Sunday, January 3, 2010


Was Jesus Rich?

[UPDATE below.]

Here is a very interesting article (HT2 Tyler Cowen) discussing whether Jesus was wealthy in material terms. When I first heard the claim I thought it was absurd, but the proponents make a decent case in terms of familiar things from the Bible that I had never thought about in this context:
"Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey," says Anderson. "Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation."
The proof [of Jesus' wealth], he says, is scattered throughout the New Testament. One example: The 12th chapter of the Gospel of John says that Jesus had a treasurer, or a "keeper of the money bag."

"The last time I checked, poor people don't have treasurers to take care their money," says [Rev. Tom] Brown, author of "Devil, Demons and Spiritual Warfare."
Brown says Jesus' own words prove that he wasn't poor.

"Jesus said you will always have the poor, but you will not always have me," Brown says. "Jesus did not affirm himself as being part of the poor class...

"I believe he was the richest man on the face of the earth because he had God as his source," Brown says.

Jesus' wealth is evident even in the Gospel accounts of his execution, some pastors say.

The New Testament reports that Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothing while he hung on the cross. They wouldn't gamble for Jesus' clothing unless it was expensive, Anderson says.

"I don't know anybody -- even Pamela Anderson -- that would have people gambling for his underwear," Anderson says. "That was some fine stuff he wore."
I asked my college friend who went on to get his PhD in church history (I think that was the exact field?) in Princeton what he thought of this. (FWIW this is one of the people responsible for my conversion back to theism, though his efforts didn't bear fruit at the time.) Here's what he said:
Interesting stuff, I had never heard that particular angle, but coming from the prosperity gospel theology it is not surprising.

I think that the whole question is misplaced and that is was allows both sides to score points.

Jesus was clearly not rich according to the standards of his day (Rich would be basically landed elites which Jesus clearly wasn't), but the issue is muddled because (as one scholar points out) there was no middle class in our sense. Jesus did have some financial resources so it would not be right to say that he was destitute poor either. Hence he could mix with both poor and rich and not seem entirely out of water.

In terms of the ancient economy, it would be safe to say that while Jesus had some resources, he did not have stable or reliable wealth (which had to be relatively immovable and also massive--ie several thousand times more than necessary for annual subsistence-- to be stable and reliable in the long run). If we compared him to other religious figures (Rabbis or Pagan Temple staff) he would have been less wealthy since it does not seem that he built up personal wealth in a stable way that they would have (ie family, land, tenants/servants etc.)

The same would seem to be true of the early church in Acts. Ie, it must have been fairly well off due to converts joining with wealth, but it is clear the wealth is being converted into moveable wealth and disbursed, so given the volatility of the ancient economy (and ancient life in general), it would not have been rich in the traditional sense. It also seems to have filled a unique social niche--there is definitely something to the argument that Christianity spread because it offered the urban poor social support not available elsewhere.

UPDATE: Gary North emails:
Jesus' family was poor. We know this because of the law of the offerings governing the firstborn son (Ex. 13:13). A lamb had to be sacrificed -- expensive. A poor family could substitute two turdledoves (Lev. 5:7, 11). Jesus' family offered turtledoves (Luke 2:24).

The treasurer -- Judas Iscariat -- held the money for the disciples. He stole the money (John 12:6). It was not Jesus' money.

Jesus had no home or resting place (Matthew 8:20).

The coat was nothing special. It was more useful than four pieces of cloth divided four ways (John 19:23-24).

FYI, there's no evidence that Mary and Joseph used a donkey, either for riding or eating. That's just an unsourced tradition -- probably merely invented for convenient depiction.

Christ's parents pulled up all roots and moved twice after He was 2, the second time to Nazareth, which we now know to be a tiny town of utter poverty. He trained with Joseph as a carpenter (or contractor, which one isn't clear), but there's no way they accumulated much.

And Judas' position as treasurer was rather obvious -- Jesus obviously lived off contributions together with at least some of His followers, and also Himself contributed to others. Both require someone to manage the purse, and although He might have done so, He chose to divide the labor. This doesn't imply wealth, but rather the need to manage money that's being used by several people.

Finally, Jesus seems to have claimed to be poor -- "birds of the air have nests... but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." The quote your source gives says nothing about His own poverty.

Mary and Joseph were at best of very modest means. Probably the clearest indication of this is found in Luke's gospel 2:24. Joseph and Mary went up to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice. Under levitical law, women of relative wealth would have offered a purchased lamb as a burnt offering,and a young pigeon as a sin offering. For those not able to bring a lamb, presumably because of their poverty, the levitical system provided that a woman might offer two young turtledoves or pigeons instead. Luke tells us that the latter is what Mary offered up. Many scholars point to this episode as good indication of the modest means of the family.
The description of gambling for Jesus's clothes as indicating he was rich is odd. Making fabric was a very time consuming process before machines. Cloth of any sort would be valuable.

Why would poor people eat their donkey? That would be like burning my house to keep warm. Except in especially dire circumstances it would be a foolish path to take. I can only eat my donkey once, but I can rent him out to pull carts for others daily.
I agree with Jim about the gambling for clothes bit. Cloth of any kind was valuable, and the soldiers could clearly have at it once the body was lowered, so why not have a game of chance to determine the winner.

The only ways to prove the expensive clothes argument would be either 1) find them and document that they were indeed fine threads; or 2) find out exactly how high the soldiers wagered for the clothes--they wouldn't risk more than the clothes were worth.

