Was Jesus born into a ‘poor’ family?

One of the repeated themes of short Christmas expositions is that, in the nativity story, we see God coming to the ‘poor’, and as a result the main message of Christmas is that we should pay particular attention to the ‘poor’. I put the term in inverted commas, because in both these contexts the term ‘poor’ has a specific meaning: the distinctively materially poor. Here is a good example:

This Christmas why not ask the gift to love the poor more deeply, with an abiding and deep affection? For poverty and neediness are an intrinsic aspect of the Infancy narratives. The first Christmas was anything but charming or sentimental. It is charged with homelessness, hardship, a lack of decent resources, disregard for human life (by Herod), and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees and aliens in a foreign land…

Yes,  Joseph and Mary are swept away from their resources, their family, extended family, and Joseph from his livelihood. They are swept downstream some 70 miles to the town of Bethlehem at a critical time for their family, the 9th month of Mary’s pregnancy. Could you walk 70 miles? And what if you were pregnant?

Homelessness awaited them…Off to the stinking stable, the dank cave. Poverty does stink, and leads to deep and dank places. We may sentimentalize the birth of Jesus among animals, but there was nothing cute about it…Yes, the wondrous mystery is that God so esteems poverty. But the disgrace of this remains at our door…So poverty is an overarching theme in the infancy narrative.

There are some basic errors of fact in this reflection, and lots of unwarranted suppositions, but they are very common in popular commentary. It is more like 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and it would be about five or six days walk. But if you lived in a culture where walking was the norm, this would not seem remarkable; it is only a challenge to a sofa-bound culture like ours. Observant Jews from the region would have made this journey at least three times a year for the pilgrim festivals and there is every likelihood that Joseph and Mary would have combined the two purposes in their trip. The journey was, read in context, comparatively unremarkable.

As far as I can see, there is nothing in the gospel accounts that suggests that Mary was on the verge of giving birth when they made the trip. And Luke specifically tells us that Joseph was returning to his ancestral home, so he was mostly likely returning to extended family, not leaving it. And, of course, Jesus wasn’t born in a stinking stable.

I recently got into a little Twitter spat on this issue, with my interlocutors objecting to my comment that material poverty isn’t a particular theme of the birth narratives, and I was accused of offering a ‘middle class’ reading of the texts. I actually think that the truth is exactly the opposite, and there are three elements to my further reflection on this.

The first is that, the simple answer to the question ‘Were Joseph and Mary poor’ is ‘Yes—because 2,000 years ago everyone was poor’. One thing that the kind of reading above fails to take into account is the very different world that the narratives are set in—and this difference has grown massively in the last 50 years. It might be argued that the top 1.5% elite in the Roman Empire (on which see below) were more materially wealthy than many in the modern world, but in regard to some import measures, such as infant mortality and general health, they would still have looked ‘poor’ compared with most people in the world today.

This graphic from the Brilliant Maps website illustrates the situation well. The accompanying article highlights some key markers which show how different life was then compared with now; the figures are disputed and some of the calculations are out of date, but they are based on some serious research.

What a difference 2,000 years makes. The map above shows the GDP per capita in 14AD of the various provinces of the Roman Empire in 1990 PPP Dollars. On average, the GDP per capita across the whole Empire, was only $570.

This would make the average Roman in 14AD poorer than the average citizen of every single one of the world’s countries in 2015…

According to the World Bank, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is currently the world’s poorest nation with GDP per capita in constant 1990 PPP dollars of $766 in 2012. This makes today’s average Congolese citizen about 34% richer than the average Roman in 14AD.

Life Expectancy in the Roman Empire has been estimated to have been as low as 25 years, due in part to extremely high infant mortality rates that might have been somewhere between 15-35%. Today, Sierra Leone has the world’s lowest life expectancyat 38 years and Afghanistan has the the worst infant mortality rate of somewhere between 14-19%.

Interestingly, the yawning chasm between the ancient and the contemporary world has only opened up relatively recently. The major impetus to the growth of wealth (and health) first in the West and then globally happened with the industrial revolution. There was a significant increase in the rate of GDP growth after the Second World War, and then a dramatic acceleration following the spread of Neo-liberal economics, where growth was based on borrowing rather than production, from the 1980s. We are dramatically further from the social and economic context of the first century than we were even in the 1960s. (The original of this graphic is interactive, so that you can see the exact years of particular growth and what specific GDP values were. Watching it as an animated unfolding video is particularly sobering.)

What was the reason for this comparative poverty for all?

The Roman world was pre-industrial. Its economy was fundamentally based in agriculture, and its population was largely rural. In modern terminology ‘the Roman economy was underdeveloped’.10 Life expectancy was low (life expectancy at birth was somewhere between twenty and thirty and probably closer to twenty).11 Nutritional deficiencies were widespread.12 But in none of these features was the Roman world clearly distinct from the Hellenistic world or from the world of the archaic and classical Greek city-state.

