Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 23, 2009

Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Hanson & Oakman

K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

This interesting work, developed as a textbook for college/seminary students and recently revised, was a fascinating read.  The major chapters of the book address various “domains” in first-century Palestine: kinship/family, politics/patronage, economy, and religion. They relate these “domains” thus: “Mediterranean societies, organized at the core around dominant families, issued in politics and political arrangements (treatment of all other families and clans) that structured both economic life (especially within households but also between households) and religious institutions (beliefs, rituals, practices)” (xxii).  As the book’s title indicates, Hanson and Oakman approach their topic from a social-scientific perspective, but even for those hesitant to embrace every aspect of their social-scientific methodology, fascinating and valuable discussions abound.  This is one of those books that helps one to better grasp the background to the NT documents, a background largely and naturally assumed by both NT authors and recipients, but foreign to contemporary readers.

As one might expect from Fortress, the reader will find Hanson and Oakman less than conservative on certain points.  The gospels are said to all have been written after the fall of Jerusalem (9), and Paul is apparently wrong on the basis for gender roles (24).

A detailed summary of the book in an RBL review can be found here.  I should also mention the companion website, which has a number of subpages with resources connected with each chapter — pictures, maps, and the like.  As well, Hanson and Oakman have included several well-done glossaries: “Ancient Groups, Institutions, Objects, and Events”; “Ancient Documents, Collections, and Authors”; and “Social-Scientific and Cross-Cultural Terms.”

Below, I’ve noted a number of interesting points that caught my eye — no rhyme, reason, or organizing scheme, just some of the things I marked as I read through the volume.


“Most of us have never encountered some of the most common first-century Palestinian social institutions, for example, patronage/clientage, household slavery, a resident foreign army.  And conversely, first-century Palestinians would not share some of our most common institutional experiences, for example, voting, public education, free choice of spouses and careers. . . . In U.S. society, religion and economics are explicit domains (groups of institutions), while in Palestine, indeed, most of the ancient world, religious and economic institutions were embedded in kinship or politics.  By embedded, we mean that they did not exist substantially apart from the larger domains.  They were conceived and they operated as particular manifestations and subsets of political and kinship institutions.” (3)

Helpful chart on p. 22 comparing kinship in first-c. Palestine with twentieth-c. U.S.  For instance:  spousal choice controlled by custom and parents vs. free choice by couple; “marriage strategy” was ideally endogamous (within one’s own kin-group) vs. exogamous (no marriage to close relatives) by law; wedding endowment was formal (dowry, indirect dowry, bridewealth) vs. informal (family gifts); postmarital residence was “patrilocal” (with groom’s parents) vs. “neolocal” (new household); inheritances followed particular guidelines (oldest son: double; other sons: single; daughters: dowries) vs. no inheritance rules in our own culture.

“One of the key ways that a genealogy expresses the claim to honor is by the choice of the apical ancestor–the one at the head (apex) of the list. ”  For Luke this is Adam; for Matthew, this is Abraham. (48)

‘The people of first-century Palestine did not elect their rulers.  From emperors to regional governors, their rulers were either hereditary monarchs or elites appointed to their posts by distant empires.  Urban elites, whether Romans or Judeans, decided both domestic and foreign policies with little attention paid to the majority of the peasants who lived in villages.  Taxes, tolls, and tribute were not open to referendum but were imposed from above; and they were not collected to benefit the populace, but only the elites.” (61)

An excellent summary table on p. 67 of what patronage/clientage involved.  For example: Patron/client relation “do not usually take on legal or contractual forms but are very strongly binding; that is, they are informal and often opposed to official laws of the country”; Patron/client relations are based on a strong element of inequality and difference between patrons and clients (social stratification).  Patrons monopolize certain positions of crucial importance to clients, especially access to means of prosecution, major markets, and centers of society”; “a client might easily have more than one patron (usually for different purposes).”

“The cities [in the context, those built by Herod] were considered by the Palestinians as something separate from the land as a whole.  The Herodians could get away with things in Caesarea, Sepphoris, or Tiberias that never would have been acceptable to the general population in the countryside of Galilee or Judea.” (71)

“Elites with political power . . . appointed their family members to offices.  In modern democracies this would be considered nepotism, a charge that can cause scandal or outrage . . . in the ancient Mediterranean, preference given family members was not only allowed but expected. . . . the primary allegiance was not to the state with weight given to the value of efficiency.  Rather, one strategized to maximize the benefits to one’s family . . . The negative reciprocal of this is that families could bear the brunt of political intrigue.  When ten men conspired to assassinate Herod the Great and were then discovered, their families were punished along with them. . . . the assumption would be that the conspirators never would have proceeded without the complicity of their families [think “Achan”].” (75-76)

