Middle Groups in Jewish Roman Galilee and Jesus and his Disciples’ Social Location: New Insights

Like many revolutionaries, Jesus saw the attachment of the upper-middle class to money as responsible for their passiveness in spiritual commitment. Jesus’ philosophy developed from the perspective of the middle class, not from that of the poor. He was able to attract followers because he came from a solid background. “The poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard” (Eccl. 9:16, ASV). Had Jesus come from a poor background, it would have been difficult for him to become a leader.

See Also: Social Stratification of the Jewish Population of Roman Palestine in the Period of the Mishnah, 70-250 CE (Brill, 2020).

By Ben-Zion Rosenfeld
Department of Jewish History
Bar-Ilan University

By Haim Perlmutter
Jewish Studies

Bar Ilan University
June 2020

  1. Introduction

In previous generations, historians and social analysts were primarily focused on the prominent section of society that determined policy or instigated revolutions. In recent decades, research has been more engaged in understanding the lay segments of society: how they lived, what they ate, and their beliefs. This interest led to the documentation of archaeological finds related to regular people, which, in turn, provided historians data on which to base the study of general society (Dark 1995; Sodini 2005).

This development in archaeology, social history, and anthropology sparked an entirely new wave of research into ancient texts that had previously been analyzed for historic-political content and currently needed to be examined from the perspective of social history. Historians borrowed concepts and theories from the social sciences that analyzed ordinary people, their social structure, lifestyle, beliefs, emotions, and experiences. The same ancient texts provided information for this new area of research and often changed the understanding of the sources affecting the traditional religious and political history (Burke 2005; Scheidel 2006).

We endeavored to understand the social structure of Jewish society in this period. We analyzed relevant rabbinic texts on the background of studies and sources of the social fabric of the Roman Empire; several difficulties and inconsistencies emerged. Dealing with these issues and problems brought about a new dialogue with the sources that have far-reaching ramifications and challenged the way science read social structure from ancient texts (see Scheidel 2009; Wilson 2009).

  1. Roman Palestinian Society

Geographically, the research relates to Roman Palestine, a tiny segment of the vast Roman Empire. During the first centuries CE, there was a significant Jewish population in this area that had a developed religious and social identity and also social solidarity. Like all nations, Jewish society was composed of various social groups that comprised subdivisions within the community (Rosenfeld and Perlmutter 2020). Jews in Palestine participated in the general Roman economy. The economic conditions and constraints of the general economy applied to them as well. Therefore, understanding the Jewish population’s social structure can provide insight into Roman societal construction (Roman society: Duncan-Jones 1990; Temin 2006; Harris 2011).

One of the most important literary sources from Roman Palestine is the vast early rabbinic literature formed from the end of the first century CE until the late 3rd century CE. This literature includes the Mishnah, redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the polis of Sepphoris, the Tosefta, and Halakhic exegesis, redacted two generations later. Some researchers refer to this literature as “early rabbinic literature” or “Tannaitic Literature” (Neusner 1994). The rabbinic treatises deal with legal and religious points, not history. However, it relates to various aspects of the day-to-day life of Jews in Roman Palestine. Like all non-historic literature such as the Christian gospels, some disputed extracting history from rabbinic literature. Scholars must be aware of this issue so they can critically study the sources (Hezser 1997; Neusner 1999; Safrai 1999; Fine 2006).

Nevertheless, the authors posit that when studying the societal and material culture of the average man, rabbinic sources are devoid of subjective or ideological bias. Therefore, they can be relevant sources that provide valuable information, so long as religious issues are not involved and do not reflect the rabbinic agenda. The rabbis had no reason not to convey examples of what they experienced in real life. This position is confirmed time after time by the compatibility of rabbinic writings regarding material culture and practice with archaeological findings and from research of the Roman world of which Roman Palestine was a part (Safrai 1994; Pastor 1997; Lapin 2001; Fine 2006; Miller 2015).   