Poverty in this pre-industrial world was largely determined by access to land.13 Those who owned, or were able to secure the rental of, land could secure their subsistence provided that the area of land at their disposal was large enough, and the climatic conditions favourable enough. How large the plot of land needed to be has been much debated: it is clear that the productivity of land is directly related to the labour put into it – gardening is more productive per unit area than farming – but also that the law of diminishing returns applies – repeatedly doubling the number of gardeners does not repeatedly double the output of the garden.14 What counts as favourable climatic conditions depends upon the nature of the land (‘the grimness of the terrain’15) and the crops grown (barley can withstand drier conditions than wheat). What it is possible or reasonable to grow, however, will often, in turn, depend upon the relationship of the farmer to the market: farming régimes that optimise the yield of the land in calorific terms may not produce the kind of food a family needs to consume. In general large landowners do better than small out of drought conditions, but how badly the small farmer fares will depend upon access to the market.16 Many people, therefore, had reason to be anxious about food, but for those who had access to land the threat of hunger was episodic, not endemic…17

Times of dearth divided communities between those who had and those who had not managed to fill their storehouses. Those compelled to pay the soaring prices of foodstuffs in the market quickly found their conditions of life deteriorating as the need to secure food caused other economic activity to contract. It was in such times that individuals were no doubt tempted to sell themselves or their children into slavery – a practice legislated against by Solon in Athens but still encountered by Augustine.21

For those who were not able-bodied, all times were times of dearth. The disabled relied on the charity of their families, their friends, and ultimately of strangers. If they exhausted local charity and moved away to seek alms from larger pools of beneficence they risked finding themselves isolated from all with whom they had affective bonds. For such people, poverty was structural.

In many ways, later yearning for a return to the classical era was romantic nonsense. In his brilliant study Bearing False Witness, Rodney Stark exposes the lie embedded in the Enlightenment terminology of the medieval period as the ‘Dark Ages’. Compared with the Roman era, this was a time of enormous technological and artistic development, in which humanity made huge strides in health and wealth. He notes in chapter 4 (pp 77–81):

  • The development of technology to make use of wind and water power, where the Romans just depended on manual labour by slaves.
  • Revolutions in agriculture, including the development of the three-field system which left areas fallow that then became significantly more productive.
  • The invention of the heavy plough and the horse harness, which made more land productive.
  • Selective plant breeding in monasteries, leading to more productive and hardier strains, thus giving higher yields.
  • The invention of chimneys, which allowed the heating of buildings without either letting the rain in or causing people to live in smokey interiors.
  • The development of true sailing ships which improved trade.

All these had a huge impact on health, wealth and life expectancy—and were accompanied by enormous strides forward both in moral thinking and in other aspects of cultural life. Compared with the Middle Ages, life in the Roman Empire was brutish and short, and much, much poorer.

This then leads to a second question: even though people in the Roman period were poor compared with anything in the modern world, they were not all equally poor, so where did Joseph, Mary and Jesus fit into the hierarchy of poverty and wealth in the Roman world?

This has actually been a subject of considerable debate amongst scholars of the New Testament for some time, though not much of that debate has filtered through to popular discussion. The main protagonists include Steven Friesen, who is a Mennonite and a particular scholar of the Book of Revelation, Bruce Longenecker, who has written much on aspects of material culture, Peter Oakes from Manchester, and Roland Deines, a German scholar who was for several years based here in Nottingham.

Longenecker gives a good overview of the debate in chapter 3 of his 2010 volume of essays, Remember the Poor. His concern is to offer, in dialogue with others, a model for ‘scaling wealth and poverty’ which moves beyond a simplistic binary of ‘rich v poor’ that is based on actual evidence. He cites Steven Friesen’s ‘Poverty Scale’ published in 2004, which gives a helpful delineation of different socio-economic groups:

After some discussion, Longenecker offers this revised scale for urban dwellers in the Empire, switching to the language of ‘Economic Scale’:

There are a number of things to note about this—and of course the arguments about the research evidence are complex. Slaves are not included here as a separate group; they have been estimate to compromise between 15% and 40% of the population of the Empire at different times, but their wealth and welfare depended entirely on the household of which they were a part.

But there are two key things worth noting. First, although it has often been said ‘There was no middle class in the ancient world’, that is certainly true, both in terms of Marxist theories of class identity, and in term of the development of a post-industrial professional, non-manual, comparatively wealthy working group. However, as Longenecker points out (p 56) this is often taken to mean that there were no middling economic groups whose wealth sat between the elites and the ‘poor’—and this is not the case.

It also appears, from the texts of the NT, that many of Jesus’ followers belonged to these middling groups, both in the gospel accounts and later in the first and second centuries. When Mark tells us that James and John leave their father Zebedee ‘in the boat with the hired men’ (Mark 1.20) he puts them squarely in ES4. And as a tekton, a general builder (Matt 13.55, Mark 6.3), working with stone and wood (though not metal), it is more than likely that Joseph (and therefore Jesus) was in ES4 or ES5, so in economic terms above either 55% or 82% of the population not including slaves, across the Empire as a whole.

