Was Jesus a Peasant?

By Fr. Dr. Claude J. Perera, OMI

Our common knowledge about Jesus belonging to the rural peasantry in Galilee has been challenged by recent archaeological discoveries done in an ancient town, Sepphoris by name. At the very outset, we got to clarify the term ‘Peasant.’ The Cambridge English Dictionary has two definitions to the word ‘Peasant.’

  1. “a person who owns or rents a small piece of land and grows crops, keeps animals etc. on it, especially one who has a low income, very little education, and a low social position. This is usually used of someone who lived in the past or of someone in a poor country”:
  2. “a person who is not well educated or is rude and does not behave well.”

Does any of these definitions correctly and adequately describe who Jesus was? In trying to answer this question, one first thing we need to examine is what St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus was by profession. Was he a peasant? There is no evidence to substantiate an argument to that effect.    

Jewish historian Josephus (37/38 – 100 CE) presented Jesus of Nazareth as belonging to an artisan class, but his social class is said to be below peasants (contrary to the general understanding that artisans were above peasants) and was likely illiterate. Jesus’ foster-father Joseph’s occupation (tekt¯n in Greek, in Mk 6:3) has been variously rendered as ‘carpenter’ (2 Kgs 22:6); ‘craftsman,’ ‘workman’ (Is 44:12); ‘smith’ (1 Sm 13:19); ‘woodworker’ and ‘stonemason’ (2 Sm 5:11); ‘worker in brass’ (1Kgs 7:2) and ‘unskilled day laborer.’ (Cf. LEH Greek- English Lexicon of the Septuagint[CP1] ). His knowledge and the use of vivid imagery related to rich landowners and masters who had slaves and servants seem to suggest that he was no mere rustic frog in a well. These suggest that he would have been aware of a mixed sociological surrounding. Whether or not artisans were above or below peasants may not be too relevant. Jesus’ occupation may not have much to do with his literacy. But what really matters for his literacy is the place where he lived. If he had lived in a backwater area, then probably he would have been illiterate because he did not come from a wealthy merchant or priestly family whose children alone had the patrimony of education at that time. Education being expensive and rare, it was beyond the reach of artisans and peasants. Such high society did not lived in rustic hamlets, but in cities

Scholars debate as to whether Jesus was literate. Chris Keith in “Jesus and Literacy,” inhttp://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/jesus-and-literacy (access 12.11.2020) rules out the possibility of Jesus being literate, whereas  Craig A. Evans in Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (SPCK, 2013) pp. 63–88 advances arguments to the contrary. However, there is little evidence to say that Jesus had any formal education. His knowledge of Scripture is most likely resulting from listening regularly to sacred texts and commentaries at the synagogue.  Interestingly, the question of Jesus’ education and mentorship was intriguing to Christians in the late second century.  During his youth at Nazareth, Jesus would have been an artisan like his foster-father Joseph. But during his public life, Jesus was a teacher, a wise person. He was not an academic, but with the kind of the oral education of a God-fearing and good Jewish family as well as his Jewish home-upbringing in the Nazareth region.

He would have been trilingual, namely, Aramaic, Greek, and the liturgical language of Hebrew. Aramaic was an ancient Semitic language, now mostly extinct, was the language of the Aramaeans from about the late 11th century B.C.E. A version of it is still extant in some Chaldean Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. With trade and military expeditions, Aramaic language had spread in that region by the 7th century B.C.E., and it had become the lingua franca in much of the Middle Orient. In the first century CE, it would have been the most common language of ordinary Jewish people. Most religious scholars and historians agree that historical Jesus and his disciples spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Hebrew belongs to the same linguistic family as Aramaic. At the time of Jesus, Hebrew was also the language of religious scholars and of Holy Scriptures. The Hebrew Bible almost in its entirety was written in Hebrew, although it contained some small section in Aramaic. The Bible had been already translated into Greek already by the third century BCE.

Together with Aramaic and Hebrew, the colonial languages of Greek and Latin were also common in Jesus’ time. As Alexander the Great invaded Archaemenid Persian Empire and defeated the Persian Emperor Darius III at the battle of Issus in 333 BCE, Greek replaced other languages as the official language of the region by and large. With the Roman conquest of the Greek Empire in 146 BCE, in its Eastern region to which belonged Judea kept Greek as its lingua franca. The use of Latin (the official language of the Roman Empire) was reserved for legal and military matters. According to Jonathan Katz, a Classics lecturer at Oxford University, Jesus’ would have probably known some Greek, as it was a common language of the people with whom he spoke regularly, although most likely he may not have been too proficient. He further says that his knowledge of Latin probably would have been restricted to a few words. For sure, he would not have spoken Arabic since it began to be used in Palestine only after the first century CE. In conclusion, we can say that Jesus’ most common spoken language was Aramaic, but he was still familiar with three or four different tongues even if not fluent, or even proficient.

