Sacred Economy

The new book by Christina Petterson and I will be out soon. It is called Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity and is published by Fortress Press. The listed release date is 1 May, 2017.

The book is the third instalment in a series of books dealing with economics, religion and Marxism. The other two are Idols of Nations, also by the both of us and published by Fortress in 2014, and The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, published by Westminster John Knox in 2015.

Time of Troubles

Joseph Ryan Kelly has just let me know that an interview, which we did last November on the Sacred economy book, has just gone online at Marginalia, a project by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is out. Permit me to say that I like the way this book has turned out, largely due to careful and detailed attention from the people at Westminster John Knox Press. It is part of the Library of Ancient Israel series. The blurb reads:

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers a new reconstruction of the economic context of the Bible and of ancient Israel. It argues that the key to ancient economies is with those who worked on the land rather than in intermittent and relatively weak kingdoms and empires. Drawing on sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School) and textual and archaeological resources, Roland Boer makes it clear that economic “crisis” was the norm and that economics is always socially determined. He examines three economic layers: the building blocks (five institutional forms), periods of relative stability (three regimes), and the overarching mode of production. Ultimately, the most resilient of all the regimes was subsistence survival, for which the regular collapse of kingdoms and empires was a blessing rather than a curse. Students will come away with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the economy of ancient Israel. Boer’s volume should become a new benchmark for future studies.

Sacred Economy

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is due out by the end of the month, in the prestigious Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox. But I have been sent (thanks Dan) the endorsements that will adorn the first pages of the book and the back cover. I must admit to being somewhat embarrassed by posting them here in shameless self-promotion:

This is a remarkable book. It is a brilliant analysis of ancient Israel in its broader historical context. Boer has a more profound and extensive knowledge of the ancient economy than any other scholar working on the ancient world. Given the prevailing neoliberal ideology in Western societies, many biblical and ancient Near East scholars looked for trade in an early capitalist market economy; but working from a profound knowledge of the history of political economic theory, Boer offers a desperately needed counter to such anachronistic analysis. In opposition to individualizing, desocializing, and dehistoricizing neoclassical theory, he investigates, explains, and documents how both subsistence and extractive economic life was embedded in social relations, cultural traditions, and institutionalized social forms. He carefully builds a flexible theoretical framework in a multifaceted analysis that is able to comprehend the many interrelated factors and institutional forms of the ancient “sacred economy.” Supplementing his magisterial discussion, his excursuses, critical comments on other approaches, and bibliography provide guided tutorials and rich resources for specialist and nonspecialist alike. Boer’s book finally sets study of economic life in ancient Israel and Southwestern Asia in general on a sound critical theoretical basis from which archaeological explorations, historical investigations, and textual interpretation can work with confidence.

—Richard A. Horsley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion, University of Massachusetts

This bold and theoretically rich economic analysis should stimulate the rereading of many biblical texts and the rethinking of Israelite life altogether. Rather than dwelling on temple, palace, and the apparatus of empire, Boer shows the economic resilience through centuries of subsistence-level households and villages. While recognizing the injustices common in kinship-based communities, he nonetheless dares to suggest that agricultural subsistence models may hold the greatest promise for the thriving of contemporary communities.

—Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, Duke Divinity School

Marxism as a practical political ideology may have lost its momentum, but Marxism as an analytical method has not. Rather, this method is very precise and produces surprising results. Roland Boer’s study is a fine example of what can be achieved by a consequent use of this method. Boer distinguishes between two societal systems in the ancient Near East: the subsistence survival strategy in its various forms and extractive regimes such as states. Thus he has authored a highly readable new kind of book about the society of ancient Israel and its economic forces.

—Niels Peter Lemche, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biblical Exegesis, University of Copenhagen

Roland Boer is without doubt the world’s foremost scholar on the relation between Marxism and religion. Ste. Croix’s magisterial work on ancient Greece set the absolute standard for scholarship on the economies and societies of that part of the world; this book will set the same bar for work on the ancient Near East.

—Kenneth Surin, Professor of Literature and Professor of Religion and Critical Theory, Duke University

Roland Boer’s informative and colorful study provides a thorough treatment of the “sacred economy” of ancient Israel. Boer examines household structures, the plight of subsistence farmers, and financial exchanges. By applying the insights of economic theory, Boer is able to offer a fresh appraisal of key biblical texts. Full of interesting facts and lively prose, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the vagaries of economic life during the period in which the Bible was written.

—Samuel L. Adams, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Presbyterian Seminary

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is nothing short of groundbreaking. Through an unparalleled understanding of economic theory, Boer corrects two misguided assumptions in approaching biblical economies: the tendency to assume capitalist structures and the tendency to isolate economy from the rest of the social world. Boer cogently articulates how the economy of Ancient Israel was deeply integrated into its religious institutions. With lucid prose and engaging style, this book will be a welcome resource for students and scholars for years to come.

