Were Joseph and Mary ‘poor’?

“Christ in the House of His Parents” by Sir John Everett Millais.

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.’

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34 thoughts on “Were Joseph and Mary ‘poor’?”

  1. There is universal human poverty, of us all before God, our bankruptcy, empty-handed emptiness dressed in our filthy rags destitution, to be graced, adorned in rich royal robes of righteousness of Christ.

    Though begotten, not made, though indescribably rich in glory, nondescript in birth ; brought low that we may be raised in him.\

    Jesus was wrapped in cloths, swaddled; omnipotence bound up in humanity. Bounteously and freely bound to our Father’s will, he was bound to the cross; he was swaddled in grave cloths – bound that we may be freed from our bondage to sin. Just as holy- glory was swaddled at birth, we are swaddled in sin, to be unswaddled as was Lazarus.

    Thanks to a recent article by a Jewish believer in Jesus, Bernard N Howard on the Gospel Coalition site, for stimulating the third paragraph.

  2. Ian, Merry Christmas … A lot of work to make the point Jesus came for everyone, not just the working class. I may be reading into your post more than is there placing my own progressive bias onto the texts you use. Surely the point of the Christmas narrative and incarnational theology is that all people are included in the incarnation, but the poor are in special need of gods protection. I still think that this post could be seen to have a conservative spin to it. eg Jesus was middle class “running a building company”? Maybe I’m not looking at it correctly but the words of Maggie ring out ” there is no such thing as a society only an economy” and to the coal miners “if you want a job get on yer bike “. Ian Paisley would have delivered a sermon like this.

    • Well, it looks like it was a good job I did all the work…though having done that, I am not sure how you can argue that I am preaching a Thatcherite sermon.

      The point of the work is that it shows the evidence! Which part of that evidence would you like to dispute?

      • From a grandson of a coal miner this is as far from a Thatcherite sermon, than I could ever have hoped, nor imagined. It radically exposes our inadequacy and inability hidden deep in our hearts and we either defend or deny our heart of darkness in the superiority of our own politics of all persuasions.
        He came to inhabit us, to transform into a new creation, new humanity in Him.
        Born to give us second birth. His presence within, the Spirit within.
        Thanks, Ian

      • Ian its great research and to deconstruct it would take ages, its more that I think that the amount of effort to try to shift a debate from “Jesus came for the poor” to Jesus came for everyone via arguing regarding whether Joseph was a day labourer in a Carpenters shop or instead ran a building company and therefore wasn’t poor seems to over-egg the Christmas pudding. I always find your blog challenging but it keeps me thinking. Guess I was being a little harsh quoting St Maggie and Ian Paisley. My grandfather taught Paisley at MU back in the days when Noah was a lad. Have a great Christmas.

    • I’ve always thought Ulster Unionists were rather leftwing statists who believed in large scale state spending and state employment. Not Thatcherite at all.

      • I’ve always thought Ulster Unionists were rather leftwing statists who believed in large scale state spending and state employment. Not Thatcherite at all.

        Ian Paisley was DUP, not UUP. But laying that aside, both are broad churches economically, as you often find when a constitutional question is the main uniting factor of a party (the SNP likewise contains a wide range of economic views from very right-wing to very statist; the current leadership are way off in the statist end, but that’s not what binds the party together).

  3. I have always imagined Joseph and Mary to be of modest means and the fact they make the minimum offering for Mary’s purification ceremony has always seemed to me to be clear evidence of it. I’m not persuaded by the take on Leviticus 12 in the post above, though I am not a Hebrew expert. I just think that there must have always been plenty of lambs to hand in the temple courts – if you had the money to buy one. This doesn’t mean they must have been grindingly poor or destitute of course.

    But the gospels say they went on to have quite a few sons and daughters. It must have been quite a strain on the family budget to put bread on the table for them all especially if, as is commonly supposed, Joseph died relatively young, in any case before Jesus’ public ministry began.

    • I rather agree with John – the offering of the doves I find significant and indicative of being poor -and not a pragmatic offering because a lamb was not to hand. The Temple area was crowded with livestock for sale.

      However, I presume sometime after the presentation in the Temple, they received gifts from the adoring Magi, prior to the flight to Egypt. This money may have provided for them in Egypt

      I think the compelling point here in Ian’s essay is that modern social categories of wealth and status do not map onto C1st Israel – where almost everyone was the poor. And that Jesus came, not just for the poor, but for all, calling the wealthy Zacchaeus, the tax collector Matthew and attracting the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea.

      Ian, thankyou for the gift of your blog – a space to learn, debate, be challenged and grow – Like very many, I am so grateful for all you give us here

      • I think ‘almost everyone was the poor’ is an important point. Sociologically Jesus has been seen as a peasant, and culturally his family have been seen as Anawim. But relative to the spread of wealth which he was amidst, these 2 categorisations do not necessarily put him in a low percentile.

