Time of Troubles

A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity

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Roland Boer, Christina Petterson
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     252 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A recent profusion of books on how and why Christianity triumphed in the Roman empire details the importance of cultural borrowing by Christians. Successful recruitment was enhanced by giving familiar elements a Christian interpretation. In Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity, Roland Boer and Christina Petterson contribute to these studies in a significant way by analyzing the relationship between the Christian movement and existing economic structures of the Roman empire. 

Refusing to treat economics as a separate entity (and a separate discipline), Boer and Petterson emphasize the historical, social, political, and religious contexts for the integration of economics and culture. Chapter 1, “Economic Theory,” surveys the history of the economic reconstruction of antiquity beginning with Adam Smith. Most economists agree that his claim of an early Homo oeconomicusnever existed as such. Nevertheless, Smith remains influential due to his application of modern concepts (such as “market economy” or “scarcity”) to the ancient world. Such descriptors have no equivalent in Greco-Roman culture. Analyses also remain dominated by the concept of oikos, the household, as the fundamental model for understanding all ancient economics. Boer and Petterson applaud the work of Johann Karl Rodbertus (1865) who highlighted the role of taxation in ancient economies. Karl Bucher (1901) promoted the idea that economics (and economies) change over time. Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1941) applied a Marxist approach to the problem of ancient economies, but emphasized the “bourgeoisie” as the sole determiners of economic activity. Max Weber contributed in a positive way by including the social context of ancient economics (1897). However, Weber saw the polis as the dominant structure for economic activity and control. Moses Finley (1973) avoided using capitalist terms, but neglected the institution of slavery in the ancient world. Karl Polanyi (1957) presented a much larger survey by examining Greece and Asia (Turkey) in comparison to 18th-century West Africa, but did not include agriculture. 

Boer and Petterson have high praise for the work of de Ste. Croix (1981), who did a detailed study of the social role of class in the exploitation of labor and commodities. This included the control of slave labor, debt bondage, indentured tenants on the land, and land tenure, and the control of coloni in economic activity. Preferring de Ste. Croix’s Marxist approach, the authors expand upon those ideas with the application of Regulation theory, citing the work of Robert Boyer and Yves Saillard, (Regulation Theory: The State of the Art, Routledge, 2002). Regulation theory operates on the following four premises: (1) economic activity is inescapably social; (2) contradiction and therefore crisis is the norm; (3) temporary stability is the exception and needs to be analyzed; (4) stability is enabled by institutional, behavioral, and ideological practices. 

The subsequent chapters of Time of Troubles outline the institutional structures that were operational in the ancient world. They highlight slaves as “objects,” and the importance of the relationship between the polisand chora, the countryside that provided food and products for the urban centers. The various associations of free and tenured farmers, indentured workers, and estate slaves demonstrate that “subsistence survival” (the role of agriculture) remained constant throughout. 

Chapter 6, “Christianity as a Mode of Regulation,” provides specific examples drawn from the New Testament and attempts, in part, to answer the question, “Why did Christianity so quickly become part of the early Roman urban setting?” (157). Boer and Petterson’s analysis begins with John and then reaches back through the synoptic gospels to Paul. Despite the metaphors of “bread” and “harvest” in John, the authors claim that John presents a narrative from an aristocratic point of view, or a view from the polis. The fact that the gospels are in Greek already assumes an educated, polis-based writer and audience. The bucolic references to agriculture have, in fact, been “spiritualized” (159). Mark, with its many parables of laborers, fishermen, land-tenure workers, and the diseased and disabled, reflects the polis-based image of the typical “poor” (160). Whether or not these are actual teachings of Jesus, Boer and Petterson point out that Christianity did not “catch fire” in the Galilee and the countryside of Judea, where the “subsistence survival” of traditional peasants may have been averse to change. 

Bolstering their claim that the gospels reflect an urban point of view, Boer and Petterson point out that the many parables rarely offer a name or a detailed characterization of a poor person. These parables always refer to servants in a rich household or workers in the field. The ruling classes are “the good guys” (or even god, for example, in the parable of the wicked tenants). Such images uphold the structures of domination in the Roman empire. 

In discussing the “Slave Regime,” the authors analyze the letter to Philemon. Philemon is replete with patronizing treatments of slaves found in some Greco-Roman literature, especially in philosophical admonitions about not letting anger take control. The letter to the Galatians takes up metaphors of slavery and freedom as a major theme. Becoming “slaves” now to Christianity was an admonition that evoked a socially, culturally, and religiously structured system throughout the Roman empire.

In their conclusion, Boer and Petterson claim that “Christianity offered a new life, but was also fully aware that the realities of the old life continued to influence the new life ...This was particularly the case with the shift to the land regime in third century CE [under Christian Emperors]” (185-86). A reconstruction of ancient economics, separating elements from the contextual, behavioral, and ideological structures of society, suffers the bane of all historians: that of anachronism. Time of Troubles provides an excellent corrective by offering a new methodology for analyzing ancient economies. My only criticism is that the economics involved in religion (the importance of the chora in supplying the sacrifices) would have made the study more complete when analyzing the entirety of economic systems. Aside from that, Time of Troubles can serve as required reading for an inclusive understanding of the rise of Christianity in the Roman empire.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is Senior Lecturer in the Early History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roland Boer is Xin Ao professor of literature at Renmin University of China and research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Christina Petterson is a postdoctoral research associate at the Australian National University.


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