Roland Deines has a long and detailed consideration of these issues in his chapter ‘God and Mammon’ in the German volume Anthropologie und Ethik im Frühjudentum und im Neuen Testament (Anthropology and Ethics in Early Judaism and the New Testament) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). After noting the problems with simplistic claims that ‘Jesus associated with the poor’, he notes the complexities even with the kinds of economic scales proposed by Longenecker and others, particular in the context of rural Galilee. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence in the gospels that Jesus’ followers often belonged to this economic middle:

When Jesus commissioned the Twelve to spread the message of the kingdom of God he required them to go without provisions of any kind: according to Matthew and Luke they were not allowed a staff, a purse or any money, nor shoes (only Matthew) nor a second tunic, whereas in Mark the restrictions are less rigid; here Jesus allows them a staff and sandals (Mark 6:8f. par. Matt 10:9f.; Luke 9:3, cf. 10:4; 22:35). The point here is that such requirements only make sense if the disciples were able to provide themselves with these things; in other words, if they had more than one tunic etc. From Luke 22:36 it becomes clear that this requirement was not seen as a lasting one but as a symbolic one for this specific commissioning…

According to John 12:6; 13:29 the disciples had a shared purse which was administered by Judas Iscariot, which means that Jesus had money with him when he was on the way. (The possession of money is also presupposed in the reply of the disciples about buying food: Mark 6:37 par. Matt 14:15; Luke 9:13.) Although only mentioned by John, it is confirmed by Luke 8:2f. where three women out of many, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Salome, were named who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their means (cf. also Mark 15:40f.).

There is more evidence for this position between the rich and the very poor throughout the Gospels, and even a casual look at the people Jesus is associating with reveals that they are not the “destitute” in economic terms but people with at least some means and not bound in a daily struggle for survival, with some even having a certain surplus they can spend on things other than their own immediate subsistence.

  • Simon Peter owns a house (Mark 1:29 par. Matt 8:14; Luke 4:38) and a boat including fishing implements (Mark 1:16)…
  • Zebedee, the father of two of the disciples, also has a boat and even employs day-labourers (Mark 1:20); Jesus calls only the sons, not these hirelings, by the way. And in Luke 17:7, Jesus asks a non-specified audience what to say to a servant when he returns from the field to the house (Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων…). Even if this is merely an illustration for a teaching of Jesus and should not be read as a matter of fact, it is nevertheless worth recognizing that it is formulated from the perspective of the one who has a servant.
  • A similar picture emerges from the wider circle of disciples, like the many women who supported Jesus and the Twelve with their money (Luke 8:2f.); Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43, 46 par. Luke 23:50f., 53, Matt 27:57, 59f.; John 19:38, 40f.); and Nicodemus (John 3:1; 19:39).
  • Levi-Matthew, the tax-collector (Mark 2:13–17 par. Matt 9:9–13; Luke 5:27–32) is able to invite many into his house, which points to a certain standard of living, even if one should not assume that all tax-collectors are wealthy just because of their profession… (there follows two more pages of examples)

In conclusion, Jesus is not addressing directly the very rich nor the very poor (in economic terms). The really rich and the destitute are actually – with some notable exceptions – rather absent as real persons. Instead, they function as types against which the followers of Jesus have to learn how to follow him with regard to their possessions (pp 350–354).

All this makes perfect sense when you think about it; most of us find the teaching of Jesus relevant, engaging and practical. If he were primarily addressing either the rich elite or the destitute poor, then we would have more trouble making sense of it.

There are three qualifications to add to the above comments. First (as Deines explores) questions of economic wealth in the ancient world did not map onto social status in a simple way. In his NIC commentary on Luke, Joel Green offers a more complex diagram (p 60) of the interrelationship between wealth and status as a preface to his discussion of the birth narrative. When Mary, in the Magnificat, talks about God raising up the humble (and hungry) and putting down the mighty from their thrones, this is not simply a reference to economic status. She is testifying the grace of God which comes to us regardless of our worth, as estimated by the values of whatever culture we live in, and in striking contrast to expectations in the ancient world.

Secondly, much is often made of the observation from Luke 2.24 that Joseph and Mary offer the sacrifice for her purification after giving birth ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’. This is taken as an indication that they are ‘poor’, since in Lev 12.8 this offering is the alternative to bringing a ‘lamb’, and most modern translations say ‘If she cannot afford a lamb…’. In fact, the AV of Lev 12.8 follows more literally both the Hebrew and Greek which say ‘If her hand cannot find enough for a lamb’ by rendering the phrase as ‘If she is not able to bring a lamb…’ leaving open the possibility that there might be other reasons that a lamb is not available. (There is a parallel later in Lev 14.21, where poverty is explicitly a reason for an alternative offering, but that language is not used in Lev 12.8.)

Joel Green is right to express the significance here, not that Joseph and Mary were ‘poor’, but that ‘they were not wealthy’. This fits perfectly well with them being in group ES4 or ES5 in Longenecker’s scheme above—and in fact there might have been any number of reasons why a lamb was not available. Moreover, Luke makes nothing of this issue in the narrative, omitting even the reference to this being an alternative. Rather, the repeated emphasis of the narrative is that Joseph and Mary are pious, Torah-keeping Jews, who have been at every point obedient to the word of God both in the Torah and according to the angel’s message.

