To start off, here is one attempt to offer an economic scale for the Greco-Roman world (though this is by nature highly generalized and the data may be open to different interpretations and scholarly estimates):
|ES1||Imperial elites||imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons||3|
|ES2||Regional or provincial elites||equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers|
|ES3||Municipal elites||most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants|
|ES4||Moderate surplus||some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans||15|
|ES5||Stable near subsistence level (with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum level to sustain life)||many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families||27|
|ES6||subsistence level (and often below minimum level to sustain life)||small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners||30|
|ES7||Below sustenance level||some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners||25|
Chart taken from http://www.thepaulpage.com/remember-the-poor-paul-poverty-and-the-greco-roman-world/, a review of Bruce Longnecker’s Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) (itself in interaction with Steven Friessen’s article in JSNT 26 )
Of course, unlike Paul’s urban mission, a complicating factor is the difficulty of determining Mark’s provenance (i.e. Rome or one of the villages of Galilee or Syria-Palestine). Assuming at least some continuity of the social programme of Jesus and Mark, we must remember that in Jesus’ historical context two cities were built under Herod Antipas in Galilee (Sepphoris, Tiberius) and the increase of commerce & trade may have led to increased peasant labour, debt through heavy taxation and land alienation (landless peasants left with only a hope of becoming day labourers or tenant farmer for a wealthy landlord) and caused the desperate to resort to beggary and banditry (Meyers 1988: 44-52; Horsley 2001: 33-36; Crossley 2005: 400; 2006: chapter 2). Even if others have argued that Horsley exaggerates the plight of Galilean peasants and that building projects of Herod the Great or Herod Antipas created employment (e.g., Sanders 1993: 445-47), the perception that changes made things more difficult and disrupted traditional patterns of life must be factored in. Many parables reflect economic realities (day labourers, tenant farmers, absentee landlords, household masters & servants, debt, etc) and the message of the coming of God’s kingdom to overturn the old order (i.e. the first will be last and the last first) could be very attractive in this context.
A concern about wealth occurs across the Synoptic tradition, most famously in the saying that one can’t serve both God and Mammon (Matt 6:24). But lets focus specifically on Mark. One objection to the Markan Jesus is his association with “tax collectors and sinners [ἁμαρτωλοί]” (2:15-16). Objecting to the view that the “sinners” are simply the ‘amme ha-erets (peoples of the land) who did not meet the purity standards of the Pharisees for table fellowship, Sanders argues that the term refers to the notorious wicked who disobeyed Torah (see here for excerpts available online from Jesus and Judaism). Even more specifically, through a diachronic word study of the term “sinners” Crossley argues that they are to be identified as the oppressive rich (e.g. “if one is excessively rich, he sins” Ps. Sol 5:16) and note the link with ”tax-collectors” (2006: ch. 3 Jesus and the Sinners). Whatever one makes of Sanders controversial argument that the historical Jesus associated with sinners without calling for their repentance (see for instance Chilton’s critique here), in Mark it is clear that Jesus advocates repentance (Mk 1:15) and sees his reaching out to sinners as a physician reaching out to the sick (2:17). The most explicit criticism of wealth in Mark is in the story of a young man (later informed he had great possessions in 10:22) who inquires about how to be saved (10:17-31). First, Jesus repeats the commandments (*note: how does this square with the ”Mark is Pauline” camp as it assumes the normative authority of Torah?) but adds “do not defraud” which is not in the Decalogue (ἀποστερέω calls to mind LXX Deut 24:14-15; Mal 3:5; Sir 4:1; cf. Crossley cites other Aramaic evidence from the Targums) and implies that wealth is acquired by taking advantage of the poor (e.g. the perception of limited good, charging big interest on loans, defrauding workers of wages, etc) (cf. Horsley 2002: 191; Crossley 2005). Even though the man affirms he has obeyed these commands, whether rightly or wrongly, Jesus still insists that he sell all his possessions and follow him, a radical demand that he declines which leads to the saying that it is more difficult for the rich to enter than kingdom than a camel through the eye of a needle (a literal needle and camel, not some alleged “needle gate” in Jerusalem!). Naturally, there is a desire to soften the radical edge of Jesus’ words, and perhaps one out may be the (redactional?) addition of Mark 10:27 that what is impossible with humans is possible for God, but at very least the Markan Jesus sees the desire for wealth as a serious obstacle to embracing Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.
I think that an economic critique is also the best way to understand the action of overturning the tables of the money changers and calls the Temple a bandit’s den (11:15-17). I eventually will write posts in more detail on the criteria of authenticity for this incident in the lifetime of the historical Jesus or the diverse explanations offered for this scene within Mark’s literary context in the commentaries (e.g. resentment at the innovation of introducing animals & traders into the temple precints which ought to be sacred grounds, a rejection of the sacrificial system with replacement theology [Jesus pronounces clean, offers forgiveness, the eucharist replaces the cult, etc], protesting the temple as exclusionary of Gentiles [the Court of the Gentiles, "a house of prayer for all nations"], a protest of the temple as the seat of revolutionary violence [λῃστής for bandits or zealots in Josephus], forshadowing the Temple’s destruction]). E.P. Sanders deconstructs many of these explanations at least for understanding Jesus in his Jewish context, noting that the cult was commanded in Torah and it was actually a convenience to sell unblemished animals (imagine the costs of bringing animals from long distances for worshippers throughout the diaspora, let alone the potential that these animals be ruled unacceptable for sacrifice if they were not unblemished, and the buying/selling of animals and exchange of coinage was necessary for sacrifice to continue) (1985: 61-69). Sanders judges that Jesus intended it as a symbolic act of the eschatological destruction & restoration of the Temple, which Mark misunderstood by supplying the quotation at 11:17, and concludes, “He [Jesus] did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure’ worship. Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God commanded Israel. He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise” (1985: 75). However, Craig Evans (1989) provides a plausible context for Jesus (like Jeremiah before him) to condemn the immense wealth of the Temple and the economic exploitation sanctioned by the priesthood (e.g., m. Ker. 1:7 complains of the excessive cost of sacrificial doves, which was the poor offering). Note also the later critique of scribes who devour widows house’s (12:40), followed by the story of a poor widow who has her last two coins taken away from her (12:41-44) and then the prophesied destruction of the temple stone by stone (13:1-2) (cf. Horsley 2002: 216-17). Again, this fits into the larger story of Mark where Jesus stands in opposition to the powerful Judaean elites backed by Roman imperial authority and promises a dramatic reversal in the imminent future for the losers of society.
- Crossley, James. “The Damned Rich (Mark 10:17-31).” Expository Times 2005 (116): 397-401.
- Crossley, James. Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE). Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
- Evans, Craig., “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989): 237-70.
- Horsley, Richard. Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
- Sanders, E.P. “Jesus in Historical Context.” Theology Today 50 (1993): 429-48