        Heartfelt appreciation for the gift of this excellent blog. Merry Christmas.

    • I think their possible inability to buy a lamb indicates that, at that moment, they did not have cash to hand; this means they were not ‘wealthy’ but it does not mean that they were ‘poor’ in the sense of being in ES6 or 7, which is certainly how most people read it.

      And it is striking that Luke makes absolutely nothing of this—not even highlighting the issue in his citation of the text. The motifs of poverty and almost entirely imagined by modern readers.

          • true – if consensus is to be believed, an inn is not an inn but the guest room in the house. fair enough.

            That said, the argument championed by K Bailey by projecting C20th Arab culture back onto C1st Jewish culture is not wholly convincing.

      • ‘The motifs of poverty and [sic] almost entirely imagined by modern readers’. Or, Ian, so completely understood by ancient readers that Luke would not need to highlight ‘the issue’?

        • Could you point out what, exactly, what would be understood? I have highlighted clear evidence that shepherds were not poor and despise, both from historical context and the text itself. I have pointed out that many of the features of the text that modern readers think indicate ‘poverty’ would be seen as entirely normal in the first century. And there is considerable textual evidence that Jesus’ circle largely included people of some means.

          So where is the evidence…?

  4. Many thanks for this, Ian. Roland Deines’ work calls for close attention – as well as translation into English as not enough people in the Anglosphere know German.

    Nor do many who hold forth on the New Testament evince much familiarity with contemporary literature but rely on secondary comment. To a degree this is inevitable, but there is always the danger of retrospective readings and misreading. (The anachronisms we see on TV dramas purporting to recreate the 1950s ilustrate this point painfully as well.) So more acquaintance with actual first century sources would help – and there has never been a time when such material has been so freely available. (But will I live to see the day when absurd nativity plays are a thing of the past? Probably not.)

    The economics of fishing in first century Galilee make for an interesting question. I had always imagined the sons of Zebedee to be moderately well off, with property and employees, and I am sure this is so. Richard Bauckham gave lectures on them and the Gospel use of the fishing motif at the University of Otago in 2014 and IIRC, he seemed to miss this point, which surprised me, in discussing the poverty of fishermen.

    Jesus himself was a skilled artisan so hardly indigent, but he had at least six siblings. But a larger family could also mean more earners.

    A last point concerns life expectancy. Infant mortality was high but if a man made it to adulthood , he might hope to make it to sixty, barring infected wounds. For women, of course, childbirth and mortality was another question.

    • The book overall is in German, but Roland’s article is in English.

      Yes, I agree with you—as far as I know, fishing was a prosperous business.

      Yes, on infant mortality. But I seem to recall that Roman Army veterans would be settled once they had done 20 years service…and this was by no means guaranteed.

      I think then, as up until the 19thC, many died in their 50s from what we would now consider preventable illness.

      • Yes, I think that last point would be right. Until the advent of antiseptics and antibiotics, accidents, infections and sicknesses like cholera would have carried many off to a premature grave. It is an interesting question whether urban living in the ancient world reduced your chances of survival. Certainly being rich didn’t protect you from plague unless you could flee the city. But as ascetics then, as now, seemed to be a hardier breed.
        Hygiene, clean water and a good diet made a great difference to average lifespans from about 1850 onwards. Semmelweis is one of the great heroes of civilisation, though treated horribly in his own day.

  5. Great Article. I once read that in order for the Roman soldiers to have considered drawing lots over Jesus’s cloak, it must of been a quality garment, not that of a beggar or poor man. Is this a reasonable viewpoint in your opinion? Thanks.

  6. Symbolic look at doves through the scriptures cronologically.
    Only one dove left the ark. did its mate find out where it went?
    The last in the line of Abraham’s covenant sacrifices were a brace of doves.
    In exceptional circumstances a brace of doves is an acceptable sacrifice in Leviticus.
    A dove came down on Jesus and remained.
    On the cross Jesus gave up his Spirit. Was this when the dove left? Was Jesus mission a mission of two? Two witnesses?
    Are the two witnesses in Revelation Jesus and the Spirit?

    Therefore doves as part of a sacrifice is symbolic of the work of Jesus AND the Holy Spirit.

  7. Whatever Jesus’ family’s exact financial status in the context of first century Roman occupied Galilee, (and that’s a point actually, the imperial tax burden was pretty heavy so it was not easy to be upwardly mobile economically), I’m sure the most important point is that, though our Lord was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that through his poverty we might become rich.

  8. The issue of the Holy Family’s relative or absolute poverty is – as Ian says – used as a theological justification for (or not) God’s preferential option for the poor / God’s concern for the poor, and so potentially a challenge to those of us who are more affluent.