The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas written ca 185 CE says that Jesus was not educated in the strict sense of the word, but he excelled much more than his teachers at the synagogue (Chapters 6 -8). However, certain linguistic and rhetorical heritage found in the synoptics as well as in the Fourth Gospel could be explained by the Redaction Critical Approach (Redaktionsgeschichte– ‘Redaction Criticism’) to the gospels, where such sophistications should be understood as the work of evangelists who reworked the oral forms that were circulating in the Apostolic Community (Formgeschichte – ‘Form Criticism’). The sacred authors left their imprints, (i.e. traces of the instrument (by the Instrumental Authors) on their final products (i.e. gospels) which are attributed the Principal Author, God although His Spirit inspired the sacred authors. The language and rhetorical abilities that come to the fore are not from Jesus, but from the evangelist. But the saving message they convey came from Jesus’ wisdom as the Son of God.

Recent discussions of Jesus’ social class locate him within the social structures of Mediterranean society generally, or particularly in the Galilean society of the first century. There seems to be a debate among many contemporary scholars about Jesus as to whether he was really a peasant or someone higher in the socio-economic strata. We know in general he was from the lower class, by the standards of the Roman imperial aristocracy or even of the ruling class of Palestine, the Herodian client kings. He may have been an artisan, but he does not seem to have been a peasant in the strict sense, someone who was working the land for a living. However, he was close to peasant society. The images used in his parables and aphorisms show that he was firmly rooted in peasant society (Mt 13:4-9, 18-32, 44-50; 18:31ff.; 24:32; 25:14ff; Lk 12:24-32; 15:4-7; 21:29-32). But they also call upon images of landowners and bailiffs (Lk 12:13-21; 20:1-16) and relationships between slaves, masters, (Lk 16:13; 19:11-27; Mt 10:24; Jn 8:33) and servants (Lk 16:1-8, 19-31; 18:18-23). So, Jesus knew the social stratification of the time well. He may well have stood in some relationship to it.

Prescinding from settling into the easy answer of resorting to Jesus’ divine omniscience as the source of his knowledge (while not contesting the same in any manner), were there other natural situations that would have made him more literate and having a higher social standing? Our common knowledge about Jesus belonging to the rural peasant in Galilee has been challenged by recent archaeological discoveries done in an ancient town, Sepphoris by name.

Jesus grew up in the bucolic village of Nazareth in the Lower Galilee which would have had a small population of about 100 -200 people. Was Jesus a backwater from a hinterland, totally cut of from the neighbouring urban life? Some fascinating recent archaeological discoveries prevent us from giving an affirmative answer. This archaeological site containing the ruins of the then active ancient city center of Sepphoris is less than four miles from Nazareth. Sepphoris is said to have been the capitol of the Galilee. The name Sepphoris is from Hebrew sipphoris meaning ‘bird.’ For It was called so because it lay on a mountain like a bird perched on it. It was the first capital of Herod Antipas (20 BCE to 39 CE) who was Herod’s son, who succeeded him as the tetrarch, or governor of Galilee and Perea. He changed the city’s new name to Autocratoris, rebuilt it mingling Jewish and Greco-Roman architecture, calling it ‘the jewel/ornament of the Galilee’ because of its beauty and wealth (Josephus, Ant. 18.27). It was the wealthy trade center for the area. Like the splendid City of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, it had all the attractions of Greco-Roman urban life and functioned as the center of political activity. That explains the excavations at Sepphoris revealing of humongous buildings, theaters, amphitheaters akin to any contemporary city centre. Sepphoris lay on the major land route between Caesarea on the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee. That was the secret of its being a cosmopolitan city. Its inhabitants would have spoken several languages like Aramaic, Greek, Latin, in addition to their liturgical language Hebrew. Market place weights registered in both Aramaic and Greek have been found at the site. Besides, it was possible that they would have managed to communicate with their gentile neighbours in Phoenician and Syrian as various people drew into the cosmopolitan centre for trade and other civic needs. Sepphoris could not have been merely a self-contained city with its administrative institutions, houses, waterworks etc., but it had also satellite settlements around. Nazareth and the cluster villages would have been satellite villages of municipality of Sepphoris, which provided agricultural and other raw materials needed for industries.

