Divine Prosperity: Heresy or What? # 10:
Were Jesus’ His Disciples Actually Poor?

By | 15 May 2019

One of the common objections raised against the prosperity message is that Jesus, as our perfect earthly Example, and His disciples were all poor folks who didn’t have two shekels to rub together. This article will hopefully put that myth out of our misery once and for all.

One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Rodney Stark, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University and Co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is one of the foremost authorities on church history as well as its impact on history and modern society, exploring how Christianity was crucial to the development of Western Civilization, why non-Christian religious/philosophical systems lacked the ideological framework to achieve similar developmental inroads, and debunking many myths concerning church history in general.

One of my earlier articles here at Miscellaneous Ramblings entitled The Rise of Christianity deals with facts presented in his book by the same title and their implications for modern-day believers. That book covers the timeframe starting with Christ’s resurrection and ending with Emperor Constantine in the 3rd century.

In his sequel to that book, The Triumph of Christianity, Stark expands his timeframe to include the era leading up to Jesus, followed by His birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection, and what followed during the ensuing millennia up until today.

One of the chapters I found fascinating in this book debunks traditional claims that Jesus and His disciples were financially impoverished. While Word of Faith (WoF) preachers have been proclaiming that fact literally for over two decades, Stark — a professor at a Baptist university — can be considered something of a neutral party in the controversy over the so-called “health and wealth gospel,” having no doctrinal axes to grind one way or the other. We will examine his assertions, citing references, and you can see for yourself. Rather than trying to reword and summarize what he wrote, I’ll just quote him directly and let him speak for himself.

Let’s get started!

Tradition has it that Christianity recruited most of its initial supporters from among the very poorest and most miserable groups in the ancient world. Since early times, many ascetic Christians have claimed that poverty was one of the chief virtues of the “primitive” church, and by the nineteenth century this view was ratified by the radical Left as well… the view that Christianity originated in lower-class bitterness and protest remained the received wisdom all across the theological spectrum. As Yale’s Erwin Goodenough (1893–1965) summed up in a widely adopted college textbook: “Still more obvious an indication of the undesirability of Christianity in Roman eyes was the fact that its converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lowest classes of society.…

the most popular explanation of why people initiate new religious movements came to be known as deprivation theory, which proposes that people adopt supernatural solutions to their material misery when direct action fails or is obviously impossible.…

Recently, it has become apparent that deprivation theory fails to fit most, if not all, of the well-documented cases of new religious movements — whether Buddhism in the sixth century BCE or the New Age Movement in the twenty-first century CE. Contrary to prevailing sociological dogmas, religious movements typically are launched by the privileged classes. Why this occurs will be examined later in this chapter. First comes a detailed refutation of the claim that early Christianity was a lower-class movement, which I will replace with the recognition that, from the very beginning, Christianity was especially attractive to people of privilege — Jesus himself may have come from wealth or at least from a comfortable background.

All discussions of the social standing of the first Christians would seem to have been settled by Paul’s “irrefutable” proof text, when he noted of his followers that “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). It is amazing how many generations of sophisticated people failed to see a very obvious implication of this verse. Finally, in 1960, the Australian scholar E. A. Judge began an illustrious career by pointing out that Paul did not say “none of you were powerful, none of you were of noble birth.” Instead, Paul said “not many” were powerful or of noble birth, which means that some were! Given what a miniscule fraction of persons in the Roman Empire were of noble birth, it is quite remarkable that any of the tiny group of early Christians were of the nobility. This raises the possibility that like the many other religious movements, Christianity also began as a movement of the privileged. In fact, several noted historians had expressed that view long before Judge pointed out the obvious. The immensely influential German historian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) remarked on the special appeal Christianity held for upper class women, and the renowned Scottish classicist 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.” However, aside from a few specialists, these dissenting views have had little impact on the conventional wisdom that the early Christians were recruited mostly from the lower ranks of society. So, let us look more closely at the likely social position of Jesus, his disciples, Paul, and the early generations of Christians.

