Book Note: The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus edited by Fiensy and Hawkins

The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus edited by David A. Fiensy and Ralph K. Hawkins (Early Christianity and Its Literature; Atlanta: SBL, 2013). (

In the introductory essay to The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus David A. Fiensy (citing Seán Freyne) comments that "the current quest for the historical Jesus is also by necessity a search for the historical Galilee." (2) This is because "the current quest" or "third quest" has focused upon Géza Vermes' "Jesus the Jew" and if one is going to talk about the Jewishness of Jesus one must talk about Galilee, where most of what is remembered about Jesus is reported to have occurred. Scholars such as Freyne, J.D. Crossan, J.L. Reed, R.A. Horsley, and many others have done a fair job trying to reconstruct the historian's Jesus as he may have fit into first century Galilee. Their work has led many Jesus scholars as well as popular audiences to imagine Jesus to have been a peasant worker under the oppressive puppet regimes of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas, but this picture may be overly simplistic when read against the evidence. Of course, then—as this volume displays quite well—there is the problem of interpreting the evidence, which is not straight forward, and which has to be filtered through interpretive paradigms. 

For example, Mordechai Aviam's essay "People, Land, Economy, and Belief in First-Century Galilee and Its Origins: A Comprehensive Archaeological Synthesis" (5-48) relies almost solely upon the archaeological evidence. He concludes that excavations of Yodefat and Gamla "prove that villages in Galilee were not poor. Galilean villagers were not peasants." (43) The conclusion is reached by examining a variety of elements such as Herod Antipas' investment in building projects within his own territory, the size of housing remains, the sorts of imported goods that couldn't be afforded if everyone was barely being sustained, local industries ranging from wool work to pottery, etc. In C. Thomas McCollough's essay "City and Village in Lower Galilee: The Import of the Archaeological Excavations at Sepphoris and Khirbet Qana (Cana) for Framing the Economic Context of Jesus" (49-74) the conclusions are similar, though not as bold. McCollough argues that "surrounding villages were growing and thriving in the pre-70 period [which] suggests that the initial phrase of the construction of Sepphoris (and Tiberias) had a positive economic impact on Lower Galilee." (71) He concludes, "The material culture belies any sort of simple description or characterization, such as 'peasant villages.'" These villages have produced evidence that in the early decades of the first century economic stratification and diversification were endemic to village life." (69) Both Aviam and McCollough argue that Galilee had good relations with Judea, seemingly incorporating forms of Judaism that were aligned with the vision of the Jerusalem elite and its temple cult. 

In Sharon Lea Mattila's essay "Revisiting Jesus' Capernaum: A Village of Only Subsistence-Level Fishers and Farmers?" (75-138) the author challenges several points made about Capernaum in Crossan's and Reed's 2001 book Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Text. After introducing the reader to life on the ground in Capernaum, and the archaeological work being done there, she challenges Crossan and Reed on the following points: First, their assertion that "there were no luxary items or other indications of wealth recovered from pre-Byzantine contexts at the site". (90) Second, she argues that the assertion that "inhabitants of Capernaum of Jesus' time were indeed members of such a 'peasantry' is...a complete non sequitur." Third, she challenges the assumption made by Crossan, Reed, Freyne, and Horsley that the "Triple Courtyard House" represents a complex where several families have a room each while sharing a courtyard whereas the Northeastern House is presented as the home of a wealthy family. She argues that this claim lacks evidence. Fourth, she rebuffs the idea that the walls of the first aforementioned house are constructed of materials that indicate poverty. She concludes that what we've found is the skeletal structure of the house, not its full structure as it would have been when used as a home. 

Douglas E. Oakman's "Execrating? or Execrable Peasants!" (139-164) is a response to Aviam's essay. In it he gives considerable space to the unfolding debate in the social sciences over the word "peasant" and what and who it describes. Based on his criteria, he concludes, "We could think of Herodian Palestine as a whole as a 'peasant society.'" His most important criteria include, "One half or more of the total production must be agricultural"; "More than half the working population must be engaged in agriculture"; and "agrarian production is accomplished by family household units." (148-149) In his estimation this is true of Galilee under the Herods. He then creates a scenario where the political function of money may help the town dwellers, but it "puts stress" upon the lives of the agrarian population, especially as the need for more production results in more borrowing and hence more debt.

"Assessing the Economy of Galilee in the Late Second Temple Period: Five Considerations" (165-186) by David A. Fiensy is the final essay of the volume. Those "five considerations" include (1) an examination of the "current broader academic environment, specifically the studies of the ancient economy among classical historians"; (2) the differences "between Galilee and other Israelite territories (especially Judea)"; (3) chronological distinctions; (4) the "fragmentary nature of the data"; and (5) "the function of social science models". (166) Fiensy argues that we must use a variety of models in order to understand an ancient economy, not just one, realizing these are model, fallible, yet helpful if we are going to even attempt reconstruction. He does agree with the other essayists when he says, "...the extreme distance between the elites and the lower class, found elsewhere in the Roman Empire and evidently in Judea, was diminished in Galilee" but he doesn't deny that "there certainly was an economic distance between the two groups". (171)

I found this volume to be extremely helpful as concerns updating me on what is being debated about Galilee. For those studying the historical Jesus these discussions should be front and center (or John the Baptist, or incipient Christianity, etc.)