BMCR 2022.09.06

The struggle over class: socioeconomic analysis of ancient Christian texts

, , , The struggle over class: socioeconomic analysis of ancient Christian texts. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, supplement 19. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021. Pp. 472. ISBN 9781628374155 $69.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume brings together thirteen papers given during a series of panels on class analysis held at the 2016 and 2017 annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature [SBL], along with four additional studies. The editors have divided the collection into five sections, each covering a particular genre of early Christian literature: the Pauline tradition, the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John and Acts, Apocalyptic, and Patristics. This arrangement mirrors the organization of the panels from which the contributions were drawn—the only exceptions being the sections on John and Patristics, which were not originally panels. The number of chapters for each section varies—with the section on John and Acts containing a standalone essay. All sections, except for the chapter on John and Acts, end with a response commenting on the themes of the chapters and offering future possibilities presented by each paper. These response papers are by leading scholars in the discipline and they succeed, for the most part, in fulfilling the incredibly difficult task of synthesizing as many as four complicated arguments while adding important insights of their own.

It is clear that the organizers of the original panels intentionally sought a range of perspectives on the validity of class as a heuristic for the study of ancient society. Some of the authors argue for using class as an analytical category, while others reject it and offer alternative approaches to the socioeconomic dynamics of the ancient world. Many of the contributors do not agree on how we should define class and status in the context of antiquity. The result is a sense of being present during an ongoing conversation. It is, in a way, like attending these panels at SBL, but without the coffee lines and reimbursement forms.

Of course, it is impossible with a volume of this size to offer an assiduous review of every contribution. I provide an assessment of the papers that stood out the most for me, but the exclusion of a chapter here should not be construed as a comment on that essay’s importance or validity.

G. Anthony Keddie’s introduction artfully sets the tone for the collection. He gives an outline of the included chapters that is requisite for a volume like this, but, more importantly, he provides the reader with a review of the literature on socioeconomic analysis of antiquity and early Christianity as well as a detailed and coherent history of theories of class and status. This includes tracing the origins and trajectories of three main schools of thought: Marxist, Weberian, and Bourdieusian. Keddie is equitable in his presentation of each viewpoint, even as he makes a clear case for the Bourdieusian approach. As a result, the bibliography is a treasure trove for those just beginning to explore the class/status debate. Indeed, Keddie’s introduction would serve excellently as reading within a graduate course on methodology in early Christian studies.

Cavan Concanon argues that, while we should indeed focus on questions of materiality in the ancient world, we must do so in a way that avoids reductive narratives that can accompany models based on “class.” Concanon turns to the work of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, who encourage viewing the socioeconomic landscape in terms of “assemblages” rather than class (or, for that matter, status). Assemblages operate like a machine that emerges from the composite parts of social and/or economic systems. Concanon asks us to consider a tanner as an example: he may exist within a certain economic stratum or may have a specific relationship to the means of production, but the material sourcing and distribution network that allows him to ply his craft carries much more significance for understanding his societal positionality. Concannon then makes a convincing case for implementing assemblages “as a way of envisioning the coming together and coming apart” of Pauline collectives and other early Christian communities (69).

Caroline Johnson Hodge utilizes 1 Peter to raise questions about the obligations of enslaved individuals to manage household lares might have functioned in the context of an enslaved Christian within a non-Christian household. She calls on us to turning aside class analysis in favor of an intersectional feminist approach. Using Judith Butler’s concept of citationality, Johnson Hodge asks if there might be space to imagine how subordinates in the household might have reiterated and adapted cultic practices in a way that disrupted systems of power. Such an approach reveals a dynamic of tension and resistance within early Christian households that goes beyond reductive, vertical hierarchies of class.

Jennifer Quigley closely reads the economic language within Philippians 3 alongside episodes of economic exchange with divinity from other antique sources (especially Lucian) in order to ask how “theo-economics”—as she describes it, the “intertwined theological and economic logic in which divine and human beings regularly enter into financial transactions with one another”—should factor into the class analysis of early Christianity (123). For instance, sacrifice, which served as the principle means of seeking divine favor and blessing, involved a large network of farmers and stock raisers in addition to priests and other temple officials. Quigley argues that the economics of such temple and cultic practices should be seen as more than a mere means to an end. Just as we ask how access to physiological needs such as food, water and shelter was wrapped up in concerns of class and status, so too should we investigate how theological resources might also be tied to these concerns.

James Crossley offers an argument against diluting the materialist realities of ancient socioeconomics with “ideology” that produces appeals to identity and status. Crossley correctly points out that the reticence for Marxist approaches within biblical and early Christian studies stems from a fear of Communism—or, more pointedly, an association of Marxism with atheism. The history and evidence Crossley provides for this fact are indisputable and indispensable within the debate over class analysis as a viable heuristic for early Christian studies. However, characterizing all criticisms of class analysis as the result of confessional bias is frustratingly reductive. And, even if Crossley does not intend it to, the dismissive reference to “ideology” resembles unpleasant dog whistles often deployed against scholars in biblical and early Christian studies who pursue work on marginalized communities. In any case, it is odd to read an argument dedicated to the position that class conflict is a transhistorical reality “obfuscated” by investigations of status and identity alongside chapters from other contributors that highlight the importance of intersectionality for understanding the socioeconomic dynamics of early Christianity.

In her chapter, Alicia J. Batten’s argues that, if we read certain episodes in Mark from the position of the poor peasant class, we can find a sort of biting humor that lampoons the disconnectedness and materialism of the wealthy. It is refreshing to see an interpretation of a New Testament text that does not assume its authors had to be impeccably sincere at every moment, and such an analysis opens up the possibility to imagine a community of readers who laugh and sneer at the pomposity of a wealthy class that subjugates them. Batten’s argument serves as an interesting first foray into the questions that arise from these readings, but the analysis cries out for more detailed philological evidence for which, I suspect, the forum simply did not allow time.