However, Jesus has never mentioned the name Sepphoris, although his early life was not far it. He nowhere describes the civic life or archaeological ornamentations of contemporary great cities, except his references to Jerusalem which for Jesus had always a theological significance (Mt 24:1-28; Mk 13:1-23; Lk 21:5-24). The biggest city he seems to have gone during his public life seems to be Jerusalem. According to Luke’s Gospel, his career culminated there, and that with very unfortunate consequences. However, Jesus who inherited a traditional Jewish culture could not have been a stranger to this lively intersection of Greek urban culture at Sepphoris without seeing its sophisticated urban culture. Whether he was influenced by it is a different question and the extent its influence on him is questionable. But surely, he would have been aware of its existence.

Between a peasant artisan and a peasant farmer, the former who has been deprived of his land is said to be lower in the social ladder in a world there was no middle class but only the two classes of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Anthropologists say that being a peasant-artisan was no compliment. In the ancient world, city was in antithesis to village. In Sepphoris, there were aqueducts that brought in water from rural hills to it. The interaction between the city and village was not a happy one. A city had nothing much to give to poor villagers except imposition of taxes, violence, and oppression. Most of the needs of the simple villagers were met within the villages which were self-sufficient units containing their necessities of life.   

Whoever Jesus was or to which social category he belonged, synoptic gospels were written to rural audiences. It could be that in the gospels Jesus appears as a rural man speaking to fellow-rural men. Jesus seems to spend his entire public career interacting with Jews in small townships or villages in the Galilee and Judah. Synoptic materials deal with ordinary, day to day, rural experiences and knowledge related to a rural populace. They presume no profound academic knowledge in the Greek sense of the word. The kind of knowledge Jesus had was true to the Hebrew concept of knowledge. For the Hebrews knowing was not something intellectual but an experiential event. Knowledge was intimacy. Knowledge meant being profoundly related. Jesus’ relationship to the Father was one such. It was never an intellectual contemplation of the Father in the Greek sense of the word.

In ancient times, the sharp contrast and social tension between town and country as we have it in our times, did not exist because the villages were often bordering towns. Yet, there was some sharp contrasts in some areas. For example, it was in the cities or the large towns where the big landowners, tax collectors, public officials and judges lived. It was there that the more ostentatious so called ‘Respectable People’ lived. Their ways of life had sharp contrasts between sophistication and simple rustic living. Jesus and his followers were not townsmen. They felt at ease only in a country surrounding.

During His public life, Jesus seems to have avoided Sepphoris and Tiberius, the two substantial settlements or cities in the Galilee. That was not where interests lay or where he felt welcome. He was more at home with villages and the small towns, where the peasants and artisans inhabited. Young Jesus of Nazareth would not have gone to Sepphoris for the purpose of entertainment and pleasure as their only day off was the Sabbath (Saturday) and the pious Jews spent the Sabbath in a very holy manner with prayers and works of piety pleasing to the Lord without breaking the third commandment (Ex 20:8-11). If at all Jesus ever went to Sepphoris, it may have been for the purpose of artisan work which his profession involved. This city was four kilometers away from Nazareth would have been the place where all teenagers would have flocked together for work. This must have been particularly so when Herod Antipas was building that city in 17 CE and later, for maintenance of the same when many technicians and artisans were needed. At that time, Jesus was a teenager and/or youth. Possibly, Jesus had his dealings related to work with this commercial hub, while being a resident in the hamlet of Nazareth. Her may have walked to work from home.

Another fact that supports Jesus’ literacy is speculations about his connection with Joseph of Arimathea. We have no verifiable details about Joseph except that he was quite wealthy. We may presume that he was an elderly man at the time of the crucifixion who had the courage to bury Jesus. Some claim that although Joseph of Arimathea was not one of the twelve, he had an important role. He was a member of the Sanhedrin. He is mentioned in all four gospels (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-55; John 19:38-42). For in Luke and Mark, he was not a disciple of Jesus, but someone who was awaiting the Kingdom of God. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was aware of the opposition Jesus had from the Jews and we surmise that he did not vote to surrender Jesus to Pilate in view of passing death sentence.  For John he was a crypto-Christian. But for Matthew he was already a true disciple. Only Matthew mentions that it was Joseph’s own tomb hewn out of the rock himself. “Only in Matthew is Joseph wealthy (cf. Isa 53:9), which coheres with his owning an expensive tomb, but not with his hewing it out himself. ……… Joseph’s wealthy status also places him in solidarity with (some of) the members of the Matthean Church, themselves more wealthy than average.” (Cf. Eugene Boring, (1995) “The Gospel of Matthew,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 494). According to some extra-biblical and legendry claims, Joseph of Arimathea, (known in the later non-biblical tradition as Joseph of Glastonbury) was a paternal uncle of Mary, mother of Jesus as evidenced by the family tree of Jesus traced up to Adam kept in the Herald’s Office at the English College of Arms in London which is also confirmed by the Harley Manuscripts held in the British Museum. A claim is also made that Joseph of Arimathea was a merchant in metals and who eventually took young Jesus with him on his business travels. trips to England, India, and even to South America. Joseph of Arimathea has been called ‘Nobilis Decurio’ or Minister of Mines by the Roman Government. If that were the case, Joseph of Arimathea would be one of the wealthiest of all Judea. It could be that Joseph of Arimathea if he had been a relative of Mary, he would have cared for Mary’s family after St. Joseph’s demise. It may be this kinship that he had to Jesus that would have partially motivated him to bury Jesus.

