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.