I’ve recently been reading M. I. Finley’s classic The Ancient Economy. Early in the book he is explaining that Greek oikonomia (meaning “household management” and the word from which we get “economics”) dealt almost exclusively with the politics of managing the household. It had virtually nothing to do with what we would today call economics except in the most banal sense. He goes on to write:
Since revenues loom so large in the affairs of a state, it is not surprising that occasionally oikonomia also was used to mean the management of public revenues. The one Greek attempt at a general statement is the opening of the second book of the pseudo-Aristotelian Oikonomikos, and what is noteworthy about these half dozen paragraphs is not only their crashing banality but also their isolation in the whole surviving ancient writing. It was the French, apparently, who first made a practice of speaking of l’economie politique, and even they normally meant by it politics rather than economics until about 1750. By then a large body of writing had grown up on trade, money national income and economic policy, and in the second half of the eighteenth century “political economy” at last acquired its familiar, specialized sense, the science of the wealth of nations. The shorter “economics” is a late nineteenth-century innovation that did not capture the field until the publication of the first volume of Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics in 1890.What this means is that there is no “economics” in the Bible. When the biblical writers touch on topics we would normally associate with economic matters, they are not processing them through an economic model. They are processing them through the norms Ancient Near East culture, Second Temple Judaism, or Greco-Roman culture. Kinship and politics were the driving institutions. Honor and shame, as well as patron and client relationships, were the primary guides in matters we would think of as economic.
Marshall’s title cannot be translated into Greek or Latin. Neither can the basic terms, such as labour, production, capital, investment, income, circulation, demand, entrepreneur, utility, at least not in the abstract form required of economic analysis. In stressing this I am suggesting not that the ancients were like Moliere’s M. Jourdain, who spoke prose without knowing it, but that they in fact lacked the concept of “economy”, and, a fortiori, that they lacked the conceptual elements which together constitute what we call “the economy”. Of course they farmed, traded, manufactured, mined, taxed, coined, deposited and loaned money, made profits or failed in their enterprises. And they discussed these activities in their talk and their writing. What they did not do, however, was to combine these particular activities conceptually into a unit, Parsonian terms into “a differentiated sub-system of society”. Hence Aristotle, whose programme was to codify the branches of knowledge, wrote no Economics. Hence, too, the perennial complaints about the paucity and mediocrity of ancient “economic” writing rest of a fundamental misconception of what those writings are about. (20-21)
That is not to say we can’t learn anything from Scripture about economic ethics. It does mean we need to be exceedingly cautious about inferring that free market economics, liberationist redistribution, or distributivist “small is beautiful” ideals (or any other economic models), somehow underlie teaching and events in the Bible as God’s transcendent model for economic behavior.