Why do the New Testament and the Old Testament treat wealth differently?

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Keith Reeves

Note: This article is the second of a three-part series on economic production and Jubilee in the Old and New Testaments. Read the first part here.

Why does the New Testament seem so much more negative about wealth than the Old? As this series of articles turns from Jubilee in the Old Testament to the New Testament, we are turning from one historical context – with its own set of background conditions and assumptions – to a different historical context. In some important ways, the economic context of the New Testament stands in marked contrast to that of the Old.

One important assumption is the same for both. Writers of both testaments assumed – correctly, within their own contexts – that land was the primary means of wealth production. The amount of land is obviously fixed and cannot grow; as we real estate agents love to say, God isn’t making any more of it. More land for me means less land for you. Moreover, without access to advanced agricultural technology, the amount of wealth that can be produced on a given piece of land was also more or less fixed. Thus, both testaments are shaped by a background assumption that the total amount of wealth is limited. Economic exchanges are basically zero-sum; they can move wealth around but they can’t increase the total amount of wealth very much.

The central economic role of land is essential background for understanding the Old Testament Jubilee. In the first article in this series, I suggested that the Jubilee did not really redistribute land. Rather, it returned the land to the households that originally owned it; it restored the original distribution rather than “re”-distributing. This was critically important in the Old Testament context where the relationship between a household and its land was central to the social and economic order.

Now let’s look at differences. In general, the Old Testament presents a positive view of wealth. It is seen as good, as long as it is not due to the oppression of the needy or a false source of security. Wealth is largely seen as a blessing from God for faithfulness (Deuteronomy  28). This view does come with strict warnings about the misuse of wealth and severe denunciations of injustice (Deuteronomy 24). Nevertheless, the overall picture is fairly positive. Wealth is part of God’s material creation. Thus it is originally or fundamentally good, because the material world was created good (Genesis 1). While material wealth can become an idol, it is not in itself an idol.

The predominant teaching of the Old Testament is that God will bless with wealth those who are faithful to the covenant. Virtue and wealth generally go hand-in-hand and poverty is a result of foolishness or sloth (Proverbs). This is balanced by some alternative voices emphasizing that the connection between wealth and virtue can break down at the personal level (Job) and in social order (Ecclesiastes). For the most part, however, Old Testament authors tend to emphasize not the possibility of misalignments between virtue and success, but the general tendency toward their alignment. When confronted with wealthy oppressors, they tend to emphasize that such people will in fact be punished with economic ruin, even if they prosper for a period of time before receiving their just deserts.

The New Testament presents a picture that is different from this positive view. One might be tempted to say that the view of wealth in the New Testament is more nuanced, but that would be too much of an understatement. The fact is, in many places the New Testament’s view of wealth is downright negative (James 2).  Why is there such a contrast between the testaments?

Ironically, much of the difference in views comes down to their having the same view about the importance of land – but applying that same view to two very different contexts. Remember, in the ancient world, land was the primary means of wealth production, and there’s only so much land to go around. That will make you view wealth in one way if you and your neighbors are all living on your own land, owning it legitimately, and working it freely. It will make you view wealth in another way if you and your neighbors have had your land stolen from you, and are working it under conditions of oppression.

Land was primarily inherited. If you couldn’t get it by inheritance, you got it through theft or taxation. In the early part of the Old Testament, when Israel was in possession of the land, they would obviously have seen the land as a gift from God. During the monarchy, when the king selfishly took land away from other people’s households through taxation, the prophets cried out against this injustice. The land not only provided those households with their means of economic support, it provided the direct link to God’s promise to Abraham. The people of Israel were the people of the land.

In the New Testament, however, most of the people were landless. Rome ruled Judea through local officials known as procurators. Large estates ruled by absentee landlords were the norm. Galilee under Herod Antipas was in very similar circumstances. The numerous parables in the gospels about landowners, tenant farmers, and slaves reflect this reality.

If the total amount of wealth is fixed, and who has how much wealth is tied to who has how much land, then people can only acquire wealth by taking it away from their neighbors. If someone else has wealth and you don’t, they got it by taking it away from you, and the only way you can get it is by taking it from them. To be wealthy is to be guilty – almost by definition.

A second factor to consider is that honor and shame were dominant forces in the social world of the New Testament. (A “shame culture,” such as the one in which the New Testament takes place, is often contrasted with a “guilt culture,” which operates differently.) In a world where honor and shame were of overwhelming social importance, wealth would cause people to give you honor while poverty would result in shame. These social attitudes are an important context for understanding the many New Testament passages that admonish us to quit kissing up to the rich and scoffing at the poor.

This is why we see a fairly negative view of wealth in the New Testament. But it is not completely so. Just as the Old Testament’s positive view is balanced by warnings and alternative voices, a careful study of wealth in the New Testament reveals that its views are much more nuanced than they appear to be on the surface. In the final article of this series, we will look at wealth in the Gospel of Luke; especially how Jesus uses the theme of Jubilee to announce his ministry, and how the rich may not be as cursed as a surface reading of Luke would suggest.

Keith Reeves is professor of biblical studies, Azusa-Pacific University. This article originally appeared in the Oikonomia Network newsletter.  Image: ON.

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