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.