This is the second in a series of exerts from a paper I wrote which attempts to offer a reading of several New Testament texts as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire. You can find the first here.
The Roman Empire was aristocratic and hierarchical (Carter, 3). A population as miniscule as a mere 2-3 percent held all authority, leaving the other 97-98 percent of the inhabitants to be severely oppressed and exploited with no hope of social or economic mobility (Carter, 3). Renowned sociologist Michael Mann accurately concludes that “the Roman landholding elite was about as ‘classlike’ as any group in any known society, past or present” (270). Thus, what may be most important to note concerning the scope of understanding the New Testament as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire is the fact that Rome was an “agrarian empire” (Carter, 3). Warren Carter explains that Rome’s “wealth and power were based in land,” that is, Roman political-economic life was primarily founded upon land ownership, and specifically the profiting from the “production, distribution, and consumption” of agricultural goods and/or commodities (Carter, 3). The primary means of doing so was through Rome’s collection of taxes, tributes and rents, which were also routinely paid in agricultural goods (Carter, 3). In other words, the Roman aristocracy roughly consumed about 65 percent of agricultural production, meaning that the agrarian peasantry of fishermen and farmers were forced to surrender “20 to 40 percent of [their] catch, crop, or herd” to Roman elites, a heavy burden on both the people and the land (Carter, 3).
Richard A. Horsley explains that the agricultural communities whose land and labor were exploited by the Roman Empire were comprised of “many families” who “lived and worked in hundreds of self-governing village communities scattered across the countryside” (28). Reigning directly over these villages and communities was the local and regional representatives of Rome, that is, client kings or client rulers, and the priestly aristocracy of the Jerusalem temple-state, who imposed further taxes, tributes, and tithes upon the villagers (Horsley, 28). These village communities where deeply and generationally tied to each other and to the land, however, due to the severity of the taxes and tributes imposed upon them by Rome, and Roman installed client kings and temple-state authorities, many villagers were unable to survive on the crops that remained after such steep tributary payments and such burdensome taxation (Horsley, 28). As Horsley points out, “indebtedness thus became another source of revenues for the elite,” as villagers were forced to take out high-interest loans from “officers of the state” in order to maintain subsistence (28). In many cases the loan-borrowers could not repay the loans and were forced to turn over their ancestral lands to the temple-state and became little more than either tenant farmers or day-laborers. Within such desperate communities and a midst such impoverished villagers is where Jesus’ ministry and work took place, and it was in this social context in which the New Testament author’s wrote.