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 Twelve 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!
Crossposted to The American Catholic