Was Jesus really born into a ‘poor’ family?

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.’

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

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

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article. One question, though. In Luke 2:24, when Mary and Joseph go to the Temple, it is ‘to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”’ In Leviticus 12:8 a pair of doves or two young pigeons is for those who cannot afford the first choice of offering a lamb. Does that not suggest they were (somewhat) poor?

    • Thanks. As I comment in the article:

      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.

      (from Joel Green:) [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).

  2. Ian

    As always a helpful article and an important re-calibration.

    I’ve just returned from an assembly where we – gently – considered the dark side of the Christmas story where I reminded the school of the many ways in which Jesus suffered with us as well as for us. I didn’t mention his poverty, but I did mention the sympathy for others that those who understand the real message of Christmas should reflect.

    On Sunday, at our Nativity service I will be going deeper via a brief consideration of 2 Corinthians 8.9

    For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

    Although this verse is not about Jesus’ material poverty as such, it does show us how a consideration of the incarnation (and cross) should encourage material generosity. Certainly that was the way that Paul took it both in his teaching and his lifestyle.

    My point then is this: yes to what you say, but let’s not over reach as if the Christmas story had nothing to say about the poor.

    • But is this verse:

      “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

      about…. becoming “rich”… in a material sense?

      If it’s not material riches then can it be about material poverty?

      • If it is exclusively about spiritual riches then the implication is that Jesus became spiritually poor in His incarnation. Which in untenable.
        The article suggests that 2 Cor 8:9 refers to relative poverty on Jesus’ part, in that becoming human was to Him the same as becoming poor. A bit like Rishi Sunak’s wife giving up non-dom status.
        I’m not buying this. Jesus said the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. He told the rich young ruler to “go and sell all that you have”. There is a danger of comfortable middle class Christians wheedling their way out of such obligations.

        • Jesus did become ‘spiritually poor’ in his incarnation, in that he laid down the glory that he had with the Father.

          If his poverty was material, then are the riches we receive in exchange for his poverty also material? If not, why not?

          Yes, there is a danger of comfortable middle class Christians wheedling their way out of the teaching of Jesus. But the solution to that is to focus on that teaching, not to distort the Christmas narrative and reduce it to a lesson in spiritual social engineering.

  3. Fascinating!

    Though easy to read the word ‘poor’ in scripture in purely economic terms. It is not necessarily so. ‘The poor’ may well be a cypher for Israelites who remain faithful to the promises of the God of Israel and the older ways that obtained prior to Josiah’s reforms and to the exile. ‘The poorest of the land’ were left behind at the exile ‘to be vine-dressers and tillers of the soil’ (2Kings 25.12-13) and the spirituality of these people may lie behind those psalms which expressly give voice to the poor (Psalms 9, 10, 12, 14, 32, 34, 37, 40, 41, 70 etc.)

    A spiritual understanding of poverty (rather than merely an economic one) is made obvious by Matthew in his first beatitude when compared to Luke’s – though the Old Testament context isn’t always considered. In the gospels ‘the poor’ may be a way of referring to those who look to the coming of Messiah (e.g. ‘this ointment could be sold and the money given to the poor’) rather than just relief of the needy.

    All worth careful consideration – it has huge implications for contemporary Christian thought e.g. on certain political issues, and especially in a cost of living crisis. Both testaments seem much more concerned for the welfare of the faithful of God’s people than the plight of the economically poor in general.

  4. There are two types of poverty – material poverty and relationship/trust poverty. The worst case scenario is to experience both but the latter is a far greater challenge to overcome. Jesus offers us that trust/relationship for free but it is difficult to convey that message person-to-person. It can only come from the Holy Spirit.

  5. Joseph was not poor in spirit was he? He knew of what illustrious line he was a part. He even had a place at table in Bethlehem he could go, to which perhaps he had always been a part. His rabbi must have taken care to instruct him in David’s story. He was a man of rich heritage. All his extended family and friends must have been acutely aware of their shared history.
    Did Joseph ever wonder what Nathan meant by, “you won’t die but your son will”. Did it have a prophetic resonance with Joseph?