[Luke] presents Jesus’ family as obedient to the Lord, and unquestionably pious…Luke highlights not what they do, but why they do it…Mary and Joseph are willing supporters of God’s aims, certifying that Jesus will operate from within God’s purpose (pp 140–141).

Thirdly, outside this there is simply no suggestion that Joseph and Mary were distinctively materially poor, or that this formed any significant part of the birth narrative. When Paul says in 2 Cor 8.9 ‘that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’, it is clear that ‘richness’ is a reference to his heavenly splendour, that ‘poverty’ is his becoming human, like us, and that in return our ‘richness’ is our inheritance in the kingdom of God. Paul is not here referring to distinctive material poverty but to our inheritance in Christ.

There is no doubt that a repeated teaching of Jesus, the New Testament, and the whole canon of Scripture is that we should care for others, and in particular care for the poor. This is found in any number of places in the Torah; it is a repeated theme of the denunciation of the people in the prophets; it is found clearly in the teaching of Jesus; it is repeated by Paul, and particularly by James. There is no question that concern for the poor is an integral part of Christian discipleship. But it is not true that distinctive material poverty is an ‘intrinsic part of the infancy narratives’.

In fact, when the birth and infancy narratives are read in this way, something rather shocking happens. God shows special favour to ‘the poor’, it is claimed, and as a result we should show special favour to the ‘poor’. This involves a two-fold move. First, the poor whom God visits are not us, and are not like us, but are quite distinct. Secondly, our charity to the poor finds its parallel in God’s beneficence, so that, in effect, we step into the role of God, whilst the poor are the benighted who benefit from our largess. It is this which is a thoroughly middle-class reading, where we take on the role of the rich and powerful who stoop in condescending grace to bestow our wealth on others.

The real story of the incarnation is quite the opposite. Joseph and Mary are not distinctive, but represent ordinary humanity, just like most of us. The only one who stoops in condescension is God, and he touches all humanity with his grace. The story is not in the first instance about anything that we should do (as if all gospels narratives were about us) but what God has done for us, and the invitation that we should receive this before anything else. We are not in the role of God; we are in the role of Joseph and Mary.

Jesus was not born in a stable, the shepherds were not despised outcasts, and Mary and Joseph were rather ordinary. Christmas is not about God coming to others, over there, for whom we ought to feel sorry, but to ordinary people like you and me. In the incarnation, Jesus embraced the poverty that every one of us experiences as a vulnerable, dependant human being. And if he came to us then, he will come to us again this year. ‘Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’

(Previously published in 2020. The picture at the top is “Christ in the House of His Parents” by Sir John Everett Millais.)

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64 thoughts on “Was Jesus born into a ‘poor’ family?”

  1. Excellent post – very well researched.
    But it finishes with the offering in the temple on the 8th day.
    What really changed the material circumstances of Christ’s family was surely the gifts of the Magi some time later.
    What do scholars speculate happened to that wealth? I’ve wondered if that sustained the family in the years after Joseph’s likely death since he is not mentioned when Jesus is an adult.

  2. We lived in Bangladesh for 17 years and worked in a health project with a hospital. One man came to see me for help with costs of treatment. His self project and plea was that “I am poor”. And he was, he couldn’t afford the costs and had little to sell.

    However, he was the richest man in his village of 300 people. No one in his village thought of him as poor. He had a job, a mud house, and a field.

    Westerners tend to think in absolutes. Herein poverty means “less than $1.50 per day” or some other measure.
    Non-Westerners tend to think in interpersonal terms. “I am poor” means “I don’t have enough to do x and you have more than me” and, there is a moral obligation on the you, if there is anything personal in our relationship.

    So yes. Jesus was poor, in the Western sense. No, he wasn’t poor in the sense of interpersonal material measures.

    His family may not have had much economic capital, but they had social capital (family and network), cultural capital and immense spiritual capital.

    • “Non-Westerners tend to think in interpersonal terms. “I am poor” means “I don’t have enough to do x and you have more than me” and, there is a moral obligation on the you, if there is anything personal in our relationship.”

      I think this is also true of westerners.

      • Maybe there is a need to plunge into the bottomless, incomparable, unsearchable riches of God, of grace in Christ, particularly at this season. Could start with Ephesians, though there are other scriptures which have a cumulative weight of glory.

  3. How is the Greek for Luke 2v7? The translations talk about `the inn’, indicating (definite article) that Mary and Joseph did have somewhere to stay – and that the the problem about `room’ was accommodating the newborn baby – so they took a manger, which was a convenient shape and size.

    As far as the poverty garbage goes – I could never really understand it. I’m from a fishing background (my grandparents) and – yes – I did find it insulting when the condescending middle classes spoke about `poor fishermen’.

    Maybe that’s why I always felt in an utterly alien environment when I stepped into a Church of Scotland (which was – and probably still is – very much a middle class establishment, preoccupied by middle class concerns) even in cases where the preaching was first rate – and have always felt much more comfortable in Faith Mission meeting halls – even when the preaching is somewhat rough.

