C&C: Poor, Ignorant Jesus

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Jesus was a first century Jew living in Palestine who was poor and uneducated; so were his followers. Money and education came later, when the movement got big enough to attract both. Really, he was more of a community organizer, trying to get his people to resist the Romans, and that is why they executed him. That’s the historical Jesus.

According to the most recent “it’s almost Easter, let’s draft Jesus to our cause” version that I’ve run into this year, anyways. As a couple of wags have pointed out, some folks are awful eager to draft a first century Jewish carpenter to their cause, for a bunch of (at best) agnostics in support of a secular cause.

So, how accurate are these claims?



Jesus was a first century Jew; the Bible shows Him going to the temple to discuss and argue (and worry His mother sick):

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

He also taught in the temple often enough that it wasn’t at all surprising, and was clever enough to (again) put a bunch of other well-educated teachers in a bind when they tried to knock Him down a peg:

One day as he was teaching the people in the temple area and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and scribes, together with the elders, approached him and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Or who is the one who gave you this authority?”
He said to them in reply, “I shall ask you a question. Tell me,was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin?”
They discussed this among themselves, and said, “If we say, ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ then all the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.”
So they answered that they did not know from where it came.
Then Jesus said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

He was also addressed as “teacher” or “Rabbi” (depending on if your Bible translated it or not). (Matthew 22:23-24, 34-36 John 11:28; 3:2) Translation is possibly part of the misunderstanding—in John 7:15, the literal translation suggests He’s illiterate, it’s more like ‘dude, this guy talks like he’s from Yale, but doesn’t even have a degree?’

So, for the time and place, He not only wasn’t ignorant— He was rather impressive among teachers. Even as a twelve year old, with people whose religion is extremely big on making rational arguments, in a culture where they would be use to facing off with the guys who invented rhetoric and formalized logic. (Or the guys they taught.) For here and now—well, He wouldn’t have been taught things like the theory of electricity or the Plate Theory of geology, but that’s getting into argument by special definition that would also exclude Plato, and Aquinas, and everybody up through Darwin and Ben Franklin and… gads, that’s just getting ridiculous for a word that means “lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated”

How about His followers? Here, have a list of the famous Apostles that breaks it down, and the possible background on the idea of ignorance. The important bit is that two of them were definitely a tax collector and a doctor, and of course Saul who became Paul was quite well educated. If you will grant that the Joseph whose tomb Jesus temporarily occupied counts as a follower, then he was a member of the council (Luke 23:50) and thus educated even by the measure of those who were objecting to Jesus’ teaching at the time.

I see no reason to assume that next to none of the other followers would have been educated, even ignoring the cheap route of pointing out that the Bible is a bunch of collected letters. They were able to assume that someone would be able to read them. In secret, even, since it wasn’t exactly healthy to be a Christ-follower.



This route at least has some sort of support; you’ll even find this in meditations on the life of Jesus on your local Catholic Radio station. But is it true? Well, that depends on what you mean by “poor.”

We’re talking about the King of Kings, here. Anything less than everything is poor and lowly, for him.

Let’s take it down a notch; one of the reasons that He was rejected is because people were expecting a more traditional sort of king—power, riches, command, armies in this world. Nope, didn’t have that. He didn’t even have the kind of riches you’d find in the homes of the chief priests.

But was He poor, as they’d figure it? Sort of yes, sort of no; He didn’t have to beg, but He was a laborer (beggars would usually be disabled, if they were young men)—and in at least one of the schools of thought, they had the idea that working (rather than your money working for you) was not very respectable. Better support is that when He was presented at the Temple, the offering was two birds– an option for those who could not afford a lamb and a turtle-dove.

So, put Jesus Himself as “arguably.” How about His followers?

Tax collectors. A doctor. Fishermen whose dad owned boats. The “many others” who were providing for the Jesus Tour for Souls. Joseph of Arimathea, again. Acts 4 really makes no sense if nobody was anything but poor—I hope we can at least agree that owning land isn’t poor, or at least they weren’t poor between selling it and laying it at the apostle’s feet.


A Community Organizer against the Romans

Well, if that was the idea, then short-term it was a really cruddy job that was done of it. Telling folks to pay taxes, stopping His followers from preventing His arrest, not even spinning Pilate up…. I mean, eventually His followers were everywhere, but if you’re looking in terms of centuries for any sort of pay out, you’re not much of a community organizer. And they didn’t even overthrow it, just converted folks…..

Enjoy your Easter!

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  1. quibble with your refutation of “poor”
    Presumably Jesus was a carpenter, or at least learned enough of carpentry to earn his living by it for that part of his life where he had to earn a living. That was skilled labor, along the lines of plumber or electrician, or auto mechanic or hvac technician today. So, not a lot of prestige, or respectability (because of ancient attiitudes towards labor) but hardly a hand to mouth existence.
    Also, if Jesus was a Community Organizer, it was against the Temple heirarchy. And even there, he taught folks to do what they tell you, and ignore their bad example. So again, cruddy job of organizing.
    By the way,what does C&C stand for?

  2. I quite agree with you– He was also a very good public speaker, and made a very good living of it for at least a couple of years. 😉 I was trying to be more than fair, since it didn’t need even that argument to support it.
    There are, after all, folks who do consider a working plumber to be poor.

    C&C stands for “Conspiracies and Catholicism”

  3. Poverty is relative.
    Your plumbers comment.
    Very true.
    Some of the richest and happiest people are living below plumber pay grade.

    “Almost Easter, let’s draft Jesus to our cause.”
    I used to think that all creative fictional biblical forms of art were better than never bringing the gospel story up. Then came along “Corpus Christi,” playwright Terrance McNally.
    After reading the dialog provided by TFP, I joined the ranks of sidewalk protester. Art critic? No. Just a simple Catholic that had witnessed enough Piss Jesus 1987, and other blasphemy used to express an “artist angst.”

    Thank goodness the motion picture industry hasn’t hit the public with depictions that are as vulgar and vile as the above mentioned tripe.
    The Bad news is, I’m certain it’s on its way.

  4. “So, for the time and place, He not only wasn’t ignorant— He was rather impressive among teachers.”

    Indeed. Some of this is subtle in the Gospels. For example, Christ speaks to Pilate directly with no translator. They were probably speaking in Greek, the lingua Franca of the Roman East, although it is possible that they were conversing in Latin.

  5. He likely didn’t have much, but most people back then didn’t. Our poor today have far more than the rich then.

    But we clearly know that Jesus was not destitute for he had a earthly father and what father worth his salt would let his wife and son be in such poverty? Certainly not Joseph. I can picture him working very hard to provide his family with what would have been the necessities of life. Perhaps even an occasional small gift for his bride or a handmade, wooden toy for his son.

    And he most certainly would have seen to it that his son had an education.

    Happy Solemnity of St. Joseph.

  6. The funny part is, I was going to refute the “ignorant” thing by pointing out that as a male Jew, He would be expected to be able to read the Torah and that if you can read you can write…and I totally got distracted looking for a good source for that dirt-normal observation.

  7. Aaaand I didn’t finish my sentence in my first comment, that C&C is a series where I debunk/respond to strange things related to the Church that are floating around, like the “babies found in the walls of a nunnery” stories.
    Lots of finding a good place to jump off on something Church-teaching related that I think is interesting, like the Catholic idea of what makes a person.

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