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Jubilee's Roots:
Power & Wealth in First Century Palestine

by Ross and Gloria Kinsler

William R. Herzog, in his book, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Westminster John Knox, 2000), provides an understanding of the structures and mechanisms of power and wealth in First Century Palestine that is essential for our comprehension of Jesus’ ministry and message. All too often the Gospels are read simply in terms of a very limited view of the religious conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. We can now see that Jesus was concerned about the wellbeing of his people in terms of fundamental political, social, and economic realities.

The Palestine of Jesus’ day could be described as an advanced agrarian society dominated by a traditional aristocratic empire (Rome) in whose image the Herods and Temple high priests had molded themselves. Wealth is based on land and the control of land. Typically composed of no more than 1 to 2 percent of the population, the ruling class controlled the vast majority of the resources of their society. (P.90)

Wealth meant the control of the land, and control of the land entailed control of its usufruct, the ability to extract from peasants the so-called surplus produced by their labor. The surplus included everything except the barest subsistence that was left for the peasant laborers and their villages. (P.91)

Herzog then explains how the Jewish religious institutions conformed to these realities at the expense of their own people, as was normal in ancient times.

Temples reflected the interests of the rulers and articulated their ideologies…. . Their two most important functions were to legitimate a particular regime and to mystify its exploitation by re-presenting it in the form of obligation to God or the gods....

The role of legitimating a particular regime was especially important because agrarian rulers often came to power by violent means.... They were faced with the problem of legitimating their rule and converting their victory from a rule by might (raw power) to a rule by right (law). But the ruler needed more than that Rulers needed the legitimation that only religion could provide, the confirmation that they ruled by the mandate of heaven or the will of the gods or the election of Yahweh. This was the special role played by priests and temples. (P. 113)

Consider now the implications of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee and the Saducees and priests in Jerusalem, who were guardians of a domination system that separated the religious or spiritual from the political and economic dimensions of life.

—from Jubilee Workbook #1 (unpublished), "Biblical Faith" section

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