03 Jan 2010

Was Jesus Rich?

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[UPDATE below.]

Here is a very interesting article (HT2 Tyler Cowen) discussing whether Jesus was wealthy in material terms. When I first heard the claim I thought it was absurd, but the proponents make a decent case in terms of familiar things from the Bible that I had never thought about in this context:

“Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey,” says Anderson. “Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation.”

The proof [of Jesus’ wealth], he says, is scattered throughout the New Testament. One example: The 12th chapter of the Gospel of John says that Jesus had a treasurer, or a “keeper of the money bag.”

“The last time I checked, poor people don’t have treasurers to take care their money,” says [Rev. Tom] Brown, author of “Devil, Demons and Spiritual Warfare.”

Brown says Jesus’ own words prove that he wasn’t poor.

“Jesus said you will always have the poor, but you will not always have me,” Brown says. “Jesus did not affirm himself as being part of the poor class…

“I believe he was the richest man on the face of the earth because he had God as his source,” Brown says.

Jesus’ wealth is evident even in the Gospel accounts of his execution, some pastors say.

The New Testament reports that Roman soldiers gambled for Jesus’ clothing while he hung on the cross. They wouldn’t gamble for Jesus’ clothing unless it was expensive, Anderson says.

“I don’t know anybody — even Pamela Anderson — that would have people gambling for his underwear,” Anderson says. “That was some fine stuff he wore.”

I asked my college friend who went on to get his PhD in church history (I think that was the exact field?) in Princeton what he thought of this. (FWIW this is one of the people responsible for my conversion back to theism, though his efforts didn’t bear fruit at the time.) Here’s what he said:

Interesting stuff, I had never heard that particular angle, but coming from the prosperity gospel theology it is not surprising.

I think that the whole question is misplaced and that is was allows both sides to score points.

Jesus was clearly not rich according to the standards of his day (Rich would be basically landed elites which Jesus clearly wasn’t), but the issue is muddled because (as one scholar points out) there was no middle class in our sense. Jesus did have some financial resources so it would not be right to say that he was destitute poor either. Hence he could mix with both poor and rich and not seem entirely out of water.

In terms of the ancient economy, it would be safe to say that while Jesus had some resources, he did not have stable or reliable wealth (which had to be relatively immovable and also massive–ie several thousand times more than necessary for annual subsistence– to be stable and reliable in the long run). If we compared him to other religious figures (Rabbis or Pagan Temple staff) he would have been less wealthy since it does not seem that he built up personal wealth in a stable way that they would have (ie family, land, tenants/servants etc.)

The same would seem to be true of the early church in Acts. Ie, it must have been fairly well off due to converts joining with wealth, but it is clear the wealth is being converted into moveable wealth and disbursed, so given the volatility of the ancient economy (and ancient life in general), it would not have been rich in the traditional sense. It also seems to have filled a unique social niche–there is definitely something to the argument that Christianity spread because it offered the urban poor social support not available elsewhere.

UPDATE: Gary North emails:

Jesus’ family was poor. We know this because of the law of the offerings governing the firstborn son (Ex. 13:13). A lamb had to be sacrificed — expensive. A poor family could substitute two turdledoves (Lev. 5:7, 11). Jesus’ family offered turtledoves (Luke 2:24).

The treasurer — Judas Iscariat — held the money for the disciples. He stole the money (John 12:6). It was not Jesus’ money.

Jesus had no home or resting place (Matthew 8:20).

The coat was nothing special. It was more useful than four pieces of cloth divided four ways (John 19:23-24).

3 Responses to “Was Jesus Rich?”

  1. clark says:

    A couple instances that I always found curious…

    Mark 6:44…
    “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?”

    John 6:10
    “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”

    How much money would you need to to have in your pocket, today, to buy bread for for 5,000 hungry people sitting in a park??? Certainly more than I carry with me & more than I would care to put on my credit card.

    Was Jesus poor, personally? Maybe he laid no claim to the money, but His team certainly had some cash reserves!

  2. laurie says:

    I think it’s discusting to say that Jesus was rich. That’s basically going against everything that He preached, therefore calling Him a hypocrite. This is just a way for these televangelists to justify being discustingly rich. Instead of listening to them people should read their Bibles.