    • There is a lot of preaching about ‘the poor’ in churches which demonstrates that ‘the poor’ are those over there, whilst we are the well off and comfortable.

      I don’t find it very convincing…

      • And the materially poor may be as resistant, in pride, to the Gospel of Christ (an exception may be the so called prosperity gospel) as the wealthy in their
        self-sufficient pride of life.
        Christ came as Saviour to those living in the darkness of their sin.
        Sin is the commonality; a recognition that we all come empty handed to Him, recognising the poverty of our own riches.
        The Gospel is for all; all may not receive Christ.

        • Geoff – well, yes – whenever people come to salvation, it is a miracle. The history of revival suggests, however, that this miracle takes place overwhelmingly more often among the workers than among the middle classes. I know something of my grandfather (a fisherman, born in the 1890’s who came to faith in the 1920’s). This seems to have been through the Salvation Army. I remember his village from the 1970’s – there were vibrant meeting halls (mostly containing fishermen and their families), while the (middle class) Church of Scotland in that village was more-or-less empty and, spiritually speaking, a total joke.

          While I understand all this `general theory’, I can’t pinpoint any time in my own life where, before that time I was not a Christian, something happened and after that I was. But this was clearly the case with my grandfather.

          • Simon – Gosh – that is extremely interesting. I’ll ask my mother (but she was born in the 1940’s – so probably won’t know. If the Lowestoft revival did play a role then she hasn’t mentioned it).

            I do know that they spent several months each year in that part of England (following the herring). Apparently my grandfather came to faith in 1923. He was one of three brothers, all of whom came to faith at that time. He was the last – his oldest brother the first. They must have been aware of what was going on at Lowestoft – and very difficult to believe that it wasn’t influential.

          • Jock – fantastic family history
            an amazing miracle occurred in Lowestoft revival – the fish catch was for a while very low, so the herring salt packers n fishermen had spare time on their hands and attended special meetings put on for them – a remarkable revival occurred amongst the Scots fishing community which was then carried back north at the end of the season. Your family were clearly in the thick of that wave

          • simon – yes – many thanks for this – it is now completely clear. I clicked on the link to the ukwells.org web page and followed the links – and the Lowestoft revival was at the bottom of this. It gave a detailed account of the spread of the revival even giving information of the precise villages and fellowships and dates in the North East of Scotland – so I could pinpoint it more-or-less precisely and it is now completely clear that my grandfather and his two brothers came to faith as a direct consequence of the Lowestoft revival.

  4. As ever excellent but I too have wondered about the offering of the doves in the Temple. Perhaps a lamb would really have been a ‘luxury’ offering as Mary and Joseph were not shepherds with their own flock from which to offer. I’d be interested in some comments on that. Thank you.

    • Hi Derek
      Genesis 15:9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
      10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.
      I think the use of doves and pigeons in scripture is a reference symbolically to Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
      In this passage The judgment of the curse falls on Jesus thus separating him from the Spirit.
      On the cross Jesus gave up his Spirit. At that moment the flaming torch of judgment separated the unity that had begun when Jesus was baptised, where the Spirit alighted on him and “remained“ until death on the cross separated them.

    • Thanks Derek. I am not convinced by Steve’s symbolic reading.

      But two things worth noting:

      a. there are other reasons why it might not be possible to offer the ‘standard’ sacrifice.

      b. Luke’s point about the offering is not that they are poor, but they are Torah observant.

  5. Thanks again for republishing this, Ian – I didn’t pay much attention last year as my mind was taken up with covid and family affairs. (What has changed?, I ask myself).
    This year I have read it through carefully and taken notes in the hope that some salient facts remain when the old unreflective cliches about the Magnificat and liberation theology are dragged out again. As a student of classics and the ancient world, I have got used to people who know little of that world or its literature pronouncing rather glibly on it. The same with simplistic commentary on the multifaceted character of slavery in the classical world.
    A useful standout this time was the summary of the real advances made economically and technologically in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Good historians of the early medieval period are noe labouring to bring these facts to light, and it should be understood there was a lot more continuity between the western Roman Empire and its successor kingdoms than 18th and 19th (anti-Christian and anti-Catholic) historical prejudice allowed.
    I have always understood that Jesus’s followers included the moderately well-off because to possess a fishing boat and gear required a fair degree of business acumen and skill – just as we see expressed by successful small businessmen in all ages. I think Richard Bauckham missed out this point in some lectures he gave a few years ago (to Otago University, NZ).
    Finally, when are Catholic and Anglican commentators on social affairs going to have the courage to state thst thd best answer to (economic) poverty is the consistent application of Christian principles in one’s life?
    If individuals live as Christians in their personal lives (marriage, work ethic, self- improvement, thrift etc), they usually manage to put poverty behind them. The principles (if not the practice) are easy to state:
    1. Don’t start a family until you are married (and stay married).
    2. Finish your education (study harder than you play and don’t drop out).
    3. Accept an entry level job and stick at it until you get better and advance.
    The roots of these three principles in Christian virtues is obvious.

