Were Jesus and the Disciples Wealthy? Part One

A common claim made by the prosperity gospellers is that Jesus and his followers were actually quite well off. I have heard myself how one put it: ‘The disciples were rich because Judas had a money purse and they had fishing boats’. That was proof for this preacher that the disciples were wealthy.

This seems to be a common approach taken by the prosperity teachers. John Avanzini talks about how Jesus had a nice home, nice clothes, etc. He says, “Do not let the old, non-scriptural arguments about Jesus living in poverty confuse you. He had everything He needed and more”. Other examples could be cited here, but how are we to assess such claims?

Let me begin with the appeal to the common purse. I had one Christian recently put it this way: “Jesus was very wealthy!! If He wasn’t, He wouldn’t have needed a treasurer here on earth.” But did the necessity for Judas to oversee the disciples’ funds indicate that Jesus and the twelve were rolling in the moolah, as these folks allege?

John 12:6 mentions the fact that Judas was “keeper of the money bag”. It seems a common purse was there because the early disciples shared all things in common. What little money they had was pooled together and Judas kept it on their behalf.

Given that Jesus usually told the rich to give their money away, and that a tax-collector like Zacchaeus repayed what he ripped off four-fold, there would not have been a lot of money left for those who followed Christ. D. A. Carson says the bag “was doubtless used to meet the disciples’ needs, and also to provide alms for the poor. Normally it was replenished by disciples who cherished Jesus’ ministry.”

We do know that some folks contributed to Jesus and his disciples. Luke tells us that certain wealthy women helped them out: “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (8:2-3).

Comments I. Howard Marshall: “The implication is that these women were of some substance (e.g. Joanna) and able to provide financially for the travelling preachers; so large a company of people could not travel around together as one group without some provision for their needs.”

Mark also mentions them: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (15:40-41).

Walter Liefeld notes that it “was not uncommon for ancient itinerant cult leaders, fortune tellers, and their kind to solicit support of wealthy women. In this case, however, it is in a Jewish, not a pagan, culture; and the relationship is morally pure.”

Appeals are sometimes made to the story of Jesus riding a donkey. This is supposed to prove that Jesus used the best that life had to offer. Kenneth Hagin’s comment is representative here: “One fellow said, ‘You know that Jesus and the apostles never drove a Cadillac.’ Well, there weren’t any Cadillacs then. But Jesus did ride a donkey, and that was the Cadillac of the day. It was the best means of transport they had.”

But a number of points can be made about this narrative (found in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 12). First, between the four accounts and the various Greek terms used, it is not even clear whether an ass, or a young horse, is in view. The commentaries give the various arguments, so for present purposes, I will adhere to the understanding that a donkey is in view.

Second, it is true that the cost of a donkey would have been prohibitive for many. But as Craig Keener remarks, this did not put it out of the reach of all but the rich: “A donkey could cost between two months’ and two years’ wages, depending on its age and condition, but most peasants who could save enough would buy one, as they were extremely important even in small-scale farming. If a farmer had two, however, he sometimes rented out one.” While it may have been expensive, it was still a “lowly and ordinary beast of burden” to use Donald Hagner’s words.

Third, the animal was probably lent or rented, not purchased. The text does not give us enough information to know precisely, but it is unlikely that a permanent purchase was required, especially as this event, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, was the very tail end of Jesus’ days on earth.

As Leon Morris remarks: “Nothing is said as to the way in which Jesus obtained the ass. John simply tells us that He found it and sat upon it. The other Gospels tell how Jesus sent disciples into a village with minute instructions for finding the animal.”

Fourth, a donkey was chosen as opposed to a horse to convey an image of the kind of ministry Jesus had in mind. Had he wanted to impress the people with imagery of a conquering king, a horse would have been the steed of choice. But this is exactly the kind of imagery he refused to make use of throughout his ministry. As Morris remarks, “A king on an ass was almost a contradiction in terms.”

Fifth, Jesus’ actions were meant to fulfill Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. This action was a clear proclamation that Jesus recognised himself as fulfilling the role of the coming Messiah, the son of David.

Finally, the Hebrew word for gentle, ani, used in Zech. 9:9, can also mean poor or humble or afflicted. Thus it seems to be the very opposite of the prosperity gospel’s understanding of Jesus’ riding on a donkey indicating lavishness and richness.

What about the idea that fishing boats meant the disciples (or at least some of them) were well off? The truth is we know very little about the disciples. Of six we know almost nothing, and of the remaining six, four were fishermen, one was a tax collector and one a political agitator, a zealot.

Some did seem to own their own fishing boats, or at least worked for someone who did. Luke 5:3 says Peter did have one fishing boat. However, most fishermen, and farmers – indeed, some 70 per cent of the population – were living in poverty, usually working as hired servants for someone else.

Fishermen were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. The fishing industry, as Craig Blomberg reminds us, “was controlled by wealthy merchants, so that the fishermen themselves obtained a minimal margin of profit”. As part of the general peasant life of the day, these fishermen would have struggled to make ends meet.

Indeed, in a recent study by Hanson and Oakman we have a discussion of the political economy in agrarian Roman Palestine. The authors place fishermen among the indebted and powerless classes near the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

While fishing was a major part of this economy, it “was not the ‘free enterprise’” of today. Instead it was “controlled by the ruling elites”, and even “fishers who owned their own boats were part of a state-run enterprise, and a complex web of financial relationships”.

However, one could appeal to a passage such as Mark 1:20: “Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him”. The hired servants employed by Zebedee’s family perhaps “indicates the size and stature of Zebedee’s business” as Robert Guelich writes.

This relative wealth, however, may be due to several fishermen pooling their resources. As Stambaugh and Balch note, “The Gospels imply that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee like Simon and the sons of Zebedee formed small cooperatives (Luke 5:1-11), which were able to hire additional help (Mark 1:20).”

Yet as Hanson and Oakman argue, even cooperatives and the hiring of extra laborers was not a sure sign of prosperity: “Fishing families were the primary laborers who caught the fish; they formed collectives or cooperatives in order to bid for fishing contracts or leases. If there were not sufficient family members of laboring age in the cooperative, the fishermen had to hire laborers to help with all the activities: manning the oars and sails, mending and washing nets, etc….

“The fishers could hardly be classed as ‘entrepreneurs’ in such a highly regulated, taxed, and hierarchical economy. While the boat-owners/fishers may or may not have also been involved in fish processing, this would not have made them wealthy and certainly not ‘middle class’ as many authors have contended. The ‘surplus’ went to the brokers and rulers. This accounts for the hostility of the general population in both Judean and early Christian sources against the ‘tax collectors’.”

Yet even if we do grant that fishermen – be they the owners of, or the laborers in, the business – were better off than many (and the data – and its interpretation – seems mixed at best), the point still needs to be made that such a potentially lucrative trade was given up by Jesus’ followers. Income, in other words, was forgone as these men left all to follow Jesus. Says Keener, “these fishermen had much to lose economically by leaving their businesses”. So as followers of Christ, they may have had past income to live on, but current income was no more.

Whether the family income was sustainable with the absence of these sons is a moot point. What we do know is that the disciples seemed to easily return to their trade after the crucifixion (John 21). Whether this was a short term or long term endeavour, and whether it was due to economic necessity, is unclear. Morris wisely notes, “We do not know, and this incident is not enough to tell us”.

Part Two of this article is found here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/08/14/were-jesus-and-the-disciples-wealthy-part-two/

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