Approaching a Biblical Economic Ethic – The Sins of Biblical Economists

Numerous modern authors draw on biblical texts as support for economic rules in modern societies. Notably, contemporary writers often draw contradictory conclusions about the message and intent of the texts in their ancient settings, as well as about the rules that they derive for modern life. In this article, I show the methodological failures of a few exemplar authors: ignoring evidence, misunderstanding the ancient context, misreading narrative as ethical instruction, and errors in connecting the ancient texts and modern societies. We have much to learn about how we approach these matters.


In this article, I will outline three types of problems that often afflict attempts to synthesis contemporary economic ethics from the Hebrew Bible: interpretive diversity, antiquity, and lack of economic expertise.


Interpretive diversity

Perhaps the most significant challenge to synthesising an ethical approach from the Hebrew Bible is that the same texts are taken to mean quite different things by different interpreters. The ethical positions which interpreters bring to the scriptural texts have a significant impact on how they read the texts. As Lester L. Grabbe astutely points out:

Unfortunately, for some biblical scholars, the entire issue of the ancient economy seems to be reduced to the “exploitation of the poor” … a proper economic discussion has to go beyond indignation over the oppression of the poor and seek to understand and describe. (A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: The Coming of the Greeks: The Early Hellenistic Period (335–175 BCE), 208)

Grabbe’s excellent advice has been largely unheeded, leading to some wonderful examples of well-meaning attempts to draw on ancient texts for modern purposes. For example, the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign sought to persuade rich countries to forgive debt owed by poor countries, an effort helpfully assessed by Michael Long (Theological reflection on international debt: a critique of the Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign). Long’s work shows that biblical language still has the power to persuade western societies to change, although he also points to both theological and economic weaknesses in the specifics of the campaign.

Some interpreters, such as Paul Mills, argue that all interest-bearing debt must be abandoned, and that relational connections between people are the essential basis for economic activity. This depends on a naïve understanding of texts which use family terminology (e.g. the word often glossed in English as ‘brother’) to suggest that the ideal setting for economic activity is in families, or at least within groups who have close relationships with each other. Many other interpreters would identify these terms as promoting the idea that you should treat people to whom you have no family relationship as if they were your kin — in other words, that these texts imagine ideal economic activity occurring between people who share no relational connection, but who behave with the highest ethical standards towards each other. The two interpretations are quite simply at odds with each other.

Other interpreters see complex issues as simple. For example, Timothy Gorringe states that:

The redemption of money will involve—as Deuteronomy, the medieval theologians, and Luther all insisted—the abolition of usury… [Charging interest] harms life. (Capital and the Kingdom: Theological Ethics and Economic Order, 167)

It is not as obvious to other interpreters that charging interest harms life, and in fact others are of the opinion that charging interest can be used to support and benefit life. For example, Richard Higginson argues that ‘…the charging of interest can represent a fair commercial arrangement from which both lender and borrower benefit.’ (Faith, Hope and the Global Economy, 109)

The book of Deuteronomy has proved particular open to differing interpretations, which is unfortunate because one of the few things interpreters agree on is that Deuteronomy is systemically important for the task of theological ethics for economics. So, on the one hand, Andrew Bradstock argues that Deuteronomy supports a broadly socialist system (Profits Without Honour? Economics, Theology and the Current Global Recession), while on the other hand, Andrew Schein argues that Deuteronomy supports a broadly capitalist system (The Vision of Deuteronomy 15 with Regard to Poverty, Socialism, and Capitalism). I will return to this in future articles, but for the moment I will foreshadow my argument by suggesting that in seeking a system, both interpretations make an error of method.



As Edward Norman rightly pointed out many years ago, part of the reason for this diversity of interpretation is that many people approach texts which use technical terms from antiquity and expect that those ancient technical terms have a straightforward correspondence in today’s economic world. But this is not a sensible approach:

…the vocabulary used is not merely a contemporary rendition of biblical meaning, as those who employ it like to suppose; in reality, … Their enthusiasm is such that they are unhesitatingly convinced of the inherent Christianity of any moral ideal which seems calculated to improve the lot of men. (Christianity and World Order)

Norman is quite right to attribute excellent motives to these various interpreters, include those who have continued to approach the scriptural texts in the years since his lecture. The error is neither attempting to improve the lot of humanity, nor having enthusiasm for doing so, but in attempting to co-opt texts which resist such a straightforward appropriation for the task. Indeed, the exegetical and hermeneutical gymnastics sometimes required mean that as John Barton points out, many interpreters, especially those reading scriptural texts with an ‘avowedly theological agenda,’ in doing so ‘detach the text wholly from its ancient moorings’ (Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations, 63).

On top of the challenge of words, it can be difficult for modern readers to know what is normal or unusual in the ideas represented in ancient texts, because we have no easy access to a sense of what was normal in ancient times. As Robert Carroll points out, Jeremiah 32 (and other texts about ‘redemption’) might simply be ‘reflecting a social practice of land-purchasing,’ rather than advocating for that practice (Textual Strategies and Ideology in the Second Temple Period, 108–24). Redemption is certainly not a usual economic practice today, so it naturally strikes modern readers as being unusual, but this is not necessarily a good assumption to bring to an ancient text. This is an extension of Norman’s point earlier about the meaning of words, and extents to the ideas and practices which the words of ancient texts attest to.

