The Bible and Work: Part Two

Ancient Roman Forum by Night
Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

Part Two has more reading and less to discuss. It could be combined with Part One ( you might want to give 25-30 minutes to Part One and 15 to 20 minutes to Part Two) or used alone. 

Continuing to clear the ground: What did people in the ancient world think about work?

In Part One, I asked you to think about your beliefs and ideas about work. In part two, we’re thinking about what is called the historical context of the Bible. We want to think about the life situation of the first recipients of the text. Historical context covers a lot of ground. We are asking questions about where and how did the first audience live? What was their society like?- What was the form of government, what were their social customs and beliefs? What was going on in the larger world? Were there wars, or famines? What were the first hearers religious practices? What were the religious practices of others in their area? Those are the sorts of question we want to ask.

Typically historical context is done for a particular book of the Bible or a particular part of the Bible. For example if you are studying First Corinthians, you would want to know some things about Corinth. Where it is located, who lived there, how people worshiped, how their society was structured. Knowing the answer to those sorts of question will help you understand the text better.

In this study we’re going to be looking at Scripture passages from several books of the Bible, so our work on historical context will be quite general in nature. Now this might sound daunting, but you probably know more than you think you do.  Some things you will recall from history classes in school or from learning you did in other Bible studies. If not, or you want more information, a good study Bible or commentary will help you out. ( you can read my earlier post on Biblical Interpretation for some help on this topic.) What we want to do is to remind ourselves about life in the ancient world before we start working with particular texts.

How do you think most people made their living in “bible times”?

How did people choose a job or profession?

What was the distribution of wealth like?

Was there a “middle class”, could someone be upwardly mobile?

Does the way people in ancient times thought about work and careers differ from how we think about work and careers?

How do these differences affect the way we approach a Bible study on word and careers?


Here are brief answers to those questions.

How did people make their living? For much of history, most people lived in rural areas or small villages. Most people were farmers raising crops and/or livestock. So most folks lived at or very near a substance level. Land in the middle east is not particularly fertile, compared to other areas, and it’s dry. It is a difficult place to make a living.

Some people, of course lived in cities. Some people were encouraged to move to a place by their rulers, some people were moved by their rulers (remember the Babylonian exile?). Some ended up in cities because they had lost their land. Others were trades people. Some scholars estimate that 1/3 to 40% of the population in the Roman Empire were slaves.

You might recall some of the jobs mentioned in the Bible, tentmaking, dyers of cloth, shepherds, herders, fishermen, carpenters. Other jobs in ancient cities were sailors, longshoremen, shipwrights, joiners, cabinet makers, sawyers, mill hands, coopers, mosaicists, floor-layers, plasterers, weavers, cleaners, rag-pickers, cobblers, farriers, and food vendors.* This isn’t an exhaustive list but it gives you an idea of the sorts of work people did.

How did people choose their jobs? Mostly, and this was true until the past several hundred years, sons did what their fathers did.  If there were several sons, the family trade might not support them all and younger sons would have to find other work. Women, worked very hard but not typically in the marketplace. There wasn’t, for most people, a lot of choice in jobs.  Education was limited to a select few, and that was true until fairly recently.

What was the distribution of wealth like?  Could someone be upwardly mobile? A quite small percentage (5-10%) of people were extremely rich.* Most were poor and there was a small “middle class”.It wasn’t impossible to be upwardly mobile, but opportunities were limited. Until the last several hundred years, most people believed that God, or the gods, placed people in their particular station in life. Kings were divinely placed and so was everyone else. If you were a shoemaker, that’s what God wanted you to do. Slaves were meant to be slaves, and so on. The world of the ancient near east and of the Roman empire was very hierarchical. People had their places, their location in society and they believed  they were there for a reason and they expected to stay there. One could though, be downwardly mobile. Farmers could lose their land and be reduced to tenets or day laborers.

How do these differences affect the way we approach a Bible study on word and careers? Why is this important to think about before we begin our study?  It is important to realize that many of the values and assumptions about the world in ancient times were quite different from our values and assumptions. Daily life in the ancient world was quite different from modern daily life. It’s obvious once we say it, but it is also easy to forget if we don’t remind ourselves.

Modern people ask the question, what sort of career should I have?  We wonder what sort of work God wants us to do. And because Christians value what the Bible teaches, we look to scripture to guide us as we ask questions about work and career choices.

But when we think about life in the ancient world, we realize the questions we have about work aren’t likely to be the same questions that ancient people had. So we need to be careful as we study what the Bible has to say about work. People in Biblical times thought differently about this subject than we do. This doesn’t mean our questions are wrong, or that we shouldn’t ask these questions. But we need to read and think carefully, aware of our beliefs and aware of the beliefs of the first hearers of the Biblical texts. The Bible, for all its enduring value as an inspired text, is nevertheless located in history. It reflects the society and values of its time. We simply need to be aware of this so that we be thoughtful and wise in our study.

*from Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter, 2001: Orbis Books, p19-20

Want to learn more about the ancient world? Here are some online places to begin.

PBS has some good resources, The Roman Empire, The Greeks, Egypt, and early Christianity as well as the BBC ancient empires site.

This Central Michigan University site will link you to other sites.

Cross posted at

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