Thursday, June 03, 2004

The "Ignorance" & "Poverty" of Jesus & the Disciples (?)

Finally back in business! I know your prayers must have done the trick! This is from an interesting exchange via e-mail with a friend of mine (and fellow metro Detroiter). Her words will be in blue:

A little while back I fired off an e-mail to you regarding the idea that Jesus and his disciples were dirty, poor and ignorant ..... the question came about because some friends attended a talk given by a fairly intelligent episcopalian Dean in which he raised the question about whether Jesus (and his friends - but mainly Jesus) were poor and ignorant... yes, I know the problems with episcopalians and Biblical interpretation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! However ..... here is the text of my question -If you have time, I'd really appreciate your thoughts. Is this actually a Church teaching? Is it to be found in early Church writings? Is this a later idea? It is of course often thrown at the Church that this was "how they controlled the masses" ... but I can't say that this sounds sensible at all.

It seems clear to me that they didn't have a lot of money. Somewhere it says that they were supported by several women. I don't know what the Church has said about it. It's pretty much common knowledge, I think. The patriarchs and kings were rich men, but those in the prophetic tradition usually were not. We see that in John the Baptist: the last of the prophets.

We always have this tradition that Jesus - and the disciples - were poor and ignorant (well, Jesus was not totally ignorant!!!!!!!!!!!!) - but you know what I mean) .... giving rise to speculations about whether Matt, Mark, Luke and John could have written gospels etc.

Not "ignorant," but relatively uneducated. Most of them were not intellectuals, from what we can tell. Several were fishermen. A tax collector might have been a little more educated (who knows?). Luke, however, was a doctor, and was an educated man. His Greek shows that (so I understand). I believe literacy was pretty widespread in Israel, so writing is no problem.

But also, there's always been some emphasis on Jesus being just plain 'poor' .... so we should not mind being poor too.

The Bible teaches us that it is not a disgrace to be poor, as long as we haven't caused our condition by not working (Paul wrote: "if any man does not work, let him not eat"). And it teaches that riches are not inherently evil, but they are the cause of many temptations, and often work against spirituality as an idol or distraction. I think the biblical attitude is expressed by Paul, where he says that he can be content in any situation: whether he has plenty or nothing, and is suffering (Philippians 4:11-13). He continued to make tents, but he did not always do so, and was supported by his flocks, or else had nothing at all on many occasions. He decided to preach the gospel "for free" (1 Cor 9:11-18). His position was that his labors as a missionary and evangelist were worthy of remuneration from other Christians and those whom he helped (and were now Christians), but that those he was preaching to should not have to pay for it.

Where does this come from? I know Jesus talks about the son of man having no where to lay his head - but that's kind of a poetic description of an itinerant preacher who does not buy a house and settle down but rather travels and stays with friends and family.

There is no indication that they have much money at all. In fact, when Jesus sent out the 70 to evangelize he told them not to take anything (Lk 10:4-7). They were like the early Franciscans: completely dependent upon the people to whom they preached the gospel. There are several little indications like that. It would take too long to locate all of them (that's your homework! LOL). E.g., Jesus told the rich young ruler to give up everything he had to follow Him. That indicates that all or many others had done the same.

Joseph was a carpenter - a worthy and important trade - he probably made a very reasonable income. And then there are our fishermen who owned their boats and nets and who would also have made a good income assuming a good catch. And Matthew of course was a tax collector so he could count, read and write and do his sums ...

Sure, but we have no indication in Scripture that Jesus did carpentry after the time of His baptism in the Jordan. We are specifically told that the fishermen "left their nets" and their trade; they gave it up (see Lk 5:10-11, Mt 4:18-22, Mk 1:16-20; cf. Mt 9:9 [Matthew] ). We have no reason to believe that Matthew would have continued collecting taxes; that would hardly fit in with his new task as a disciple. Jesus talks about "all who have left families" and so forth to follow Him, how they would be rewarded a hundredfold (Mk 10:29-30). The disciples had said to Him: "We have left everything to follow you" (Mk 10:28) It was a complete break. Therefore, it is a series of deductions based on indications like these which lead one to conclude that they were poor. But they were not "ignorant"; they were just relatively less educated and not of the intellectual class (as the scribes and Pharisees and rabbis would have been). Paul, of course, was an intellectual, and seems to even be a genius.

And Jesus read the scripture in the synagogue - so he could read - and then, what language would he have been reading?

