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!