  6. Isaiah writes

    Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey so that he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

    Having prophesied Immanuel’s birth he appears then to describe his infancy. Assuming ‘curds and honey’ is not the food of deprivation. It suggests the infant is not in want. Yet ‘plenty’ was not a hindrance to his moral growth. In our case plenty may not be a moral help. In his case a wholesome diet enables his moral development.

    Any thoughts on this last sentence will be appreciated. I have expressed a tentative view but I may be off base.

    • That verse does puzzle me also John. Why does eating curds and honey enable him to choose the good?

      As opposed to eating what?

      • Different translations might change the apparent meaning…

        15. “Curdled milk and honey will he eat until he knows to refuse the evil and to choose the good.

        16. For before the lad knows refusing the evil and choosing the good, the ground will be forsaken by those of whom you are standing in dread, by the presence of her Kings. ”

        (John Watts :Word Biblical Commentary)

        I’m wondering if that curdled milk isn’t a nice yoghurt just yukky….but the lad has no discerning palate at this point…

      • Curds and honey is a poetic way of describing a 7 month old who is almost weaned, just before it takes solid food.
        I see Jesus as the embodyment of the ‘LAND of milk and honey’. The first thing it produces is both wild and free both pure and good. Therefore, from the start, Jesus is The Promised LAND.

      • Hello John,
        Alan Harman in his commentary on Isaiah 7 includes this, while setting out the various positions; v 14 – this verse simply asserts that before the child comes to maturity (irrespective of whether it means physical or moral maturity) the disaster for Israel will have taken place and exile will be the result. It becomes clear that Assyria will be one agent in the process (v 17), while later in the prophesy Babylon becomes the ultimate agent for the downfall of Judah and Jerusalem.
        -The change from the offer of a sign from “the LORD your God ( v11) to the sovereign imposition of one (v14) marks the threatening nature of the message and points to Immanuel’s involvement with a far distant time.
        Immanuel is to eat “butter and honey” (v15) which is the food of a desolate (verses 21-23) and his coming is an act and state of judgment.”

        Prophecy speaks to the present, with an overarching view of past, present and various staging points in the future.
        It seems to me that there are allusions here in the birth of Christ to, redemption from Egypt and to the promise of a permanent home of flowing riches of milk and honey. His birth, life and death, resurrection, asension is a judgement of and in itself, let alone any future judgment.
        Jesus returned from Egypt, to a people in subjugation, figuratively desolate, spiritually, physically, politically.
        And yet Immanuel, Jesus brings his Kingdom Rule, his promise land/ home, not of this world. Not the honey of the poverty of desolation, which he ultimately consumed on the Cross, but the honey of the Promise.

        • Thanks Geoff.

          There seems to be some division of opinion whether ‘curds and honey’ is rich fare or for the desolate. It is certainly the food of those left in the land when the others are deported. Those left ironically have an abundance.

          I’m not sure that we should think of the arrival of Immanuel as one of judgement. To be sure his arrival will end in judgement but it is initially one of salvation. He will save his people from their sins. He did not come to judge but to save. Immanuel means God with us, that is, on our side.

          These reservations aside I agree. Thanks for taking the time to research. I am just about to scan a few commentaries to see their take.

          As a point of interest I am inclined to think v16 changes from the virgin’s son to Isaiah’s son, Shear-Jashub. Isaiah is told to take Shear-Jashub with him to meet Ahaz. We are not told why and non evident reason appears in the chapter. It may be he is ‘the boy’ in v 16. It is a sharp change I know but that is not so unusual in prophecy.

  7. Steve

    I think ‘milk and honey’ is a fair reference. You’re surely right that Jesus is the embodiment of milk and honey and is himself the promised land. Ahaz is afraid of attack from the coalition in the north. To trust in the virgin’s son Immanuel is to know ‘God with us’. The implication is God with his people in the bounty of blessing – Canaan restored. Thus Immanuel’s land is a place of provision. Curds and honey/milk and honey would be common fair ready for the arrival of Immanuel himself. The sign of Aslan’s presence was the end of winter and the arrival of spring.

    Curds refers to milk that bas become a buttery cheese? . Or perhaps it is a kind of yogurt, It seems at any rate to be rich fare at least for ordinary people.

