I’m re-reading Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. It’s a short book, but not a quick nor easy read for me since there’s so much to process. (Assume however that since it’s a re-read that I recommend this book highly.)
In this book, Crossan talks about the socioeconomic status of Jesus: not the well-educated, suburban Republican Jesus invoked by so many so-called Christians of our time, but the historic Jesus of his time and place.
Read this excerpt. Think about the current corporate greed and the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Everywhere movement that’s going on. Compare the social structure and percentages of Jesus’ time to our own. How can there be any question as to where the REAL Jesus would stand?
Whether we read “carpenter” with Mark or “carpenter’s son” with Matthew makes little difference in a world where sons usually followed their father’s professions in any case. But what exactly was the social or economic class of a tekton, here translated as “carpenter”? The immediate problem is to avoid interpreting a term like carpenter in modern terms as a skilled, well-paid, and respected member of the middle class. But the only way to do that effectively is to discipline our imagination with both social history and cross-cultural anthropology.
Ramsay MacMullen has noted that one’s social pedigree would easily be known in the Greco-Roman world and that a description such as “carpenter” indicated lower-class status. At the back of his book he gives a “Lexicon of Snobbery” filled with terms used by literate and therefore upper-class Greco-Roman authors to indicate their prejudice against illiterate and therefore lower-class individuals. Among those terms is tekton, or “carpenter,” the same term used for Jesus in Mark 6:3 and for Joseph in Matthew 13:55. One should not, of course, ever presume that upper-class sneers dictated how the lower classes actually felt about themselves. But, in general, the great divide in the Greco-Roman world was between those who had to work with their hands and those who did not.
An earlier study by Gerhard Lenski helps put all of that in a wider cross-cultural frame of reference. He divides human societies, by technology and ecology, into hunting and gathering, simple horticultural, advanced horticultural, agrarian, and industrial societies. The Roman Empire was an agrarian society, characterized by the forging of iron plows, the harnessing of animal traction, and the use of wheel and sail to move goods. It was also characterized by an abysmal gulf separating the upper from the lower classes. On one side of that great divide were the Ruler and the Governors, who together made up 1 percent of the population but owned at least half of the land. Also on that same side were three other classes: the Priests, who could own as much as 15 percent of the land; the Retainers, ranging from military generals to expert bureaucrats; and the Merchants, who probably evolved upward from the lower classes but who could end up with considerable wealth and even some political power as well. On the other side were, above all, the Peasants—that vast majority of the population about two-thirds of whose annual crop went to support the upper classes. If they were lucky they lived at subsistence level, barely able to support family, animals, and social obligations and still have enough for the next year’s seed supply. If they were not lucky, drought, debt, disease, or death forced them off their own land and into share-cropping, tenant farming, or worse. Next came the Artisans, about 5 percent of the population, below the Peasants in social class because they were usually recruited and replenished from its dispossessed members. Beneath them were the Degraded and Expendable classes—the former with origins, occupations, or conditions rendering them outcasts; the latter, maybe as much as 10 percent of the population, ranging from beggars and outlaws to hustlers, day laborers, and slaves. Those Expendables existed, as that terrible title suggests, because, despite mortality and disease, war and famine, agrarian societies usually contained far more of the lower classes than the upper classes found it profitable to employ. Expendables were, in other words, a systemic necessity.
If Jesus was a carpenter, therefore, he belonged to the Artisan class, that group pushed into the dangerous space between Peasants and Degradeds or Expendables. I emphasize that any decision on Jesus’ socioeconomic class must be made not in terms of Christian theology but of cross-cultural anthropology, not in terms of those interested in exalting Jesus but in terms of those not even thinking of his existence.
 Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 384 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), pages 17-18, 107-108,139-140,198 note 82.
 Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pages 189-296.