In his contribution on Revelation, Steven J. Friesen takes a self-consciously etic approach to class analysis. He organizes his argument based on three modern categories of class: the Surplus Accumulation Class (government officials and landowners), the Surplus Generation Class (professionals, entertainers, and laborers), and the Underclass (the unemployed, disabled, homeless, orphans). Friesen deploys these categories heuristically in order to reveal some of the deeper nuances of John’s own understanding of class. The conspicuous lack of slavery within Friesen’s heuristic actually lays bare the invisibility of slaves within John’s eschatology—they are merely among those who bow to the beast in Rev 13. In addition, John’s portrayal of Babylon as a sex worker who simultaneously enriches kings and intoxicates the masses ignores the realities of marginalized individuals suffering under the same system he protests. Friesen’s chapter thus helpfully points out the cracks within an ostensibly revolutionary Johannine eschatology—as well as those within a Marxian one.

Michael Flexsenhar III begins the volume’s section on Patristics with a discussion of the class dynamics at play within Tertullian’s advocacy for Christian women to find husbands within the Christian community. Flexsenhar argues that Tertullian’s chastisement of wealthy Christian women who seek wealthy non-Christian husbands cannot be understood outside of the socioeconomic situation within North Africa in the church father’s time. In brief, Tertullian’s concerns can be seen as evidence of an anxiety among the Christian upper-class that intermarriages were moving wealth outside of the community. Unsurprisingly, the misogynist Tertullian portrays this situation as an example of women’s caprice and love of luxury. Regardless of whether the North African father’s assessment of the situation reflects an objective reality—and it is clear that Flexsenhar rightly has his doubts—it is crucial to recognize Tertullian’s social, political, and economic stake in that situation. Thus, Flexsenhar’s conclusions highlight the importance of remembering that early Christian conversations about sexual ethics (and other theological matters) cannot be compartmentalized from the socioeconomic benefits the advocates of those ethics stood to reap from them.

Jaclyn Maxwell’s chapter follows in a similar vein to Flexsenhar’s. Maxwell focuses on the exhortations of Gregory of Nyssa to take up a life of poverty. Using a close reading of Gregory’s Homlies, Life of Gregory the Wonderworker, and Life of Macrina, Maxwell throws into question the notion that the Cappadocian was a bold advocate for economic equality. She notes how Gregory of Nyssa never lauds the condition of poverty of those who were born poor and of low status. Rather, he reserves his praise for those among the noble classes who have “voluntarily” become “impoverished.” These, he says, are the “poor in spirit” whom Jesus praises in Matthew (5:3). Indeed, Maxwell’s investigation makes clear that Gregory sees these “poor in spirit,” who would exclusively be from elite and noble classes, as superior in holiness to those who have suffered poverty their entire lives. Gregory is a particularly salient example of this sort of mentality; his writings are strewn with frankly braggadocious references to his family’s incredible wealth and nobility. Maxwell’s essay thus boldly and vitally upturns a stubbornly prevailing narrative that paints early Christianity as uniquely compassionate, egalitarian, or elsewise beneficial for the generationally impoverished.

The Struggle over Class is overall successful in presenting an excellent contribution to several different subfields of early Christian studies and to important ongoing conversations throughout the guild. Regretfully, the volume is lacking in racial and ethnic diversity among its contributors. While most of the content is drawn from previously formed SBL panels, it would have been enlightening to see more social perspectives represented among the chapters. Nevertheless, those who wish more deeply to factor questions of wealth, class, or status into their work will find this collection to be an indispensable resource for charting their investigation.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Struggle over Class in the Study of Early Christianity – G. Anthony Keddie

Part 1. Epistles and Assemblages
The Matter of Class: Assemblages, Networks, and the Shape of the Pauline Collectives
“Wife, Pray to the Lar”: Wives, Slaves, and Worship in Roman Households – Caroline Johnson Hodge
Complicating Class in the Letter to Philemon: A Prolegomenon – Alan H. Cadwallader
Class-ifying the Gods: The Christ Commodity in Philippians 3 – Jennifer Quigley
Response to Part 1: Theoretical Perspectives on the Stratification of Wealth, Power, and Status in the Ancient Mediterranean World – Philip F. Esler

Part 2. Synoptic Traditions
Class Conflict in Galilee at the Time of Jesus – James Crossley
Reading Mark through the Lens of Class – Alicia J. Batten
Exhuming Class: Syrian Mortuary Practices and Class Difference in the Gospel of Matthew – G. Anthony Keddie
Response to Part 2: Lessons I Learned Skipping Class – Zeba Crook

Part 3. Gospel of John and Acts of the Apostles
Class of History and History of Class in John and Acts – Christina Patterson

Part 4. Apocalyptic Literature
Class Consciousness, Group Affiliation, and Apocalyptic Speculation – Lorenzo DiTommaso
Class, Classification, and Political Conflict in the Study of Apocalypticism: The Case of 1 Corinthians 1–2 – Emma Wasserman
Class Analysis in the Book of Revelation: Intersections of Economy, Religion, and Gender – Steven J. Friesen
Response to Part 4: Class, Intersectionality, and Apocalyptic Rhetoric – Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Part 5: Patristic Literature
Unequally Yoked: Tertullian on Marriage and Class – Michael Flexsenhar III
How Level is the Playing Field? Virtue and Socioeconomic Standing in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa – Jaclyn Maxwell
Response to Part 5: Reflections on Class in Late Antiquity – Daniëlle Slootjes