“Why did Herod give a banquet for others on his birthday (Mark 6:21a)?  One of the key attributes of patronage/clientage in the ancient Mediterranean was banqueting.  By having banquets for one’s ‘friends,’ patrons reinforced their connections to their network and could honor those to whom they were also indebted.  It was a time to display one’s honor by how grand a feast could be offered.  The seating arrangements symbolized the relative status within the group.  Being invited indicated one’s membership in the in-group.  And banquets were opportunities not only to socialize but to share information, make deals, and cement attachments. . . . But what can we deduce from the fact that it is specifically a birthday celebration?  Birthdays were rarely celebrated except for elites in the roman world.  Moreover, no birthday celebrations are known in the Semitic world; this was a Hellenistic phenomenon.  In the Bible, the only birthday celebrations mentioned are for rulers: the Egyptian pharaoh (Gen 40:20), Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria (2 Macc 6:7; see also 1 Macc 1:58-59, and Herod Antipas of Galilee (Mark 6:21//Matt 14:6).  Keep in mind that Herod Antipas was educated and socialized in Rome (Josephus, Ant. 17.20), and in Roman circles the ‘genius’ of the male head of the household was celebrated on his birthday.  The genius was the life-force of the family residing in the father and passed on to the next generation.  But the genius of a king or emperor was especially significant because of his representative status; that is, his genius affected his whole kingdom.”

John the Baptist was not criticizing Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias for incest — “endogamous marriages between two cousins or uncle and niece (as Herod and Herodias) were perfectly acceptable throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  In fact, what John is exposing for public shame is that Herod and Herodias precipitated divorces in order to get married.  Beyond that, Herod virtually ‘stole’ this new wife from his half brother, Philip, who was still alive.” (79)

“Crucifixion was an institution of humiliation, torture, and execution designed to deal with the people considered most threatening to the establishment and its interests.  It was public, demeaning, and painful; and it was designed to strike fear into the hearts of any who would dare pose a threat to the status quo.  ‘Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror.  For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect’ (Pseudo-Quintilian, Declamations 274).” (86)

“Fishing was an important part of the Palestinian economy in the first century C.E.  But it was not the ‘free enterprise’ that most modern readers of the New Testament imagine.  Even fishers who owned their own boats were part of a state-run enterprise and a complex web of financial relationships.  Fishing was controlled by the ruling elites.  The local rulers (king, tetrarch, prefect) sold fishing rights to brokers (telonai, commonly translated ‘tax collectors’ or ‘publicans’), who in turn contracted with fishers.  The fishers received capitalization along with fishing rights and were therefore indebted to the brokers.  The location of Matthew’s (or Levi’s) toll office in Capernaum–an important fishing locale–probably identifies him as just such a contractor of royal fishing rights (Matt 9:9; Mark 2:14).” (99)

“Our modern conceptions of the temple are rather bloodless and undoubtedly too spiritual.  An appropriate analogy is a slaughterhouse.  Enormous amounts of animal blood spilled around the altar every day and splashed upon the priests as they worked.  The temple architects had to design very special drainage systems to convey the blood down into the depths of the Temple Mount and thence away.  Enormous quantities of water were required for this purpose.  Aristeas again helps us here: ‘There were many mouths at the base [of the altar], which were completely invisible except for those responsible for the ministry, so that the large amounts of blood which collected from the sacrifices were all cleansed by the downward pressure and momentum’ . . . Aristeas afterwards describes the huge conduits and water supply that supported this cleansing mechanism.  Archaeology of the Temple Mount area confirms that extensive water facilities were installed.  Some of the cisterns still can hold thousands of gallons.” (136-37)

“What consequently stands out about Palestinian society is the centrality of the Herodian temple, especially in maintaining the political-economic system, and the preeminence of the priestly oligarchy in the system’s management and benefits.  The role of the temple in the life of early Roman Palestine was so pervasive that it should be thought of as an institution intruding into and organizing the social life of every Judean region and settlement.  Its effects upon the distribution of social goods within Palestinian society cannot be overemphasized.” (145)

After studying the social systems that were in play during the NT era, “what has been gained? . . . we learn to take seriously the distance between ourselves and the ancients. The actions of Jesus, Joseph Caiaphas, or Pontius Pilate need to be placed in contexts that make sense for the first century–not only historical contexts, but social contexts.  Whatever we have in common with them as humans, they did not grow up in families like ours; they were not motivated by the same values as ours; and they did not participate in the same political, economic, or religious institutions as ours.  If those distances are not fully appreciated, then we are simplistically imagining them as variations of modern American individuals.” (149)


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