A Deliberate Change
In his erudite and fascinating article on the task of the biblical text critic (“Caution: Bible Critic at Work,” BR 15:01), David Noel Freedman elegantly discusses why James 4:4, a verse that scolds adulteresses (moichalides), came to refer to both adulterers and adulteresses (moichoi kai moichalides) in most later versions of James’ epistle even though it reads adulteresses (moichalides) in the oldest extant manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus. He suggests the emendation occurred either because the scribe had other manuscript evidence favoring the addition of moichoi or because of the scribe’s understanding of authorial intent.
Although Freedman rejects the latter possibility, it seems a very plausible explanation. James was addressing “the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the world” (James 1:1). In other words, he was speaking to Jews who were faithful to the Mosaic code. According to this code, which James’s audience considered binding, adultery would typically have been a sin committed by women rather than men, because Mosaic law does not consider a sexual relationship between a married man and an unmarried woman to be adultery. A man can only commit adultery if he has sexual intercourse with a married woman. On the other hand, if a married woman has sex with a man other than her husband, she commits adultery whether or not the man is married. For James’s Jewish audience, an “adulterer” would more likely than not be an “adulteress.” Later scribes and editors, however, who lived at a time when bigamy was not condoned by the Christian church, as it is by the Mosaic code, and who were primarily addressing gentiles rather than Jews, deliberately emended the text to reflect the fact that the church forbade bigamy and considered extramarital sex committed by a married person to be adultery, whether the married person was male or female. Despite Professor Freedman’s opinion to the contrary, the addition of moichoi to moichalides may not have been an emendation based on manuscript evidence or an understanding of authorial intent, but a polemical gesture by the scribe or editor asserting that the church did not distinguish between men and women when it came to adultery—unlike the Mosaic code observed by “the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the world.”
Los Angeles, California
I have just completed a quantitative review of Greek New Testament manuscripts. Nine manuscripts contain the “adulteresses” reading (plus the Vulgate and the Coptics), compared to 497 manuscripts with the “adulterers and adulteresses” reading (none of which dates much earlier than the ninth century, though the Syriac Harkelian of the seventh century supports the three words). It appears to be a question of quality vs. late quantity. I conclude that the extra two words have been added, perhaps not before the seventh century.
The Bride Motif
David Noel Freedman should hesitate before emending James 4:4 to read moichoi kai moichalides (adulterers and adulteresses) instead of simply moichalides (adulteresses), as it is recorded in the received text.
The spousal relation of the people of Israel to the Creator is a common theme in the Old Testament (as in Hosea), and the same idea is extended to the relationship of Jesus to His Church. Notice, especially, Ephesians 5:21–33, where the 008Church is clearly designated as the bride of Christ. This was the usual concept of the Church among the early Fathers. Hence, James knew exactly what he was saying when he warned that to be friends with the world is to be unfaithful to Jesus—that is, to act like an adulteress.
I especially appreciate the great care with which Dr. Freedman walks the sacred ground of biblical translation. I wish that every exegete would be as careful.
San Francisco, California
The Economics of Release
I was delighted to read Michael Hudson’s “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land,” BR 15:01. Hudson masterfully assembles a broad range of textual evidence on ancient debt cancellations, but he falters in interpreting this wealth of material. He understands debt cancellations to have been periodic purgatives for an economy gone “out of whack” from irrationally high and rigid interest rates. Hudson’s contention that interest rates in the ancient world violated the laws of supply and demand, remaining rigidly fixed at 20 percent over the course of two millennia, is demonstrably false. For example, interest rates in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. varied considerably—from as high as 35 percent or more down to 12 percent and even 0 percent—according to the type of loan, collateral employed, entrepreneurial considerations and riskiness of the borrower and the venture. (See Edward E. Cohen, Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992].)
An alternative explanation for debt cancellations, grounded in the modern theory of political economy, better fits the textual evidence that Hudson presents. In this view, a ruler redistributes wealth across interest groups to maximize the ruler’s gains from obtaining and maintaining political control. An application of this idea to ancient debt cancellations is based on two key points. First, debtors typically outnumbered creditors, and in times of upheaval, military strength was to be found in numbers. The promise of debt cancellation by a reigning king or by an aspiring conqueror vested a large constituency with incentives to preserve or overthrow the existing regime. Hudson’s presentation makes a strong case for this. Each example of a debt cancellation that he cites is associated with a (potential) change in regime: the accession of a new regime in the cases of Enmetena, Urukagina, Gudea, Ur-Nammu, Shulgi, Nehemiah and Ptolemy V; the maintenance of a military class loyal to the king in the case of Hammurabi; and the bolstering of support to withstand a siege in the cases of Zedekiah and Coriolanus.