    Watt’s translation of v15 may be right. A good few translations say something similar. But it is not very plain either. It suggests he eats well until he reaches an age of discernment. This seems odd and doesn’t easily fit in with what we know of Jesus.

    Others translate it as I did above ‘ He shall eat curds and honey so that he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.’. Here his early diet seems to train him in refusing evil and choosing good.

    I wondered if the point is that the virgin’s son is someone who is not corrupted by good things in life but learns from them as I said above.

    • I think the ref. to curds and honey just means that as soon as he knew how to do the first things in life he did them well. As soon as he started taking real food he no longer took his mother’s breast. In other words he wasn’t a clingy, whiney infant. He knew how to do things well, right from the start.
      This is going off topic, is it not?
      On Joseph again: I think the OT becomes the NT at the point when Joseph has his first dream.
      Is this because as soon as God was incarnate he no could longer appear as an angel?
      As soon as Jesus ascended and pentecost came angels once again appear to interact with men. All the time Jesus was on earth only dreams of God were possible.
      So, Joseph would have had an angelic visitation if it were not for the fact that Jesus was now incarnate and unable to be both ‘angel’ and ‘human’.
      Quite happy to be wrong but this blog is about Joseph, aint it?

  8. I’m suggesting Well, its more about whether Jesus was born into a poor family. I’m suggesting his early diet given in Isaiah 7 suggests he was not.

    • A poor family might well want to celebrate weaning with something nice; even if it only happened just once.
      But I’m not interested in C1 diets, I’m interested in it’s prophetic fulfilment as the Land of Promise and any extrapolation it throws up.

  9. Material poverty needs to be understood also in relation to relative stability and powerlessness. The International Justice Mission rightly point out how violence and injustice create and maintain poverty.

    When I was working in Africa, I knew families with very little “money” who still had someone working in the house, or for them, who was paid very little but might still have had a better life than if elsewhere; some were clearly Cinderellas! I think the same is true in many parts of the world. Even the poor have “servants”, and the parables rightly depict the world of the day-labourer, and the person seeking justice from a more powerful neighbour. Appropriation of land, the calling in of a debt, the need to keep in with the local power, all these contribute to a greater poverty than just that measured by apparent income or ownership. Brigandage / banditry is another element – we see it in the parable of the Samaritan who is a neighbour.

    The world of the First Century also understood there was broadly a finite amount of wealth so the rich got richer at the expense of others.

    Thanks Ian for highlighting the much more nuanced and careful studies of poverty / wealth, and also the examples of where there were resources among the disciples, and their families.

    I think there is a strong case that the post-exilic Jews claimed the language of poor, as a virtue, spiritually dependent on God, but that this was their metaphorical claim, and it should not hide or lessen the more basic understanding of poverty and the poor from the earlier period; I also think that Jesus in his teaching on poverty is more in tune with the earlier strand and not the later metaphorical one, but the later metaphorical strand is more appealing to those of us who have more; it is in our interest to read it as important.

    • Indeed Peter—there is a complex interaction between spiritual and material poverty. And, as you say, even people we might consider ‘poor’ may well have servants. A lot is relative!

  10. Well, I quite agree with what Ian Paul is saying here about the family background that Jesus was born into. But I’d suggest that you don’t need modern scholarship, making meticulous studies of life in 1st century Palestine, or a very careful reading of the text to come up with this. You just need to know that Joseph was a carpenter – which has always been a respectable trade.

    The piece that Ian quoted from Charles Pope towards the beginning, even though the author is not a Church of Scotland (or Church of England) man does express the patronising and condescending attitude towards the proles that has traditionally been an integral part of the middle class C. of S.; one might expect to hear this sort of thing in a C. of S. sermon and then conclude worship with the well known hymn by W.S. Gilbert, ‘Bow ye lower middle classes, bow ye tradesmen, bow ye masses.’

    Another issue about the trade of carpenter – this puts Joseph firmly in the category of productive workers. From my own background, my father went to university, while his three brothers and sisters didn’t; my mother and her twin sister went to university, while their three siblings didn’t. I remember (from early childhood) the (friendly) joshing from those doing ‘proper’ jobs that they were productive workers, while my parents were firmly in the category of non-productive workers.

    The family background of Jesus was well chosen; his (adoptive) father (Joseph) was doing something useful.