—Roger S. Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, George Fox University

A masterful integration of biblical studies, archaeology, and Marxist critical theory that greatly enriches our understanding of the economics of ancient Israel in the larger context of Southwest Asia. Boer analyzes how the five building blocks of this economy—subsistence survival, kinship household, patronage, (e)states, and tribute exchange—rearranged themselves under three economic regimes to respond to different economic situations. Key to Boer’s argument is the fact that any economic crisis or collapse in the Levant, including Israel, primarily affected the upper classes, not the majority of the population. From the perspective of subsistence farmers, indentured servants, and debt slaves, the collapse of kingdoms and empires meant a reprieve from oppressive forms of extraction and the reemergence of the durable subsistence regime. A stimulating and provocative contribution that will be required reading for future investigations into the Bible and economics.

—Gale A. Yee, Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School

Roland Boer offers the reader a comprehensive and exhaustive study of Israel’s economy in the context of the ancient world. He draws all sorts of economic theories and models into both use and criticism. The reader is encouraged to read through to the end, where Boer asks the question—and seeks to answer it—as to what normative patterns can be discerned for considering economic life today.

—Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary

Boer’s growing corpus of critical work has not received nearly the attention that it merits. With this book Boer establishes himself as a frontline critical scholar whose work will be an inescapable reference point for future work. This courageous book is nothing short of a tour de force in which Boer probes the economic organization, structure, practice, and resources of the ancient Near East and ancient Israel as a subset of that culture. His study is organized around “regimes” of allocation that distribute resources and of extraction that plunder resources according to the deployment of sociopolitical power. The discussion maintains a continuing dialectic of “subsistence” and “surplus” that kept economic practice endlessly open and unstable. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book and the sheer erudition that has made it possible. Boer’s patient attention to detail, his mastery of a huge critical literature, and the daring of his interpretive capacity combine to make this book a “must” for any who want to probe the economic substructure of biblical faith and the culture that was its environment.

—Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

Sacred Economy

One of the most derided item in Marx’s works is the idea of primitive communism. To be sure, it has some problems, such as the narrative that moves from undifferentiation to differentiation. But did Marx pinpoint something all the same?

One of the discoveries I made in The Sacred Economy was the crucial role of what may be called the institutional form of subsistence survival in ancient Southwest Asia. Given that 90% of the sparse population was engaged in agriculture, this is the key to ancient economics. How did it operate? Typically, crops were grown via a system of land shares, reallocated every year or two by means of a village council or elders (and with much debate). These were long and non-contiguous strips that were reallocated depending on a range of factors. Animal husbandry focused on flocks of 2/3 sheep and 1/3 goats, regularly milked and culled for meat, fibre, and bone. Bovines were few and far between, since they need massive amounts of fodder and water. They were used for traction and lived until they dropped. In places with more water, pigs also appear. The focus was on optimal rather than maximal use of resources. Above all, there was little sense of private entrepreneurship, and the idea of private property is simply unhelpful. If people tried that, they simply wouldn’t survive. So, it’s not for nothing that Soviet-era Russian scholars of the ancient world called this the ‘village-commune.’

What is most intriguing is that the subsistence survival regime was by far the most stable. Petty potentates might come and go, their estates might drain labour for a time, hated cockroaches (tax collectors-usurers-merchants-diplomats-landlords all rolled into one) might appear for a time. But given half a chance, people would hasten the destruction of unstable little and big kingdoms. They preferred subsistence-survival, the dominant economic form in periods of what is, from the perspective of the ruling class, called economic ‘crisis’. In the politically and economically marginal zone of the Southern Levant, where Israel appeared belatedly on the scene, subsistence survival was the persistent form.

But did this approach end some time in the first millennium BCE? Not at all. It was still present in Russia into the twentieth century, as also in Iraq, Greater Syria and Greece, to name but a few. What about now?  Recently, I was in a village in Transylvania, Romania. Here the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s has led to deindustrialisation and reagriculturalisation. In response, old and trusted methods have returned. My host and I came across a herd of goats and sheep. I inquired about their numbers and was told they were 1/3 goats and 2/3 sheep, with regular culls and an optimal size of about 40. And I was sent me this link to a story from the Andalusian region in Spain, concerning the village of Marinaleda. Since the 1970s, they too have developed a village-commune, operating in terms of the long history of subsistence survival that I outlined above. Of course, it has been reconfigured in light of wider socio-economic circumstances, but the basic principles remain the same. Nowadays, the villagers call this a version of socialism.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

A new piece over at Political Theology Today on ‘How to Read Ancient Texts’. Obviously, I’m not the first to reflect on that perennial question, but these reflections relate directly to how one reads texts in relation to socio-economic life.

Walking around Berlin, you can’t help notice the advertisements for a new show at the Pergamon Museum, called ‘Uruk Megacity‘. While you might forgive the curators for trying to lure visitors, the question is whether Uruk was really a city, let alone a mega-city. The walls themselves at the greatest expanse in the fourth millennium encompassed 6 square kilometres. Huge? More like a country town. Estimating population is a bit like divination, so estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 (the top end is little fanciful). A decent town, perhaps, or even a small city. Except that this is the total population of the whole city-state of Uruk, which was really a rather modest affair. At a stretch, you may want to argue that by comparison with other places, it counts as a city, where most of the few centres were around 3000 each. But ‘mega-city’ is really pushing it. Then again, ‘Uruk, Megatown’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

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