Aramaic or Hebrew.

We hear about the gospel writers quoting primarily from the Septuagint (Greek, right?) ... so they could read Greek? So they could understand and speak Greek?

I believe so. There is some debate about whether the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic.

That would make them bi-lingual at least? Did the Roman occupying force speak latin? aramaic? greek?

Mostly Latin and Greek, I think. I'm no expert on all these linguistic questions.

How did our 'ignorant and poor' Jesus and disciples understand them thar Romans??

I think they spoke Greek as well, because the Middle East had been Hellenized. In The Passion, Mel Gibson had Jesus speaking Latin to Pilate. I'm sure he based that on some scholarship. One doesn't have to be an intellectual to know several languages, of course.

And then there was the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the 3 kings/wisemen/maggi (whatever the latest fashionable pc term might be) .. since THEY thought they were coming to visit a real KING they would not have brought just a teaspoon of each - they would have brought a generous portion, right?

That's a different question altogether. It looks like these were rich men, higher up in the social order.

So where do we get the idea of poverty, lack of education etc etc??

As far as I know, from the passages I have cited. When someone is more highly educated (Luke, Paul), that is mentioned in Scripture. Fishermen are not usually highly-educated intellectuals. And we can tell from the style of their writing. Luke is said to have a very sophisticated grasp of Greek. Paul's style and content is obviously on a very high level. Matthew, Mark, John, and Peter write on a more common, everyday level.

Is this chronological snobbery perchance? Or are there other first hand accounts that I've not yet read that describe poverty and ignorance?

Okay; now I'm gonna look up something in my New Bible Dictionary. Under "Poverty" (pp. 1016-1017) I found the following:

. . . so often were the rich oppressors that 'the poor' became almost a synonym for 'the pious' (Ps. 14:5-6).

. . . The worldly-minded Sadducees were generally wealthy, as were the tax-collectors.

Jesus was the son of poor parents (Lk 2:24), but there is no reason to suppose He lived in abject poverty . . . it appears that He used to pay the Temple tax (Mt. 17:24). Some of His disciples were reasonably well-to-do (Mk 1:20) and he had some fairly wealthy friends (Jn 12:3). He and the Twelve, however, shared a common purse (Jn 12:6). They were content to go without the comforts of home life (Lk 9:58), and yet found occasion for giving to the poor (Jn 13:29)

. . . the apostles were poor but made many rich (2 Cor 6:10).


Hope this was helpful to you.

Thanks so much, Dave! really appreciate your input: this is one of those areas where we take something for granted that might not be quite as we imagine it to be!

You make the valid point that "Fishermen are not usually highly-educated intellectuals" ...that may be true today, but I don't know that it was true back then only because a fisherman and a carpenter back then would have had a very different social status from fishermen and carpenters today...We can tell they were not highly polished intellectuals from the way they wrote but they could still have been what we would term nice, educated, comfortably off middle class professional folk.

And of course, there are those who gleefully claim that because of the poverty and lack of education the Gospels and other writings of the New Testament (with the exception of Paul's writing of course) are evidently 'fakes' of some kind - written MUCH LATER by people WHO NEVER KNEW JESUS etc. etc. and Paul has to be brought low by being called a bigot or something equally charming. The priest at [church name omitted to protect the guilty -- Episcopalian, I believe] told me that he thought Paul had got a number of things "wrong" --- you know the arguments put forward by these people.

From all you write here, and my own reading of the New Testament it seems that there was a pretty good level of literacy among Jesus and at least a number of his disciples -and the lack of material goods was more by choice because they became itinerant preachers - and like many ministries today (like my friend Dave Armstrong!) they did rely on their friends for financial and living support. THIS WOULD SEEM TO BE THE REAL LIFE CHRISTIAN PATTERN - voluntarily giving up the comforts you could afford in order to do the dear Lord's work... and enabling others to do the Lord's work too by letting them support you.

As you rightly say, they paid their taxes, they gave alms to the poor, they kept a common purse (which Judas held) .. and there seems to have been some fishing going on during the 3 years - ie the story of the calming of the storm for instance - and Jesus sitting in a boat to teach the people on the shore - and Peter walking on the water outside the boat - and then, after the Crucifixion we see Peter going out to fish again (see John Chapter 21) ..so they may have given up their full time jobs in order to follow Jesus - but perhaps not 100%? Quite interesting.


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