  1. Social Stratification Inquiry and Our Quest

Surprisingly, when reading ancient literature, one sees that it mentions only two terms for socio-economic groups in society: rich and poor. There is no terminology for a middle group. However, seemingly, according to modern language, “rich” is a term that refers to a small segment of society that owns much property, while “poor” refers to the opposite – those who have very little or none. According to these definitions, the majority of people should be somewhere between the two extremes. However, since ancient literature does not mention middle social groups and all researchers agree that the “rich” comprised less than 1% of ancient society, some historians have concluded that the middle was very narrow and the vast majority were poor. Even those who worked did not earn enough to supply their necessities and lived on the verge of starvation (Hamel 1990, 2010; Finley 1999; Scheidel 2006). 

However, the study of rabbinic literature reveals that it generally addresses a broad group expected to bear various financial expenses, placing them in the middle. The middle was broad – small groups of wealthy elites on one extreme and the destitute on the other: a typical parabola. Yet, there is no word in the literature for this middle group. This missing term presented a difficulty (Longenecker 2009; Rosenfeld and Perlmutter 2020).

The impression one gets from rabbinic sources does not necessarily reflect the exact situation of society. There was a need to see if this impression was substantiated by external evidence of that as well. For this purpose, we incorporated collective findings from some archeological excavations accumulated since they began in Palestine in the first half of the 20th century. Especially noteworthy were the excavations of residential areas of polis (Sepphoris, for example), towns, and villages (Meiron, Um Reihan, Wadi Hamam) to see if the above impression was substantiated by archaeology. The data determined that there were many varied types of houses  – from very modest ones to large luxurious mansions in each town or city, including many structures that fell between the two extremes. In villages, the majority of dwellings were similar but built sturdy with thick walls. It corroborated the assumption that Jewish society at the time was on a continuum from the very rich to the very poor, with a large portion of the population in the middle (Dar 1986, 1999; Fiensy and Hawkins 2013; Fiensy and Strange 2014-2015).

Both arguments point to a large middle group. Where is that group in the literary sources? Perhaps we need to read the literature differently. Careful analysis of the literature led to breakthroughs regarding rabbinic literature that could apply to general contemporary literature. Below are five new readings in rabbinic literature this inquiry produced. A similar analysis of parallel literature in the ancient world may show tendencies that will help update our understanding of social structure in the ancient world.

  1. The rabbis compiled a “poverty line” for legal and religious needs that shows how they saw the division of society. This legislation has been noted, but it does not reveal that anyone above the poverty line would be “middle” (Rosenfeld and Perlmutter 2011a).
  2. In several places, it became clear that though the sources used only the terms “rich” and “poor” and nothing in between, the word “rich” often merely meant “not poor” and, in modern expression, would indicate middle class. We found that in some contexts, the term “rich” denoted relative affluence compared to others. 
  3. Instead of using a term to define the middling groups in general, mentioning the profession or the vocation of an individual indicated social status. If someone were a baker, he at least had bread to eat and feed his family. If someone were a doctor, he had his expertise to sell. This meant that a permanent source of income was a criterion to identify financially independent people who were not poor (Zaccagnini 1983; Schortman and Urban 2005). 
  4. There was also ownership of property that indicated a certain amount of wealth. An example of this is the independent farmer who owned land and perhaps even work animals that were the tractor and truck of those times (Rosenfeld and Perlmutter 2011b). 
  5. The rabbis had special terms when they wanted to relate to the upper class. They coined terms such as “rich of the rich” or “sons of Kings.”

The above points help us see society from the contemporaries’ eyes without embedding modern standards and definitions. The social standing of the individual in the ancient world was in direct relation to his economic status. Today, the modern person would consider the average ancient person poor, based upon the small space of his dwelling and low income. However, the ancient person would view himself as respectable because, relative to the poor of his day, he was capable of financially caring for himself. He had food and a roof over his head.

It seems that the rabbis measured social stratification to determine who was poor and therefore entitled to public or private assistance. The Pentateuch had prescribed that the poor were entitled to alms and certain tithes from the fields. To prevent the middle class from collecting tithes, they had to determine an amount of money that made one “not poor.” They decreed that one who had 200 dinars (zuz) was not poor and not entitled to the field’s tithes. Also, they established clear criteria for being eligible for communal help on a weekly or daily basis (Mishnah Peah 8:5-9; Elman 2003). The legislation for religious purposes represents their perception of the objective reality of the time – who should or should not be considered needy. In rabbinic literature concerning the offering of certain sacrifices, other parameters define the middle groups distinguished from the poor. 

