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The View from the Village: Agrarian Societies

This Sunday I’m starting a series of lessons called “The View from the Village.” I want to help the members of my class (geniuses, every one!) grapple with the fact that the cultural world of the Bible is vastly different from our own. With any luck, we’ll come to appreciate the minds and motivations of the foreigners who inhabit the pages of the Bible on a new level.

But first, we’re going to have to get the lay of the land. And that means doing a wee bit of cultural anthropology.

Let’s start with something pretty basic: we live in an industrial society while people in the Bible lived in an agrarian society. That is not the same thing as saying we are urban but Jesus and the disciples were rural. The difference is far greater than that.

For example, my parents and inlaws are all products of a rural environment. They grew up on or near farms, walked to school, helped with the family chores, and did all the small-town things you see on The Waltons or The Andy Griffith Show. But just like the Waltons and the residents of Mayberry, their rural environment was still part of an industrialized society?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùtwentieth century America.

By the same token, the apostle Paul was clearly a city-dweller. He may have never milked a cow or planted a seed in his life. Yet the cities in which he preached and lived were all part of an agrarian society?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe first-century Mediterranean world.

What is the difference? For the most part, an agrarian society is one that developed prior to the industrial revolution. And when we’re talking about cultural differences, that term should be written: THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. Before (roughly) the 1700’s, the entire world was almost entirely agrarian. (There were some remote societies where even agrarianism had never taken hold?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe Australian aborigines, the Bushmen of southern Africa, etc.?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùbut these exceptions aren’t relevant for the study of the New Testament.)

Afterwards, industrialization began to spread from Northern Europe and North America to much of the rest of the planet. This shift changed everything, culturally speaking. As but a small sampling of the changes, consider the following data from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels:

1. In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.

2. In agrarian societies 90 to 95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìprimary?¢‚Ǩ¬ù industries (farming and extracting raw materials). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.

3. In agrarian societies 2 to 4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2 to 4 percent is not.

4. The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about 40 per thousand per year. In the United States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.

5. Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century B.C. was about 20 years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about 40, one-half our present expectations.

6. In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London was 35,000. Vienna was 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000; for Capernaum, 1,500; for Nazareth, about 200.

7. The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States, and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.

8. Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1 to 3 percent of the population usually owned one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.

9. The size of the federal bureaucracy in the United States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. Although there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.

10. More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.

11. In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consumption. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared, and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.

12. The largest ?¢‚Ǩ?ìfactories?¢‚Ǩ¬ù in Roman antiquity did not exceed 50 workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed 18. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.

13. In 1850 the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìprime movers?¢‚Ǩ¬ù in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.

14. The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S. dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was as follows:

steamboat: 2.4
rail: 2.7
junk: 12.0
animal-drawn cart: 13.0
pack mule: 17.0
wheelbarrow: 20.0
pack donkey: 24.0
pack horse: 30.0
carrying by pole: 48.0

It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.

15. Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.

16. Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like the situation in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, six driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.

(PS: I’m quoting the 1992 edition or Malina and Rohrbaugh, not the 2003 edition linked above.)

So the first thing we have to come to terms with in our study of Jesus and his cultural context is that life was different for people 2,000 years ago, and not just in superficial ways related to technology, language, religion, cuisine, and dress. If that were all there was to it, we would all understand the Bible far better than we do!
technorati tags: agrarian society, anthropology, industrial society, new testament world, sociology



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