradistinction to the neoclassical assumption that economic growth is a process that is both continuous and unlimited, Hanson and Oakman write:
Because of the limitations in technology and organization of production, the ancients tended to see the goods of life as in limited supply. If someone’s wealth “increased,” it therefore had to be at the expense of others…. If anyone got ahead in the village or in society at large, this could be perceived as at someone else’s expense. With life a zero-sum game—the increase of one means decrease of another—the quest for goods of life tended to become very competitive and full of conflict…. Rich and powerful people could be looked upon as robbers and thieves as much as benefactors. (Palestine, 103)
Hanson and Oakman’s observations serve as a reminder that we ought not to allow a focus on market economy to obscure the fact that resources were extracted from the provinces on a massive scale. It is important to note, however, that significant caveats may be raised in relation to Hanson and Oakman’s paradigm: archaeologists point out that there is no evidence of economic decline in Palestine in the first century CE, and that large estates of the sort decried in some of Jesus’s parables (Lk 12:13–21; perhaps also Lk 20:9–17) are present in some regions but absent from others, including lower Galilee, as David Fiensy has shown in Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy (2014). This indicates regional variations in the ancient Palestinian economy.
The act of juxtaposing the method that is now gaining ascendancy in classical studies, NIE, with Boer’s regulation model and with Hanson and Oakman’s social-scientific approach provides an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the various models and suggests some ways in which future studies might problematize, elaborate, or extend those models. As a first step in that direction, I venture some assessments and proposals:
First: in an effort to overcome the influence of Finley’s older model that posited severely limited economic growth in ancient Rome, economic historians employing an NIE framework have increasingly sought evidence for more significant levels of growth based on technical innovation, increased division of labor, and increased long-distance trade. The improvements achieved in this area relative to the older Finley model have been impressive. However, we must also bear in mind that NIE was developed as a tool to analyze contemporary capitalist economies, and was not developed primarily as a historical tool to analyze what Boer called state-sponsored “regimes of plunder.” We ought not make the mistake of attributing the “economic growth” of Roman Italy solely to market forces: plunder through the taking of booty—including that of taking human beings as slaves—and the extraction of surplus in the form of tribute and taxation obviously contributed significantly to the evident “growth” of the Roman economy.
Second: we may note that NIE’s emphasis on “growth” fails to foreground issues of sociopolitical relations between classes—between those who produce and those who extract the surplus of others’ production, whether on the basis of exploitation or of expropriation. These are the very issues that both Boer’s Marxian model and Hanson and Oakman’s social sciences model highlight. If Hanson and Oakman’s postulate that both resources and production were limited in antiquity is correct, then it follows that the economic growth of one group must be achieved to some extent at the expense of others. “Economy” cannot be separated from “political economy.” Although it has not to my knowledge been attempted yet, there is no reason in principle why the tools of NIE could not be utilized in the analysis of ancient political-economic relations: after all, its emphasis on the institutional framework of economic performance is what sets NIE apart from its predecessor, neoclassical economics.
Third: In order to avoid imposing the logic of modern capitalist markets, in which money is converted to a commodity in order to earn a return on the initial investment (according to the formula M-C-M'), we ought to pay close attention to the logic by which a given market is organized. This is not to argue that the use of money as capital to return a profit was not a factor that motivated portions of the ancient economy—investment for the sake of profit is clearly espoused, for example, in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Rather, this is a call to consider the possibility that some markets may have consisted of players motivated by very different sorts of logic: some by the desire to gain coin to pay taxes (à la Boer), some by the desire to gain coin with which to purchase items that they themselves could not produce (money barter; a point made by Hanson and Oakman), and still others by the desire to obtain a monetary profit from the exchange in accordance with the neoclassical view.
Walter Scheidel notes that “explanations [of the data relevant to the study of the ancient Roman economy] must be grounded in the empirical record but do not emerge from it: the evidence never speaks for itself” (Cambridge Economic History, 2). For this reason, theories and models of the ancient economy must constantly be tested against the ancient data from texts, receipts, deeds, shipwrecks, osteology, and so on. This point has already been made by J. G. Manning and others. We may now add another desideratum to our research agenda: contemporary theories and models ought to be compared and tested against one another. In doing so, we may expect not only to expose the “blind spots” associated with particular theoretical models and to be able more readily to assess their strengths, but we may also expect to extend those models in new and productive directions and to create approaches characterized by hybridity, as the models interact with, inform, and perhaps reshape one another. By using this comparative procedure, we may hope to develop more adequate accounts of “the ancient economy” in its various permutations. As a final note, we may point out that juxtaposing theories developed in classics with those developed in Biblical studies—both in the study of ancient Israel and in the study of early Christianity—facilitates this process.
Thomas R. Blanton IV is the Auxiliary Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Follow at https://lstc.academia.edu/ThomasRBlantonIV