    The instability of even the group 5 workers is compounded by the variance of local tax-collectors and officials. For those of us who have lived in countries where the rule of justice is sadly dependent on whether the local judiciary like you, where corruption and local threats can leave any family on the edge, we will have seen something of the issue, and even met those who have lost decent livelihoods. Real economic stability is hugely dependent on the level of justice / peace and local security in an area, something not present necessarily in the world in which Jesus lived.
    In a world which demanded taxes in money, again the somewhat better-off could find themselves taxed out of their livelihood. Just because they had a bit more did not mean they were secure.
    Most of us reading this blog probably live in relative security as well as relative affluence.
    I think the issue of socio-economic uncertainty is a dimension which may be missing somewhat from this really helpful summary of some recent scholarship. It is linked to a poor harvest, a bad year, a family crisis, but also to external threats.
    Life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (as Hobbes put it) and Ian is right that this has changed in the West only fairly recently.
    With much thanks to Ian for the regular stimulation and scholarship, and the space to disagree.

  9. Re: ‘Secondly, much is often made of the observation from Luke 2.24 that Joseph and Mary offer the sacrifice … “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.’

    I disagree on:
    -the inverse ‘they were not wealthy’ (Joel Green) here, as the Law standardises a class ‘able’ to offer a yearling lamb & fowl. There’s a concession, not a free-choice, and so they lacked ‘able’ (sufficient).
    -Alternative interpretations (Lev 12:8, AV) where Scripture illuminates (Lev 14:21-22) and Rabbinic literature limits them as ‘the Offering of the Poor’ (Barclay).

    I add:
    -‘Luke concerns himself with the interests of the poor’ (Leon Morris, TNTC Luke) and Mary’s ‘low estate’ (Luke 1:48,52-53).
    -Rabbinic literature notes the unique way Lev 2:1 introduces, ‘If a soul (Hebrew NEFESH) shall bring a flour offering.’ So, similarly the Ohr HaChayim on Lev 1:14 says, ‘We find support from Isaiah 57:15 when the prophet describes G-d as being close “to the contrite and lowly in spirit” … All who offer a burnt-offering of a bird is presumed to be in low spirits since he cannot afford something of greater value to G‑d.’
    -Taking the plural ‘their … they’ (Luke 2:22), as pious Jews, consecrating their firstborn (v23), conceived of the Holy Spirit, are all the less likely to rob God.
    -Mary & Joseph were ‘basically poor, but able to get by’ (Bill Muehlenberg). A subsistence level, e.g. with late arriving, ‘in a manger’, and no jobbing midwife mentioned.
    -Whatever provisions they had, I speculate went to Bethlehem.
    -Jesus preached from borrowed boats, multiplied borrowed food, rode a borrowed colt, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.


    • Thanks for these interesting comments. You do appear to be in danger of imposing modern estimates of wealth and class on to the evidence. What happens when we read all this through the ES scale that Longenecker proposes? Where does the evidence place Jesus and his family? Without much doubt, in ES4 or ES5, which is in the ‘small surplus’ category.

      I agree with your observations about Jesus in his ministry—but in fact that reinforces my point, since he has to renounce is natural situation in order to be poor in these ways.

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Awhile back I read John Dominic Crossan’s “Excavating Jesus.” He argues that Jesus grew up as a peasant. In support of his position he quotes a story from the 4th century church historian Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.20, related to the members of Jesus’ family who presumably had remained in Nazareth.

    In reading the account from Eusebius I came to the exact opposite conclusion than what Crossan argues. The account in Eusebius reads how two sons held 39 acres of land. Considering that Nazareth only occupied about 60 acres with a population of around a little over 200, that’s a lot of land!

    Living in the wine country of Santa Barbara, I figure 39 acres is more than enough land for family without modern tractors, etc. to sustain a viable ranch raising sheep, growing grapes & making wine.

    That Joseph was not dirt poor also makes sense when one considers the possibility that the main reason Joseph needed to travel to Bethlehem for a census was because he owned land there.

    Bethlehem was an esteemed grape growing area in ancient Israel. I think it is a reasonable inference that Joseph was involved in grape growing and wine making along with being a general free lance construction worker.

    Archeologists have found a wine press in Nazareth dating from the 1st century and Joseph being a craftsman (tektōn, τέκτων) would have certainly been involved in the maintenance, if not construction of the wine press that has been found. Also, Joseph doing construction work in nearby Sepphoris would have had been able to generate a nice cash flow to augment ranch activities in Nazareth.

    • Richard Bauckham, who holds to the peasant view of Jesus family background, states the following about the above reference from Eusebius:

      “The farm was not divided between the brothers, but owned jointly, no doubt because this family continued the old Jewish tradition of keeping a smallholding undivided as the joint property of the ‘father’s house’, rather than dividing it between heirs.

      So, two generations back, this farm would have belonged to Joseph and his brother Clopas. Unfortunately, because there are two possible sizes of the plethron, it seems impossible to be sure of the size of the farm: it may be either about 24 acres or about 12 acres.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_relatives_bauckham.html

      If Joseph and Clopas originally had this farm as joint property, how do we know that it was in Nazareth and not Bethlehem?


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