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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Was Jesus a Peasant?—Chris Keith


Anthony and I had an interesting email discussion on Jesus’ socio-economic status.  I can imagine that some readers of the Jesus Blog might want to contribute.  The question is whether Jesus was a peasant and, furthermore, whether that is a helpful way to describe him.  Some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, make a case that Jesus was among first-century Jewish peasants as a carpenter.

I personally avoid describing Jesus as a peasant and I don’t think that his status as a carpenter (Mark 6:3; cf. Matt. 13:55) indicates automatically that he was one.  Carpenters in Jewish society were not necessarily the poorest of the poor and in some cases were closer to the top of the social order than the bottom.  For example, in 2 Kings 24:14 the carpenters are among those who are carried off into exile while “the poor of the land” remain.  And Sirach 38 praises carpenters (38:27) and claims that they and other manual laborers won’t go hungry (38:32).  (The LXX uses tektōn in 2 Kings 24:14 and Sir. 38:27, the same word in Mark 6:3//Matt. 13:55).  In Richard Bauckham’s essay on Jesus’ family in Jesus among Friends and Enemies, he makes the interesting argument that Joseph had ancestral land, which he passed to his descendents, Jesus’ brothers and their sons.  If this argument has merit, it suggests further that Jesus and his family were not among the utterly destitute.

This, of course, is not to claim that they were “well off” by any stretch of the imagination.  There were very few wealthy people in Jesus’ time who had a taste of the good life.  It does give us some warrant for pause in using the term “peasant” for Jesus, though.  

16 comments:

  1. In P.Mich. 5 291, a first cent. CE papyrus documenting the sale of a vacant lot, the sons of Papontos the carpenter ([τέκτ]ωνος) own the west lots. Extremely poor people did not own lots of land. There were also a number of Greco-Roman "associations" just for carpenters (which required payment of dues). So, at least in some regions, carpenters were on the upper-end of the social class scale, as you say. I would like to see a study devoted to the role of carpenters and there status within society (drawing on various sources such as papyri, inscriptions, literary references, etc.) in the first century. This is an article just waiting to be written. And I think the result of such as study would go some way in answering your question.

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    1. Brice, there have been some attempts at an article like this, but not in a long time. I agree that it would be beneficial.

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  2. How sharply defined is "peasant" in this setting? It seems to me to be a term carried over from European fedualism that lacks precision in Hellenistic Palestine. Is this a substitute for the question, How economically well off was Jesus?

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    1. I think so, Jim, and I think you're right about the carry-over. That's one reason I don't use the term.

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  3. Is there an economic category for a guy who can feed 5k+ ppl without having to whip out an AmEx card to pay a caterer, yet voluntarily has no place to lay his head?

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  4. Looking at the first century sources -- Gospels, Epistles, Josephus, etc. -- it's clear that Jesus and his brother, James, were educated men within the Jewish context. This pretty much mandates a parent with a socioeconomic status above that of a farmer or laborer. It's not hard to further extrapolate that Jesus, at least, was in the "family business" from adolescence until he began his ministry more than a decade later. Carpenter? No way to be sure, but we might stipulate that he and his father were craftsmen of a sort.

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    1. The "carpenter" meaning for tekton (which can mean other things) comes from traditions in Inf. Gos. Thom, Justin Martyr, and Origen that identify Jesus and Joseph as woodworkers. To my knowledge, no early Christian tradition identifies Jesus as a smith or something of the like. I have to disagree with you, Ralph, on the education issue. I think this is very far from clear in the sources. In fact, the opposite is clearer in texts like John 7.15 and Acts 4.13.

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    2. Origen claims that none of the Gospels refer to Jesus as a carpenter (Against Celsus 6.36) but quotes Celsus as asserting it so.

      As it happens, Ron Huggins is compiling a page on the subject which, even though incomplete, is helpful for the discussion: http://ronaldvhuggins.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/was-jesus-carpenter-tekton-and-if-so_30.html

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    3. I said that it was "in" Origen not that Origen said it. You're right, though. It is in Origen's quotation of Celsus that the association with woodworking occurs. Origen elsewhere acknowledges that Jesus was not educated and illiterate in Cels. 1.29, 62 and Comm. Matt. 10.17.

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    4. I think 1.62 is a reference to the disciples, not Jesus himself. I can't remember.

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  5. Although Zeb Crook’s article Honor, Shame and Social Status Revisited points out it was not always the case that challenge-riposte occurred among social equals, one could presume Jesus was not a peasant since he was often publicly challenged by folks who were likely not peasants as well (like Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.). According to Malina, such challenges themselves would be seen as shameful bullying.

    It would be an interesting study to examine the extent to which Jesus himself is portrayed as functioning with a peasant mentality, say, in terms of the idea of limited good a la George Foster. Surely someone has done this already?

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    1. Would he not have been challenged in part for crossing class boundaries, presuming to speak with the authority of an educated man though (ex hypothesi) he wasn't one? Or because his popularity was perceived by his social superiors as a rivalry or threat to their honor and authority? Seems like Neyrey made some points about debating "down" the social ladder.

      In any case, if we're going to gauge Jesus' socio-economic status in light of who challenged/were challenged by him, we ought to be more precise about the status of those opponents. Even poor scribes had more honor/standing than most people on account of their literacy (if I'm remembering Chris correctly). And Pharisees were not necessarily high on the social ladder. I think the study you are looking for is Crossan's big Historical Jesus book.

      Eric

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    2. "Would he not have been challenged in part for crossing class boundaries, presuming to speak with the authority of an educated man though (ex hypothesi) he wasn't one?"

      Perhaps so. But then at Nazareth Jesus is challenged for flaunting his knowledge (honor grab?) among his peasant neighbors (Luke 4:16-30). W/o the class boundary issue it was likely the idea of limited good that catalyzed the attempted social sanctioning of Jesus there. In any event, I agree with you, Eric, that the boundaries between social classes in the NT are more porous than Malina's initial articulation of the model imagined - Crook's article clearly shows this.

      There are many elements of the topic that need to be considered - many questions. The point I'm trying to make is that the way Jesus is portrayed as relating to others in the text can be brought into the discussion of his social status, and so move it beyond simple adjudication over the translation/meaning of a Greek word (tektōn) and whether or not Jesus had access to ancestral lands.

      Pax!

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  6. Is it not perfectly feasible that Jesus was both relatively well-off as a builder and an inheritor of family land (if in fact Jesus did have a known father) AND identified himself firmly with the peasants (i.e. he divested himself of socio-economic status)? This is a common tradition among spiritual greats—St. Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant, Mohandas Gandhi was once a dapper young lawyer, and (according to tradition) Siddharta Gautama was an ivory-tower prince.

    Oakman has done some good work in this arena. See Jesus and the Peasants (Cascade: 2008), the title of which sounds like it would make a killer name for a band.

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    1. Dang it. Not "well-off," but you know what I mean.

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