The conclusion is that early rabbinic sources defined poor as someone who could not supply his own needs and was entitled to communal assistance from individual donations or tithes. Someone who could provide for himself was deemed “rich” because, in this context, it only meant that he was not poor and did not require help. All people who had a means of self-support were not poor but, in essence, were in the middle.

In light of the above insight, the next step is understanding that when one reads in ancient rabbinic law about a “storekeeper,” a “donkey driver,” an owner of a mill or bathhouse, these people had constant sources of income and were, therefore, not poor. It is true not only for Jewish society but also for other ancient societies. The description of the poor in ancient civilization is of someone who did not have a profession or a permanent occupation, did not own property that yielded income, and lived on the margins of society (Verboven 2007). 

The use of occupation as an economic criterion makes it possible to distinguish different economic levels within the middling groups. Vocation indicates the situation of the individual. The landowner is usually wealthier than a sharecropper who receives a portion of the produce, while the rest is passive income for the owner. Both belong to the middling groups on different levels. 

These definitions in rabbinic literature can be applied with adaptation to other ancient literature as well. The term “poor” for ancient writers refers to someone who does not have minimal capital for essential existence. Vocation describes the socio-economic status of a person. The property necessary for practicing the profession and the size of the enterprise are factors in determining social standing. In this manner, it is possible to analyze sub-stratification within the middling groups and establish the existence of the middling groups themselves.

Since there is no term to define these middling groups, perhaps they did not see themselves as a collective social stratum (as did the middle class that emerged after the industrial revolution). Instead, each profession or owner of property belonged to an identified group based on his vocation. These groups were neither rich nor poor but did not comprise a collective middle class. They were separated from the elite because they had to work for their livelihood, while the upper class had a passive income from which to support themselves. Considering the large number of working people necessary to upkeep ancient society, it would be safe to assume that half of the population belonged to this category; seemingly, the portion of the middle groups varied from location to location and from village to town to city to polis.

  1. Social Stratification in the New Testament: A New Perspective

In the following section, we wish to show how this revised understanding of social stratification in Roman Palestine has far-reaching ramifications in other areas as well. One of the fascinating issues in the history of ancient Christianity is the question of the first Christians’ social and economic place. This understanding is likely to help conceptualize the historical background for its emergence and development. In the following, we will apply the above socio-economic analyses of Roman Palestine on the information known about the first Christians. It is a well-known assumption that Jesus and his early followers were from the low classes of society and, therefore, developed a reverence of a life devoid of earthly possessions as the ultimate religious devotion (cited by Hanson and Oakman 2008; Brown 2002). 

The rationale to glean socio-economic information from rabbinic literature – redacted in the third century to the days of Jesus in the last century BCE and transmitted by sources from the end of the first century CE (the synoptic gospels) –  is to determine that socio-economic conditions do not change every generation. This is true, especially in the Galilee, where the revolts against Rome did not cause much destruction and devastation. Archaeological finds do not show an economic decline until the crisis in the Roman Empire at the end of the third century CE. Therefore, it is plausible that the stratification of society prevailing in the time of the Mishnah is mostly the same as three or four generations earlier.  

It seems that the presentation of Jesus as coming from the impoverished population in Roman Palestine results from the assumption mentioned above that in ancient society, whoever was not rich was poor. Indeed, compared to the ruling class that produced the classic Roman literature, Judeans were poor; however, contemporary Galileans and Judeans who worked for a living did not see themselves as inferior. Jesus came from a family in which Jesus himself was a carpenter (Mark 6: 3), or according to another version, Joseph was a carpenter (Matt. 13: 55). A carpenter had a profession and often worked from his home, so he was better off than a wage earner. He had the tools of his trade and could make extra money by taking in young men as apprentices. Jesus’ family was economically established enough to teach him to read and write and instruct him in the knowledge of the biblical scriptures. In the period under discussion, the poor did not give their children enough education to read and write, cite passages, and create parables. However, some of the working class could afford to send their children to study reading and writing and saw it as a worthwhile investment to help with future employment (Hezser 2001).

