The Social Status of Jesus

The Social Status of Jesus July 13, 2020

I found myself thinking about this topic once again as I was working on my book What Jesus Learned from Women. I’ve written in the past about the question of whether Jesus was thought to be illegitimate, using the implications of the interactions he has with contemporaries as a more reliable guide than specific things that characters in the Gospels happen to say. In addition to my article in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, see also Robert Miller’s piece on the Bible Odyssey website on the topic.

Jim Davila drew attention to a recent article in Bible and Interpretation that asks whether Jesus was middle class. The first question needs to be whether there was a “middle class” in the ancient world. But to the extent that there were individuals who were retainers of those who were truly wealthy and had inherited status and influence, as well as people whose trade meant they lived with greater security and comfort year to year than agriculturalists who lived one failed crop away from slavery or death, there was indeed a class in between the majority of peasants and the ruling elite. I do think that Jesus’ family was in that category. Whether they were in it prior to the major construction work in Sepphoris, or whether being masons, carpenters, construction workers, handymen, or whatever else one might wish to propose as a translation for Joseph’s trade, in Jesus’ lifetime he is opposed not because he is a nobody (why would they bother?) but because he hobnobbed with people of ill repute as someone from whom they expected “better.” Authors Rosenfeld and Perlmutter write, “Jesus’ philosophy developed from the perspective of the middle class, not from that of the poor. He was able to attract followers because he came from a solid background. ‘The poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard’ (Eccl. 9:16, ASV). Had Jesus come from a poor background, it would have been difficult for him to become a leader.”

Andrew Perriman also addressed a related topic on his blog: “Was Jesus one of the oppressed? I think the answer to this question is probably no. Obviously Jesus associated with and identified with the prostitutes and tax collectors, the pariahs, the sick and demon possessed, the poor and ill-treated, the innocent victims of systemic injustice. But nothing is said by him or by anyone else in the Gospels to suggest that he belonged in one of those categories…”

On the other hand, Gary Greenberg is unpersuaded not only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (I certainly agree that Galilee is more likely) but that he had the reputation of being of Davidic descent.

Of related interest, Mark Bilby believes that he has solved the Synoptic Problem, and that Marcion’s Gospel provides the key to reconstructing Q. He has shared his ideas online and so you can read them by clicking this link. I’ll let you be the judge of whether his excitement about what he has come up with is justified. But it is relevant to the topic of this blog post, since in his view the original Q source “pictures Jesus, from first to last, as a New Aesop… a wicked smart person low on the social totem poll who spoke truth to power.” He also claims that Jesus was a slave. And so it was worth mentioning here, even though I’ve yet to figure out why Bilby is so excited about what he has written. His proposal is certainly interesting and deserves to be closely examined and discussed. But is it all that he thinks it is? It seems much too early to tell.

Then again, I think I’ve figures out what Jesus writing in the dust in John 8 was all about, so I shouldn’t judge…

See too Ben Witherington’s multi-part interview with Helen Bond about her latest book, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel. I’ve barely dipped into it to see what it says about one specific story, and am already impressed and excited by what I’ve found in it! See also what PBS Frontline and Facts and Details have to say on this topic.

What’s your view of the socioeconomic status of Jesus? Have you always assumed that Jesus was poor, an outcast, someone who was destitute and marginalized? How would your understanding of the Gospels need to change in order to view him differently?

Helen Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus– Part Twenty Four


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