    • Something I think that has been missed on this thread is the age of Jesus disciples. It would be customary for a Rabbis’ students to be over 13, but younger than the Rabbi. This would mean if that practice was followed that they would be all aged between 13 and about 30. Likely teenagers and early 20s. Later chronological references in scriptures to the disciples would bear this out. It would makes sense in that a Rabbis students would likely have been selected for being teachers themselves in the future
      This may account for why, for example young men with some aptitude were chosen, as Ian Paul suggests.
      However the reason for excluding the hired men, rather than the sons in the case of James and John, may simply have been because they were too old.
      I would suggest though that to suggest that James and John were chosen for acumen as being successful businessmen is not bourne out by likely circumstances, or clear evidence. They were in the position they were because they were their fathers sons. In the patriarchal society of the time, they would defer to their father. The scriptures state it was their fathers boat, not theirs. Some people rightly, or wrongly, have an advantage in life.
      My point being is that while I agree with you on the sound ways for a person to live a good and purposeful life, that is not the whole story. It is a shame when the divisive and often binary nature of political thinking prevents us from considering the whole picture.
      Inbuilt societal structures of class, education, gender, race all influence how the individual has agency, and needs to be addressed, while not denying that an individual also has the ability to effect change to a degree.

      • Penelope, if your comment is to me rather than Rob: I didn’t say a single word about capital.
        But for the record, I believe in capitalism and most my savings are in shares. I believe that capitalism was one of the great advances in civilisation, along with democracy.
        The divorcing of the two is always calamitous for human wellbeing, as is patroonising the poor.
        Rob: I really don’t think the disciples were teenagers. Nothing in the NT suggests they were youth. Simon Peter was himself married and a householder. You need to look at contemporary sources of rabbis and disciples – Josephus himself did this in his younger years. My point about boat ownership was to point to their economic class. If you weren’t skilled as a commercial fisherman (and sons routinely followed their fathers’ professions), you wouldn’t last long in that world!

        • I wasn’t patroonising the poor. You were. If hard work was the solution most African women would be billionaires. Hope no hard working families who need foodbanks attend your Church this Christmas.

          • If hard work was the solution most African women would be billionaires

            Obviously hard work is not the solution, and no believer in capitalism would suggest it was; the solution to poverty is a functioning free market with a stable legal system that respects property rights, and it’s the lack of that which is the problem for African women.

          • If you don’t have a free market and a stable legal system which recognises property rights — which is all ‘capitalism’ is, when you get right down to it — then no amount of hard work will get you out of property, because you will always be at the mercy of the corrupt establishment.

            What those hardworking African women need, in order to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labours, is capitalism!

          • Penelope: You haven’t understood my comment at all, nor do you seem to understand basic economics. Capitalism is not about “hard work”, it’s about smart work, undergirded by personal freedom, the protection of rights (including property rights), sound currency and banking, free markets, and the reward of innovation, enterprise and literacy- and numeracy-based education. Where these things exist in Africa, people get wealthier. For most of its history, rural Africa, like pre-Columbian America, lived on subsistence agriculture without wheels, useful metals, ploughing animals or literacy. No amount of “hard work” in a feudal-like society can overcome these hurdles. You need freedom and innovation, which are the essence of capitalism. You also need personal qualities and circumstances, including personal discipline (including self-denial), industry, thrift, and a stable supportive home.

          • James

            As I said, sub Christian twaddle. And historically inept too. Africa had empires and, indeed, Christianity when my forebears were scrabbling in the dirt. Time to cast aside the post Reformation, colonialist soteriology.
            Merry Christmas everyone!

          • Africa had empires and, indeed, Christianity when my forebears were scrabbling in the dirt

            Well yes. But what they didn’t have, and the reason those African women have not been able to work their way out of poverty (as no one in Europe was able to until after the sixteenth century, and as no one will ever be able to in a Communist country), is a free market with a stable legal system that respects property rights. That is, they lack capitalism, and as capitalism is the only method the human race has ever invented that successfully eliminates poverty, until they get capitalism they will remain poor.

        • I think that we have to look at what the expected life pathways were in those times , rather than today.
          The Mishnah teachings of the Talmud at that time were that:
          At 5 years old, the child is fit to begin to learn scripture.
          At 10 years old to begin to learn the Mishnah, oral interpretations of scripture.
          At 13 for fulfilling of the commandments.
          At 15 for making Rabbinic interpretations ( although doubtful, that all progressed to this level of academic attainment)
          At 18 for the marital bed
          At 20 for pursuing a vocation ( in today’s understanding perhaps being ready to be formally independent of instruction in a trade.)
          At 30 for authority ( able to teach others)

