When Jews of 2,000 years ago wrote about any topic, they almost always interacted with the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) on a deep level. Whether addressing market trading or Temple singing, community issues or legal matters, the thoughts of these authors ran naturally in Hebraic channels – even when writing in a different language such as Greek. But how can we tell that this was the case even when it came to things like financial status and social position?

One of the most striking commandments in the Hebrew Torah reads: “You shall not do injustice in judgment: you shall not lift up the face of the weak, nor shall you exalt the face of the great. You shall judge your fellow in justice.” (Lev 19:15) This is a forceful declaration that poor and rich are to be equal before the law. Since the time of the Bible, many societies have recognized and proclaimed this principle. Sadly, few (if any) have ever lived up to it.

In the first century, a Jew of Jerusalem called Jacob wrote a letter “to the Twelve Tribes in Diaspora” (i.e., to people of Israel who were living in other lands; Jam 1:1). He asked his readers and hearers to think about a scenario in which a rich person and a poor person both came into the συναγωγή (sunagōgē), i.e., “community gathering.” (This Greek word is the origin of English “synagogue.”) Jacob argued that if anyone were to treat the rich attendant better than the poor one, that would be a criminal violation of the “law” (or torah, “teaching”) of the king and of liberty (Jam 2:1-12). On what basis did he make this astonishing claim?

Remarkably, Jacob’s text uses specific “key words” which refer us directly back to the Torah’s commandment about equality between rich and poor! In the first century, the Jewish-Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible was widely used throughout the Mediterranean world. Its version of Lev 19:15 (like the original Hebrew text) speaks twice of preferring someone’s “face” (πρόσωπον; prosōpon). Similarly, Jacob speaks twice of “accepting a face” (προσωποληψία; prosōpolēpsia in 2:1 and προσωποληπτέω; prosōpolēpteō in 2:9). The Septuagint of Lev 19:15 mentions “judgment” (κρίσις; krisis) and “judging” (κρίνω; krinō). Jacob mentions “judging between” (διακρίνω; diakrinō in 2:4) and being a “judge” (κριτής; kritēs in 2:4).

The choice of all these closely related words (and others) can hardly be a coincidence. And if there were any doubt, Jacob explicitly frames his discussion as a question of “law/torah according to the Scripture” (2:8, 10-12). What this first-century Jewish author tries to drive home is that treating rich and poor as equals is not only a theoretical matter for the law courts. Rather, the Torah’s commandment of radical equality penetrates as deep as every single individual’s attitude and behavior toward all of his or her “fellow” human beings!

10 COMMENTS

  1. It almost seems like idol worship to place a person of wealth above a person of modest or low income. If we are created equal that speaks of our physical make up not our personal prosperity. So equal we are in Gods eyes so should we be in our fellow human families eyes. Money doesn’t make one better or above anyone. It is often chains that drag you down. The word is always the right way. Praise The Lord

  2. Jacob is pinpoint correct and it includes all bases of personal judgement, the most topical of which today is racism of which there is a wide spectrum, not just color. What people don’t realize is that by judging another in this way they debase themselves and that is Scriptural. However no space here…

  3. This article about the poor and rich being equal before the law is false. At least not in America. We have seen it everyday. It also falls along political lines. The Democrats get away with crimes while the rest of us get arrested.

    • Gary, it sounds like you actually agree with the article: “Many societies have recognized and proclaimed this principle; sadly, few (if any) have ever lived up to it”! I didn’t write about American Republicans and Democrats because neither was in vogue 2,000 years ago. However, being humans, both groups are susceptible to bias and perverting justice…

  4. I have always believed that we are equal when looked upon by Yashua. He died for All sins and all people. Is this the equality the Torah is speaking about?

    • Thank you, Christine. I think the Torah and Jacob are both speaking of how each person should look at others; i.e., everyone should treat rich and poor as equals.

  5. I think it’s interesting to note how, contrary to much of the church’s modern teaching, the early believers in Jesus the Messiah taught that Torah was to be obeyed. Not that it was no longer relevant because of God’s grace through the cross.

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