Matthew 8:20, Was Jesus a Simple Peasant?

And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

//We have in our heads an image of Jesus as a penniless wanderer, a poor peasant from an obscure rural farming town. But over and over, as I studied for my book about John’s Gospel, I found this simple image contradicted. Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus surrounds himself mostly with aristocracy (the royal steward, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus). Must we dispense with the penniless label?

Tradition and the book of Revelation tell us that St. John was banished to the Isle of Patmos by the Romans. For this to be so, John would have to be of high social status, and one wonders if John’s money and influence (or that of his mother, who accompanied Jesus’ entourage) didn’t help provide the small-town Jesus with connections above his caste.

Moreover, the image we have of “simple fishermen” for Jesus’ followers fits no better with John’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t call them away from their nets in Galilee, he lures them away from John the Baptist. With the exception of the final chapter of John (which many scholars consider an add-on), the Fourth Gospel gives no indication that these men are fishermen.

What were Jesus and his disciples really like? We can only speculate.


  1. As often in the Bible, I could make a case for either, depending on where I read. For example. the Episcopal Church just celebrated “The Feast of the Presentation.” Part of the Gospel fot this day reads

    Luke 2:22-40

    22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

    The “Law of the Lord” to which is being referred is Lev. 12:8:

    If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.

    Your point is well taken, AND, it could be argued, since Mary made the offering for the poor, Joseph did not make much as a TEKTON.

    If I limited myself only to John’s Gospel, I could easily agree without reservation. However, as I love to cook, this would be like limiting myself to a Crock Pot Cookbook. There is nothing “wrong” with that, but there is so much more.

  2. Lee Harmon

    ROFL! I only laugh because “Crock Pot Cookbook” sounded like you were calling my post a load of crock. I know you weren’t!

    Insightful as usual, John, thanks!

  3. If Jesus was a tekton from Nazareth as the synoptic gospels portray, then it is likely Jesus and his family were not wealthy. They may not have been poor, either. In John Hanscom’s comment above, he points out Luke 2:24 as evidence that Joseph and Mary were too poor to afford a lamb for sacrifice at Jesus’ presentation. We must keep in mind Luke’s shepherd motif — he portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd, adored by shepherds at his birth – and shepherds were among the poorest, lowliest class of that time, place, and culture, on the very fringes of society. And Jesus ministered to those on the fringes of society.

    Whether or not Jesus came from a family of some means or not, he clearly gave up all he owned for his ministry. If one falls into the trap of idolizing money, one cannot serve God. But he extended his ministry as much to the wealthy who had gone astray as he did to the poor, oppressed, the sick, and sinners on the fringes of society. The wealthy are influential. Say you’re a fundraiser for a non-profit organization – you go to the wealthy because if you can win them, they not only donate to your cause, but they can be very effective at spreading your message and leading by example. Jesus seemed to have good marketing sense in this respect, no matter how it might look to the uber-righteous. So he dined with and taught wealthy aristocrats who would hear him, and he and his band of disciples were fed and sheltered by those supporters who could provide from their means. That the earliest Jewish-Christians (such as the Ebionites or “poor ones”) seemed to live communally and/or from the goodness of others does indicate they followed Jesus’ humble example: poor in worldly terms, but wealthy in Spirit, Love, and Light.

    But going back to the verse of the day, there is a more esoteric meaning to the idea that Jesus (“the son of man”) has no place to lay his head as compared to the birds and foxes. It points to the understanding that Jesus – the living Jesus, or the divine aspect of his being – comes from the heavenly realm, unlike his physical body, which comes from the worldly realm. Here, “son of man” from the Hebrew “ben Adam” is the Hebrew idiom “son of Adam” that simply means “man” or “human being”. In antiquity, it was a humble way to refer to oneself rather than to say “I” or “me”. Many scholars are convinced this is how Jesus meant to speak of himself, but that the gospel writers, and later English editors, kept the idiom “son of man” (even capitalized it as a title!) in case or to emphasize it could relate to Daniel’s “one like a son of man” with its messianic implications. When Jesus refers obliquely to himself as “the son of man”, I believe, as many scholars do, that he is speaking of himself as a human being, and by extension he is also speaking of all human beings. The parallels of this “foxes have holes” saying are found in G. of Thomas logion 86, and in Jesus’ paraphrased teaching to “be in the world, but not of it.” There is also a saying attributed to Jesus found in the Qur’an: “The world is a bridge. Pass over it but do not make your home there.” For a time, we live in the world, but upon death, the physical body will return to the dust of the earth. However, man’s true nature (core inner essence or being-ness) is that of the image of God, come from our original dwelling place in the heavenly, paradisal realms (as symbolized by life in the paradise of Eden before the “fall”), and to that realm we shall return. As Paul taught, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”. The body, like a coat of skin, is shed and belongs to the earth, dust to dust, but the imperishable soul — or image of God’s light/glory that we all are — belongs to God and will return to its true home not of this earth.

    • Oops, sorry, didn’t mean for all of that to be in italics — just the Greek word “tekton”. :)

  4. Lee Harmon

    Hi, WP! I tend to agree with you on the “foxes have holes” saying, but not so much on “Son of Man.” I find its use in Enoch to be representative of how an innocuous phrase turned into a title of respect for a coming Messiah.

    Do you have a blog? I’d be happy to run thoughtful responses like this as guest posts to share some traffic…

  5. Lee, your thoughts about Jesus spending so much time amid the well-to-do brings to mind Matthew 11:18-19:

    “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

    As I mentioned above, Jesus’ ministry was inclusive of all who were sick in sin, in need of a physician, which included the wealthy.

    But it also shows us that while Jesus himself gave up everything to preach his mission of the Kingdom of God, he was no ascetic. He lived life fully and abundantly. That’s what the life in the Kingdom is now and will be all about. (Ironically, it’s NOT about abstaining from the world like a hermit while we’re “in the world”.) Live in accord with God’s will — just live without sinning, i.e., live in a way that loves and honors oneself, others, and God.

    It also is a testament that Jesus had strong faith that God his Father would provide all his needs. As he taught us not to worry in the Sermon on the Mount, trust in God’s goodness as a loving father, and God will see that we are clothed and fed every day. And sometimes in Jesus’ case, that included dining royally at the invitation of a wealthy Pharisee or tax collector who was curious to hear what Jesus had to say and teach.

    • Lee Harmon

      Yes, indeed, WP! I play this up (the age of God’s plenty) in my book about John’s Gospel. It’s a little contrary to how we think about Jesus, but he apparently saw no need to abstain. Was it Bruce Chilton who depicted Jesus as chubby and jolly? lol.

      • Hi Lee,
        Yes, that was Bruce Chilton’s depiction. Loved reading his “Rabbi Jesus”.

        No, I don’t have a religious blog, but thanks for the reciprocal offer! :)

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