By Zachary Guiliano
For the past five years, Ian Paul has tried to persuade us that various “sentimental” Christmas traditions about Jesus and the Holy Family are not true: for example, that they were not poor, and Christ wasn’t born in a stable. Paul’s original posts date back at least to Christmas 2016, but he has reposted them each year, sometimes with additional material.
This is a habit of his: like many people who make their name partly by blogging, he is keen to recycle material. I’ve done it myself. Almost anyone in publishing has done it at some point, due to the nature of digital reading habits and the need to keep pageviews high. (One of Ian’s other infamous recycled posts is on the topic of mitres, much to my chagrin.)
Last year, Ian added another post on Christmas Eve, “Were Joseph and Mary ‘poor’?,” which he then drew attention to on social media on Boxing Day:
The Christmas Eve/Boxing Day piece is more substantive than his previous engagements. Due to prompting from others, he spent a little more time “showing his work,” and discussing the research he relies on to claim that the Holy Family was not poor. As he acknowledges in his post (but less often on social media), the issue is not clear-cut, and New Testament scholars disagree about the relative poverty of the Holy Family. In comparison to our day, as he acknowledges, the Holy Family was of course poor. The question is where they fell in the relative hierarchies of their own society.
The main substance of Ian’s argument is drawn from the work of Bruce Longenecker and Steven Friesen. Ironically, when Ian first discussed Longenecker’s work back in 2013, he noted that Longenecker believed determining who was or was not “at subsistence level” was a “vexed question” and that “all … models are tentative.”
Even in 2020, Paul was willing to write on his blog that the arguments are “complex.” But however vexed, tentative, or complex the historical issues are, it seems Ian Paul does not view them as so tentative or complex that he would refrain from criticizing centuries of traditional Christmas hymnody and preaching. All is fair in the war on Christmas, whether one is a secular critic or a Protestant engaged in “iconoclasm” — all part of our great liberal tradition, in which Ian finds himself in common cause with ancient skeptics, modern Deists, and even Steven Pinker.
But I’m being a little unfair: let me back up and explain why this matters and why I disagree with Ian.
In one sense my motivations are simple and can be stated briefly: Jesus’ poverty has been central to most articulations of Christian faith since the early Church, based on a common interpretation of the Scriptures. That poverty has served as the basis of our feeling that Christ has identified himself with the least in this world. And, at Christmas, these two things come together to motivate us to help those less fortunate, as if they were Christ himself. For, as Christ says in Matthew 25:31-46 and as the Church has traditionally understood it (despite what Ian and some New Testament scholars have tried to argue), Christ really is present in “the least of these.” We will be judged on the basis of our attitudes and actions towards the sick, the imprisoned, the starving, the naked, and many others.
I don’t think I need to convince most people that the poverty of Jesus is central to Christian tradition. You can’t understand the history of the Church without it. And it’s not hard at all to find examples of this common conviction (unless you’re trying to avoid them), whether it’s Augustine’s typical way of referring to Jesus as “that poor man,” the Venerable Bede saying Christ created “poor parents for himself,” or St. Francis and his friars seeking to follow Christ in the way of poverty. But perhaps it would be useful to remove the rhetorical weapons from Ian’s hands, so that others can rest at this year’s Christmas, while singing of the poor boy born at Bethlehem — or preaching that, yes, because of the Incarnation you really do need to open your wallets at Christmas time.
First, as noted above, the models Ian relies on are just that: models. They are not clear statements of Scripture. They are not even clear facts about scriptural contexts, no matter how often Ian props them up vigorously before our eyes. They are generalized economic studies, on the basis of minimal evidence, like nearly all historical work focused on the period before ca. 1300 AD and often after it; and even the authors of these models think they are “tentative.” Many scholarly contributions have provided us with a clearer picture of life in the Roman Empire in recent decades, but we are still far away from being able to use the evidence as Ian does: which is look up Joseph’s general status as a skilled worker or artisan, and thereby conclude that the Holy Family were doing all right. That sort of approach doesn’t even work in a highly developed society like our own.
Second, it’s not too clear that Longenecker’s and Friesen’s categories even fit Ian’s use of them. This seems to be something Ian partly realizes. When we describe someone in the ancient world as being “above subsistence level,” with a little surplus income, or even as being of a sort of middling level of income, that does not mean they are “middle class” in the modern sense (in American or British English). Their lives would have been marked by an economic vulnerability and precarity beyond what most people reading this have experienced, even those of us who come from poor backgrounds. Ancient Mediterranean societies did not enjoy, say, stable harvests, and anyone without significant storehouses would have to wonder what kind of year they were going to face — every year.
Third, this points to an important question. What do we mean when we say that someone in the biblical narrative is “poor”? I don’t think that most of us believe that they are someone entirely without means. Mostly, I think we mean they were not rich, not powerful, not noble, not wise by human standards, to borrow the language of St Paul. They were not secure. (This lines up with most of the homiletic language about poverty in the ancient world, by the way.)
Joseph may have been of the line of David, but he was not a great landowner, measured by local or imperial standards. He did not have wealth as it has been traditionally defined. Joseph and Mary did not have a second home in Bethlehem, but needed to be someone’s guest, and their newborn was put in a trough. The Holy Family did not have a high-ranking earthly patron or connections, so when Herod came threatening, they had to flee to another country as refugees. The Son of God may have had angelic protection, but it was not the kind that slew his enemies; it relied on the actions of forewarned parents. And we are to believe, if we are Christians, that all this was chosen by God: vulnerability, danger, stress, confusion, migration, dependence. One could go on.
Joseph and Mary were poor. And God chose to be poor with them. And when the Son of God grew, he chose an even more radical poverty, owning next to nothing, choosing not to be settled, renouncing wealth, still being supported by others, until he went to the cross and his poverty reached new depths.
So this Christmas, feel free to proclaim the poor boy at Nazareth. Sing some sentimental carol like “Away in a Manger.” Watch or read A Christmas Carol. And give to the poor. In doing so, you honor our Lord Jesus, nourish and care for him, and clothe and shelter him, who knew little comfort at his birth, who suffered for our redemption, who was raised in the glory of the Father, and now reigns in heaven.
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.