Many Bible scholars have been troubled by 2 Corinthians 8:9 wherein Paul remarks “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Could this be true? Was Jesus once a rich man? Some have used this verse to “prove” that Paul knew nothing about the life of Jesus — an obviously absurd claim. Most others have interpreted it metaphorically — claiming that the reference is to spiritual riches. But this interpretation is greatly compromised by the fact that the verse occurs within a context wherein Paul is asking the Corinthians to contribute money, not prayers, for the poor in Jerusalem. He also cites the example of the Macedonians as setting a standard for giving money and assures the Corinthians that God’s blessings will accrue to generous givers. To cite the example of Jesus in this context strongly suggests that Paul was talking about Jesus having given up material, not spiritual, riches. A careful examination of Jesus’s biography, as well as the examples favored by Jesus in his teachings, suggests suggests Paul may have known what he was talking about…

Jesus Himself

Jesus probably was not a carpenter, unless it was in keeping with the traditional Jewish practice that a rabbi always learned a trade to fall back on, since it seems extremely likely that Jesus was a well-educated rabbi. It appears that his parents “occupied a prominent place in the community” and were sufficiently well-off “to have had property in Capernaum as well as Nazareth.” They also were able to go to Jerusalem every year for Passover (Luke 2:41), something most families could not afford.

In addition, among the immense number of analogies and metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels, only three times did he make any references to “building” or “construction,” and these are so vague as to indicate nothing about his knowledge of carpentry. One surely need not be a carpenter to know it is better to build a foundation on rock than on sand (Luke 6:46–49). On the other hand, Jesus constantly used examples involving wealth: land ownership, investment, borrowing, having servants and tenants, inheritance, and the like. It has been noted that the “parable of the talents shows familiarity with banking practices.” These rhetorical tendencies may not reflect that Jesus was a son of privilege, but they surely do suggest a privileged audience. As the respected George Wesley Buchanan noted, many of Jesus’s images and parables “would be pointless if told to people who had not enough wealth to entertain guests, hire servants, be generous with contributions, etc. The audiences, at least, were predominantly wealthy… [A] teacher from the lower classes would have been less likely to have found his most attentive listeners among the upper classes than a teacher who, himself, had been reared in upper class conditions.” And, in fact, the Gospels are filled with clues that not only did Jesus address a privileged audience, but that he tended to draw his supporters from among them.

Jesus’ Disciples

Consider the twelve apostles or disciples. It is widely assumed that they were all men of very humble origins and accomplishments. But is it true? We know almost nothing about some of them other than their names. But what the Gospels tell of others is inconsistent with their humble images. For example, when James and John abandoned their fishing boat to follow Jesus, “they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants” (Mark 1:20). It is not surprising that they employed servants; fishing was quite profitable and required a substantial investment. Since, according to Luke 5:10, Peter (Simon) and Andrew were partners of James and John, it can be assumed they too were somewhat affluent. In fact, it is quite possible that Peter owned two houses, one in Bethsaida and another in Capernaum.

Mark’s mother owned a house in Jerusalem that was sufficiently large to serve as a house church (Acts 12:12). Moreover, Andrew had previously had the leisure to be a disciple of John the Baptist. And then there was Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. Tax collectors were hated; but they were powerful and affluent.

Among the people mentioned in the Gospels as involved with Jesus, a number can be identified as wealthy and even upper-class people. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and very rich. He was honored to have Jesus as his guest (Luke 19:1–10). Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, came to Jesus seeking help for his daughter (Luke 8:40–56). Joseph of Arimathea was an early convert and very wealthy (Matt. 27:57). Joanna, the wife of Chuza who was steward of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, also was an early convert and a generous contributor to the support of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:3). Susanna was another wealthy woman who helped finance Jesus (Luke 8:3).

