“Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea” by Samuel L. Adams

Social-and-Economic-Life-in-Second-Temple-JudeaSamuel L. Adams. Social and Economic Life in Second Temple Judea. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 269 pp., $35.00 (paperback).

Samuel L. Adams (Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary) provides a readable analysis and presentation of social and economic life in Second Temple Judea. Rather than purely being a history of the socio-economic conditions in the period, Adams’ work funnels towards how solid economic understandings allow for better biblical interpretation. According to Adams, “no previous study has focused specifically on economic when analyzing this time frame” (2). While there has been no survey of this period that explicitly connects economic conditions and theologies, there has been much work on the economic conditions during Roman, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Persian periods . Thus, his claim to uniqueness is true in some sense, but overblown some regards.

Chapter 1 highlights the household structure and their struggles, such as imperial demands through taxation, financial aspects of marriage, and a generalized snapshots of household life. Following, Chapter 2 explores the roles and responsibilities of woman and children, emphasizing that while both were often marginalized and socially vulnerable, “the roles they played in facilitating economic life” were “indispensable contributions at the household level and beyond” (81). Chapter 3 focuses on two major elements of daily life in the 2nd Temple Period – work and financial exchanges – and demonstrates the difficulty of daily subsistence and common occurrences of elites exploiting the lower class through surety, loans, and bribery. Chapter 4 provides a diachronic view of the historical periods of Judea’s subjection to leadership by Persians, Ptolemaics, Seleucids, Hasmoneans, and Romans. Finally, Chapter 5 examines the Second Temple Period literature directly and demonstrates the diversity in opinions regarding the ethics of wealth and poverty.

One of the most important things about Adams’ book is how his economic analysis allows more layers and elements by which to critique biblical literature. Although many have done this previously, Adams’ effectively summarizes the large amounts of scholarship regarding economics in the period and demonstrates how they elucidate biblical literature written during the 2nd Temple Period. Yet his success was also a shortcoming: the focus on biblical literature (roughly 65% biblical literature, 35% other sources) does not provide a full picture. Especially from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, there is a large amount of data from which he could have drawn. For example, when one considers how interrelated economics and philosophy were, and arguably still are, a lacuna of Hellenistic influence upon how various authors address economic issues becomes apparent. One of the most notable places where this is needed is within his final chapter, which explicitly examines the ethics of wealth and poverty within Second Temple Period literature. How did various philosophical schools impact ideas about these ethics? How did the climate of Judea impact these ideas? Rather than narrow focus and assumption of theological autonomy, potential external influences must be considered. For such a small region, external influences, both philosophical and geographical, are extremely important to engage with, as they played a major role in shaping the social and economic life in Second Temple Period Judea.

Additionally, although he claims to be covering the 2nd Temple Period, some sources from which he draws are not relevant to his discussion. Even if they are relevant, he does not demonstrates why something outside of 586 BCE to 70 AD is still relevant to his study. He notes in the introduction, for example, that “many of the New Testament books postdate the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, and yet these sources are helpful for understanding economic life in Judea under the Romans” (7). He needs to demonstrate through critical analysis why it is still relevant. Likewise, in order to justify elucidation of Jerusalem’s economic landscape through Elephantine papyri, he notes that “some have questioned the relevance of an Egyptian settlement for understand the socio-economic landscape of Jerusalem and its environs, but such a rigid position is dismissive of vital evidence for family life during this period” (31). Adams continues with no evidence of why it is relevant and does not work to justify its relevance. Questioning the use of Elephantine papyri is not dismissive; rather, it demands reason to associate distinct social and geographical spheres of existence. In Chapter 2, he continues with use of the Bavli, a document fully compiled in the 8th century AD and far outside the Second Temple Period (71, 86). As  demonstrated, he sometimes draws on sources that are not fully relevant to his argument. Even if they have potential to be relevant, he does not justify his use of them.

Third of all, the organization of the book is inconvenient for the reader. Although there are consistent references to the various imperial rulers in Chapters 1-3, he waits until Chapter 4 to provide a history of taxation and the role of empires in Judaean socio-economics. In order to fully understand the daily life of families, woman, children, work, and financial exchanges, Adams should have began with diachronic presentation of taxation(s) and the role of the state(s), as it would have provided a framework by which to understand various elements. Chapter 1, for example, lacks clarity because he bounces back-and-forth between various imperial periods, causing confusion for the reader.

Finally, Adams disagrees with his own arguments at points. In the conclusion, he writes that within Second Temple Period framework, “it becomes inadvisable to speak of the “religious” aspects of a particular passage or development, as opposed to “economic” or “cultural” factors. These are false distinctions when examining this period” (207). Yet in his own arguments, he agrees with Tcherikover that “military efforts by the Hasmoneans had economic motivations at their core rather than religious ones” (170). Rather than writing about the distinctions within the conclusion, they should be established as methodological foundations. Unfortunately, his failure to do so demonstrates an inconsistency within his thinking, which he should address for a more coherent argument.

As is evident, I was not a huge fan of this book, though I won’t dismiss its value. I greatly appreciated the broad overview of family life during the period and his ability to summarize vast amounts of research. Adams’ vision is fantastic and makes me look forward to his commentary on Ben Sirach; however, the inconsistencies take away from the overall value of his work. Again towards a more positive spin, as Peter Altmann has noted about his work, Adams’ provides a good survey with many places in which future research may take place [1]. If someone is doing work on the social and economic life of Judea, this is a great place to begin, so long as caution is taken to recognize the shortcomings of the book.

[1] Altmann notes the following in his review: “While one may quibble over many details, as a volume that provides a worthy introduction to the subfield of economics in ancient Judea, some basic definitions and discussion of his approach to ancient economics would be helpful”.


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