However, if Jesus was considered a notorious criminal at the time, might his clothes have acquired some kind of value? For instance, I have some grapeshot from the battle of Gettysburg. I can't use it for anything, other than to say, "Hey, I've got grapeshot from Gettysburg."

I paid $20 for it.
A few points:

1. re: wtanksley- It is entirely false to say that we know Nazareth "to be a tiny town of utter poverty". Jerome Murphy-O'Connor argues that Joseph (and presumably, then, Jesus) were part of a Nazareth laboring class that worked on the nearby Herodian city of Sepphoris, finding regular work with Antipas's building projects.

2. re: the donkey- cf. Zechariah 9:9. The donkey is a biblical motif indicating Israelite kingship(/messianism... although Zechariah might be too early to properly call it a passage describing a Messiah). The donkey motif is taken up by the gospel writers to further depict Jesus as the new king of Israel, the new David. Jesus'/his family's ownership of a donkey is not historical.

3. re: Jesus' clothing- cf. Psalm 22. Another biblical motif. Not historical.

4. Considering the question theologically, Luke Johnson is correct when he says that "if Jesus reveals God, there is something powerful about God appearing and working among the poor"; remember, though, that Jesus living and working among the poor doesn't mean that Jesus himself was poor/was born poor, nor did his financial situation speak to his ability to minister to and empathize with the poor.
The Jesus Seminar folks seem to think that they have a better take on what and what are not historical events than do the 1st century writers who lived and mingled with the disciples. According to the Jesus Seminar scholars, the gospel writers just add and take away from the actual historical narrative at their own discretion to make their tales more theologically palitable for the people in their particular communities of faith.

A big problem is posed for this hypothesis however. Paul of Tarsus was one of these story weavers, and a contemporary of Jesus himself. However, he swears he saw a risen Jesus. He also indicates that if his report of the risen Christ were not historically true, then he himself was a liar, and that people would do better to forget the whole Jesus thing, since their faith in his messianic identity was making them miserable and outcasts of both Jewish and Roman society.

It has always struck me as odd that the Jesus Seminar folks seem to insinuate that the gospel writers were completely antinomian, just making up whoppers out of thin air to suit their own local needs. I think Paul's own detailed accounts show that the ancient writers indeed viewed history as history, theology as theology, and false witness as false witness. None of this is to say that literary devises were not used by the gospel writers to illustrate certain theological points, but the Jesus seminar folks go way too far. If we want to talk about the actual person who was Jesus of Nazareth, without the gospel accounts, we don't get very far.
1. re: wtanksley- It is entirely false to say that we know Nazareth "to be a tiny town of utter poverty".

Michael, I'm not sure what your standards for historicity are (regarding the donkey), but your standards for "entire falsehood" are at best suspect. The excavation going on at the site of Nazareth is now confirming what was only guessed at by implication before: Nazareth was an inconsequential group of hovels.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor argues that Joseph (and presumably, then, Jesus) were part of a Nazareth laboring class that worked on the nearby Herodian city of Sepphoris, finding regular work with Antipas's building projects.

That's fascinating! On what basis does he argue that? Oh, he has no actual argument, evidence, inferences, or anything of the sort... It's just a nice idea.

(It IS a nice idea. I find it interesting. I hope he's trying to think of some way to collect evidence for it.)

2. re: the donkey- [...]The donkey is a biblical motif indicating Israelite kingship(/messianism[...] The donkey motif is taken up by the gospel writers[...] Jesus'/his family's ownership of a donkey is not historical.

The "donkey motif" isn't Biblical, full stop. And since that's the only available evidence on the topic, it's also not historical; the time you're spending on the "motif" stuff is a little odd. Yes, the Bible uses symbols and motifs; but if the Bible says Jesus decided to borrow a donkey for His triumphal entry in order to pump up a little PR, the existence of a motif doesn't prove that Christ didn't do it; on the contrary, it makes it likely that He (or someone in His entourage) would have thought of it.

My point: the existence of motifs proves _nothing_ either way.

3. re: Jesus' clothing- cf. Psalm 22. Another biblical motif. Not historical.

This is the one that really caught me. It's a splendid catch-22 -- essentially, anything that looks like fulfilled prophecy MUST be a complete fabrication and assumed to have NOT happened. Even coincidence isn't enough, apparently.

I'm annoyed because you're dragging the word "historical" into this. That term actually has meaning. There are rules by which history is discovered and understood, and this doesn't follow them at all.

4. [...] remember, though, that Jesus living and working among the poor doesn't mean that Jesus himself was poor/was born poor, nor did his financial situation speak to his ability to minister to and empathize with the poor.

That's a good point.

Unfortunately, it demonstrates nothing -- except to correctly refute the opposite theological argument, which I don't think anyone's made here.

The best evidence we have -- and it's very limited -- seems to indicate that Jesus lived a lifestyle of transience and poverty, not from some oath (he attended parties when the occasions came up) and therefore likely out of necessity.

Interesting topic. I have to admit this question has never occurred to me. My two cents:

1. Consider Luke 10, where Jesus sends out 72 followers with instructions not to take along a money bag, and to stay with families in the towns they visit, who will provide them food and shelter. This could be a glimpse of how Jesus conducted his own ministry.

2. I wish I could remember where I saw this, but I recall reading that a fisherman was actually a fairly good occupation to have back then. Several of Jesus' disciples were fisherman - perhaps they contributed financially???
I pretty sure you could make a pretty penny raffling off Pamela Anderson's underwear.
I always assumed that the soldiers gambled for the fine robe that they put on Him to mock Him as the so-called King of the Jews. See John 19.
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