Was Jesus born into a poor family?

Rod of Alexandria writes an interesting post God Is Santa Claus: How the Prosperity Gospel Poisons the Spirit of Christmas (which he also links to at Unsettled Christianity, thereby kindling Joel’s apparent ire). I agree with most of his criticism of prosperity churches and ministries, and indeed of any churches which allow their life to “center around the wallets of the monied, and their interests”.

But I disagree with Rod on one point. He writes (corrected by me):

In Luke 2, when our Jewish Savior was presented at the temple, his family was so poor, Mary and Joseph had to give two doves or pigeons, according to the law of Moses (Luke 2:24). The author of Luke had in mind Leviticus 5:7 (NIV): “Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the LORD as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.” Mary and Joseph could not even afford one of the lambs that was probably in the manger with them the night Mary the Theotokos gave birth to our LORD.

First, I would correct Rod’s reference to Leviticus. The passage Luke had in mind is surely not 5:7, concerning the sin offering in general, but 12:8, which is specifically about purification after childbirth. But the wording is almost identical. Even in 12:8 one of the birds is for a sin offering, implying that there was considered to be something sinful even in Jesus’ birth.

Two turtle dovesAs Rod notes, Mary and Joseph chose to offer not a lamb and a bird, but the poor person’s alternative of two birds. Very likely what they brought was the first alternative in the Hebrew, two turtle doves – not on the second day of Christmas but on the 33rd day, according to Leviticus 12:8.

In other words, Rod is claiming that Mary and Joseph were poor. But is there in fact any evidence for this?

First, let’s consider the evidence from them bringing the supposed poor person’s offering. I researched this a little a few years ago, and from what I remember there is very little evidence of what offerings were actually presented after the birth of a baby around the time that Jesus was born. (If anyone reading this knows of any evidence, please mention it in a comment.) On this basis we can only speculate. But my own guess would be that, given a free choice between offering a lamb or a second bird, and given human nature, most people would choose to give the bird. It would very likely have been only the ostentatiously wealthy and religious, such as the Pharisees, who would have offered a lamb – and made a big show of doing so. I doubt if the really poor brought even birds as offerings for each of their many children, especially if that involved a long trip to Jerusalem every time, which may be part of why the Pharisees dismissed them as ignorant of the law and cursed (John 7:49).

Anyway, even if Mary and Joseph were normally quite prosperous, their finances would surely have been seriously stretched by the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the stay in Judea of more than a month, probably with little chance of work for Joseph. (Here I assume a traditional understanding of the biblical nativity stories.) In these circumstances a lamb would have been a significant expense even for someone quite wealthy.

So, if we discount this evidence from the offering in Luke 2:24, what can we say about the economic status of Jesus’ family? Well, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in this field. But it seems clear that they were not in the main class of the poor of the time, agricultural day labourers like the ones in the parable who were waiting to be hired for work in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Joseph, by contrast, was a skilled craftsman – the Greek word tekton means not so much “carpenter” as “builder” (Matthew 13:55). Very likely he found good building work at the Romanised city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth.

More than 30 years later Jesus himself was known as a tekton (Mark 6:3). But by the time of his ministry he had apparently moved away from Nazareth to Capernaum. Very likely one reason for this was that that was the home of his relative Zebedee, whose fishing business was profitable enough to support not only his sons James and John but also hired workers (Mark 1:19-20). So, although his standard of living was surely well below what would now, in the West, be considered the poverty line, Jesus was by no means among the poor of his own time.

Yes, Jesus did become a homeless wanderer who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), but that was not because of his family background, but because he chose to follow his Father’s call into itinerant ministry.

Yes, the Apostle Paul did write about

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.

(2 Corinthians 8:9, NIV)

But the poverty that Paul had in mind here was far more than physical want. Ironically, if this verse is about Jesus’ material poverty, it must also be about his followers’ material riches, and so it must justify the prosperity gospel which Rod criticises. And the context in 2 Corinthians 8-9, a passage on a collection for the poor, requires that this verse cannot be taken purely spiritually. Nevertheless it can hardly be taken as a literal statement of Jesus’ socio-economic position.

