Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Passages show that Jesus was rich?

I have written a short article earlier this year to examine the 4 gospels in the New Testament to see if there are evident pointing to Jesus' economic condition. But as I look further, the brief article got longer until I gave up expanding it. So here is the unfinished work:

1) And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. (Luke 2.22-24)
Jesus’ parents offered a sacrifice that was presented by the poor as prescribed in Leviticus 12.8. Some have argued that this ritual is the Nazirite vow recorded in Numbers 6.9-12. But the Nazirite’s ritual was to atone and consecrate the Nazirite who unintentionally defiled himself by touching the dead. Hence the said Law of the Lord to which Jesus’ parents followed was the one for postnatal purification as stated in Leviticus 12.8.

2) Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8.1-3)
The last verse reported that there are people who had provided for Jesus’ ministry. And here, we must not anachronistically read our modern practice of giving tithes to ministry into the passage. The majority of the populations around the itinerary of Jesus were poor peasants; most of them produce their own food and work as herdsmen or farmers (hence Jesus’ using these two activities in many of his parables is illuminating and understandable to them).

3) Is not this the carpenter [Greek: tekton], the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? (Mark 6.3)
‘Tekton’ has much broader portfolio than just cutting and re-shaping furniture or structures made of wood. “The term tekton could be applied to any worker who plied his trade “with a hard material that retains its hardness throughout the operation, e.g., wood and stone or even horn or ivory.” (Meier, p.281). Hence Jesus’ occupation is not identical with our modern day ‘carpenter’.

Given the local architectures (ordinary houses were made by stone or mud brick) and the socio-economic situation (very uneven distribution of wealth) in Galilee back then, “Jesus…[as a tekton] would have ranked somewhere at the lower end of the vague middle, perhaps equivalent…to a blue-collar worker in lower-middle-class America,” (Meier, p.282).

4) But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?" And he said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fishes." (Mark 6.37-38)
A plain reading of the passage above might give us the impression that Jesus’ ministry had 200 denarii and that they were planning to use all of it to buy food to feed the 5000. And 200 denarii were equivalent to eight months worth of salary for a peasant. And that amount is supposed by some to be able to sustain a family of 4 for an entire year. If that is the case, could we then conclude that Jesus and his disciples were rich?

No. Even if they really had 200 denarii, the amount is still too small to sustain Jesus and his ministry. We cannot assume that Jesus had only 12 disciples who were following him around. Many passages such as Luke 10.1 reported that there were 72 disciples being commissioned by Jesus; Mark 6.37-38 shows that there are 5000 following Jesus at times. Hence the wages that are able to sustain a nucleus family is pathetic when we consider the number of people who were involved in the Jesus movement.

On the other hand, scholars deem the disciples’ suggestion as some sort of sarcasm. That means they did not really have that amount of denarii. They were merely mocking Jesus when they were told to feed the overwhelming crowd. To think about it, Jesus asked his disciples to feed the 5000 is a mock towards them since it is obvious to him and to them that that is an impossible task. And in response, the disciples return Jesus’ mock with their own.


Guelich, Robert A. Mark 1-8.26, Word Biblical Commentary, 1989.

Meier, John. A Marginal Jew, vol. 1. USA: Yale University Press, 1991.

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9.20, Word Biblical Commentary, 1989.

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