As noted, in the ancient world, an individual’s economic position also indicated his social status. The poor associated with the poor, the rich with the rich, and the workers communed with similar workers. This understanding implies that Jesus’ compassion for the poor, sick, and orphans did not result from personal experience. It came from compassion based on the teachings of the Torah and prophets and personal moral values. The middling groups in Roman Palestine saw themselves as suffering from the oppression of the leisure class that owned much land and amassed wealth.  Like many revolutionaries, Jesus saw the attachment of the upper-middle class to money as responsible for their passiveness in spiritual commitment. Jesus’ philosophy developed from the perspective of the middle class, not from that of the poor. He was able to attract followers because he came from a solid background. “The poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard” (Eccl. 9:16, ASV). Had Jesus come from a poor background, it would have been difficult for him to become a leader.

This understanding applies to some of the disciples who followed him. They, too, came from an economically sound background. Peter and his brother were fishermen (Mark 1: 16-17; Matt. 4: 18-20); the Zebedee brothers were also fishermen (ibid, 21-22; Luke 5: 3-11). Fishermen have boats and equipment and a steady source of income. They might not have been wealthy, but they were not poor, either. Leaving their ships and property and joining Jesus was a sacrifice that resulted from great motivation rather than a situation so desperate that they had nothing to lose (Hanson 1997; Hakola 2017).

Of Jesus’ disciples, we also know of a tax collector named Levi (Mark 2: 13; Luke 5: 27-28. In Matt. 9: 9, he is called Matthias). He, too, was undoubtedly not poor since collecting tax was a position that guaranteed the collector a steady income and was often allotted by the authorities to people who had money before engaging in this occupation. Jesus taught his followers to give away their money to release themselves from attachment to property in contrast to the upbringing of the people who took pride in the property they had, limiting their ability to change. This instruction from Jesus to his disciples to leave earthly possessions indicates that the disciples also came from a middle-class background. 

A close-reading of Jesus’ sayings and parables quoted by the synoptic gospels shows that although Jesus demanded complete detachment from money from his disciples, he accepted people who did have property into the broader circle of his followers. Jesus’ main social critique criticized the “leisure class” of society and their directors and bailiffs (Mark 4: 19; 10: 25; Matthew 13: 22; 19: 23-24; Luke 1: 53; 6: 24; 8: 9, 14; 18: 25). On the other hand, Jesus portrayed the small farmer positively working his land (see Destro and Pesce 2003). When Jesus had exchanges with the Pharisees, they criticized him, and he critiqued them. The tone of the exchange indicates that Jesus and the Pharisees were socio-economically on equal ground (Mark 2: 16-28; 3: 6, 22-30; 7: 1-13; 10: 1-9; Matthew 9: 1-13, 34-35; 12: 1-45; 15: 1-14; 19: 3-14; Luke 5: 17-39; 6: 1-11; 7: 36-39; 11: 37-54; 14: 1: 15). It seems that they saw him as a personality to take into account. Had he been destitute and surrounded by the poor, they would not have paid attention to him.

 Early Christian communities should be reexamined based upon the above insight. Many of the first Christians came from the working class that saw themselves as respectable citizens looking down on the poor. Christianity taught them to embrace the poor and help them. This socio-economic perspective has additional ramifications on the research of ancient Christianity, its history, and its ideological and practical development. In the above, we merely pointed to several principles that open avenues for further research of early Christian society.  

These insights, accumulated during fifteen years of joint research, lead to conclusions concerning the Roman Empire in general. Judea was not the most destitute of the Roman provinces but certainly not the most affluent. The literary and archaeological evidence points to an estimate that at least half the population was self-supporting from various vocations – primarily agriculture but also manufacturing, commerce, services, and labor. It is probable that in other parts of the Roman Empire, there was a substantial portion of the population that earned a living and paid taxes to the Empire. The methods to uncover these segments of the population can be applied to Roman literature and other ancient literature to reveal the middle group in society that were not rich nor poor (Rosenfeld and Perlmutter 2020). 


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Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Sat, 06/20/2020 - 12:11


I don't know that it has been previously difficult to discern that Jesus came from a middle class family, or for that matter, that there was a Jewish middle class in Roman Palestine or in the ANE generally.