  11. Regarding Isaiah:

    1. Babies cannot eat the solid food that adults eat. The unusual diet of curds and honey was presumably baby food, given to the child until he had reached the age when he had some moral sense, i.e. knew the difference between good and evil (Isa 7:15 reflecting a colloquial adaptation of Gen 3:22). Parents will confirm that this does not take long.

    2. The significance of the name ‘Immanuel’ is that God will be with Judah despite experiences suggesting the contrary. Judah is about to be ravaged by Assyria: its agriculture and viticulture will be destroyed, so that only cattle feed on the land. At the time of Jesus, Herod was a cruel despot and the Romans destroyed Judea’s vineyards during its revolt of AD 67-70; I don’t know whether they also laid waste the farms, but the country was depopulated. However, the transcending message was still ‘God [is] with us’.

    3. The Hebrew word ‘almah’ in Isa 7:14 cannot mean ‘virgin’ if the woman in question (as seems to me probable) is the prophetess of Isa 8:3 and the son is Isaiah’s child. Isa 8:4 is exactly parallel to Isa 7:16. Just as the boy in Isaiah was not actually called Immanuel (Isa 8:3), so Jesus was not actually called Immanuel. For similarly idiomatic usage, compare e.g. Isa 1:26, 9:6, 62:4, also not referring to actual names. The boy was a sign (Luke 2:34).

    4. Matthew’s ‘parthenos’ in Matt 1:23 clearly does imply ‘virgin’. So in the light of the nativity, LXX ‘parthenos’ in Isa 7:14 acquires a new significance. But remember that Matthew also cites Isaiah because of the significance of ‘Immanuel’.

    5. The message will be particularly relevant when the first trumpet blows (Rev 8:7) and we suffer the same fate as Judah/Judaea.

    • Hello Dr.
      My brief reading of Rev. 8:7
      The trumpets are the gospel preached. ‘Mingled with blood’ is a reference to the persecution attending the message. The Gospel falls on the unrepentant heart like hail. The deaths that occur are people being born again and dying to sin. Those who fail to die to sin carry on in their idolatry. The 2 witnesses are Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Word and the Testimony. They get taken up in the Cloud (the Father). This is snuck into the Trumpets as a parenthesis to show it is a summary of the trumpets work. The Trumpets are another way of describing the Stone with seven facets. The trumpets only seem to be an evil falling on the sea of humanity like a mountain ablaze because it is from the unbelievers perspective. As Jesus said “ I come to bring a sword”. To the dead in Christ he is the fragrance of salvation, to the unrepentant He is a stench of death.
      In other words, read Rev. Trumpets section as the gospel preached from the perspective of the idolaters. It’s not a direct revelation of future chronology, it is happening now.
      I don’t expect to make an impression on you, you have a book to sell, I don’t.

      • Steve – yes -many thanks for posting this – it makes a lot of sense to me (chimes in with my own view of repentance, death to sin, salvation – and also with the way that Revelation makes sense to me – several different pictures showing different aspects of the whole period between the ascension and the eschatological return). It was nice reading it.

    • Steven

      I take the ‘curds and honey’ to be good food. He eats them until he is at an age of responsibility (12?). In v22 they are the food of a desolate land. Yet they are part of the vision of a good land (flowing with milk and honey) Ex 3. Is it possible Immanuel is born into a land under judgement to which he brings the blessings of an eschatological Canaan

      2. Thee is a transcendence to God with us to people of faith. There is, however, also a particularity that is found in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus; God is with us takes on a specific sense.

      3. I don’t think the woman is the prophetess nor the virgin’s son the second child.

      4.The greek translation parthenos/virgin by a hebraist is a very strong argument for ‘almah’ meaning virgin. The word is only used around half a dozen times and in none is the idea of virgin absent. In Gen 24 ‘Betulah’ is followed by the qualifier ‘whom no man has known’ suggesting ‘betulah’ is not distinctly ‘virgin’.

