June 16, 2011

That "Impractical" Jubilee Year Stuff...

It's probably pretty ho-hum news by now, to anyone who's looked into it, that Jesus in the previous post is portrayed as proclaiming a Jubilee Year: Release of debts and debt-slaves, return of foreclosed property to the original owners.

Is this something that ever happened, people wonder, or just an idealized, impractical notion.

The economist Michael Hudson has studied this extensively: "This paper accordingly traces the evolution of the Biblical debt and property laws as recorded in clay records that only recently have been deciphered and placed in their historic context. These laws which periodically cancelled debts, freed Israelite debt- servants and returned lands to their traditional holders have confused Biblical students for many centuries. They have long been virtually ignored by historians on the ground that, to modern eyes, they would seem to wreak economic havoc. Already by the first century of our era no less a theologian than Rabbi Hillel developed the prosbul, by which borrowers signed away their rights under the Biblical laws. Hillel explained that credit would dry up without such a clause.

"Recent discoveries of Bronze Age Near Eastern royal proclamations extending from 2400 to 1600 BC throw a radically new light on these laws. Like their Biblical analogues, Mesopotamian royal edicts cancelled debts, freed debt-servants and restored land to cultivators who had lost it under economic duress. There can be no doubt that these edicts were implemented, for during the Babylonian period they grew into quite elaborate promulgations, capped by Ammisaduqa's Edict of 1646. Now that these edicts have been translated and their consequences understood, the Biblical laws no longer stand alone as utopian or otherworldly ideals; they take their place in a two-thousand year continuum of periodic and regular economic renewal.

"There is no record of just how or when Babylonian legal traditions were transmitted to Israel. No doubt there were numerous periods of influence, headed by a Bronze Age inspiration early in the second millennium. One suspects that during the Babylonian captivity (586-539 BC) the Jews rediscovered much of this Bronze Age heritage, continuing a reaction against the economically polarizing impact of usury and landlordism that had gathered momentum under Josiah with the rediscovery of the Deuteronomy scroll by priests renovating the Jerusalem temple in 610.

"In a sense it is almost immaterial whether the Biblical debt and land-tenure laws were introduced by Canaanite rulers celebrating New Year Clean Slates, brought by the hapiru or transmitted during the wars with Assyria and Babylonia. What is important is that the Bronze Age precedents provide a living historical context for these laws. The central role played by Mesopotamian Clean Slates - so important that they became synonymous with "royal edict" (simdat) - indicates how equally important they were to the Pentateuch. Modern readers of the Bible may skim over these laws quickly as if they were the fine print, so to speak, but to the Biblical compilers they formed the very core of righteous lawgiving."

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