What can we conclude from this Joseph of Arimathea episode? The idea that Jesus traveled about with him, a fact which may have contributed to his literacy and the knowledge of languages is of legendry origin. If Jesus had sojourned in Europe and in the Orient, with His maternal uncle Joseph of Arimathea, he would have picked up something of the European languages and would have made references to Europe and the Orient in his teachings. Through the trade routes, ideas spread to the Mid-Orient. Those things never entered to his theology and spirituality and so there is absolutely no evidence for a claim that Jesus’ alleged travels influenced him. Furthermore, even if Jesus had associated the upper-class business in Palestine as well abroad, and thereby had become an upper middle-class citizen, all because of Joseph of Arimathea, why did he not own his belonging to that middle class? On the contrary, he only referred to their empty ways of life and those of the rich and spoke of their attachment to wealth which he named ‘the mammon’ (Mt 6:19-21, 24; Lk 16:13). Mammon was a Syrian deity that enslaved people to wealth. Jesus had no allegiance to such wealth or wealthy. Jesus lived an extremely simple life (Mt 8:20-21). In the Lukan Infancy Narrative, the protagonists were all the riff raff of the society (Lk 2:7ff.). He was found fault by the high society of this day for associating the marginalized like the poor, sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes (Lk 4:18; 15:1-2; Mt 21:31-32). Mary’s Magnificat speaks of a reversal of the socio-political order (Lk 1:51-53). It is a non-violent revolution of the change of hearts. When Jesus did not want to count equality with God as something to be held on to but totally emptied himself, would he have ever held on to an upper class? No, not at all. The best way to describe Jesus is that he would have been an artisan of some sort of the lower middle class. But He stood above all such social distinctions. Jesus as the Son of God was classless. For His Kingdom was not of this world (Jn 18:36). His struggle was a spiritual transformation of the humanity to make them heaven-ward. But in that heaven-bound journey, basic earthly needs were not ignored. He accepted that people needed to eat and drink etc. (Mt 13:52). Where there were people deprived of life’s necessities, the covenant community was expected to share their resources and provide for the needy (Mt 25:31-46; Act 2:44-45).

Bibliography:

Frontline, “Jesus’ Social Class: Recent Archaeological Findings Challenge the Image of Jesus as a Peasant Preaching in a Pastoral Backwater,” See Harold Attridge, “Now what do you think we can know about Jesus’ social class based on recent evidence and discussions?” L. Michael White, “The Galilee and Sepphoris”; Holland Lee Hendrix, “Not a Humble Carpenter”; John Dominic Crossan, “A Peasant Boy in a Peasant Village”; Shaye I. D. Cohen, “Jesus Avoids Cities”; Paula Fredriksen, “Sepphoris Didn’t Make Much Difference,” and Eric Meyers, “Jesus Probably Trilingual,” Cf. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/socialclass.html (access 05.12.2020).

Aubin, Melissa M. (2000). The Challenging Landscape of Byzantine Sepphoris. ASOR Publications.

Barzilai, Omry; et al. (19 August 2013). “Nahal Zippori, the Eshkol Reservoir – Somekh Reservoir Pipeline,” Hadashot Arkheologiyot – Excavations and Surveys in Israel. (No. 125).

Chancey, Mark A. (2005). Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee Jesus. Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, S. J. D. (2002). Josephus and Rome: His Vita and Developments as a Historian. Brill: Leiden.

Evans, Craig A. Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence. SPCK, 2013, 63–88

Keith, Chris. in “Jesus and Literacy.” in http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/jesus-and-literacy (access 12.11.2020).

Miller, Stuart S. (1984). Studies in the History and Traditions of Sepphoris. Brill: Leiden

Rowan, Yorke M.; Baram U. (2004). Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past Rowman Altamira.

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