“Under Tiberius all was quiet.” So Roman historian Tacitus states when describing the former territory of Herod the Great after it had been allocated to his three sons upon his death (Tacitus, Histories 5.9).
Tiberius reigned as Roman emperor from 14 to 37 C.E., and as far as Tacitus was concerned, nothing remarkable happened in the land inhabited by the Jews during this period. Yet when some biblical scholars describe this period—that is, the period that saw the rise of the public teaching of Jesus of Nazareth—they depict a rural population simmering with hostility and resentment directed at local and imperial political rulers of the region. This instability among the predominantly peasant population eventually led to a series of rebellions and other political protests. Thus the backdrop of the Jesus movement was persistent conflict, stemming from the inherent social and economic inequality that characterized the Roman Empire as a whole, carrying over into the rural space of ancient Galilee that was situated on the empire’s eastern edge.
Other scholars see this volatile portrait as a wild exaggeration, erroneously depicting the typical agrarian dweller as in a state of constant violence, routine economic struggles, and abject poverty. The primary texts that purport to illustrate this society (namely, the canonical Gospels) are of some help, but they often exaggerate the violence, poverty, and inequality that people experienced. After all, they are largely interested in depicting scenes of a poor Jewish peasant (Jesus) as he interacts with even poorer, sick, struggling Jewish peasants.
Suffice it to say that scholars are divided about what life was really like for the ordinary person in the agrarian villages of Galilee at the time of Jesus. A great deal of lived, often conflicted, experiences lurk behind Tacitus’s concise statement about how “quiet” the region was under Tiberius.
Many have hoped that the quantifiable, seemingly objective nature of archaeology could clarify the situation. In a 2013 volume titled The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus, several archaeologists debated the matter of whether first-century Galilee was flourishing economically.1 The hope was that this could illuminate the ordinary life experience of the region’s inhabitants. Their arguments also provide an excellent occasion to examine a much broader issue: how much archaeology can tell us about social experience, and why we might do well to augment this archaeological evidence with theories from the social sciences.
As some contributors demonstrated, the economy of Galilee during the life of Jesus does seem to evince 049 some economic prosperity. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee argues that Herod Antipas inaugurated a period of urbanization and construction in Galilee that provided local employment and raised the level of affluence in the region. In support, he identifies what he calls a “mansion” in the town of Yodefat, as well as some luxury items in domestic spaces, suggesting that some residents of the region could have been living quite well.2 The archaeological remains from Sepphoris also suggest it was a rather ostentatious city that benefited from the increasing economic prosperity of the region. Evidence of prosperity appears in Capernaum as well.
Douglas Oakman of Pacific Lutheran University, however, has a different perspective on Roman Galilee. Relying on theories about peasant society from modern anthropological and sociological studies, he maintains that the majority of the peasant villagers in the region lived on the edge of economic subsistence and were consistently exploited by various elite economic policies, such as taxation and rent requirements. The so-called prosperity that other scholars observed in the archaeological remains throughout Galilee was, he contends, only experienced by a small segment of the population and, importantly, often came at the expense of the non-elites.3
So was ancient Galilee economically prosperous or not? Was the typical Galilean a subsistence farmer, one who produced barely enough food for his immediate family and, as a result, was in a constantly precarious economic position because the Romans and Herodians demanded various forms of tribute? Does the archaeological evidence confirm a thriving economy, or does it expose a fragile one?
At the very least, the contours of this debate expose the limits of archaeological evidence and the difference that can result when social theory is incorporated into a descriptive account. On its own, archaeology tells us little about the social experience of inhabitants of a particular region. Unfortunately, some non-elite groups are rendered nearly invisible by archaeological remains as well. Archaeological evidence can also disguise the social conflict that often accompanies rigidly stratified societies. While a town might have an ostentatious façade, we cannot see such things as burdensome taxes or coerced labor that went into creating such a façade. Therefore, I would like to explore how some social theories can work with archaeological evidence to give us a more robust portrait of ancient history.
Archaeologists sometimes resist incorporating social theories into their historical inquiry because of concerns that social theories are abstractions produced by modern scholars. The fear is that modern theories will be imposed anachronistically on ancient data to generate (or even invent) the social experiences of ancient people. Admittedly, this has happened in the past: Some scholars employed a kind of “cookie-cutter” application of theory, but such use of social theory is neither sophisticated nor methodologically responsible.