          Most young men, and by implication young women, were married by
          their late teens. We know that Peter was married, since there is reference to his mother in law. He may have still been married, or possibly widowed. High rates of mortality, including childbirth.
          We know that he was the brother of Andrew, who was unmarried, and they were friends and contemporaries of James and John also unmarried, who Jesus called ‘ Sons of Thunder’, which I perceive as a playful comment about youthful exuberance, and hot headedness.
          All this would suggest that all four men were roughly contemporary in age, with Peter being more senior, but not by much. We see this in Jesus slightly different treatment of Peter, and expectations of him. This would fit with the more rigid age hierarchical system of the time.
          The overall picture as I see it, is that these young men would have come from a relatively secure background, but were not necessarily of high enough academic achievement, to have progressed through the usual Rabbinical route, or have families with very high financial resources to sustain them through that.
          I find it persuasive to think of these young men being more comparable to young men in their late teens, or early twenties today, who may be apprenticed, or working in family businesses. Bright and motivated but not necessarily academic. Later comments by priests in Acts 4:13 in which they express their astonishment at their authority considering they were “unschooled, ordinary men” confirm this.
          If they were young men, this gives weight to the argument that Revelation was written by this same John, who could well have been alive, and in his eighties by then. I realise that the authorship of Revelation is debatable , and I have insufficient knowledge to discuss that.

          I have found Ian Paul’s explanations of social strata at the time very enlightening and has certainly caused me to reflect on my assumptions about poverty, and where Jesus, his human family, and the disciples fitted into that.
          I would certainly agree that the poor, are not some ‘other’, but have yet to work out, in the light of this study how the gospel particularly addresses the inclusion of the ‘ dirt poor’ for want of a better expression.
          The issue for me, and surely all of us is to discern how the gospel impels us to act in today’s world. I would suggest that we all need to question our own beliefs and values from time to time, how much is based on cultural, political assumptions and bias.

          Gosh I am enjoying this site.

    • Thanks for the link…

      But isn’t Guiliano just asserting (on the whole) his own opinion and doesn’t actually engage much with what Ian wrote?

    • Well, funnily enough, it was his article which made me think of re-posting the sone!

      I agree with Ian—I really couldn’t find any substance of disagreement to engage with. I will look again, but at the time it appear to be a slightly snarky rejection with some scornful comments and no engagement with either the historical evidence or the biblical text.

      Am I mistaken?

        • I rather think they are the ones out of step! It is interesting to read about comments in the Fathers and other venerables about the poverty of Jesus. They seem to come more from pious imagination than scripture.

          • Exactly – I got the impression that Guiliano considered the sanctimonious and condescending poverty of these early characters to be a virtue – of the style of Richard Briers in `The Good Life’, where it was somewhat self-imposed.

          • Ian: I wonder if this “pious imagination ” has its source in monasticism which began in the third century and gathered stram in the following years. Augustine, for example, was deeply impressed by the biography of St Anthony, and it was not long before Jesus was seen as “the ideal monk”, living according to absolute vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
            Economic poverty became sanctified in the imagination (not without reason) as bringing one closer to God, for did not Christ himself commend poor widows who demonstrated piety and charity in the midst of their great need, and warn constantly about the spiritual danger of riches?
            Christ the perfect monk was certainly a theme for reflection in the Middle Ages.

          • James- I think you are right here. Monasticism has a lot to answer for re: the ‘poor /poverty’ mindset.

  6. Going off at a slightly different tangent – I was interested in your choice of the Millais picture. Many years ago I saw the picture in the company of international students from the LICC christian in the modern world course. They were very struck at the portrayal of Jesus with red hair. We can be almost certain he did not have red hair. He was middle eastern in origin. They were quite sad at this portrayal. So while it is a beautiful and somewhat symbolic picture my colleagues were clearly discomforted by it. Food for thought.
    Meantime, thank you for your thoughtful article.

    • Pre-Raphaelites popularised redheads. They were considering a bit coarse before their championing of them. Jesus red hair is therefore a symbolic reference to something outside polite society. The image is realistic but the symbolism runs deep.

      • A fun game for this picture is to spot the number of images in it: the cross, the stigmata, the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist – the whole thing is an allusion to the Middle Ages.
        Interesting comment on the red hair – I wondered about that and then recalled how other Pre-Raphaelites depicted subjects with red hair. If the LICC students wanted “realism” in art, they should stay away from the Pre-Raphaelites, who weren’t interested in historical accuracy as such.

      • As Judah sits at the crossroads of the continents I imagine Jesus would have been physically a blend of all types of humanity, possibly looking very similar to the original proto-man Adam. Perhaps a computer could be employed to replicate a semblance from all photos of 30 somethings ?

          • Tee hee hee
            Btw, capitalism was a tool that emerged from Christian society. It is up to Christians to again invent some new useful tool now that ‘capitalism’ has been stolen. Christianity gives to the world new and better wine all the time. We should not bemoan the fact that the world tramples the pearls. We should move on and model new ways. Says I.

  7. That’s not an argument about basic substance is it? More :”X believed it so it must be true”….

    Bit of a dampener on any kind of advance there… in any field, including the scientific.

    PS “venerable bidet”… Loved this! Another argument down the pan then….

  8. Penelope demonstrates that she doesn’t understand the principles of democratic capitalism or the history of sub-Saharan Africa (outside of Ethiopia, which had a tenuous connection with the west but still very largely isolated). The technological underdevelopment of Africa and pre-Columbian America is known to everyone, as is the fact that subsistence agriculture (how most people there lived) means poverty. One has to an unreconstructed Maoist of the 1960s to think otherwise. The tragedy of North Africa was its fall to Islam and the subsequent Ottoman Empire which led to the oppression and then near extinction of Christianity throughout most of those lands. If North Africa had remained within the Roman Empire, maybe very different history for Africa would have followed.

