Were Jesus and his disciples poor or rich? For many who espouse a prosperity gospel Jesus was rich. Indeed, he was very rich. This teaching is fairly prevalent among those like Kenneth Hagin, Jr., Kenneth Copeland, and Creflo Dollar. Imagine my surprise as I was reading Rodney Stark’s book The Triumph of Christianity, to discover that Stark believes Jesus may have been among the privileged as were some of his early followers. Stark is certainly no prosperity gospel preacher but his chapter “Christianity and Privilege” gave me something to think about. He begins by citing scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) who advocated what has become known as the deprivation theory. This theory states that religious movements are birthed by the “lower class” or they are the results of “the religious revolts of the poor.” (88) On the contrary, Stark argues, “religious movements typically are launched by the privileged class.” (88)
Stark begins with 1 Cor. 1:26 which states that among the Corinthians “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” He says many have missed the implication of this verse—namely, some of them were. Stark quotes the German historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) who remarked “on the special appeal Christianity held for upper class women.” W.M. Ramsay (1851-1939) “claimed that Christianity ‘spread at first among the educated more rapidly than among the uneducated; nowhere had it a stronger hold . . . than in the household and at the court of the emperor.’” (89)
Stark believes that Jesus was probably trained by a local rabbi “who was unknown outside of Galilee” (52) with the carpenter job as something to fall back on. He notes that the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes “claimed that in ‘Talmudic sayings the Aramaic noun denoting carpenter or craftsman (nagger) stands for ‘scholar’ or learned man.’” (51-52) It was a common part of Jewish culture “that young men of outstanding intellect were recruited as rabbinical students regardless of their background—after all, the famous Rabbi Akiva (ca. 50-135 CE) began as a shepherd.” (52) The point that was most impressive to me on this score was a quote from Craig Evans who wrote that in a “’Jewish setting, an illiterate rabbi who surrounds himself with disciples, debating Scripture and halakah with other rabbis and scribes, is hardly credible.’” (52) But why does Stark believe Jesus, the apostles and at least some of his disciples were among the privileged? I’ll enumerate his argument.
1) Jesus’ parents probably occupied a place of prominence in the community and “were sufficiently well-off ‘to have had property in Capernaum as well as Nazareth.’” “They were able to go to Jerusalem every year for Passover (Luke 2:41), something most families could not afford.” (90) [The quote about the property ownership comes from W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, Philadelphia, Fortress, page 57.]
2) Jesus used minimal analogies from “building” or “construction” and these are fairly vague (you don’t to “be a carpenter to know it is better to build on a foundation on rock than on sand” 90). “On the other hand, Jesus constantly used examples involving wealth; land ownership, investment, borrowing, having servants and tenants, inheritance, and the like. . . These rhetorical tendencies may not reflect that Jesus was a son of privilege, but they surely do suggest a privileged audience.” (90)
3) James and John employed servants (Mark 1:20).
4) “Mark’s mother owned a house in Jerusalem that was sufficiently large to serve as a house church (Acts 12:12). (91)
5) “Tax collectors were hated; but they were powerful and affluent.” (91)
6) Among those mentioned in the Gospels we see Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10; a chief tax collector and very rich), Jairus (Luke 8:40-56; the ruler of the synagogue), Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57; an early convert and very wealthy), Joanna (Luke 8:3; the wife of Chuza who was steward of Herod Antipas), Susanna (Luke 8:3; a wealthy woman who helped finance Jesus).
7) The apostle Paul “attracted many privileged followers, especially women.” (93) Stark quotes Gillian Cloke, “‘What is already evident is that women of the comfortably off and merchant classes of the empire were well-attested in the Christian movement from early on in its spread. . . . [Early Christianity] had substantial purchase amongst the classes of those capable of being patronesses to the apostles and their successors.’” (93) Among these women think of Lydia—“a wealthy dealer in purple cloth who several times send funds to Paul to support his mission in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16).” (93)
8) According to one estimate “of ninety-one individuals named in the New Testament in connection with Paul, a third have names indicating Roman citizenship.” (93) Furthermore, “there is evidence in Paul’s letters that there already were significant numbers of Christians serving in the imperial household” including some of belonged to “the family of Narcissus.” “Both Harnack and the equally authoritative J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), identified Narcissus as the private secretary of the emperor Claudius and Aristobulus as an intimate of the emperor.” (94)
9) The advice to Timothy regarding the proper conduct of the rich and how women should adorn themselves is “silly unless there were significant numbers of rich people in the congregation at Ephesus.” (94)
Stark continues his survey into some of the early church leaders such as Pliny the Younger (112 CD) who wrote in a letter that “‘this wretched cult’ involved ‘many individuals of every age and class.’” (95) Only fifteen years later Tertullian says in a letter that “there were many ‘women and men of the highest rank’ known to be Christians.’” (95)
Stark concludes “that early Christianity substantially over-recruited the privileged, not that it only recruited them, or even that most early Christians were well-off.” (94) “Obviously, then, the early Christians were not a bunch of miserable underdogs. This always should have been obvious, not only from reading the Gospels, but from asking why and how a bunch of illiterate ignoramuses came to produce sophisticated written scriptures at a time when only the Jews had produced anything comparable; several of the Oriental faiths had brief scriptures, but the dominant Greco-Roman paganism had none.” (96).
Stark builds an impressive case but I have some nagging doubts about how solid it really is. It may be that Jesus and some of his disciples were not as poor as we have been led to believe but I’m not sure I’m ready to put them quite as high as Stark implies. Nonetheless it is something to think about.