Book outline: Time of Troubles: Economics and the World of Early Christianity

This is the outline of a book we are working on at the moment. It is due with Fortress Press by the beginning of July. In many respects, it is the companion work to the widely acclaimed book, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, published in 2015.

Time of Troubles: Economics and the World of Early Christianity


Here we situate the book within current studies of economics and the New Testament. We indicate where they fall short, in terms of both economic theory and concrete analysis. Included in this treatment are works dealing with gender, sexuality (including power and the body) and ethnic or postcolonial studies (Schüssler Fiorenza 1983, Schüssler Fiorenza 1999, Marchal 2006, Schüssler Fiorenza 2007, Marchal 2008, Glancy 2010, Nasrallah and Schüssler Fiorenza 2010, Bird 2011, Marchal 2012). Although they do not deal extensively with economics (exceptions are Horsley 1995, Horsley 1996, Elliot and Horsley 1997, Horsley 1997, Cadwallader 2008, Elliott 2008, Cadwallader 2013), these works have implications for understanding the economic situation. By contrast, we indicate the sources of our study, which includes the Régulation School of economic theory and the exhaustive study of slavery by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. We also present a concise outline of the proposed reconstruction, with a synopsis of the chapters to follow. Each chapter provides both a reconstruction of a key feature of the economy and analyses a relevant biblical text that responds to that feature.

Chapter 1: Theory

This section of the book will outline three main approaches to economics in relation to ancient societies and their literatures. The first is the oft-unexamined approach of neoclassical economic theory, which is applied to the ancient world. Neoclassical economics assumes the role of the individualising ‘homo economicus’, the rationality and self-interest of such a figure, and the ‘normal’ state of equilibrium of an economic system. This perspective is not limited to New Testament scholarship (see Friesen 2014), but also bedevils studies of the Western Classics (Ian Morris and Joseph G. Manning). The second is the so-called oikos debate (or the primitivist-modernist debate), which arose in the late 19th century. It consisted of either positing an extreme difference between ancient economies and our own (oikos, or primitivist perspective) and the presumption that the ancients operated with the same economic forms as us—to which the well-known quote from Adam Smith on the propensity of all humans to truck, barter and exchange testifies. The oikos, or primitivist perspective, was subsequently revised and reformulated by Karl Polanyi in relation to the Ancient Near East (with his formalist-substantivist distinction), and the influential work of Moses Finley on the Greek and Hellenistic worlds. The drawbacks of framing debates over ancient economies in this way are many, but we would highlight the tendency to ignore the core economic role of agriculture, as well as a preference – for those who opt for a primitivist or substantivist position – for redistribution as the key to economic activity.

The third approach is the one we adopt. Theoretically, it draws on the work of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix and a modified version of Régulation Theory (Boyer and Saillard 2002; Jessop and Sum 2006) for the context of early Christianity.[1] Ste. Croix’s Marxist-inspired work remains the most thorough study of slavery as a social and economic formation, from 600 BCE to 600 CE. Régulation theory is notable for its flexibility, in terms of developing its categories from the data available and ensuring that such categories remain flexible. In particular, régulation theory argues that the normal state of affairs is not stability disrupted by crisis, but rather assumes the normal state as one of economic instability and crisis, interspersed with periods of controlled stability. The key question is, therefore, how specific economic systems stabilize crises in order to establish continuity for certain periods. In a little more detail, an economic system (mode of production) is made up of key building blocks (institutional forms) that come together in unique formations (regimes) to provide very limited continuity for a time within the larger scale of a mode of production. Due to internal contradictions, these regimes easily fall apart, giving way to the economic norm of “crisis.” In those efforts at continuity, a whole series of compromises have to be made, which are enabled and sustained by cultural assumptions, social forces, and above all religious beliefs (mode of régulation). We use this flexible approach to analyse the shifts that took place in the transitions to the slave-based economy of the Roman Empire.

Chapter 2: Plucking Peasant and Slave: Transformations in Subsistence-Survival

The building blocks of the ancient economy were what we call, drawing from régulation theory, institutional forms. These are the codifications of the fundamental social relations that underpin economics. The first of these institutional forms is subsistence-survival; or rather, the profound and disruptive transformations experienced by subsistence-survival in light of slavery. Our reason for beginning here is that such an institutional form concerns agriculture, which was the prime form of economic activity in the ancient world. Understanding agriculture – its practices and social determinations – is the key to that economy. So this chapter examines practices of crop-growing and animal husbandry, undertaken by peasants in the face of profound disruptions brought about by the increasing imposition of slavery. This appeared in the form of slave estates, and especially the way Roman authorities treated the hinterland as estates for the supply of the poleis. In order to provide a biblical touchstone for this analysis, we focus on the way the Gospel of Mark responds to the economic shifts underway.

