Labour and welfare in the ancient world (2 Thessalonians 3)

Bilderesultat for labour in the ancient world

In the ancient world there were three classes of labourers: freemen, slaves and a middle group, serfs, who were bound to work the soil or to perform other menial tasks on behalf of some state or institution. Slaves and serfs naturally laboured under the direction of their overlords, but freemen were obliged to find means of providing for themselves. Most men learned their trade from their fathers, just as most women acquired domestic skills from their mothers.

The varieties of occupations an individual might follow involved both skilled and unskilled labour. Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9) illustrates two extremes: stewards (educated people who managed the financial affairs of others) and those who dug ditches or even begged. A remarkable Egyptian document called Dua-Khety, or “The Satire on the Trades”, lists a wide variety of possible occupations; jewellers, carpenters, barbers, smiths, potters, agricultural workers, couriers, cobblers and others. Any and all of these jobs, this text asserts, were miserable occupations in comparison with the work of the scribe.

The rise of the Roman empire also gave rise to a class of citizens that to some degree lived off the public dole: During the period of the Roman republic, politicians sought to gain the votes of the masses by periodically giving people a supply of grain, either freely or at a greatly reduced price. C. Sempronius Gracchus (died 122 B.C.) made this a regular feature of Roman life by establishing a monthly ration of grain at a set price. In 58 B.C. P. Clodius Pulcher made this ration free. At the beginning of the empire, Augustus reorganized the system of public dole, instituting the tradition of providing “bread and circuses” for the masses.

Apart from the state welfare system for the Romans, Christians were encouraged to donate freely to the poor, especially to fellow believers in need. Such generosity could be – and invariably was – abused. Already in 2 Thessalonians 3 Paul found it necessary to rebuke those who were content to live off the charity of other Christians, confronting them with the maxim “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (3:10). In 1 Timothy 5:3-15 Paul provided guidelines for providing assistance to widows who were indeed needy, in contrast to those who should not have been living off the beneficence of the churches. Brought up in the Jewish tradition in which every son learned a trade. Paul supported himself as a tentmaker (Acts 18:2-3), and he expected other Christians to work for their livings as well.


%d bloggers like this: