Was Jesus A Pauper?

David Fiensy tries to avoid “polar opposites” in the essays collected in Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy. He doesn’t think Jesus was “desperately poor” or that Galileans in general were “half-starving.” Galilee wasn’t a “boom center” but it wasn’t famine-ridden either.

On Jesus in particular, Fiensy explores the opportunities that would be available to artisans like carpenters. Nazareth wasn’t very big, but it was only a few miles from Sepphoris, one of the largest cities in the area. It’s known that “artisans in antiquity would travel from their home villages to work on large construction projects,” so that it’s possible that “Jesus and his family worked in other towns in Galilee, such as Tiberias, which began construction somewhere between 18 and 23 CE. They may even have worked in Jerusalem” (27).

That is speculation, but it would fit with what we find in the gospels, where Jesus “is found among well-to-do people rather often” (29). This doesn’t mean he was part of the elite, nor even that he was “middle class” (which Fiensy rightly spots as an anachronism). But it fits with the idea that Jesus was an “itinerant artisan who had experience in urban movements working for wealthy patrons” (30).

Fiensy’s careful, judicious study also examines the problem of indebtedness in first-century Galilee, asks whether there were large estates in lower Galilee, assesses the economic composition of the earliest Jerusalem church. 

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