It has been widely accepted both within and out of historical Jesus research that Jesus, as well as his followers, were Jewish peasants who struggled to eek out a living. For the most part, this has been largely taken for granted.
The primary argument for this stance, which J.D. Crossan wonderfully puts forth in his book, The Life of a Mediterranean Jew, is that the economic pressure exerted on the Jewish people in Galilee in the first century of the common era was massive. Because of this pressure, it has been recognized that such a large pressure would have sent many individuals into economic hardships.
A secondary argument that has been put forward to defend the position that Jesus was a peasant is that the Gospels state that either Jesus or Joseph, (who is stated as the father of Jesus) was a carpenter. This argument in particular is weak as it is based on preconceived notions that do not fit the historical circumstances of Jesus.
It has often been assumed that in ancient times that a son would follow the profession of their father, thus if Joseph (the supposed father of Jesus), was a carpenter, then Jesus also must have been a carpenter. However, the primary problem with this idea is that we know virtually nothing of the relationship between Jesus and his father.
The Gospels say nearly nothing of Joseph, and Paul is silent in regards to the father of Jesus. When the family of Jesus is mentioned, his father is generally left out. After the incident, which only Luke mentions, of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve, Joseph is never mentioned.
Since Joseph is not mentioned, we as readers or researchers cannot assume that Joseph did in fact teach Jesus a trade. To do so would be making presumptions that truly are baseless. As far as we can be certain, it is possible that Joseph died while Jesus was just a small child.
To assume that Jesus learned a trade from his father then simply is stepping beyond what we can actually know based on our sources. Since Joseph is not mentioned, besides with a young Jesus, we just cannot say much about their relationship.
However, there is the issue of Mark, the earliest Gospel, claiming that Jesus was a carpenter himself. This is not without its own problems though. In Mark, we see a great deal of Maryology, as in Mary is lifted in status. This could very much be the reason why Jesus is labeled as the son of Mary, while omitting any hint of his father (while Matthew adds a mention of his father to the account, while not listing Joseph’s name).
If the passage in Mark is historically accurate, it does raise the question of why Jesus is listed as the son of a woman, which was not traditional, and why no father is mentioned. A longer discussion of that will be the topic of a separate essay, but suffice it to say that one single account, which is problem some (for a variety of reasons including the ones above as well as for it contradicting other sources, does not assure historical accuracy.
Examining the Gospel accounts, one also does not see much reference to ideas concerning one who is a carpenter or a tekton (as the Greek states). Instead though, we do see many more references to fishing. In fact, Jesus appears to even know where the best fishing spots are.
If ones speech is any indicator of one’s profession, based on the Gospel accounts, a better bet for the work Jesus did would be a fisherman. Yet, such a statement still would not be historically sound. In the end, we cannot be certain what his profession was in his early years, and it really does not matter, as he abandons it, if in fact he had one at all.
We cannot be fully confident whether or not Jesus had a job in the first place though. That is a portion of the life of Jesus that just is not mentioned. Archeology and historical records do not really help us on this issue.
Records regarding Nazareth, as well as lower Galilee in general (within the first century), concerning the economic status is lacking. For Nazareth in specific, we have virtually no records from the first century of the common era at all. Besides a few archeological finds dating to around that time period, we know very little about the town Jesus is claimed to be from.
To suggest that Jesus grew up in a state of poverty or as a peasant then can not be based on where he grew up.
There is some clue as to the economic status of Jesus though. The most clear clue is the education that Jesus had.
In ancient times, in order to be educated, one had to have some sort of free time, as well as money. We can not be completely positive as to the degree of education that Jesus acquired, but we can be confident that he had some sort of education.
The reason we can have confidence that Jesus was educated is because he appears to be well versed in the scriptures as well as in the current issues. He has an ability to defend his position as well as avoid traps that various other groups tried to ensnare him in. He showcases a level of education that is not consistent with one in poverty.
There is also the matter of Jesus leaving his family to follow John the Baptist. Since it appears as if Joesph was not around, Jesus would have been the primary earner in that family (which consisted of four brothers and at least two sisters, plus Jesus and his mother). Such an undertaking, if the family were impoverished peasants, would have required the entire family.
For Jesus to take up and leave would have created even more hardships on the family. However, this does not appear to be the the case. Instead, we later see James, as well as other family members joining the Jesus movement, and leaving home.
Above and beyond the need to help take care of a family, we are then told that Jesus and a group of twelve male disciples traveled the country side and are obviously provided for. In fact, the Gospels suggest that even more than his twelve disciples followed Jesus, that additional women (and possibly additional males) were also included in his following.
There would have been a need for some sort of means in order to provide for this substantial group. Furthermore, from our sources, we are told that the ministry of Jesus lasted one to three years, and in fact may have been longer. Either way, there is considerable suggestion that Jesus (being the head of the group) as well as the following in general, had the resources and the means to support such a movement.
Later on, we see an even larger group setting up in Jerusalem, requiring additional resources and means, and again being run by a member of Jesus’ family; his brother James. So even if Jesus was a poor peasant in his early life (which is not certain), it appears he was not in his later years. In fact, it appears as if his family experienced some level of wealth, at least enough to support and fund a relatively large movement.
There has been proposed solutions as to how Jesus was able to provide for such a movement. A common solution has been that Jesus and his followers were beggars of sorts. That from town to town, they would perform “miracles” and teach in order to be fed by local families.
However, such a solution hardly works if we are dealing with a society of poor peasants. The primary reason would be that for a family to take this group of thirteen plus individuals in, one would need a considerable amount of food. Besides just feeding ones own family, over a dozen more people would be needed to be fed. And in order for that to be done, a wealth of food would be needed. To put such a burden on a poor peasant family would have spelt disaster.
In order for a family to take Jesus and his following in, Jesus would have had to attract the wealthy. As it would have been the wealthy who could provide such a meal. And it would not have been only one wealthy family to do such, but in fact, many different families as the movement did last a considerable amount of time. Instead, it would appear as if Jesus would have had to have some money in the first place.
Yet, it is not just the family of Jesus who appears to have a level of wealth either. Looking at the immediate followers of Jesus, we see a number of individuals who come off as economically well to do. That is not to say that they are rich, but that they were not poor.
For instance, we are told that the women who followed Jesus were able to supply for all of them through their own means. James and John (the son of Zebedee), appears to have had a successful fishing business. And Matthew appears to have been a tax collector.
It is also likely that Jesus had additional followers who were tax collectors as those are the individuals whom Jesus frequented. There is little reason to assume that the movement consisted of only the poor.
Looking at the entire movement, we do clearly see that the movement did include many educated and wealthy individuals, who may not have been rich, but also were not poor. If this was not the case, we would not expect to have the early writings that we do have, such as the Gosepls and the other works that compromise the New Testament canon. The reason for this is that in the first century, and much of the ancient world, to become educated and especially literate, one would need to have the luxury of free-time to seek out such education.
This also would necessarily cost a substantial amount of money. As all of our earliest works are in Greek, we know that some of the earliest followers of the Jesus movement were educated in Greek. That greatly suggest that some of the followers were also relatively wealthy.
In the end then, what we can really say about Jesus economic status is that during his ministry and probably throughout his life, Jesus experienced some sort of wealth. Since historical (outside the Bible) and archeological records tell us little of the economic status of Nazareth in particular and lower Galilee in general, our main source is the Gospels.
The Gospels (and later Acts for the later movement) give the appearance of a man who could provide for a substantial following with little problem. The evidence that we have suggests that Jesus, as well as some of his followers were not poor peasants, but instead individuals who were financially secure, even though not rich.