Here is a excerpt from my new book Prosperity Teachings of the Bible Made Easy.
Chapter Four Life and times in Biblical days.
© Maggy Whitehouse 2012.
It’s not easy to understand the Bible with a 21st century mind. For a start, we bring so many of our beliefs and projections to the contents. If we have learnt that God is cruel, we will see a cruel God; if we believe that God is good, we will justify or skip over any apparent opposition to that view. If we are Christian, we will read the Hebrew Testament through very different eyes from those of a Jew, an agnostic or an atheist. It is important to understand that we cannot remove ourselves and our beliefs from what is thought to be the world’s best-selling book (six billion sold according to Bookseller World and countless others throughout antiquity). And if, as most of us do, we have specific beliefs about money, wealthy people and authority, then we will be reading through those eyes also.
It is also important to realise that people in ancient times did not think the way we do. The people whose stories are being told did not comprehend our great cities with their rush-rush mentality. The population of Rome at its height was approximately one million people, about the same as 19th century London — then the largest city in the world. And Rome is not where the stories take place. They happen in mostly rural societies where the night sky was regarded with awe and fables were told to explain the purpose and the meaning of existence.
People in Biblical times did not experience the news in the way we do. Details of events from another part of the country — let alone another part of the world — could take weeks, months or years to arrive. There was no entertainment such as books to read. In fact, even in cosmopolitan Rome in Jesus’ time, ninety five per cent of the population could not read or write; if anyone needed to send a letter, they hired one of the five per cent, usually a professional scribe, and the recipients the other end would hire another scribe to read the letter to them.
Even those who could read text did not do so silently as we do; they read out loud so that others could share the information. That is how people were taught to read — the concept of reading quietly was unknown in Roman times or before. Roman villas even had private reading rooms where the literate could read out loud to themselves without disturbing the rest of the family. It was only in the time of St. Augustine (354-430) that we hear about the first silent reading developed, perhaps, from the requirements of monastic life
Without easy access to information, the only entertainments available once work had finished and supper was eaten were music or stories. And the music generally involved stories. So a travelling storyteller or holy man with new tales, teachings or ideas, most likely, would have been a very welcome guest in a village. Of course, some of them might have been controversial and sent away with their tails between their legs but even that would be an event to be debated for months in places where very little other news occurred.
This aspect of literacy is important in the discussion of Biblical wealth as
Jewish religious teachings were preserved in sacred scrolls which were written by professional scribes, just as they still are today in the Torah scrolls in any synagogue. Sacred work could not just be written out by anyone; it required an expert who would take a great deal of time and effort to copy out the whole of the Sefer Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Testament) and every version had to be perfect. It could take a scribe 18 months or maybe even more to complete one scroll, during which time he could earn no other living. Therefore, wealthy benefactors were required to pay for religious writings whether that payment was in kind or in silver or gold.
This applied to a certain extent in the Christian world, also, in that benefactors gave money to monasteries, where monk-scribes would write out beautiful, illuminated copies of the Bible. However this practice decreased dramatically with the invention of the printing press in the mid fifteenth century. Also, the Christian scribes were men who had made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and lived in celibate communities. In the Jewish world, the scribe, like the Rabbi would have been married, with a home and family to maintain. This distinction is very important in assessing the differences between the views expressed in the Old and New Testaments; the idea of a celibate, community life was very foreign in pre-Christian days where God’s commandment to “populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7) was taken very seriously. It still is by orthodox Jews. In ancient days, the exceptions were the inner circles of the Essenes who lived in Judea and a group called the Therapeutae who lived outside Alexandria in Egypt.
In early Biblical times, society depended mostly upon trade between individuals. Money, as we would understand it, was rare. It was first used at all approximately 500 years before the birth of Jesus. So, in much of the Hebrew Testament times, no coins were used and people bartered goods instead. The aristocracies and royal courts used jewels and precious metals as a form of currency but everyday people dealt with a more practical form of exchange such as swapping one produce for another.