In Matthew 26:6–11, we learn that while Jesus was seated for dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee (see Luke 7:36) “a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head” (v. 7). When his disciples become indignant because it could “have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor” (v. 9), Jesus responds to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (vv. 10–11). It should be noted that the value of the ointment was approximately equal to a year’s wages for the average worker at that time. To quote Buchanan once again, “the majority of Jesus’ teachings were directed toward the upper economic class with whom Jesus associated… [which] support[s] the possibility that Jesus may also have been reared in an upper class of society.” Many will object that Jesus often advised that wealth was a barrier to salvation and that one should give one’s wealth to the poor. But rather than interpreting this as a “poor man’s” complaint against the rich, it would seem at least as plausible that these were the statements of someone in a position to say, “Do as I have done.”

The Apostle Paul

We come now to Paul and to the post-Crucifixion generation of Christians. Despite continuing and militant efforts to maintain that Paul was a pretentious nobody, truly a tentmaker, it is certain that Paul was, as A. D. Nock put it, from a family “of wealth and standing.” He was born a Roman citizen when that was a very uncommon and meaningful badge of distinction in the East. Not only he, but his father, was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Paul left his home in the Greek city of Tarsus and went to Jerusalem in order to study under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel and then rapidly became so prominent that he was appointed to impose punishment on Jews who had taken up Christianity. His training as a tentmaker was in keeping with the long-standing tradition that every rabbi learn a trade “by which he could live.” That Paul later actually pursued this trade from time to time seems to have been a bit of an affectation. As C. H. Dodd (1884–1973) put it, “A man born to manual labour does not speak self-consciously of ‘labouring with my own hands.'” In addition, Paul did not preach to the masses, but “to those who, like himself, spoke and read Greek and knew their Septuagint; and he sought to interpret the mystery of God’s purposes, for the relative few who could comprehend such concepts… He moved easily among the upper reaches of provincial society.”

It should be no surprise, therefore, that Paul attracted many privileged followers, especially women. According to 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.” One of these was Lydia, a wealthy dealer in purple cloth, who was baptized by Paul — along with her family and servants—and who subsequently conducted the congregation in Philippi from her house. Several times she sent funds to Paul to support his mission in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16). To a considerable extent, “Christianity was a movement sponsored by local patrons to their social dependents.” In fact, when Paul arrived in a new city, he usually stayed in a wealthy household and conducted his mission from there. E. A. Judge identified forty persons who sponsored Paul and, not surprisingly, surprisingly, all were “persons of substance, members of a cultivated social elite.” Erastus, the city treasurer in Corinth, assisted Paul and may well have been one of his hosts. Another was Gaius who also had “a house ample enough not only to put up Paul, but also to accommodate all the Christian groups in Corinth meeting together…. The same is true of Crispus, who not only had “high prestige in the Jewish community” but probably was “well to do.” In addition, there is Theophilus to whom both Luke and Acts are dedicated and who most likely was a Roman official30 who probably subsidized Paul — perhaps during his long period of house arrest in Rome.

Remarkable evidence of Paul’s association with the privileged comes from Judge’s calculation that, of 91 individuals named in the New Testament in connection with Paul, a third have names indicating Roman citizenship. Judge called this “a startlingly high proportion, 10 times higher than in the case of a control group” based on epigraphic documents. If this were not enough, there is evidence in Paul’s letters that there already were significant numbers of Christians serving in the imperial household. Paul concluded his letter to the Philippians: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). And in his letter to the Romans (16:10–11), Paul sends greetings to “those who belong to the family of Aristobulus” and 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. Finally, there is the First Epistle to Timothy. Whether or not Paul actually wrote this letter is not very important to the matters at hand. Everyone agrees that it was written no later than soon after Paul’s ministry and that Timothy was engaged in a ministry in Ephesus. Thus it is instructive that the Epistle offered so much advice about what to preach to the rich members: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty” (1 Tim. 6:17). Timothy was advised to tell his rich members not to cease being wealthy, but “to do good, to be rich in good deeds” (v. 18). In addition, 1 Timothy 2:9 advises that “women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire.” This advice is silly unless there were significant numbers of rich people in the congregation at Ephesus.

