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Humble Beginnings: How Do We Know Jesus Came From a Poor Family of Low Status?


SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.



We know little about the life of Mary and Joseph, but the evidence strongly suggests Jesus was born into a poor family of low status.


SCANDALOUS BEGINNINGS


The wording Mary “was found to be with child” suggests that perhaps others learned of Mary’s pregnancy before she married Joseph (Matthew 1:18–19). We have no record of whether she spoke to Joseph about it first or if he found out through others. Either way, Mary’s pregnancy before marriage would have been scandalous in her culture, to say the least. It’s possible Joseph “resolved to divorce her quietly” so Mary wouldn’t be stoned to death (Matthew 1:19). Perhaps this is also why immediately after the angel announces the virgin Mary’s miraculous pregnancy through the Holy Spirit, Mary went “with haste” to stay with her cousin Elizabeth in Judah for three months (Luke 1:39).


After their marriage, were Mary and Joseph treated like outcasts? Was Joseph belittled for marrying a woman who would be pregnant before marriage? Did Jesus grow up with the stigma of being a child conceived out of wedlock? Since the Gospels focus on Jesus’ ministry, not his personal life, we can’t say. Yet, interestingly, in John’s gospel, we find a debate between Jesus and some religious leaders. We don’t need to unpack the whole debate here, but it’s a debate about fatherhood, whether those in the debate are children of Jewish forefather Abraham or Satan, the enemy of God. During the back-and-forth, one of the religious leaders abruptly says, “We were not born of fornication,” (John 8:41) an old-fashioned word meaning to have sex outside of marriage. (Some translations use the phrase “sexual immorality” instead.) New Testament scholar D.A. Carson (and others) understand this to be a cheap shot (my words) at Jesus by his opponents [1].


Is it possible the religious leaders in Jerusalem, after looking into this man who is raising so many eyebrows, were aware of the questionable situation surrounding his birth? It’s definitely an odd comment to throw into a debate. Perhaps not as inappropriate as a “mama joke,” but certainly odd.


AWAY IN THE FEEDING TROUGH


The most powerful detail in the Gospels that speaks of Mary and Joseph’s low social status is probably one we often overlook because it’s such a familiar image. One of the most famous images of the birth of Jesus comes from only one sentence in the entire Bible:


And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)


Let’s pause for a moment and visualize all the dramatizations of Jesus’ birth that have been performed over the past 2,000 years, whether in movies, cartoons, big-budget professional productions, or the embarrassingly painful Christmas play at your local church. Think of all the portrayals of Jesus’ birth in children’s books, high art, folk art, and those figurines your mom clutters up her shelves with. Think of all the nativity sets displayed at Christmas time in homes, in front of churches, and in your neighbor’s yard in glorious inflatable lawn art. Then consider that all of these are inspired by that one sentence. One sentence. That one sentence is important because it tells us something significant about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Yet, it’s still just one sentence, and when we have sparse details like we do here, we tend to fill in the gaps with our own ideas.


Even non-Christians are familiar with the iconic nativity scene: the newborn Jesus laying on hay in a manger surrounded by farm animals in a stable. The thing is, Luke never mentions a stable. Yes, a manger is something animals eat from, but there’s no mention where that manger was located (other than in Bethlehem, of course) (Luke 2:12, 16). Even when the shepherds go to find the newborn Jesus, only a manger is mentioned; nothing about the location (Luke 2:15-16).


Remember that heartless innkeeper who refused to help out the very pregnant Mary and her desperate husband? What a jerk, right? Well, read Luke’s gospel (and Matthew’s); no innkeeper is mentioned anywhere! Luke simply states, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” The Greek word for “inn” (katalyma) normally means a guest room in a home or an informal public shelter where travelers (such as in caravans) would stay for the night. Elsewhere, we see katalyma—translated “guest room”—when adult Jesus and his disciples are looking for a place to celebrate the Passover meal (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). Luke uses a different, more common word for a roadside inn (pandocheion) later in his Gospel (Luke 10:34). So, we have grounds for being skeptical that Joseph and Mary stopped by an ancient Motel 6.


Since Luke’s gospel only speaks of the newborn Jesus being laid in a manger and makes no mention of its location, inside a stable is certainly a possibility, but it could very well be in a house. A first century house in Israel was often one big room divided into two sections with one side slightly higher than the other. The animals lived in the lower area. So, on their visit to Bethlehem, was there no room in the guest room, and Mary and Joseph stayed in this lower area of the house with the animals instead?


Another possibility is the manger could have been in a cave. People used natural and man-made caves in the many slopes around Bethlehem as a cost-effective way to provide shelter for domestic animals. In fact, if you travel to Bethlehem today and ask to be taken to the birthplace of Jesus, you’ll be brought to a cave. The Church of the Nativity now stands above it. This is the traditional place where many Christians believe Jesus was born. It’s hard to say if this exact site has always been considered the birthplace of Jesus, but a little after AD 300 a basilica was built on the site to mark it as such, and the idea of Jesus being born in a cave dates to much earlier than AD 300. Church father Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) writes, “But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger” [2].


So, I hope this doesn’t ruin anyone’s Christmas, but that beloved nativity set passed down to you by your dear Aunt Gracie may be inaccurate.


Luke doesn’t give us a lot of details, so we end up filling in the empty spaces from our own imaginations, but Luke also included that one sentence for a significant reason. He’s telling us something unusual—strange, in fact. The newborn Jesus was laid in a manger—in a feeding trough for goats and cows. Jesus, who the Gospel writers present as the long-awaited king sent by God, had extremely humble beginnings. Jesus’ parents were of such lowly status, they had no other option than to lay their newborn son in a feed trough.


BIRDS, CARPENTERS & SARCASM


As further evidence of their poverty, forty days after Jesus’ birth, we’re told Mary and Joseph offered at the temple a sacrifice of two doves and two pigeons (Luke 2:24). In the Old Testament, this is an acceptable sacrifice for the poor if they couldn’t afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8).


Joseph was a tekton (Matthew 13:55). The word is usually translated “carpenter,” but can also be a general term for someone who uses various materials, including stone or metal. The evidence seems clear that Jesus grew up as the son of a humble construction worker or handyman, and Jesus worked in his father’s trade until his early thirties when he began his ministry (Mark 6:3).


As Jesus’ ministry begins, we find another clue of his family’s lowly status. His disciple Philip tells a friend about Jesus of Nazareth, declaring that they have found the one prophesied about in the Jewish scripture. The friend responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:44–46). (Yes, they had sarcasm in ancient times.) This burn on Nazareth comes from Nathanael, a man from Cana, another town in Galilee (John 21:2)—another important detail because Galilee would’ve been considered the backwaters of Israel. How people from Jerusalem viewed Galilee is likely how people from Los Angeles or New York view a small town in Mississippi. Yet, we see here that Nazareth was looked down upon even by other Galileans.


Despite his humble beginnings, Jesus went on to become the most famous and influential person in history.




[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 352.


[2] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho. Ch. 78. New Advent. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01286.htm.



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