Chapter 3: Disrupting the Household

The social determination of any economic activity is intrinsic to that activity. In this case, the social determination took place in terms of the household. Studies of the household have burgeoned in relation to early Christianity, as have those of the related but distinct phenomenon of patronage (Gager 1975, Kee 1980, Malina 1983, Meeks 1983, Rohrbaugh 1996). However, they have tended to elevate the household to become the key to ancient economies, rather than seeing it in relation to the other institutional forms. To a lesser extent, this tendency is also true of patronage and the pattern of honour and shame. However, we argue that patronage was a feature of both the very rich and the closely related ‘gangsterism’. We draw upon those studies, but do so in order to investigate two features. First, we examine the modes by which households determine the practices of subsistence survival agriculture. Second, we pay close attention to the way households were profoundly disrupted by and how they managed to deal with the economic shifts underway. In order to focus our study, we critically engage with archaeological and sociological research, and pay close attention to the way 1 Peter responds to and manifests the disruptions under way.

Chapter 4: Re-Producing Space: Polis, Chora and Estates

Conflicts between modes of production are inevitably marked by changes in the production of space (Lefebvre). In order to see how such shifts took place, we draw upon Ste. Croix’s insights into the patterns of polis and chora, focusing on the Gospel of John to indicate literary responses to such patterns. In their original Greek form, a polis required a chora (with its komai) to be a polis at all. The chora was the agricultural land that surrounded the polis, supplying the polis with the necessary materials of life. The choice of a new polis was predicated on the potential of a fertile chora. However, by the Hellenistic period and its patterns of colonialism, in colonised areas the relationship between polis and chora changed profoundly. Now the polis was a colonial presence: Greek-speaking, with Greek institutions and modes of life. The chora became colonised space: Aramaic-speaking (in the southern Levant), still using modes of subsistence survival and household. However, the deep disruption to these institutional forms appears in their redeployment as colonial chora, which was now understood (by those in the polis), as the hinterland. The chora as colonised hinterland was subjected to providing the colonial polis with the way of life to which its inhabitants had become accustomed.

With the development of colonial chora we find yet another instance where a where new socio-economic system draws into itself previous institutional forms. New patterns of exploitation are quite able to absorb those older forms. However, the colonised chora was overlaid with yet another layer of economic activity. These were the slave estates, which were also established for the supply of larger cities. Slaves worked the estates and slave overseers managed them. Already we find this tendency in ancient Greece, especially among the Spartans. But such estates came into their own in the Roman era. Initially they were characteristic of the immediate territory of Rome on the Italian peninsula. However, with the expansion of Roman colonialism, such estates began to be established in the colonised areas. Compared to the colonial chora, with its subsistence survival villages, the slave estates provided higher yields for the demands of the poleis (up to 50%). The result is a complex economic situation, with slaves estates interspersed in some colonial places with the patterns of subsistence survival reconfigured in terms of chora.

Chapter 5: The Slave Relation with Regard to Tribute and Exchange

The mention of slave estates brings us to the issue of slavery itself, which has been the subject of increasing attention among scholars of early Christianity (Harrill 1995, Glancy and Oxford Scholarship Online Religion. 2002, Harrill 2006). While we draw upon these valuable studies, they tend to treat slavery in isolation from the wider economic framework. Our reconstruction approaches slavery in three ways. First, slavery as the prime mode of extracting surplus generated the first theories of absolute private property. This innovation (which has made its way into capitalism via a winding route) had a profound impact on social consciousness, which we track in relation to Luke-Acts and the Letter of James. Second, we investigate how slavery altered the patterns of tribute and exchange of the Hellenistic era, with specific focus on the southern Levant. Here we draw upon Ste. Croix’s study in order to show how slavery became the prime mode of extracting surplus – from agriculture, from trade and from tribute. In doing so, we treat tribute and exchange as connected parts of the same institutional form. The third feature is what may be called the ‘slave relation’, which operated at a social, intellectual and psychic level (see Martin 1990). As slavery became integral to economic activity, it influenced the modes of human social interaction. Such interaction became mediated through slaves, but the key is that mediation itself became a wider norm within human consciousness and thereby the literature, linguistic forms and even religions produced at the time. Such was the saturation that slaves need no longer be actually present, for mediation itself became central to the way people thought and behaved.

Chapter 6: Time of Troubles: Between the Sacred and Slave Economies

Thus far we have dealt with the key institutional forms: subsistence survival, household, chora, slave estates and the slave relation. Institutional forms, however, do not exist in isolation, for they coalesce into regimes, which in turn form the parts of an over-arching mode of production. A regime is unique constellation of the institution forms, with one of those forms dominating the others. Such a regime enables a period of relative economic stability, where the system manages to reproduce itself, and crises are managed.  By contrast, a mode of production comprises varying regimes over time. It is a comprehensive socio-economic system in which a specific combination of the forces (material, technology, products) and relations (social forces) of production may be found. Our study requires careful analysis of the regimes in question, albeit in relation to a significant shift in modes of production.