So, what can we conclude? Jesus and his family were not rich people. But neither were they poor, by the standards of their time. It may be anachronistic to speak of a middle class, but to the extent that there was one they were in it. Jesus’ poverty and dependence on voluntary support during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3) were because he voluntarily gave up his building work for the work of building God’s kingdom. At the end, although he could have avoided it, he submitted to the ultimate poverty of being nailed naked to a cross. And this became the way to the Resurrection which brought true riches, not only to himself but also to us who follow him.

11 thoughts on “Was Jesus born into a poor family?

  1. John, that’s a good question, but not one that can be answered easily. It seems likely that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem some time, perhaps years, after Jesus was born. By this time the family was living in a house, and we can presume that Joseph had found some work. But the sudden trip to Egypt would have disturbed that. No doubt the unexpected gifts would have been an easy source of the funds they would need for that trip. But they were unlikely to have been valuable enough to allow the family to live a life of leisure.

  2. Thanks Peter. Actually I wonder how much gold & spices those magi gave. It would depend on their own financial position & how many of them came to worship. Matthew doesn’t mention the number of them although tradition has it at three or twelve. Interesting thoughts – thanks

  3. Oun, thank you for the correction. You are most likely right. Happy New Year!

    John, we can only guess how much gold, frankincense and myrrh Jesus received. But I doubt if the wise men brought a king’s ransom or enough to be a logistical problem on their long journey. More likely the quantities were quite small, but still perhaps enough to be worth selling.

  4. One of those questions which interests many, say, at a Housegroup , where such homely and day to day matters are “important”. Rather like did all the shephers leave the hillside and go to Bethlehem! I reflected on that one, very briefly, when preaching yeaterday morning!

    I guess I have always presumed they were at the lower end of the wealth scale – largely on the basis of the use of doves. I had realised Joseph was as much a builder as a carpenter as we might unsderstand the term today. But would Nazareth be the sort of place where builders owned the equivalent of BMWs and large detatched houses! Even the local man who built our kitchen extension does not run to that. And as you suggest Joseph would have had to fund the journey to Bethlehem and onwards, and accomodation etc.

    Still, always useful to question our assumptions at the point where Scripture does not find it necessary to be explicit. I try not to get carried away or bogged down.

  5. Thank you, Colin. I didn’t mean to suggest that Joseph was someone who “owned the equivalent of BMWs and large detatched houses”. Perhaps more the equivalent of someone who owns a small semi/duplex and an old truck or estate car for his business. But not the equivalent of someone living in a night shelter for the homeless, or even of someone on income support and renting a council flat. Of course all that is hopelessly anachronistic!

  6. I do like your analogy Peter.

    I have been reading my copy of R Whiteacre’s commentary on John’s Gospel from the IVP NT series – in advance of a provisional preaching commitment later this month. And on the water to wine episode (the Gospel for the relevant day as it happens), he writes:

    ” Since the guests were to provide some of the wine, it is also possible that the supply ran out because Jesus did not contribute, either because of his last minute arrival, or because of his poverty”.

    Proves or disproves nothing much,. As he would already have ceased to function as a buuilder by then. But interesting just the same.

  7. “Because Jesus did not contribute”. Interesting assumption though I really doubt if that was the case.

    I look at Jesus as one who did not need physical cash. He literally walked around with all the supplies He needed in the spirit. He needed to feed 5 thousand and there was a boy there (probably an angel) with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes which He gave thanks over and multiplied. He needed to pay temple tax and he sent Peter to fish. He needed wine and prayed over water.

    His ministry on the other hand was not poor. He had a thief as the treasurer who stole so much but went unnoticed by the other disciples. When Jesus asked Judas to do what he had to do, the disciples thought Jesus was asking him to go spend money.

    At Jesus’ death, the soldiers cast lots for His clothes. Roman soldiers at that period don’t seem poor to me yet several of them were to interested in his clothes to the point where they had to cast lots.

    As such, both Jesus and His ministry do not seem poor to me. God bless us.

  8. Could it be that the reason Mary and Joseph selected the two doves/pigeons was because Jesus WAS the Lamb? Jesus was the Lamb to be scarified for all sin and maybe wouldn’t have needed/warranted a lamb to be sacrificed for Him.

    Just a thought.

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