The second point is that in order to redistribute wealth effectively, a debt cancellation must be unanticipated by the parties to the loan. If a debt cancellation were anticipated at some certain future date, this would be reflected in the negotiated terms of the loan. Lenders would demand higher interest rates in anticipation of a foreshortened payout period followed by default. This implies that the Jubilee law, which prescribed debt cancellations at predictable 50-year intervals, could not have functioned effectively to redistribute wealth. Indeed, the two prominent biblical incidents of debt cancellation, by Zedekiah (who reneged after warding off the siege of Jerusalem) and by Nehemiah, are associated with extraordinary events and so fall outside the Jubilee tradition. The Jubilee tradition appears to have been more a polemic of the great prophets than a practical reality of the ancient market for loans. Hudson’s analysis suggests that the Jubilee law might have been applied (intermittently) during the fourth through first centuries B.C.E. at most. Hudson notes that sometime near the turn of the Common Era, Hillel effectively ended the Jubilee law through the legal innovation of the prosbul, which allowed borrowers to waive their Jubilee rights. These rights conferred no benefits to borrowers; rather, the Jubilee law, with its calendar of predictable debt cancellations, harmed borrowers by reducing the supply of credit.
Michael Hudson responds:
Many modern observers imagine that it must have been impractical for Bronze Age rulers to have cancelled agrarian debts, on the ground that this would have discouraged new lending. Such thinking makes an anachronistic assumption that most of the debts that were cancelled stemmed from prior loans, as is the case in today’s world. This indeed became the 009case late in antiquity, but matters were different in early Mesopotamia.
By far the bulk of private lending and investment in about 2000 B.C. took the form of advances to merchants. These debts were denominated in silver and were not cancelled. What were cancelled were the early barley debts. These agrarian debts did not reflect initial loans of money, but accrued as taxlike obligations owed by cultivators to the palace and its collectors. The bulk of rural debt represented an accrual of arrears. (This is not so different from the accumulation of Latin American and other Third World debts mounting up arrears in recent times. It should be noted that writing off these debts has not deterred lenders from making new loans all over again!)
Most second-millennium debt cancellations were announced by rulers at the outset of their “second” year on the throne—that is, their first full year of rule. Hence, the clean slates that I described probably were anticipated. Certainly they were expected in times of war or crop failure. And statistical analyses show that they certainly did not reduce the volume of debt; rather, they tended to be decreed precisely because new debts arose and distorted economic relations.
The Edict of Ammisaduqa specifies the various types of debts that were cancelled. Most of these debts were owed ultimately to the palace but proximately to private collectors and officials, whose own debts to the palace likewise were cancelled. Thus, Sumerian rulers who proclaimed release were cancelling mainly rural debts owed to themselves.
The guiding logic was that these debts had become largely uncollectible as a matter of practical policy, especially in times of military devastation or crop failure. Thus the land was freed primarily from tax arrears (the most problematic barley debts) and from distress debts owed by the poorest families. The objective was to prevent economic polarization from proceeding too far.
As empires were created in late antiquity—peaking around the time of Hillel—individual creditors became the major lenders, acting on their own rather than as part of the palace bureaucracy. Distant emperors, culminating in those of Rome, had less and less interest in lightening the tax burdens of their provinces, to say nothing of maintaining a self-sufficient landed infantry and cavalry in local fiscal districts. The situation of Near Eastern regions under Roman domination thus was very different from how it had been two thousand years earlier.
As for the rates of interest that were charged, my article dealt specifically with Bronze Age Mesopotamia. As lending diffused from the Near East, each region developed its own interest rate, based on its own system of counting fractions (evidently for ease of computation). Mesopotamia, using the sexagesimal system based on 60ths, charged interest of 1/60 per month (12/60 per year works out to 20 percent). Greece borrowed the decimal system from Egypt and charged 10 percent per year. Rome used the duodecimal system, which is based on twelfths. One twelfth of the principal worked out to 8 1/3 percent interest per year. These three rates define the “normal” rates in each region.
Not all loans were made at the normal rates, to be sure, especially for agrarian debts. Rates of 33 1/3 percent or even 50 percent in early Mesopotamia are known, as well as a scattering of other rates. But the 052scribal texts used to train business account keepers used one fifth (12/60) per year for their computational exercises, and most cuneiform records reflect this rate.
What was normal thus was not a single universal rate, but the practice of basing each region’s typical rate on its own unit fraction. The rates at which debts accrued interest were not “economic” so much as “mathematical.” This disparity between economic and mathematical rates of interest is one of the key points I wanted to make in my article, for it explains why debt accruals tended to exceed the capacity to pay in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Neither supply and demand nor profit rates nor any other economic principles can explain the rates that were charged. Attempts to view these rates economically are anachronistically modern. The rates were not irrational, but their rationale was mathematical, not economic.
The thrust of my article is that when Leviticus was cast into the form in which we know it today (probably in the fifth century B.C.), it attempted to apply the principle of earlier clean slates to a world that had evolved into something new and unprecedented. Different as this world was, the archaic logic underlying debt cancellations was still recognized. Although Bronze Age rulers had never spelled out this logic explicitly, the Roman historian Diodorus (I.79), writing c. 40–30 B.C., got to the heart of the matter. He explained that the pharaoh Bakenranef (720–715 B.C.; his name was Grecianized as Bocchoris) abolished debt bondage and cancelled undocumented debts by ruling that “the bodies of citizens should belong to the state, to the end that it might avail itself of the services which its citizens owed it, in times of both war and peace. For…it would be absurd for a soldier, perhaps at the moment when he was setting forth to fight for his fatherland, to be hauled to prison by his creditor for an unpaid loan, and that the greed of private citizens should in this way endanger the safety of all.”
