The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus: Can You Dig It?

In trying to determine the nature of the Galilean economy, one must remain a bit humble. The nature of the data is fragmentary. This fact should both cause us to be cautious in our conclusions and to press for more data of the appropriate type. The central question in the “economy wars” (i.e. the debates between some Galilean archaeologists and some of those New Testament scholars utilizing social science models) is about the standard of living of the Galilean folk in the late Second Temple period.

See Also: The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2013)

By David A. Fiensy
Dean, Graduate School
Kentucky Christian University
July 2013

In recent years a rather heated disagreement has arisen among two groups benefiting from the heritage of the social sciences with respect to the socio-economic conditions of Galilee in the first century CE: These are, namely, archaeologists in one group and biblical scholars utilizing social science models in the second. Although the discipline of anthropology claims the sub-disciplines of both archaeology and cultural anthropology under its umbrella, some archaeologists seem critical of those seeking guidance from social science—specifically cultural anthropology—models. They ask, should we use the social science models to guide us and help us interpret the historical and archaeological data and often answer, No.

The hesitation is understandable. Certainly, social science models can be used in an unhelpful way. One gets the impression from some works that the ancient data are almost irrelevant. If the social science critic says peasant society had certain features, those features must have been there in first century Galilee as well. The social scientist-New Testament scholar can be so model-driven that the model becomes the evidence, or in other words, he/she works deductively instead of inductively from evidence.

But some archaeologists may have also over reacted to the use of social science models. Thus we have charges that certain scholars’ works are nothing but “myth and legend” and the claim that Galilee was an egalitarian society, a rather remarkable claim for any first century region.1 But as the sociological-New Testament crowd responds, “the material remains do not interpret themselves.”2 The stones do not actually speak; interpreters must speak for them. Although one must be cautious in applying sociological theories to the study of ancient society, some helpful insights can nevertheless result from such attempts. If the sociological model has been informed by ancient sources and is judiciously eclectic in its selection of modern sociological theory, we can be reasonably assured that we are not guilty of merely molding the past to fit the present.

On the other hand, to ignore macro-sociology or cultural anthropology is to invite ethnocentrism and anachronism.3 The social sciences urge the historian to listen to the side largely muted by the texts: the side of the poor and oppressed.

The current quest for the historical Galilee is a study in contrasts: 1) Some look at Galilee through the lenses of cultural anthropology and macro-sociology; others look at Galilee through the lenses of archaeology and reject the use of social theories. 2) Some maintain that the relations between rural villages and the cities were hostile; others propose that the relationship was one of economic reciprocity and good will. 3) Some suggest that Galilee was typical of other agrarian societies with poor peasants who lived in the rural areas and exploitative wealthy people who lived mostly in the cities; others respond that life was pretty good for everyone in Galilee and that it was an egalitarian society.

How does one work through the information and make an intelligent decision? A new book entitled, The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus will seek to present the evidence from both sides of this argument and let the reader decide.4 What follows is a condensation of one of the chapters of that work.


In trying to determine the nature of the Galilean economy, one must remain a bit humble. The nature of the data is fragmentary. This fact should both cause us to be cautious in our conclusions and to press for more data of the appropriate type. The central question in the “economy wars” (i.e. the debates between some Galilean archaeologists and some of those New Testament scholars utilizing social science models) is about the standard of living of the Galilean folk in the late Second Temple period.

Was the standard of living rising, falling, or remaining the same? It is a law of modern economics that standard of living is tied to productivity.5 Standard of living may be defined not only as the acquisition of possessions but also as nutrition levels and longevity.6 Only when a society produces more goods and services does standard of living go up. But how does one find data in archaeological remains to inform us about productivity?

It seems to me that those arguing for a prosperous Galilee in the late Second Temple period focus mostly on constructions, especially houses, and secondarily, on market opportunities. It is common to cite the nice houses in Gamla, Khirbet Qana, and Yodefat, as evidence that the villagers were not poverty stricken, but, on the contrary, the economy was booming. The houses were well constructed and did not seem to have deteriorated because of inability to maintain them.7

There also may have been more industry in Galilee than elsewhere in Palestine/Israel during this period indicating more market exchange. The pottery of Kefar Hananya and Shikhin, has been featured in studies of D. Adan-Bayewitz and I. Perlman8 and in studies of J.F. Strange, D. Groh and T. Longstaff.9 The pottery was disseminated from those two small villages throughout Galilee and the Golan. That dissemination does not look like a small-scale market among households.