As societies became more and more influenced by Greek, and later, Roman civilization, this like-for-like barter was replaced by weights of precious metals and then by coins. Generally in the Hebrew Testament, when an amount of silver or gold is given, such as 10 shekels of silver, this refers to the actual weight of silver, not 10 silver coins. Pre-weighed metal coins, which were given the same names as the weight units, became a more convenient means of exchange as soon as travel became more commonplace and easier with the expansion of the Roman Empire.
Therefore, a great deal of the riches mentioned to in the Old Testament referred to a more general prosperity than a financial one. Signs of God’s favor were seen in happiness and health as well as in business dealings. People as far back as Abraham and Sarah’s times were just as frequently wandering cattle-keepers as they were tillers of the ground so they would not necessarily have houses full of possessions in the way we do. In a nomadic, rural society, your wealth was pretty much everything you could carry or herd.
However, in Genesis 13:2, Abraham is described as being “very rich in livestock and in silver and in gold” so he is being portrayed as an aristocrat among men in a society where precious metals were deemed as valuable as they are today and were often worn in jewelry as an outer sign of wealth.
With the Roman conquest of Judea, money became much more commonplace and was, quite possibly, associated with the hated invaders. Those who collaborated and traded with the occupying force would also have been hated and despised, as has been the case in every century since. Therefore it is entirely possible that Jesus and his followers might have looked upon hard cash with a jaundiced eye.
However, this view does sit at odds with Jesus’ tolerance of, if not friendship with, tax collectors. These people (as is often still the case) were disliked by their fellow men, especially the Pharisees and the scribes. Tax collectors to them were “especially wicked sinners” (Matthew 9:10-11; Luke 15:1-3; Mark 2:15). Reputedly, the collectors were allowed to gather more than the government asked and keep the excess amount. Some of these tax collectors were Roman but others were Jews.
Jesus set a startling new precedent by mingling with the Jewish tax collectors. He ate with them (Mark 2:16), showed them mercy and compassion (Luke 19:9), and he even chose a tax collector (Matthew) as one of his disciples (Matthew 9:9). Jesus even compared their willingness to repent of their sins with the arrogance of the Pharisees and scribes (Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 9:11-13).
Jesus himself is customarily assumed to have been poor although, I would suggest, much of this is reading of the Gospels through the eyes of a later-developed Christian poverty consciousness (see chapter eight). Popular opinion certainly sees him as a poor, itinerant preacher, despite the fact that, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s stated that the Magi brought him incredible wealth in the form of gold, frankincense and myrrh which were three of the most valuable commodities of the time.
He was also fond of eating and drinking with his friends. “The son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34) so, although it would appear that early Christianity embraced the ideas of poverty, chastity and martyrdom with fervor, Jesus himself appeared to like having fun and good food. His very first miracle was turning water into wine so that there would be enough to make everything merry at the Marriage at Cana (John 2:1-11).
Much of the poverty consciousness that developed may have been due to St. Paul’s teachings and his acceptance of all-comers to the new faith. Paul indicated strongly that he believed that Jesus would return very soon and that both belief in him as Lord and a life of great goodness were required in advance of the Day of Judgment. There would be no point in amassing riches as it was all going up in smoke very soon.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11, Paul wrote: "For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober."
The stories of saints and holy people within Christianity have always emphasized that they walked away from both marriage and money; that martyrdom was seen as holy and self-denial sacred. This is still seen even today in allegations that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta believed that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus. The Lancet and The British Medical Journal have both criticized Mother Theresa and her staff for their failure to give pain killers. Sanal Edamaruki writing for Rationalist International claimed that in her homes for the dying, one could “hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief” adding that Mother Theresa’s philosophy was that it was ‘the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ.”
So, again, we see differing views on worth or prosperity in interpretation of the Bible’s teachings. Jesus and those who followed him lived at a time of great revolution in social affairs — a change as great as the invention of flight in the late 19th century. However, we also see that Jesus did not automatically judge those who were wealthy — or even those who were thought to be misusing wealth by the general populace.