Book of the Month/January 2021

This is a fantastic book, and let me tell you a little bit about some of sensations I had inside my bone box while reading it. I think I have only had a parallel experience one other time, that time being when I read Planet Narnia.

Take a set of books that I have been really familiar with since I was a small boy, and which I had read over and over again since then, not to mention repeatedly, and then again time after time. Assume from all this that I was pretty familiar with Narnia and Archenland both, as though they were located in my own backyard, back by the alley. And then suppose that I read a book (Planet Narnia) that did not dislodge anything about Narnia that I already knew, but which provided luminous background information that enabled me to look at what I already knew in a completely new way. Whoa does not begin to describe it.

Yeah, like that. This book did something very similar for me when it comes to the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I have been a Bible reader since I was a wee bairn, and have read through the gospels scores of times. And then this book came along, not to unsettle everything, but rather to settle a bunch of stuff.

This is not some suspense/drama movie where you have to worry about spoilers, and so I am going to give you the main point here, and follow it up with a couple of examples. Bowyer’s thesis is that the Lord’s teaching on wealth (and there is a great deal of it) has to be contextualized with regard to Galilee and Judea. Galilee had much more of a market economy, where people were producing commodities with real market value, while Judea, in the south, had a very cozy insider-trading economy, dependent on taxation and the Temple. For example, it was fishing in the north, and sweet deals in the south.

For example, if I were to tell you that Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA—on either side of Washington, DC—were the two richest counties in the United States, nobody would guess that this wealth somehow came from oil wells, or silver mines, or peach orchards that grew them the size of softballs. No, those counties are massively rich because the American taxpayer is one of history’s great chumps. A true palooka.

Now all the Lord’s fierce denunciations of wealth occurred in Judea. The context mattered, and Bowyer shows in painstaking detail how and why it mattered. Context matters. The phrase “fat cats” would have a completely different connotation in the board room of Goldman Sachs than it would talking to a hard-working rancher, working alongside his hands—even if the rancher had quite a bit of money in the bank.

Our problem is that we take the Lord’s teaching on wealth, universalize it, and apply it everywhere, willy-nilly, pell-mell, and apparently at random. One of the effects of all this is that socialists and their ilk wind up, not only missing the import of His teaching, but actually reversing it. This ignoring of crucial context misses how hostile the Lord was to those sweet backroom deals, of the sort that government-run economies invariably create.

Here are a handful of examples. Many Christians have been embarrassed by the apostle John’s backhanding of “the Jews” in his gospel on a number of occasions, as this has been used as a justification for antisemitism over the centuries. But what if we rendered it as Judeans, as it is the same word. And this would make a lot better sense of things, since there was real tension between Galileans and Judeans, and there was no tension at all between the Jews and the Jews.

Hey, did you know that the Temple in Jerusalem was also a bank?

Here is another fun fact. The rabbi Hillel developed a workaround for that pesky Mosaic requirement that all debts be erased every seven years. A creditor could sell the debt to the Temple, and it could be done in such a way that the debt would not be erased. Typical inside-the-Beltway Judean stuff.

Just so you know, I had a few quibbles here at there. I think that Bethlehem was better known as the City of David than it was as the city where Rachel died. But quibbles is the only way to describe that kind of thing.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Get it. Read it. Internalize it.

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bethyada
Member

Very pleased to see you post this. And review it recently in your plodcast. It is an excellent book and I recommend Christians of all political persuasion to read it. Right or left, many honest Christians have little time for politicians who get wealthy by giving favours to their cronies, be that in Washington, Moscow, or Beijing. A few thoughts. Hillel is also (in)famous for his liberal divorce laws, Seems like he was an ancient liberal who found work arounds to prevent men obeying the law as it was intended. It would be interesting to see if much else of… Read more »

Kristina Zubic
Member
Kristina Zubic

I might need this book as armor for the next few years. If it’s on Kindle i will be so pleased. (Hillel, the liberals’ idol? Really??)

C. Frank Bernard
Member

For example, [i]f I were …

Brendan of Ireland
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Brendan of Ireland

It’s good that the social and political elements that obtained in the Galilee/Judaea of Jesus’s day are being aired for a wider Christian readership. I had the privilege of doing my PhD on Roman Administration in Galilee 44-66AD under the late Prof Sean Freyne who kickstarted Galilean studies (now a veritable scholarly industry) back in 1980. Jerry Bowyer isn’t saying anything new. In many respects it can all be found in the excellent article in Edd S. Noell, “A New Market-less World?” An Examination of Wealth and Exchange in the Gospels and First Century Palestine,” in the Journal of Markets… Read more »

Kristina Zubic
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Kristina Zubic

One must start reading somewhere.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Agreed.

Jane
Member

He may not be saying anything new in the sense of entirely unknown to the scholarly world, but writing a book accessible to the non-scholar that contains information hitherto only found in very specialized journal articles and works generally known only to academics, is doing something new, wouldn’t you say?

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

In principle, yes. It’s just that I think in places (as suggested above) Jerry Bowyer has not got things right and the book could go with a bit of typing up.