    • African “empires” were pretty small affairs too, rarely much bigger than a large English county, with one tribe dominating another. A pre-literate society without metals, wheels or horses is never going to be very large or powerful.
      Asia was very different. The west was never able to permanently subordinate and settle Asia because of the ancient literate, metal-working cultures there. In some technological respects Asian culture was superior to the west, but not militarily. The economic development of east Asia in the past two generations has been remarkable. Part of Africa’s current tragedy has been the way it is being exploited by China.

      • The economic development of east Asia in the past two generations has been remarkable.

        In the bits of Asia that have adopted capitalism, yes. Not the bits which haven’t (China, for example, only started to develop economically once it abandoned pure Communism and tried to create a ring-fenced capitalist market within a Communist system).

        • I think all of east Asia has grown economically in excess of population growth in the past thirty years – and so has India.
          China’s system is crony capitalism and depends heavily on state coercion and spying, along with vast amounts of money from American private equity.
          I think they had to get rid of Trump because he was a danger to the gravy train that enriched corporate America and immiserated flyoverland.

          • I think all of east Asia has grown economically in excess of population growth in the past thirty years

            The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

            China’s system is crony capitalism and depends heavily on state coercion and spying, along with vast amounts of money from American private equity.

            It does, but remember that China didn’t develop economically at all — indeed it was going backwards —until Deng and the reforms that allowed (limited) capitalism. The irrelevance of pigmentation vis-a-vis a mouse-catching cat, and all that.

            I think they had to get rid of Trump because he was a danger to the gravy train that enriched corporate America and immiserated flyoverland.

            I don’t know who ‘they’ are who ‘got rid’ of Trump — I thought he was defeated in a free democratic election, same way he defeated Clinton in a free democratic election? — but that seems outside the scope of a discussion of how great capitalism is at eradicating poverty.

      • James demonstrates that he has a colonialist view of history and demonstrates a lamentable Islamophobia. Clearly, in his view ‘the west’ is meant to dominate the lesser races. And military success is an unalloyed good – at least when it is the white Europeans winning. The narrow, arrogant, cultural Christianity view of the global North.
        Little wonder that the Church’s neo liberal models of growth are sterile.

    • If North Africa had remained within the Roman Empire, maybe very different history for Africa would have followed.

      Maybe, maybe not. The key inventions that enable the elimination of poverty — free markets and a stable legal system that respects property rights — didn’t come about until long after the Roman empire was dead and buried, and didn’t come about in all the territories that had once been part of the Roman empire either.

      That said, the fall to Islam can’t have helped, as a vital turning-point in the development of a stable legal system that respects property rights is the elevation of the law above the ruler, so that even the ruler is subject to the law and cannot arbitrary confiscate private property (the process which in Britain, for example, began in 1215 and continued, in fits and starts, until 1688; and which in France lurched backwards and forwards through its many republics and restored monarchies). It’s noticeable that Islamic countries as a rule have a harder time with that transition, and when they do start along that road are more likely to turn back (eg Turkey), than non-Islamic countries.

      • The Roman Empire continued until 1453.
        Islam overran the largely Christian lands of litoral North Africa in the 7th century, then threatened Christian Europe for z long tine afterwards. The Roman (Byzantine) Empire was hard pressed by Islam for centuries, then finally overthrown by it.
        I sometimes wonder how a Christian Egypt would have impacted the Nile Valley, all the way south.

          • That was when Constantinople, the seat of the Roman Empire, fell.
            As for North Korea and China: yes, I know about their belated development. My comment was general and didn’t imply that development was the same everywhere. Vietnam was late to the ball for reasons we all know. Even North Korea is better off (though starving) because Koreans are clever, study-mad people. Culture can mitigate even communism.
            Which explains why Asian Americans are overachievers in that society and quota-driven university officials are doing their best to keep them out of STEM courses for which they are well qualified.

          • Culture can mitigate even communism.

            Nah, it can’t. Communism is a corrosive force which, eventually, utterly destroys wealth, trust, truth, freedom, and people, anywhere it is imposed. It is supremely evil and nothing can hold out against it, save by overthrowing it completely from within.

  9. Really interesting post, thanks. Quick question: Mary’s magnificat does seem to suggest that Christ’s coming is good news for “poorer”, “humbler” people doesn’t it? It turns society upside down (hungry filled, rich go away empty etc.) The NT seems to take it for granted that “richer” people are less likely to come to Christ because they have more to lose. Thanks.

  10. Keep banging on about the stable myth. Even Bishop Philip North – a well-read man, one might have thought – is telling us that Christ was born in a stable next to an inn, ‘the modern-day equivalent, perhaps, of a pub carpark.’
    While I regret his affirmation of the world’s fear of covid, he speaks with conviction about the need to offer our lives to the one whose birth we still celebrate.


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