November 4, 2012

Were Jesus and the Early Christians Mostly Poor?

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Cor. 8:9)

It's a well established theological truth - The Lord Jesus, who existed eternally as the Son of God, owner of all creation, rich in every possible sense of the word, became poor for our sakes, taking on the weakness and poverty of human nature and enduring humiliation and suffering rejection and crucifixion at the hands of the very people he came to save. Through this sacrificial suffering he redeemed a people for himself who would become co-heirs with him in the kingdom of God. This truth is recounted in numerous places throughout the Bible (c.f. for example Philippians 2:5-11; John 17).

But what about Jesus's earthly life? The popular conception is that he was born into poor, humble circumstances, recruited disciples from similar roots, and that the spread of early Christianity was mainly accomplished through the lower classes of society. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist and historian Rodney Stark argues against this view, making the case that Jesus came from a moderately well-off family, and a large proportion of his supporters and audiences would have been among the privileged classes.

Not many of you...

He begins by addressing the "irrefutable proof" of 1 Cor. 1:26, noting the obvious implication that if not many we're wise, powerful, or of noble birth, then undoubtedly some were.

"Given what a minuscule fraction of persons in the Roman Empire were of noble birth, it is quite remarkable that any of the tiny group of early Christians were of the nobility. This raises the possibility that like many other religious movements, Christianity also began as a movement of the privileged." (89)

Jesus

Was Jesus born into a poor family? Stark thinks not, given that his parents apparently owned property in Capernaum as well as Nazareth, and that they could afford to travel every year to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41). Moreover, there is evidence that Jesus was a well-educated rabbi, whose carpenter trade was "in keeping with the traditional Jewish practice that a rabbi always learned a trade to fall back on" (90). The imagery and examples that Jesus used would have often been meaningless to those not exposed to wealth, making it likely that at least Jesus's audiences would have been drawn from among the upper classes.

The Disciples

There is evidence in the Gospels that many of the disciples were of privilege. For example, James and John left behind hired servants when they abandoned their fishing business to their father (Mark 1:20). The same could be said of Andrew and Peter, who were business partners with them. Peter may have had houses is both Bethsaida and Capernaum, and Mark's mother owned a large house in Jerusalem. Matthew was a tax collector, who "were hated; but they were powerful and affluent" (91). He cites additional examples of the wealthy involved with Jesus:

"Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and very rich. He was honored to have Jesus as his guest (Luke 19:1-10). Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, came to Jesus seeking help for his daughter (Luke 8:40-56). Joseph of Arimathea was an early convert and very wealthy (Matt. 27:57). Joanna, the wife of Chuza who was steward of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, was also an early convert and a generous contributor to the support of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:3). Susanna was another wealthy woman who helped finance Jesus (Luke 8:3)." (91)

Paul

The background of the apostle Paul is well-known - Roman citizen, a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, and a student under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. As with Jesus, Paul's tentmaker trade is likely in keeping with traditional rabbinic practice, and Stark points out that someone "who is born to manual labor does not speak self-consciously of 'laboring with my own hands.'" Paul's followers indicate many of privilege, including the wealthy merchant Lydia, Erastus the city treasurer in Corinth, Gaius, Crispus, and Theophilos. One scholar's research indicated that of 91 names mentioned in association with Paul, a third of them have names indicating Roman citizenship, which is "a startlingly high proportion."

None of this is to deny that Christianity attracted large number of lower classes as well, particularly among the servants and the slave populations, but that the privileged classes were over-represented in early Christianity compared to the population at large. Stark cites evidence from the second and third centuries to indicate that this continued to be the case.

Literacy

Along with the idea of a poverty-stricken early Christianity, Stark tears down the notion that Jesus was illiterate and the leaders of the early Church were mostly an uneducated bunch. He discusses evidence that

"strongly suggests that the Gospels were the end product of a faith that was set down in writing from the very start. It seems nearly certain that at least some of Jesus's words were written down when they were spoken. It seems even more certain that the early evangelists, including Paul, possessed and often referred to written materials...which helps to explain the variations and differences across the gospels. As for the latter, they were written to be read, not only by the emerging clergy, but by rank-and-file Christians!" (99)
As for the claim that Jesus was illiterate? Only if you ignore the gospels (the source of all of our information about Jesus), such as Luke 4:16-17 and his regular prefacing of exchanges with, "have you not read?"

History

Stark draws on other periods of history to demonstrate that new religious movements typically start with those in privilege, and this appears to be the case in Christianity as well. He gives some examples:

"It must also be recognized that the privileged are in a position to act on their spiritual dissatisfactions and desires in a way that the poor are not: they have visibility, influence, experience, and means. That the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both born into wealth and the priesthood gave them initial credibility. As he founded the Waldensians, Waldo, a rich merchant of Lyon, had the funds to commission a French translation of the Gospels and the experience needed to administer an ascetic movement that attracted many other rich followers. John Wycliffe launched the lollard movement without stirring from his rooms at Oxford; it was enough that he published an English translation of the Bible and proposed that the church pursue "apostolic poverty." Merchants and members of the nobility took it from there. Jan Hus was the personal chaplain of the Queen of Bohemia and thus able to recruit followers from the nobility on a face-to-face basis. Martin Luther was a professor and so prominent in church affairs that he was sent to Rome to make appeals on behalf of the Augustinian Vicar-General. Ulrich Zwingli's parents bought him a parish. During his youth in Noyon, John Calvin enjoyed the sponsorship of the local noblemen, and while a student in Paris he was assigned the income from several ecclesiastical posts. The university of Paris not only trained Calvin as a theologian, but perfected the rhetorical skills that enabled him to achieve political power in Geneva from whence he mounted religious campaigns in many parts of Europe. No matter how other worldly their outlook, to succeed, religious movements must deal effectively with complex worldly affairs." (103)

Given the picture Stark paints of early Christianity, it's not unreasonable to see 2 Cor. 8:9 in a different light, with Jesus not only giving up heavenly riches, but giving up material comforts in this life as well to become poor and condemned for our sakes, that we might be rich in him. It's also a lesson that we should not despise the positions and places where God has put us, but seek to use whatever resources and influence we have to bring him honor and glory.

 

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