The conventional wisdom is that Jesus came from an impoverished family. Let’s take a closer look shall we.
Born in a Cave and Laid in a Manger
This certainly congers up a picture of homeless poverty, but why where they in the cave? It was because there was no room at the inn. This is roughly the equivalent of sleeping on the beach because you couldn’t find a motel with a vacancy. It says nothing about your economic status.
As a matter of fact, that they tried for a room at the inn implies at least enough liquid funds to afford a room, something well beyond the means of the very poor. If Joseph and Mary had actually been poor, they would have been resigned to sleeping on the side of the road.
First Joseph and then Jesus were Poor Carpenters
The bible never actually says this. As a matter of fact the word normally translated as “carpenter” is the Greek “tekton.” While John Dominic Crossan believes a better translation would be “laborer,” Greeks I’ve spoken to say “builder” or “architect” would be closer to the mark.
In other words it denotes a skilled craftsman more like a general contractor than a table maker.
They could only afford two doves or pigeons as an offering
This is by far the strongest evidence that Joseph and Mary were poor. Leviticus 12 instructs that following a purification period a woman who has given birth must bring as an offering “a year-old lamb” and “a young pigeon or a dove.” But “If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons”
Luke says “Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’”
Granted this implies they were too poor to afford a lamb but let’s consider the circumstances. They were 70 miles away from home. If Joseph was a builder or carpenter it’s not likely he kept too many lambs around anyway. That means they probably would have had to purchase the sacrificial animals at the Temple. Birds take up less room than lambs, so possibly that was all that was available. Or perhaps Joseph had limited cash and since he needed it for food for the trip home, needed to conserve what little he had.
Granted this is evidence they were poor but one has to consider it in context. I might point out that Luke’s not mentioning the lamb at all could be taken to imply that everyone by that time sacrificed two doves or pigeons. Luke certainly doesn’t make a point about they’re not being able to afford a lamb.
He had no where to lay his head
In Matthew 8 and Luke 9 Jesus says “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
Yes, but this strikes me as a little poetic license. Jesus, as a wandering sage, clearly has no permanent home but just as clearly it was a choice he made to live that type of life and not something forced upon him.
They went to Jerusalem for the Holy Days
Luke 2:41 says “Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.”
Does that sound like they were poor? Every year they journeyed 70 miles to Jerusalem for the holidays? Only people who were reasonable affluent could afford to make the trip every year and could afford to not work during that time.
Jesus was educated
He could clearly read and quote scripture and knew enough to argue the law with the Pharisees. He also had followers who were literate. John and Matthew come to mind immediately. If they wrote gospels, then they must have been literate.
In the first century only the upper 5% or so of the population was literate; literacy was a clear sign of enough wealth to have the leisure for an education.
The Wedding at Cana
This doesn’t sound like the description of a poor man’s wedding. Jesus, his mother and all the disciples are invited. There is a “Master of the Banquet” and when the wine runs out Jesus turns six twenty to thirty gallon stone jars into wine. This clearly wasn’t a small gathering. Whoever was throwing this wedding must have been quite wealthy.
He had rich or influential acquaintances
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are the most obvious but there is also Lazarus, the Centurion in Matthew 8 and Luke 7, Simon the Leper and the woman with the alabaster jar in Mark 14 and Matthew 26 and the Rich Young Man in Mark 10, Matthew 19 and Luke 18 (Luke actually transforms him into a “ruler”).
Jesus also seems to have some personal knowledge when he wryly observes "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Could a poor man have attracted a following?
People are people and the poor are generally meek and not particularly viewed with admiration regardless of their talents while the rich tend to be more outgoing and aggressive and are generally accorded some level of respect by default, even in a so-called egalitarian democracy.
A few years back some folks tried a little experiment. They had the same man stay at a stop light after it had turned green but had him driving different cars. Eventually the cars behind him would honk to bring to his attention that the light was green. What was interesting however was that the more expensive the car the man was driving, the longer on average people waited before honking.
Pilate was his judge
If he was a poor nobody why did Pilate get personally involved? One possibility is as the ranking military officer in Jerusalem at that time it was simply normal military operating procedure. But another possibility is because the accused man came from a well to do, and perhaps even influential family, Pilate felt it prudent to give the situation his personal attention. This could also have been why he was reluctant to execute Jesus.
Pilate Released the Body
Normally the bodies of condemned men would have been flung to the dogs, burned or left hanging as a warning to others yet, if one believes the story of Joseph of Arimathea, Pilate released the body to a friend or relative with little or no hesitation.
This might have been simply to insure no protest over violating the Sabbath in always volatile Jerusalem but it also smacks of deference to the wealthy or influential.
What do you suppose happened to the bodies of the criminals crucified with Jesus?
James took over after Jesus’ Death
Who steps in and takes over after Jesus’ death? Not Peter or any of the other disciples but Jesus’ brother James. Again this smacks of the aristocrat. None of his peasant followers ascended to leadership but rather his brother takes over.
When you put it all together, I think that the preponderance of the evidence is that Jesus and his family weren’t abjectly poor. They were clearly more affluent then most and may even have been among the relatively wealthy. He may have turned his back on the family money when his started his ministry, but it seems to me that he was at least much more affluent than the average.