In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economics and Biblical Studies

  • Introduction
  • General Surveys
  • General Historical Background
  • Economic Background of the Scriptures
  • Economic Ideas in the Scriptures

Biblical Studies Economics and Biblical Studies
Paul Oslington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0053


In recent years, cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychology have been added to the tool kit of the historical-critical biblical scholar. Economics, and especially contemporary mainstream economics, has not been much utilized by biblical scholars for several reasons. For one thing, contemporary mainstream economics is less familiar to biblical scholars than Marxian or institutional approaches. It is also more mathematically demanding. A number of objections have also been raised to using economic models in this context. One is that the tools of economics are not neutral. However, this is true of any theoretical tool, including the alternatives to contemporary mainstream economic theory. Another one is that religion is a special domain outside the reach of economics. Economists would see this as an illegitimate claim by religion scholars to monopoly rights, and that granting it brings all the usual failings of a monopolized industry. The most common objection, discussed at length in this article, is that contemporary economic models are anachronistic and are not applicable to ancient societies. Rather than excluding contemporary economic analysis, however, one should see how it can offer new perspectives on texts. Economic tools have certainly illuminated contemporary religious behavior and institutions (see, for instance, Iannaccone 1998, cited under General Surveys), so why not ancient religious behavior and institutions? The purpose of this article is to make contemporary mainstream economics more accessible to biblical scholars, including the theoretical tools of rational choice theory, game theory, information economics, and behavioral economics, along with the most sophisticated empirical techniques in the contemporary social sciences. This article excludes many important and interesting social scientific tools that economists have so far not engaged, such as work on cognitive dissonance theory (e.g., Leon Festinger, R. P. Carroll, Gerd Theissen), covenant rather than contract relations (Richard Horsley), kinship in Mediterranean culture (e.g., Bruce Malina, Kenneth Bailey), anthropological studies of taboos (e.g., Mary Douglas), sociological theories of revolution and large-scale social change (e.g., Weber, Durkheim, Norman Gottwald), and postcolonial theory (e.g., Mark Brett). This article draws on a presentation titled “Using Economics in Biblical Studies,” which was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, a seminar at the Centre for Early Christian Studies at Australian Catholic University, and a seminar in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. Thanks to Julien Ogereau, Jacqui Grey, Chris Forbes, Mark Brett, and Roland Boer for discussions and suggestions, with the usual caveat that this does not imply agreement with the views expressed here.

General Surveys

There is little available specifically on economic approaches, and most of the works in this section discuss economics along with other social-scientific tools.

  • Backhouse, Roger E. The Penguin History of Economics. London: Penguin, 2002.

    The best way into economics for noneconomists is to read the history of economic thought. This book is clear and concise and covers recent developments in economics.

  • Elliott, John H. What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

    Balanced survey of the early phase of social-scientific criticism, drawing on Elliott’s own work on 1 Peter.

  • Elliott, John H. “From Social Description to Social-Science Criticism.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 38.1 (2008): 26–36.

    DOI: 10.1177/01461079080380010401

    Update of the earlier survey in the context of an argument that theory is needed to move beyond description of the economic world and actually illuminate the biblical text.

  • Esler, Philip F. Community and Gospel in Luke/Acts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511554933

    Esler’s pathbreaking Oxford PhD thesis, in which he applied social-scientific tools to Luke/Acts, especially the issue of table fellowship.

  • Esler, Philip F., ed. Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context. London: Routledge, 1995.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203434642

    Collection of Esler’s essays.

  • Esler, Philip F., ed. Ancient Israel: Old Testament in Its Social Context. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.

    These works by the Australian biblical scholar Philip Esler are the most lucid and powerful defense of the legitimacy of social-scientific tools in biblical studies. His approach has now been extended well beyond his initial pathbreaking Oxford DPhil thesis on Luke/Acts.

  • Freyne, Sean. Galilee, Jesus, and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.

    Masterful discussion of Galilee from a social-scientific perspective. Important for other regions besides Galilee and texts besides the Gospels. His essay “Herodian Economics in Galilee: Searching for a Suitable Model” in Esler 1995 is an example of how to use models in biblical studies.

  • Iannaccone, Laurence. “Introduction to the Economics of Religion.” Journal of Economic Literature 36.3 (1998): 1465–1495.

    Surveys of the economics of religion have arisen in recent decades, applying economic models to religious behavior and religious markets. See also Sriya Iyer, “The New Economics of Religion,” Journal of Economic Literature 54, no. 2 (2016): 395–441.

  • Oslington, Paul, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199729715.001.0001

    Articles by leading economists and theologians on the relationships between the disciplines of Christian theology and economics. The sections on early economic thought and on the economics of religion are the most relevant to biblical studies.

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