This is the time of year when various Christmas tropes come around again—and therefore it is worth repeated articles from previous years. I previously published this one in 2020 and 2021.
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 expectancy at 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.’