Social Science Context of the New Testament – Moral Economy Series Part 4

In the United States we have a clear separation of church and state. Since the 18th century, Western society has cultivated distinctions between family (kinship), economics, politics, and religion. Such distinctions were unknown to society depicted in the New Testament. Jesus, and his disciples who formed the Church, could not conceive of such distinctions for how we live.

In the New Testament world, kinship and politics were the only two distinctions easily made. Religion was overarching and encompassed both kinship and politics. Economics was rooted in the family, and did not exist as a distinct category of thought. There was a political economy which controlled the distribution of goods beyond kinship groups, but nothing like our economic system. Such political economic activity, in fact, was largely in relation to luxury goods, the Temple, and the military.

Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh have led scholarship on understanding New Testament texts from a social science perspective. They write of the New Testament world that:

Economics is “embedded,” meaning that economic goals, production, roles, employment, organization, and systems of distribution are governed by political and kinship considerations, not “economic” ones.

Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gosples by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, p. 398)

When Jesus speaks about economic issues and poverty, he is speaking in these terms — where economics, politics, religion, and kinship are interwoven. For Jesus, there is no distinction between what happens on earth and God’s reign. All belongs to God, and we are to live every part of our lives in relation to God and God’s justice. Take, for example, Jesus’ statement on rendering to the emperor (or Caesar) what is the emperor’s (Caesar’s) and to God what is God’s. Again, Malina and Rohrbaugh write:

In trying to understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar and God what belongs to each (Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26), therefore, it would be anachronistic to read back into the statement either the modern idea of the separation of church and state or the contemporary notion that economics (including the tax system) somehow has a separate institutional existence in a realm of its own. To assert here the frequent notion of “two kingdoms,” one political/economic and the other religious, one belonging to Caesar and the other to God, are each given their due in the reply of Jesus is to confuse ancient social patterns with our own.

– (Malina and Rohrbaugh, p. 398)


Jesus saw all matters of life as subject to God and God’s sense of distributive justice (remember, Jesus was Jewish and rooted in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition of the Old Testament prophets). This has particular importance as we consider the social science context of the New Testament in Jesus’ understanding of poverty and the poor. First, it is important to understand that the New Testament world was a “limited good” society.

In a “limited good” society, such as is in the New Testament, both material goods and social/human goods were considered finite. For someone to have more of anything, someone else had to have less. This included material goods (clothes, food, money), and social/human goods (power, honor, dignity). To be “poor” meant you could lack material goods, social/human goods, or both. While one could be materially wealthy, they could still be “poor” if they lacked social/human goods (e.g. honor).

Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population in New Testament times were economically impoverished. For many, this meant they were also socially “poor” as they lacked power and dignity. Those with power had wealth. Because it was a limited good society, for a person to have more (power, wealth, dignity), someone else had to have less (power, wealth, dignity). In the New Testament, “poverty” or being “poor” were often associated with being powerless and vulnerable.

Those who acquired more power and wealth were seen as greedy. In order for them to have more, someone else had to have less. As Malina and Rohrbaugh explain:

Being powerless meant being vulnerable to the greedy who prey on the weak. The terms “rich” and “poor,” therefore are better translated “greedy” and “socially unfortunate.”

– (Malina and Rohrbaugh, p. 398)

It is within this context that Jesus speaks of “rich” and “poor.” His message of economic justice is one where balance must be restored between people in a society of limited goods (power, wealth, dignity). The “rich” (greedy) must return to the “poor” (socially unfortunate) a measure of power, wealth, and dignity. This is clearly in keeping with his Jewish tradition of God’s distributive justice. God provides enough for all. If there are any who have more (power, wealth, dignity), then they have it at the expense of others.

The social context of the New Testament helps our understanding of Jesus’ world and his views on wealth, poverty, power, and oppression. An understanding of this social context offers clarity that Jesus’ message is about both economic equity and social dignity for those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and on the margins of society.

About the Moral Economy Series

The Moral Economy Series looks at the faith tradition of proclaiming economic justice, economics’s roots in moral philosophy, and how we might restore a sense of ethical economics toward building a moral economy that works for all. The Rev. Jay Lawlor draws on over twenty years of exploring the intersection of faith and economics in this new blog series on the Moral Economy. You can follow the Rev. Jay Lawlor’s blog – including the Moral Economy Series, by subscribing to updates via email, and/or following post updates on Facebook, and Twitter.