In order to set the scene, we describe the regime of plunder first (with the institutional form of tribute-exchange dominant), for it characterised the late period of the Persian presence in the southern Levant before the arrival of the Greeks and then the Romans. This regime was part of what may be called the sacred economy, the mode of production dominant over the previous millennia. Initially, the Greek conquerors were content to adapt such a regime to their own uses, as we see with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies.  However, the situation became far more complex with the Romans. Instead of a shift in regimes, we encounter the deeply disruptive, violent and drawn out process of imposing a new mode of production itself. We describe the shift in modes of production as a move from a sacred economy to a slave-based economy. It produced a profound ‘time of troubles’, with the instability ensuring that new regime became clearly dominant. This transitional status is crucial for understanding the economic situation of the southern Levant. Old institutional forms – subsistence survival, household and patronage – are reconfigured in light of the new situation, with their relations to new institutional forms – slave estates, the slave relation and tribute-exchange – shaking them to the core. But these disruptions are also central to the writings of the Apostle Paul, upon which we focus, for his theological innovations may be seen as creative responses to the time of troubles in which the early Christian movement found themselves.

Chapter 7: Christianity as a Mode of Régulation

In light of this reconstruction, how should we understood the rise and eventual appeal of Christianity? We suggest that early Christianity may be understood as a mode of régulation, by which we understand a set of behavioural patterns and institutions which enable and challenge the ideological reproduction of a given regime. All of this takes place in three domains: those of (1) constraint (laws and rules) and compromises; (2) patterns of behaviour and assumptions; and (3) the methods by which these are socially reinforced and undermined. A mode of régulation need not be religious, but in the context of the first centuries of the Common Era, the primary nature of such a mode was deeply and inescapably religious. Further, during periods of relative stability, a mode of régulation provides the necessary social and ideological glue to enhance such stability. Yet, during times of turbulent change, modes of régulation become plural, exploring ways to challenge the problematic status quo, and attempting to find ways through times of troubles. This is how we understand the rise of early Christianity, as both challenge and promise. That it would also fulfil the role of constraint and stability is to be seen when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the ideology of empire.


The conclusion wraps up the argument of the book by asking what the implications might be for understanding Christianity and economics today. Clearly, we find that careful attention to the economic situation of early Christianity is vital, so that one does not seek to make hasty analogies between its initial context and the context of capitalism. This insight is particularly pertinent for the spate of anti-empire studies that have sought to enlist New Testament texts in arguments against capitalist imperialism. Further, our study provides a way of understanding the way Christianity may be seen as a response to a time of troubles. Thus, it bears the marks of those difficult times in its various formulations (often as contradictions), undermines existing efforts at establishing a status quo in the name of a better world, and offers insights into a new order for which it all too easily becomes the ideological justification.

[1] We use “régulation,” in its French form, and not “regulation,” since the latter suggests juridicopolitical regulation at a microeconomic level (for which the better French word would be réglementation). By contrast, régulation designates the social, institutional, and ideological factors that determine the stabilities and transformations of a system as a whole.


Bird, Jennifer G. Abuse, Power and Fearful Obedience: Reconsidering 1 Peter’s Commands to Wives. London, T & T Clark International, 2011.

Boyer, Robert, and Yves Saillard. Eds. Régulation Theory: The State of the Art. Translated by Carolyn Shread. Updated ed. London: Routledge, 2002. French original, 1995.

Cadwallader, Alan. ‘The Markan/Marxist Struggle for the Household: Juliet Mitchell and the Challenge to Patriarchal/Familial Ideology’. Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Bible. Eds. R. Boer and J. Økland. Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix, 2008: 151-181.

———. ‘Name Punning and Social Stereotyping: Reinscribing Slavery in the Letter to Philemon.’ Australian Biblical Review 60 (2013): 18-31.

Elliot, Neil and Richard A. Horsley. Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Imperial Propaganda. Harrisburg, Trinity Press International, 1997.

Elliott, Neil. The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2008.

Friesen, Stephen J. ‘The Economics of the New Testament Interpretation: Invisible Hands at Work’. Paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature’s International Meeting, Vienna, 2014.

Gager, John G. Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Corporal Knowledge: Early Christian Bodies, Oxford University Press, 2010.

———. Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Harrill, J. Albert. The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr, 1995.

———. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2006.

Horsley, Richard A. Galilee: History, Politics, People, Valley Forge, Trinity Press International, 1995.

———. Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis. Valley Forge, Trinity Press International, 1996.

———. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Harrisburg, Trinity Press International, 1997.

Jessop, Bob, and Ngai-Ling Sum. Beyond the Regulation Approach: Putting Capitalist Economies in Their Place. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006.

Kee, Howard C. Christian Origins in Sociological Perspective. London, SCM Press, 1980.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. London, SCM Press, 1983.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. eds. The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Marchal, Joseph. A. Hierarchy, Unity, and Imitation: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Power Dynamics in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Leiden, Brill, 2006.

———. The Politics of Heaven: Women, Gender, and Empire in the Study of Paul. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press, 2008.

———. Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012.

Martin, Dale B. Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. Yale University Press, 1990.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983.

Nasrallah, Laura S. and E. Schüssler Fiorenza. Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2010.

Rohrbaugh, Richard L. The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.

Schüssler Fiorenza, E. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, Crossroad, 1983.

———. Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999.

———. The Power of the Word : Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007.

de Ste. Croix, Geoffrey Ernest Maurice. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest. London: Duckworth, 1981.


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