This is how early Mesopotamian rulers must have reasoned when prohibiting soldiers from pledging their crops and their land to creditors and thus losing their means of self-support through foreclosure. If not reversed, this would have expropriated the community’s fighting force. Preventing this development was deemed a higher priority than keeping the overburden of debts on the books. This is the principle that is so hard for modernist economic observers to recognize.
The royal objective of maintaining a free land-tenured population took precedence over the demands of wealthy creditors eager to foreclose on the lands of their debtors. This shows how broad a view of social policy and equity was held by early Sumerian and Babylonian rulers, and how this ideology remained strong even in Egypt, the neo-Assyrian Empire and Judah—strong enough to be built into the economic core of Judaism and the early Christianity that emerged from it.
No Free Market Without Free People
Michael Hudson’s “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land,” BR 15:01, is an outstanding piece of scholarship. I don’t doubt that interest rates were indeed fixed by the scribes at 20 percent for more than two thousand years. But is this a surprise? Put yourself in the sandals of the subsistence tenant farmer, recovering from drought, forced to choose between borrowing seed from his landlord and starving to death. To say that this farmer is participating in a “market” for capital, in 053which he freely negotiates the price of his loan, is too much.
The market is not a thing that exists independently of its participants. Rather, the market is a fragile process that free men and women (in economic lingo, “willing buyers and willing sellers”) have painstakingly developed over the centuries, through trial and error, with much pain and suffering. The money market, as we know it, did not exist in the ancient Near East because it had not yet been invented. It had not yet been invented because most of the people were not free.
The money market starts up every morning when free men and women get out of bed and decide to work, to borrow and to lend (save) wherever on earth they think they can get the best deal. The money market winds down every night when all these free people go to bed. Take away the free people, and you take away the money market.
Take away every freedom that humankind has fought for during the past two thousand years. Take away their freedoms, one by one, until the only freedom they have left is the freedom that those ancient Near Eastern farmers had—borrow or die. And interest rates will shoot back up to 20 percent for another two thousand years.
Esther and Samson
Role Models—For Hatred
Naomi Harris Rosenblatt treats Esther and Samson as though the biblical authors were offering them up as role models (“Portraits in Heroism—Esther and Samson,” BR 15:01).
Samson has no change of heart—he just found the opportunity to take revenge on three thousand of the “uncircumcised.” Samson is portrayed as someone who lives loosely to show that even he can do high and holy things—like destroy the enemy. Most Old Testament heroes were not saints: They even had to convert King David posthumously. If these stories were read in any other book, the point would be obvious. Samson doesn’t ask God for spiritual support but for physical power to take revenge on the Philistines.
The Book of Esther is not only fiction, but jingoistic through and through. You have to read between the lines (which Rosenblatt does) to make that beautiful Jewish queen of Persia’s virtue a product of spiritual growth. The author’s purpose is to bring emotional support to his real story—the slaughter of thousands of Persians. How could anyone tell the story of Esther and ignore its ending—one third of the whole book—which gleefully tells of the Jews massacring even “children and women”? That’s the story of Esther—as Rosenblatt well knows—and the “heroism” of the Jewish maiden and her uncle is its romantic preface.
Mt. Vernon, Illinois
I very much enjoyed the article by Naomi Harris Rosenblatt (see “Portraits in Heroism—Esther and Samson,” BR 15:01). It is scholarly, yet tells highly entertaining stories.
The author rounds out the people so that they become more than characters. They are believable, living persons with flaws and virtues. Yet the portrayal is based accurately on the facts in the Bible. Indeed, because Esther and Samson are so clearly presented, they appear to be all the more heroic.
New York, New York
The Human Side
That the very different achievements of Esther and Samson, as highlighted by Naomi Harris Rosenblatt, should find common ground in their heroism is both original and persuasive (see “Portraits in Heroism—Esther and Samson,” BR 15:01). I particularly appreciated how the author explored the human qualities of both her subjects: Esther, first “discovered” as participant in a beauty pageant, and Samson, raised as the only son of doting parents.
The Family of Man
Your Insight column “Democratizing the Image of God,” BR 15:01, was most interesting. As you stated, the summary by Nahum Sarna says it “All human beings are created in the image of God; each person bears the stamp of royalty.”
Probably Jews as well Christians can relate to the following account from the Gospel of Matthew: “Jesus was still talking to the people when his mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside, asking to speak with him. So one of the people there said to him, ‘Look, your mother and brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak with you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ Then he pointed to his disciples and said, ‘Look! Here are my mother adn my brothers! Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants is my brother, my sister, and my mother’” (Matthew 12:46–50).
Note the inclusion of “sister.” To me, there is no more powerful statement of your idea than the above.
Clemson, South Carolina
The credit for the photos in “Lights, Camera, Plagues!” of February 1999 issue were reversed. We regret the error.—Ed.