The conclusions often drawn from this analysis are: 1) The cities with their wealthy elites must not have exploited the peasants who lived in the villages but rather must have given them opportunities for marketing their goods and thus improved their economic opportunities. 2) The villages not only engaged in farming but had industries as well, and these industries elevated the economic life (the standard of living) of the village peasants.10

One should not discount this evidence. These data are part of what is needed for us to understand the Galilean economy. But we also need more examination of human remains. I realize in Israel this is much more difficult than in other areas. But some attention to analysis of bones, asking whether there was a protein or iron deficiency, if done in several sites, could be quite revealing.

One reason to ask for human pathological data is because of the Meiron excavation report. Although some of the houses were nice—one elaborate one was dubbed the “Patrician House”11—there were interesting results in the examination of the skeletal remains. First, there was a high rate of child mortality.12 Second, a pathological examination of the children’s skulls revealed that most had protein and iron deficiencies. The examiners concluded that these deficiencies were caused either by disease or “socioeconomic conditions”, i.e. poverty. In other words, the children may have been malnourished.13 So the presence of nice houses does not necessarily indicate how equitable the economy was and thus may not reveal the overall standard of living.

Neither housing construction nor evidence of trade is sufficient—though, again, these are important clues—as the determiner of Galilean standard of living. But there is a kind of construction more helpful in determining standard of living. Again—if we are to live by the principles of modern economists—standard of living rises only if productivity rises. Thus finding some nice houses does not alone settle for us the efficiency of the economy (the size of the pie) or the equity of the economy (the size of the slice of the pie the average family received).14 But there may be a type of construction that would be more relevant. If we could show that family grain silos were increasing in size in the first century CE, that would go a long way toward settling this issue.


Understanding the function of social-science models should make us more judicious in our use of them. Like economists, sociologists and anthropologists construct models to assist them in interpreting the data. I. Morris and J.G. Manning observe:

While humanists tend to work from a specific body of texts and to focus on particulars, economists tend to begin from propositions, drawing out logical implications that can be operationalized. . . The data are there to test the hypothesis, not to be enjoyed or understood in their own terms.15

We might substitute in this quotation, Galilean archaeologists for humanists and social science interpreters for economists. Those New Testament scholars utilizing the social-science models operate similarly to the economists in the quotation. They appropriate an existing model and investigate its efficacy in explaining a text in the New Testament. They ask, “Can the disparate data be better understood if they are unified by the construction of a social scientist?” They tend to work more deductively (They prefer the term “abduction”16) while the archaeologists work more inductively.

I would like to propose six caveats to those using the social science models and/ or refusing to use them.

  1. The model should not be based on only one social theory (e.g. only on functionalism, class conflict, or Marxism) but should be eclectic.
  2. The model should have been informed by a study of ancient societies. Models based only on abstractions from contemporary societies may be anachronistic.
  3. The model should be cross cultural. Those that were formulated from observations only from Western Europe or the United States may not be relevant to the ancient economy.
  4. The model should not become “proxy data”. This term is used by classical historians for comparing ancient societies with “relevantly similar” contemporary ones.17 Proxy data, as I understand them, are hypothetical scenarios not supplied by the ancient evidence but by “likelihood, analogy, or comparison.”18
  5. “We should judge a model by how helpful it is in making sense of the data.”19 If the model must ignore some data to remain consistent, it is probably not useful any longer. Probably no model can accommodate all known data, but the one we use as a heuristic visualization should interpret most of it.
  6. On the other hand, there needs to be a cautionary note to those rejecting social science models out of hand. We need the models. As K. Hopkins observes: “The model is a sort of master picture, as on the front of a jigsaw puzzle box; the fragments of surviving ancient sources provide only a few of the jigsaw pieces.”20


Remarkable gains have been made in understanding Galilee in the late Second Temple period in the last 30 years. This is a credit to both fine archaeological work and to the study of the insights of the social sciences. We must continue to use all of the resources available as we advance this pursuit. I, for one, intend to drink from both wells in assessing Lower Galilee in the late Second Temple period. I have enjoyed immensely sampling the mineral waters of each camp. But neither well alone seems to quench my thirst. Mixed together, however, they form a refreshing draft that strengthens one to move forward in the quest.


1 J. A. Overman, “Jesus of Galilee and the Historical Peasant” in D. R. Edwards and C. T. McCollough, eds., Archaeology and the Galilee (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 67–73; and D. E. Groh, “The Clash Between Literary and Archaeological Models of Provincial Palestine” in Edwards and McCollough, eds., Archaeology and the Galilee, 29–37.

