Friesen on Paul and Economics

Steve Friesen is one of the very few Pauline scholars to consider Paul’s finances. In his article, Paul and Economics, he notes that his colleagues “would rather not discuss Paul’s economic practices. This is a curious state of affairs. Consider how much of your own life is intertwined with your economic practice…. Paul had expenses, too, so why do we avoid such topics? After all, in the extant letters, Paul wrote more about money than he did about the Lord’s Supper, or about baptism, or about the status of women.”

Friesen went through over 60 introductions to the New Testament – at least 4 from every decade in the 20th century - and found they all ignored the economic aspects of Paul’s mission. Friesen claimed that Paul earned somewhere between a subsistence living and below a subsistence living. He made no attempt to justify this. Presumably it was based on Paul’s repeated complaints of poverty, mitigated somewhat by Paul’s ability to survive despite his supposedly dire poverty.

Although Friesen specifically noted “Paul had expenses,” he somehow managed to overlook them. In fact Paul had very large expenses. Both his letters and his travel cost far more than over 95% percent of the people of the Roman Empire could afford. His expenses were totally inconsistent with Friesen’s estimate of his earnings. Furthermore, Paul ended up leasing the equivalent of a mansion in Rome.

I think this explains why New Testament scholars ignore the economic and financial aspects of Paul’s mission. They are embarrassing. They are reminiscent of a mob boss who lives in a mansion and has a fleet of luxury cars while claiming to support himself from his small Italian grocery. Even Steve Friesen, the leading New Testament expert on the subject, somehow overlooks the obvious facts. When it comes to Paul, these scholars can’t handle the facts.

(Friesen’s article appears in Paul Unbound, edited by Mark Given.)


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