Sunday, September 20, 2009

Was a tentmaker or carpenter middle-class?

One common midunderstanding about the socioeconomic status of people in the New Testament is the perception that artisans (ie. the carpenters, tent-makers, etc, in the days of Jesus) were middle-class, like a nurse or a school teacher today in the West.

Virtually all New Testament scholars would say that the vast majority of the population in the ancient world belonged to the lower class (>95%; some would say >99%). There was a huge gap between the upper and lower classes. Artisan (e.g. a tentmaker like the apostle Paul) would belong to the lower class. It's true that a tent-maker might be better off than the rest of the lower class, but he's poor socially and economically nonetheless. A part-time tentmaker like Paul would most probably be struggling greatly economically. It is very likely that the vast majority of the people in the earliest church were very poor, with only a small number of exceptions.

This doesn't mean that there weren't some kind of class divisions among the lower class. Those who were at the lowest end of the social heirachy were the widows, the chronically sick, the crippled, the prostitutes, etc.

It is, therefore, important that we bear the above in mind when we read the New Testament. We in the West are among the most wealthy, relative to the rest of the world. We all come to the Bible with our blinkers on, and perhpas we need to enter in the world of the New Testmant - including the world of the poor in the ancient world - in order to understand God's Word better. The fact is that the biblical writers (Paul, Luke, etc) were very much aware of the socioeconomic hardship that they and their audience experienced. Their audience would have heard their writings somewhat differently from us. Let's enter their world and hear them.