      5. My present inclination is to see a change of child in v16. VV14,15 are the virgin’s son. Vv16,17 are Isa’s son Shear-Jashub. Isaiah is told to take his son with him to meet Ahaz. The son does not appear again in the narrative unless it is in v16. I admit it is a sharp divide but this happens in prophetic literature. This has the virtue of a dual fulfilment not based on the doubtful meaning of words. It is vv16,17 that speak into a more immediate fulfilment. Isaiah’s two sons are both ‘signs’ of a less dramatic; both convey the imminence of the demise of Israel and Syria. It will happen before the elder son reaches te age of moral discernment and before the younger son is able to talk. There names also convey messages of judgement and salvation.

      Thus the sign of the virgin’s son (given to the house of David and so belonging to a bigger canvas) speaks of a future fulfilment like other Messiah passages while Isaiah’s son is also a sign, a promise if he will believe it. That Immanuel is Messiah seems clear from the fact that the land is his.

  12. Apart from a passing reference to “ointment” and yet another to “Jesus and his teaching on poverty” there are few, if any, insights into exactly how Jesus *did* view poverty.
    One example is to be found in Matthew 26: 6-13, involving as it does that intriguing sentiment: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
    Contrast the indignation of the disciples”Why this waste?—— “this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”; a smug superiority that still today wends its way through the corridors of moral rectitude, attempting to identify with those it little understands!
    Jesus “who knows what is in man” sees it for what it is – self righteousness. Moreover he sees in the woman not only a beauty of character but a spiritual presence . She was preparing him for suffering, death and burial. Jesus is not absorbed in bringing political, philosophical or psychological to bear on contemporary issues such as poverty or even warfare [Mark 13:7-8]. Rather he penetrates to the heart of all life revealing the eternal realities of the kingdom into the lives of those who are open to His saving word and, supremely, to his sacrifical self-giving.

    • Colin

      Perhaps we need to look at the OT and epistles to learn more fully Jesus’ view on poverty. I seem to remember someone pointing out in Proverbs – the idle poor and those made poor by the circumstances of life. In my mind there was another. Group but I can’t think what it was.

      • I’m sure your right John. I’m just surprised that the subject was not tackled on a site which almost invariably ends up a million miles from the original issue.

  13. Im A bit late to the comments. However this is a very interesting article with many useful references . Thank you Ian. Does anyone read or reference K Hanson work on Palestine in the time of Jesus? Maybe a bit dated but it was revelatory for me.

  14. An interesting angle on this.
    Your accompanying image, however, is rather unfortunately. One thing we can be certain of, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not white! Forgive me being picky, but just as we have made assumptions about the poverty around the nativity (in truth, we’ll never know for sure!), so we have absorbed a thoroughly white western representation of the nativity. I think this matters! I speak as a white westerner myself……. Yes, in a way every culture will appropriate Jesus in some way, but the incarnation is about a specific time, place and culture. We do well to remember that this time, place and culture isn’t ours…..

    • Thanks. That is an interesting point, but needs quite a few qualifications.

      a. Every culture has inculturated their images of Jesus. So we find the first images of Jesus as without a beard, since that was the style of philosophers and wise men at that time; when philosophers grew beards, so did the images of Jesus.

      b. This Pre-Raphaelite image is doing just what eg African images of Jesus are doing when they make Jesus black. If the former are in any sense being racist and unhistorical, are the latter? And do you object to them?

      c. There is a strong tradition of depicting Jesus as ruddy, even red-haired, because that is how the young King David is described in 1 Sam 16.12, and Jesus is the ‘son of David’. (Hence the genealogy in Matt 1 being arranged in sets of 14 generations, since 14 is the gematria value of the name ‘David’.)

      d. Not all Jews are swarthy; this itself is a racist stereotype. Palestinian Arab friends of mine value pale skin; I have a Coptic Egyptian friend who is very pale skinned, and is fed up with racist stereotypes that he does not conform to!

      So it is all a bit complex! I explore some of these issue in this post: https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/was-jesus-black/

  15. I would suggest that you update the dollar values each year. $570 US (1990) in 2022 dollars is $1298 US. Burundi (from the website cited) has a lower per capita GDP today than Congo at $1709 US (2021). This does not change the analysis.

    • Yes and no! The map was composed in 2015, but it notes that it is working in 1990 dollar values throughout. As long as one is consistent in using that reference point, then, as you say, the analysis remains pertinent.

      It is a point which the modern reader is very apt to forget.


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