If we are to believe the Letter to the Hebrews (Paul?) which quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in full, the theology of self sacrifice was to replace the written Law, the Temple, and the priesthood when they were destroyed and unavailable, in Jeremiah's case, destroyed by the Babylonians. The method of self sacrifice that was to be adopted in the subsequent diaspora required "writing the Law on your heart" which was the memorization and actualization of the written Law. For Jesus to have been credited with this feat in the gospels indicated a learned well trained man - in modern parlance, a "middle" class man.

"In the Fates of Nations, A Biological Theory of History (Simon & Schuster 1980) Paul Colinvaux devotes a chapter to “Human Lemmings: The Army that Genghis Led,” regarding the demographic cycle of the central Asian steppe.

"The cycle of relentless population pressure [caused by pronatalism] and subsequent population dispersal of pastoral nomads off the steppe can be tracked through the centuries. The Hyksos, an Asiatic people, arrive in Egypt’s Eastern delta around 3,600 years ago. The Srubnaya and Andronovo cultures burst out of the steppe into Eastern Europe 2,600 years ago. Another cluster of descendants from Andronovo, the Sarmatians, deprive the Scythians of power and reach Eastern Europe 2,100 years ago. The Huns (Xiongnu), a confederation of tribes, dominate the Asian steppes from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. (1,500 years ago) from Manchuria to the Pamir mountains. They attack Europe to the west and make incursions into China becoming the main stimulus for the construction of the Great Wall of China by the Qin dynasty at the end of the 3rd century B.C. After the Huns come the Magyars and then the Mongols.

At the end of his discussion of the demographic cycle of central Asia, Professor Colinvaux writes:

"Fifty years ago, when environmental studies were in their infancy, it seemed to a number of historians and anthropologists that some simple natural rhythm might lie behind the rhythm of the nomad armies, and they sought their answer in cycles of climates... This hypothesis sounds naive to modern ecologists, who have long ago given up trying to explain population rhythms in animals as functions of simple climatic cycles, and it is now totally discredited."

In The Fates of Nations… the ecologist Paul Colinvaux also wrote of the effects of pronatalism by an educated class:

"I suggest it is axiomatic of human history that social upheavals, even revolution, do not emerge from the ranks of the poor, for all the claims of Marxists that they do. They come from disaffected individuals of the middle classes, the people who experience real ecological crowding and who must compete for the right to live better than the mass."

Again, "...Revolutions do not emerge from the ranks of the poor."

...So let's take known ecological law and project it back into antiquity and examine the evidence we have for a burgeoning "middle" or more appropriately "educated" class causing social unrest.

We know that Abraham, in Genesis, was a pronatalist and a pastoral nomad like the pronatalist pastoral nomads of the vast central Asian steppe that generated the demographic cycle of central Asia (that only ended when the USSR imposed borders on the steppe), discussed in Colinvaux's book: The Fates of Nations.

So, let's re-examine passages in the OT that attest to social upheavals and revolution indicating a burgeoning population of the educated classes (not middle, a term from modern vernacular) where the ecological stressor of pronatalism and its destabilizing effects on society are apparent.

We can look at:

Exodus 1: 7-10

“Now the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they increased in numbers and became very powerful, so that the country was overrun by them. Then a new pharaoh ascended the throne of Egypt, one who knew nothing of Joseph. He said to his people, “These Israelites have become too many and too strong for us…”

Ezra 4:12-15 "rebellious and seditious" in the letter to the Persian emperor asking that the rebellious and seditious city not be rebuilt.

The rebellions against Rome in the New Testament that led to the Temple's destruction...

A rebellion by Jews in the eastern Mediterranean during which thousands of Greeks and Romans were massacred (mentioned in a note in Loeb classics edition of Marcus Aurelius) all attest to the presence of an educated class (what we call a middle class today) due to their failure to secure the necessary niches for their rapidly growing (pronatal) population.

I will not enter into Jewish revolutionary movements in the modern age. Suffice it to say these many revolutionary movements in various nations are primarily due to the ecological stress generated by pronatalism and an educated population which seeks to negotiate niches in the burgeoning and competitive "middle class."

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