Often, the ancient evidence is complex or even apparently conflicting, and so the temptation for modern ethicists is to be selective about which evidence they attend to or give weight to, perhaps even preferring one type of evidence over another. As an example, when Boer states that ‘the self-sufficient subsistence of the village communes… comprised the bulk of all socioeconomic life’ (The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, 131), he is asserting this as part of an argument that subsistence communes are a normative ideal. In doing so he draws from one particular set of modern ideas about what is normal, saying that Vladimir Lenin’s view that the ‘state is the product of class conflict’ is an ‘uncontroversial’ statement (134). In fact, he is so willing to follow this line of thinking, despite ancient textual evidence to the contrary, that he claims that modern readers should guard themselves against the ‘seductions’ (126) of ancient written sources which do not fit this mould.

Others, by contrast, can be criticised for placing too much weight on the written sources. For example, Roger Nam states that Moshe Elat, who has written a major work on the ancient Israelite economy, ‘draws freely form [sic] the biblical narrative without much discussion over the archaeological evidence’ (Portrayals of Economic Exchange in the Book of Kings, 22). The point is not so much that Elat is wrong to give weight to the biblical narrative, nor that Boer is wrong to give weight to archaeological evidence, but that conclusions interpreters arrive at can often be determined by their methodological preferences for one type of evidence over another, or by the particular set of modern ideals they hold and are (no doubt unconsciously) projecting back into antiquity.

When faced with complex and sometimes not entirely coherent types and pieces of evidence from the ancient world, it can no doubt be very tempting to be selective. But selectivity can conceal the challenge of even understanding the individual pieces of evidence, or of knowing what is normal and what is unusual. In scriptural texts, many of which are undoubtedly read for their persuasive or ethically normative aspects, this problem is compounded in the case of economic matters as it can be exceptionally difficult to know if a particular economic matter (such as land redemption) is incidental or significant.


Lack of inter-disciplinary expertise

Lastly, it is an unfortunate reality that the specialisations required to interpret ancient texts on the one hand, and to engage with contemporary economics on the other, are not often found in the same person. As a result, people attempting to navigate the combination can run aground. I will give three examples of this.

First, consider María Eugenia Aubet’s pejorative association of disconnected ideas:

The idea of a market economy or ancient capitalism implies not only supply and demand but also the pillaging of resources, accumulation of capital, exploitation of one class by another and free trade, and certain practices of production and consumption dictated by the laws of supply and demand, behind which lie large-scale movements and interests associated with the structural fluctuation of prices. (Commerce and Colonization in the Ancient Near East, 369)

I cannot think of a reputable economic theorist who believes that all these negative consequences are tied to supply and demand: indeed, supply and demand are neutral in economic theory, and certainly have no requirement for pillaging attached to them in any major economic textbook. A more plausible argument might be that understanding supply and demand can even help prevent the kinds of social dislocations that might prompt pillaging!

Ancient historians can also on occasion display a lack of precision around matters of economics. For example, Roland Boer attempts to distinguish between ‘credit,’ which he sees as being part of a virtuous, trust-based economic system, and ‘debt,’ which he sees as ontologically different and describes as a means of gaining power over labour (The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, 157–8). The idea that debt and credit are two sides of the same coin does not seem to have occurred to him, or at least it’s absent from what Boer writes. Because he fails to distinguish the two, it is left entirely unclear how a person in need might obtain virtuous ‘credit’ without incurring odious ‘debt’ as a consequence, or how it can be virtuous to have access to ‘credit’ if the person extending that credit must by necessity be a power-hungry ‘debt’ merchant.

The same lack of subject expertise can be visible in modern economists who read ancient texts. For example, Edward Swan has claimed that derivatives have existed for millennia (Building the Global Market: a 4000 Year History of Derivatives), but in doing so I would argue that he projects modern ideas about finance onto ancient texts. For example, agreements to provide a certain quantity of goods in the future for a particular price have formal similarities to modern forward contracts. The intent of the ancient agreements, however, was often to gain control over a person’s labour, rather than to trade against variations in prices over time. Reading English translations of the texts without detailed knowledge of the ancient social and economic settings for the text risks serious misinterpretation.



It might seem that I am counselling despair for any attempt to connect the scriptural texts to modern economic life. As it happens, I would not want to go as far as Andrew Henley, when he states that, ‘…it is not appropriate to attempt to derive a set of rules or principles for economic life from the foundation of Old Testament economic law, as some recent attempts by economists try to achieve’ (Economics and Virtue Ethics: Reflections From a Christian Perspective, 109–28).

What I am suggesting is that to make constructive points from these texts, or from the non-legal scriptural texts, requires some careful preparatory work. First, we need to have an accurate description of the economic contexts from which the texts arose, including an awareness of the limits of our access to knowledge of ancient economies. Secondly, we need to be judicious and cautious in our assertions about the ethical arguments the scriptural texts are advancing.

Neither of these is impossible, but both are challenging and complex tasks. To me, that makes the tasks all the more enjoyable, and I hope to outline some ideas in subsequent posts which address some of these issues, starting with a new description of the ancient Israelite economy which forms the setting for any interpretation of the scriptural texts.


Dr Lyndon Drake has recently completed a DPhil at Oxford on theology and economic capital in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He also has degrees in science and commerce (Auckland), a PhD in computer science (York), and two prior degrees in theology (Oxford), along with a number of peer-reviewed academic publications in science and theology. From the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribal group, he currently serves as Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau in the Māori Anglican bishopric of Te Tai Tokerau. Lyndon has written Capital Markets for the Common Good: A Christian Perspective (Oxford: 2017, Oxford Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics). He is married to Miriam with three children. Until 2010, Lyndon was a Vice President at Barclays Capital in London.