Above all, whenever a social theory is employed, it is necessary to justify why a particular theory as opposed to another can illuminate something about antiquity. The biblical scholar must explain why the specific biblical context is similar enough to the proposed modern context to benefit from the comparative process. The goal, then, instead of generating new data about the past, is to see the historical situations in a new light and to produce a fresh way of making sense of them. Put differently, social theory helps stimulate our scholarly imaginations of the past.
Let us return to ancient Galilee and the questions posed above: Was ancient Galilee economically prosperous or not? The archaeology suggests that the region, as a whole, was prosperous. What we see in archaeological remains is evidence of some wealthy inhabitants of Galilean towns and villages and evidence for various forms of economic production and trade. The region sustained a viable economy that engaged with the wider economy of the region. Yet we can say much more about what it was like to make a living there in the time of Jesus.
Ancient Galilee was structurally similar to other predominantly “peasant” societies throughout history that have been controlled (politically, economically, and socially) by a small elite group.4 Once we identify analogous structural circumstances in different social settings, we can examine the experiences of different groups who experience these circumstances and investigate if the comparison lets us learn anything new (or even stimulates us to ask new questions) about the ancient context. Although we do not have access to the voices and experiences of most of ancient Galilee’s rural dwellers, we do have the accounts of modern peasants from studies in structurally similar settings, such as Vietnam and Costa Rica. Through the comparison of such settings, we can theorize what life experiences might have been like for the ancient Galileans.
Social theory (in this case, a kind of socioeconomic framework that focuses on access to economic resources, as well as the effect that such access, or lack thereof, has on one’s worldview) encourages us to think about the various social experiences that are built into a given economy. Many archaeologists argue that ancient Galilee appears, at the macro level, to be a thriving economy. However, bringing various kinds of social theory into the discussion allows us to explore and speculate about the micro-dynamics going on underneath this seemingly prosperous surface.
In particular, social theory attunes us to the relationship between different classes. The notion of “class” in antiquity is vastly different from its modern, post-Industrial Revolution usage, but, generally speaking, ancient Palestine consisted of a large population of lower status people ruled by a much smaller, elite political class. Many biblical scholars have explored the differing values, attitudes, and ideologies of these opposing groups, for their ideologies are often embedded in biblical stories. For example, the perspectives of several different social strata are evident in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward in Luke 16:1–13. A rich man, a squandering manager, and debtors owing various amounts are examined ideologically in this parable with regard both to their relationship to the rich man and the amount of wealth they were obligated to produce for him.
What’s more, knowing about those ideologies can help us better navigate the material remains that archaeology exposes. For instance, when we take social theory into account, we realize that the aforementioned “mansion” that Aviam identified at Yodefat was not simply a benign structure. It may have been an object of envy or even resentment for agricultural day laborers, who could perhaps never hope to own such dwellings themselves. We see hints of these jealous attitudes in biblical texts. Likewise, cross-cultural data from structurally similar settings can further confirm the dynamics of these relationships described in the Bible.
Taking the time to theorize social relationships also encourages us to think of social settings as living, dynamic systems, as opposed to still snapshots of a society that may display only macro characteristics, such as elite prosperity. Moreover, the success of some social institutions, such as a tributary taxation system in a Roman province, relied on economic thriving while exploiting certain groups at the same time. If a taxation system utterly depleted the resources of its constituents, it could not sustain itself over time. Thus, a situation that presents as a healthy economy to archaeologists (mansions, luxury household items, etc.) by design often requires that some inhabitants live a far more economically tenuous existence.
What emerges from comparing these structurally similar social settings is that although the Galilean economy might have been thriving for some wealthy inhabitants, many non-elite rural inhabitants were likely economically exploited, and an overall thriving economy might not have been experienced by all.
I appreciate the vast gap that sometimes exists between text and artifact. It takes training and practice to extrapolate from a few aligned stones a larger domestic structure and, from there, to envision the life that was lived within its walls. Further still, biblical scholars must imagine how such material remains inform the ideological mind-set of the authors of the biblical texts that we study. Social and cultural theories provide us with guidelines for how lived experience plays out within those walls. They invite us to see conflict, hostility, resentment, and frustration or the flip side: expectation, inspiration, motivation, and social engagement.
Social theories do not generate information for biblical scholars. Rather, they help us imagine new possibilities. Such theories can go a long way in bridging the worlds between archaeology and text, between material and abstract ideas. They rely on theoretical insights about how human actors operate under certain conditions, and in this way they can help animate and enhance ancient sources.
Social theory helps biblical scholars bridge the worlds of archaeology and text. In a case study, see how it illuminates life and social conflict in ancient Galilee—the backdrop of the Gospels.