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

Thank you, Jane. I’ve spoken about this book several dozen times, in conferences, interviews and even in academic settings from Lancaster Bible College to Oxford University and in between. I’ve discussed these topics with a few of the most influential New Testament scholars alive and what I’ve been told over and over again is something like “I’ve never heard anything like this before.” To suddenly read the criticism that “there is nothing new here” was a bit of a shock to me.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Jerry, When you say that you spoke about your book in academic settings such as Oxford University, do you mean you spoke at the invitation of the University of the University, or faculty there, or do you simply mean you spoke at a conference that was held in Oxford, by a Christian leadership organisation of which you are guest faculty member? There is a big difference. I would also be very keen to know which “of the most influential new Testament scholars alive” told you “over and over again” something along the lines of ‘I’ve never heard anything like this… Read more »

Clay Crouch
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Clay Crouch

Thank you for bringing more context to this subject. Would you elaborate on how Jerry Bowyer skews the picture?

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Hi Clay,

Just to say I welcome Jerry Bowyer’s book—I said that—, and it’s unfair to expect a learned, highly regarded professional economist, to be also a hard nosed full time biblical scholar. The type of points I make above skew the picture of first century Galilee/Judea in so far as they are wrong or in some cases not nuanced enough. That was my only point. I would hope in a second edition of his book he might brush things up, like I was told to do numerous times by my PhD supervisor.

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

Gee, I’m sorry that people didn’t read your PhD thesis, but that’s no reason to take it out on me. I’m not going to engage in endless academic wrangling, I’m not sure why you offer a corrective about the Amphitheater in Sepphoris when I clearly said that we weren’t certain whether it was there in Jesus’ time. You on the other hand seem fairly certain that it was not there until 3rd to 6th century. The most recent scholarship which can be found in Fiensy and Strange’s two volume survey of the archeology of the region published quite recently treats… Read more »

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Jerry, I’m sorry that I seem to have raised your ire over my comments about your book. Seriously, there was no “academic condescension” on my part. I welcomed your book, but raised a few points that I felt were questionable. I still stand by them. My point though, and perhaps this didn’t come across as I’d intended, is that given the relative paucity of data for reconstructing socio-economic conditions in Galilee-Judea during Jesus’s ministry, we need to be cautious about the type of claims we make. The Old and New Testament scholarly world is in many respects a world of… Read more »

Jerry Bowyer
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Jerry Bowyer

No academic condescension? “I had the privilege of doing my PhD on Roman Administration in Galilee …Jerry Bowyer isn’t saying anything new…to counter balance the shortcomings and oversimplifications in Bowyer’s effort (Bowyer is not a New Testament scholar–and unfortunately it shows)…. For instance, Bowyer is very naive about his use of sources….The idea that Jesus picked up the word “hypocrite” from his familiarity with dramas staged there is anachronistic, as well as plain silly…the idea, however, that Mary grew up there, and that she taught the young Jesus to be wary of the high culture associated with places like Sepphoris… Read more »

Brendan
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Brendan

Jerry, The quotes from me above have nothing to do with “academic condescension.” In the first instance I just mention that I did my PhD research under the scholar that set Galilean studies in motion back in 1980. I felt this was important as otherwise I might have had little credibility challenging some of your views. The rest of the comments you quote are of me simply stating where I believe you are wrong. Disagreeing with you isn’t snobbery. I’m actually showing you respect by raising questions about your book, and did welcome your volume despite my concerns about some… Read more »

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

A good way to proceed is to focus on criticism of claims I actually made. For example, as I’ve mentioned, I left the question of the timing of the theater at Sepphoris as unsettled. Also, I never suggested that Mary “taught the young Jesus to be wary of high culture…in places like Sepphoris” and don’t believe that she did.

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

So, let’s do a reset. You tell me where there is room for improvement and why, and I will carefully weigh your advice. I want the book to be as good as it can be.

Ree
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Ree

I’m not one who has anything to add to the critique of the book. It’s all new to me. I just wanted to let you know, Mr. Bowyer, that I bought the book in response to Doug’s recommendation and I’m enjoying it. And I’m hoping to share it with my daughter who’s heavily exposed to Christian social justice warriors in her church and seems unsure of where to stand on the matter.

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

Thank you, Ree, for buying it and for reading it and for encouraging me about it. Feels free to give me any feedback about what you read there, good or bad. I pray that the conversations with your daughter build both of you up together. Best, Jerry

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Great idea! If you do want a few suggestions as to how you might tweak your volume I’d be more than happy to oblige. All I’d want to do is suggest some books and articles that would sharpen your thoughts, and even mention a few scholars that are currently researching Galilee and who I’m sure would give you help and advice if you sought it. Also, if you were ever to do a second edition, I’d be happy to read over it and make suggestions which of course you’d be free to ignore. Maybe the best place to do this… Read more »

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

Good. That sounds constructive. Feel free to message me on any of the social media outlets, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. I’m easy to reach with suggestions.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

This is a good point Jerry, and I accept that you left the question of the date of the theatre in Sepphoris as undecided.

But as for your suggestion that you never said anything about Mary teaching or warning Jesus about places like Sepphoris or Jerusalem you only have to look at this YouTube interview you did to see that you wax eloquent on the subject of Mary giving the low down about Sepphoris and Jerusalem. (See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cF6bBH09Yo8

Brendan of Ireland

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

Well, I’m glad you thought I was eloquent, but I did listen to the interview again and I definitely did not say Mary warned Jesus about places like Sepphoris, nor did I do so in the book, because I don’t believe that.

Jerry Bowyer
Member
Jerry Bowyer

But we’re going to have to leave this discussion at that. As you point out, economics is my day job and there’s only so much time I can take away from that. I’m glad the conversation ended better than it started. Pax, Jerry

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Pax.
I’ll be in touch soon