Did early Christianity also attract lower-class converts? Of course. Even when a wealthy household was baptized, the majority would have been servants and slaves, and surely some lower-status people found their way to the church on their own. The point is that early Christianity substantially over-recruited the privileged, not that it only recruited them, or even that most early Christians were well-off. This is entirely consistent with Gerd Theissen’s reconstruction of the congregation in Corinth: it included many from the lower classes as well as a remarkable, if much smaller, number from the upper ranks of the city.…

Clearly, then, Paul told the truth when he implied that although not many Christians were powerful or of noble birth, some were! Indeed, as compared with the general population, it would seem that many were. 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.…

It seems inescapable that early Christianity was not an exception to the rule that religious innovation is primarily the work of the privileged. This recognition has caused considerable anxiety among many recent historians of the early church. Why, they ask almost incredulously, would privileged people feel driven to form and embrace a new religious movement? This has led to many confused and rigid discussions of various social scientific notions such as status inconsistency and cognitive dissonance. But the reason the privileged turn to religion is neither so complex nor so convoluted.

Additional Evidence From Scripture

Now I’ll add my 2¢ worth.

Judas Iscariot

In the Gospel of John chapter 13, we discover Judas was Jesus’ treasurer, which means he was responsible for both disbursing funds to meet Jesus’ and the other disciples’ needs for food, shelter, clothing, etc. as well as dispensing alms to the poor. In verse 29, it recounts how the disciples erroneously assumed Judas’ departure from the Last Supper was at Jesus’ behest to perform one of these very tasks. A chapter earlier, John recounts how Mary, the sister of Lazarus, poured a costly perfume over Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Here we read the following:

But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.John 12:4-6

A denarius was one day’s wage in that time, so 300 denarii was almost a year’s wages. We have no means to determine what a denarius was in terms of buying power so I’ll use a modern statistic to give us a number we can relate to. According to the latest US census figures as of this writing, the median income of a US family is close to $50,000/year, or $137/day. That means the amount in question was somewhere around $41,100 in today’s money.

We can safely draw two non-theological conclusions from this passage:

  1. Judas was used to handling large sums of money and knew off the top of his head the market value of such commodities.
  2. There was a sufficiently large enough sum in the money box that Judas could successfully embezzle funds undetected over a significant period of time. The Scriptures do not record how or when the embezzlement was discovered, only that it was.

Which leads us to a question desperately begging for an answer:

How many poor people possess sufficient funds to require the services of a financial manager, an amount so large such a treasurer could embezzle an unknown sum over an indeterminate time period while successfully avoiding detection until after his death?

The Feeding of the 5,000

In Mark 6, we read Peter’s account of Jesus miraculously feeding the multitude with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. We’ll take up the narrative in verse 35:

When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.” But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” Mark 6:35-37

In John’s account of this same event, Philip proclaimed that 200 denarii was insufficient to feed everyone in the crowd even a small morsel.

As we have already noted earlier, a denarius was one day’s wage, so we see the disciples offering to spend about 2/3 of a year’s earnings to feed the crowd. Using the same scientific wild guess I made a few paragraphs ago, that amounts to about $27,400, so we’re talking about a significant chunk of change here! We have no way of knowing whether Judas had already begun his embezzlement by that time, but it is obvious the disciples as a group had some kind of handle on what their current bank balance was and it was far, far from mere pocket change.

Hearkening back to my previous assertions in this series about us being channels rather than reservoirs, please note the disciples were not at all concerned about the sum of money involved — they were moved with compassion for the crowd and were willing to empty their treasury in a futile attempt to meet the needs of what could easily have numbered northwards of 10,000 men, women, and children of all ages.

Seeing the selfless compassion of His disciples, I believe Jesus rewarded them personally for their attitude above and beyond His satisfying the physical hunger of the crowd with this amazing miracle, but that is strictly my own opinion on the matter.

This is the heart of Jesus in action and in turn, the lifeblood of the prosperity message.
In other words, it’s not how much you have, but how you use it for God’s kingdom. He is faithful to ensure you have more-than-adequate provision.


Thanks for reading!

Book quotes are from The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark (pp. 87-100). HarperOne.