2 See the analyses of R. A. Horsley, “The Historical Jesus and Archaeology of the Galilee: Questions from Historical Jesus Research to Archaeologists” SBL 1994 Seminar Papers, 91–135; D. A. Oakman, “The Archaeology of First-Century Galilee and the Social Interpretation of the Historical Jesus” SBL 1994 Seminar Papers, 220–251; and S. V. Freyne, “Archaeology and the Historical Jesus” in J. R. Bartlett, ed., Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation (London: Routledge, 1997) 129. See also the critique of Horsley in E. M. Meyers, “An Archaeological Response to a New Testament Scholar” BASOR 297 (1995) 17–26.

3 The failings of ethnocentrism and anachronism are the principal fears of the members of the Context Group. See J. Neyrey, “Preface” in Jerome H. Neyrey and Eric C. Stewart, eds., The Social World of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008) xxiii; and Bruce Malina, “Rhetorical Criticism and Social-Scientific Criticism” in Neyrey and Steward, Social World, 17.

4 David A. Fiensy and Ralph Hawkins, eds., The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus (Atlanta: SBL Press, Forthcoming).

5 Gregory N. Mankiw, Principles of Macroeconomics (Mason, OH: Southwestern, 2004) 11-12 and David C. Colander, Macroeconomics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008) 177.

6 Mankiw, ibid.

7 P. Richardson, Building Jewish in the Roman East (Waco, Texas: Baylor University, 2004) 57-71.

8 D. Adan-Bayewitz and I. Perlman, “The Local Trade of Sepphoris in the roman Period” IEJ 40 (1990) 153-172; Adan-Bayewitz, Common Pottery in Roman Galilee (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar-Ilan University, 1993)

9 J. Strange, D. Groh, and T. Longstaff, “Excavations at Sepphoris: the Location and Identification of Shikhin: Part I” IEJ 44(1994) 216-227.

10 See Adan-Bayewitz, Common Pottery, 23-41, 216-236; James F. Strange, “First Century Galilee from Archaeology and from the Texts” in D. R. Edwards and C. T. McCollough, eds., Archaeology and the Galilee (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 41; D.R. Edwards, “First Century Urban/Rural Relations in Lower Galilee: Exploring the Archaeological and Literary Evidence” in D.J. Lull, ed., SBL 1988 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars, 2000) 169-182.

11 E. M. Meyers, J.F. Strange, and C. Meyers, Excavations at Ancient Meiron, Upper Galilee, Israel 1971-72, 1974-75, 1977 Cambridge: MASS: ASOR, 1981) 50-72.

12 See R. Hachlili and P. Smith, “The Genealogy of the Goliath Family” BASOR 235 (1979) 67-71, esp. 69. The children from 0-19 years of age in the Meiron tombs represented 47% of the total. This is roughly the same as the average percentage of children of that age in Greek tombs (49%) but much higher than for the tombs of Jericho (39%, a first century CE tomb) and two tombs in Jerusalem (43%, also from the first century).

13 P. Smith, E. Bornemann, and J. Zias, “The Skeletal Remains” in Meyers, Strange, and Meyers, Excavations at Ancient Meiron, 110-120. There were 197 individuals in this tomb. 95 of them were under age 18. 70% of the 95 persons were younger than five years.

14 Mankiw, Macroeconomics, 5, 11.

15 Morris and Manning, The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models (Stanford: Stanford University, 2005) 29.

16 See e.g. J. Neyrey, “Preface” in Neyrey and E. Stewart, eds., The Social World of the New testament (Peabody, MASS: Hendrickson, 2008) xxii.

17 P. Cartledge, “The Economy (Economics) of Ancient Greece” in Schedel and von Reden,eds., The Ancient Economy, 17, 21, 22.

18 Cf. J. Andreau, “Twenty Years After Moses I. Finley’s Ancient Economy” in W. Scheidel and S. von Reden, eds., The Ancient Economy (New York: Routledge, 2002) 39.

19 Morris, “Forward”, in Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California, 1985) xxvii.

20 K. Hopkins, “Rome, Taxes, Rents and trade” in Scheidel and von Reden, eds., The Ancient Economy, 191.

Comments (1)

The first time Lower Galilee is mentioned is in the conclusion. Are you going to analyze Lower Galilee in the future? Was "Galilee" in the rest of the article referring to Upper Galilee only?

#1 - Susan Burns - 10/18/2013 - 14:26

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