June 2, 2022 - 7:00am

Every year the churches remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. This year, they need to do the same for the jubilee. 

The j-word is obviously related to celebratory terms like ‘jubilant’ and ‘jubilation’. These, in turn, trace their roots to a number of older words signifying a cry of joy or surprise. (The English word ‘yowl’ springs from the same source.) But there’s a second etymology for ‘jubilee’, one that goes back to the Old Testament. It is derived (via the Latin iubilaeus and the Greek iobelos) from the Hebrew yobhel — which refers to the trumpet (a ram’s horn) that was sounded to proclaim a jubilee year. 

The Biblical concept of the sabbath, i.e. the day of rest, is one that still governs modern life, though not as much as it used to. The idea of a sabbatical year (or period of months) is also familiar to us. This too comes from the Hebrew scriptures — specifically, the injunction that every seventh year should be set aside as a time of rest, for people and land alike. Then, after seven cycles of seven years, would come the jubilee — a sabbatical year with knobs on.

According to Leviticus, chapter 25, this fiftieth year was meant to be a time of liberation as well as rest — debts were to be cancelled and slaves freed. It’s no wonder that the concept still resonates with religious progressives. For instance, at the start of this century, the Jubilee 2000 coalition brought together churches, charities and celebrities from around the world to campaign for the cancellation of third world debt.  

However, this somewhat misses the original meaning. Jubilee wasn’t really about the forgiveness of debt, but rather the structuring of loans so that they’d be automatically paid-off by the time of the jubilee. Debtors would surrender the use of their land until the jubilee, in return for which lenders would advance a sum based on the likely product of that land over those years. The aim was that debtors would never be permanently alienated from their inheritance.  

Similarly, the provision for freeing slaves was about ensuring that no one could sell themselves and their descendants into everlasting servitude. The jubilee was therefore the original “great reset” — a restoration that allowed people to return home and communities to re-form. As a principle of social organisation it can be seen as deeply conservative as well as progressive. 

But is it only relevant to life as it was lived in ancient times? No, we need it just as much today. We’ve organised capitalism around the centralisation of economic opportunity while opening up the property market to unfettered speculation. As a result, we’ve priced an entire generation out of home ownership, confining them to pokey flats in place of the homes that parents and children need. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could freeze out the speculators’ money, while building and reserving homes for young families. A Britain re-ordered around jubilee values would put community life before investor greed.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.