Magazine article The Christian Century

Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea

Magazine article The Christian Century

Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea

Article excerpt

Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea

By Samuel L. Adams

Westminster John Knox, 268 pp., $35.00 paperback

Samuel Adams of Union Seminary in Richmond has written a book that is important on two counts. First, he focuses on the historical period of the Second Temple, which stretches from the end of the Babylonian exile in 532 BCE to the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE. This period features the formation and emergence of Judaism and the beginnings of the Christian movement. Until recently, little was known about the period, and critical scholars paid little attention to it because they had a generally credulous confidence in the early preexilic materials with their buoyant theological affirmations. This shift in scholarship is well reflected by Adams, though many readers may be playing catch-up with the newer focus.

The second reason the book is important is that Adams persistently asks economic questions rather than focusing on theological-spiritual matters to the neglect of material considerations--or imagining that texts can be understood apart from context. Adams's method is to follow the money. As he shows, neglecting economic matters probably means misunderstanding the text.

The subject that Adams pursues is not an easy one, because unlike theological statements in the text, economic matters are mostly hidden and must be pieced together by inference. A delight of the book is to watch Adams patiently connect the dots in fresh, suggestive, and credible ways.

In five substance-packed chapters Adams takes up issues of family life and marriage, work and financial exchange, the status of women and children, the role of the state, and the ethics of wealth and poverty. Concerning each topic he shows how deeply vested economic interests crowd in on social relationships and assumptions, provoking dispute and conflict.

The most important specific insight is in his chapter on family life and marriage. He gives attention to Ezra's harsh measure of expelling from Israel "foreign wives" acquired during deportation. Commentators usually say that Ezra reflects a xenophobic propensity--a judgment that has fueled many Christian caricatures of Jews as a restrictive community. What Adams makes clear is that the breakup of those marriages was to protect the financial interests of elite Jews, lest marriage cause the transfer of wealth outside their privileged community.

The outcome of Ezra's action remains harsh, but in this light it takes on a different kind of credibility. The act of expulsion is more understandable when we remember that ancient society made no distinction between religious and secular concerns, so the act of expulsion was presented as one of religious fidelity. Any reader can factor in the way moneyed families often worry about the loss of surplus wealth through "bad" marriages.

In his study of the status of women and children, Adams of course finds an androcentric order. He focuses, however, on indications of social stratification within the community. As a result, he is able to show that women and children of privilege had many more social opportunities than the great majority of the population, who labored in a hand-to-mouth existence. The conflict of class in Adams's study is of immense importance, for we now read in an acutely stratified society. Perhaps then as now, if someone called attention to stratification, those in the top stratum immediately accused them of inciting class warfare.

Two points of social analysis surface continually in Adams's perspective. …

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