In circa 30 CE, at the zenith of Jesus' ministry, the Judaean Province was a fairly unstable place politically. In the mid-second century BCE, the Jewish state won a fleeting independence from the Ptolemaic Hellenists, only to absorbed into the Roman empire in the mid 1st century BCE. While the state was allowed some degree of autonomy, resentment against the Roman rulers was constantly brought to the fore in the form of protest and occasionally revolution, right up until the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Galilee, in the north of modern Israel, was at the time a largely rural province, populated almost entirely by small, agrarian communities. Although empire can be a cruel imposition on any population, there is evidence that it was these poorer, less politically influential communities who tended to suffer most at the hands of imperial policy. In general, Shauel Noah Einstadt writes, "the middle and lower peasant groups were the largest part of the rural population" in ancient agrarian empires and "the peasantry [also] carried the greatest burden of taxation" (Political Systems of Empires, p. 207). Land appropriation and increasingly burdensome taxation seemed to be a common feature of Roman policy within Galilee and much of the rest of the Near East at the time.
The incapacity of farmers to produce at surplus levels (as all surpluses tended to be appropriated by the state) produced what might be termed a permanent underclass of communities barely capable of sustaining themselves. "[T]he Roman Empire was an agrarian society, characterised by... marked social inequality", John Dominic Crossan writes. "Agricultural productivity increased, elite appropriation of peasant surpluses increased, and inequality between the producers and the takers increased" (The Birth of Christianity, p. 153). This meant that the Peasant Class, "that vast majority of the population, was held at (or close to) sustenance level so that their appropriated surplus could support elite conspicuous consumption. Those appropriations could reach, cumulatively, as high as two thirds of the total crop" (p. 155).
But if even those landed peasants - capable of self-sustenance at least at some fundamental level - were barely capable of supporting themselves, what can we possibly say for those who owned no such land at all? This "Expandable Class", writes Gerhard Lenski, "included a variety of types, ranging from pretty criminals and outlaws to beggars and underemployed itinerant workers, and numbered all those forced to live solely by their wits or by charity" (Power and Privilege, p. 281). This class existed, he continues, because "agrarian societies usually produced more people than the dominant classes found it profitable to employ... [H]igh death rates were usually offset by the steady stream of new recruits forced into [their] ranks from the classes immediately above [them]. These recruits were largely the sons and daughters of poor peasants and artisans who inherited little more than the shirts on their backs and a parental blessing" (pp. 281-283).
It is from these disenfranchised, impoverished classes of Galilee that Jesus and his early followers first emerged.
Jesus and Poverty:
When it comes to determining exactly who Jesus was and what his message consisted of, we have no choice but to abandon any pretense of talking about "facts" and enter instead the wonderful world of "probabilities". No account of Jesus' life or teachings exists from his day, the earliest surviving account dating to perhaps forty years after his death (presuming a 70 CE date of authorship for gMark). There are certain criteria that can and have been used to adduce what parts of the gospels report reliable history and which are the invention of the gospel authors (I explore J.P. Meier's criteria on here, for those interested) but this is scarcely a scientific process and not especially important if (as in the case of this post) we're not particularly concerned with distinguishing Jesus' message from that of his earliest followers.
From what we can tell, Jesus was the son of a manual labourer (tekton in Greek: can be translated as "carpenter", but not the sort of who produced fine furniture) who - based on his absence from the later gospel record (cf. Mk. 6:3) - may well have been dead or otherwise absent for much of Jesus' life. In any case, all the indications are that Jesus came from an impoverished family and grew up in a tiny, inconsequential Galilean community.
It is clear from the early sayings traditions preserved in gMark and the "Double Tradition" (i.e. those sayings common to gMatthew and gLuke but not to gMark, which a majority of scholars explain as having come from a hypothetical, now lost "Q" gospel) that concern with poverty was present in the philosophy of Jesus and the early Christian tradition from the very beginning. Only "concern with poverty" doesn't quite capture it: the tone is far more severe than that. But to understand we must first we digress into a brief discussion of "eschatology".
Eschatology and Judaism:
For the Jews of the ancient world - particularly those who lived pre-diaspora - there was usually little distinction made between the realms of theology and politics. All that happened to Israel (both from within and without) was a consequence of divine machination, a response to the piety (or lack thereof) of Israel's children. This can be seen most vividly in the books of the prophets, where the success of kings and the state are linked entirely to Yahweh's whim, which is itself determined by how faithfully the king and his subjects carried out Yahweh's commandments. Within this prophetic literature, though, existed a more specific genre called "the Apocalyptic", which involved not merely a theological explanation for contemporary events but a genre in which future events were "revealed" (the most accurate translation of the Greek word "apocalypse") to the prophets. These kinds of "prophecies" were particularly common during periods where the sovereignty of Israel was under threat from foreign powers, and people looked desperately to the prospect of future divine intervention for reassurance.
Note, then, that the apocalyptic genre was from the beginning an outlet for the weak and disenfranchised to imagine a future time in which the power imbalance would be righted. Israel may well be at the whim of foregin powers now, but at some point in the future the great power of Yahweh shall be revealed and all these presently powerful kings who have so tormented his children shall be made subject to him. Eventually, this idea of a future turning point in history (or, more accurately, an end to history as we know it) where God shall arrive and institute a quite literal kingdom on Earth, became a common feature of Jewish theology. This, naturally, gave rise to the belief that this future eschaton (lit. "the last") was close at hand, and that the adherence to certain standards of behaviour might either draw the eschaton nearer or, in the case of early Christians, offer one a means of salvation in the event that God (or one acting in his name - i.e. "the Son of Man") were to arrive in judgment, determining who exactly was worthy to live in his kingdom.
It is this concept of "ethical eschatology" (i.e. a future, definitive turning-point in history) that is at the centre of most early Christian beliefs.
Eschatology, Christianity and Power:
From the beginning, Christian theology has clearly been motivated by a belief in an imminent eschaton, the first step of which was marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Like many other Jewish eschatologies, there appeared to be a belief in a general resurrection of the dead at the "coming of the Lord" (see 1 Thess. 4:13-18 - the earliest surviving work of Christian literature, and also the passage that has inspired modern Christian visions of "the Rapture"). In 1 Cor. 15:20-23 Paul spells out his "Adam Christology", his belief that Jesus represents a kind of inverse Adam (where Adam tried to raise himself and inflicted death on mankind, Jesus lowered himself and brought life to mankind) and - more importantly - his belief that the resurrection of Christ marks only the "first fruits" of a more general eschatology, which involves the "resurrection of the dead".
But Christian eschatology was about more than just the promise of eternal life. Like other Jewish eschatologies, the Christian message was one of a coming "kingdom of God", where the oppressive rulers of the current age would be swept aside by God in a glorious inversion of power. Consider the passages that come immediately after the two quoted above:
1 Thess. 5:1-3:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security", then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
1 Cor. 15:24-25:
Then comes the end, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Note that we are not just talking about salvation in some distant, heavenly sense, we're talking about salvation on this Earth, here and now. Just like Yahweh coming down and smiting Israel's enemies in the prophetic OT literature, so to shall he arrive to deliver his children from the present day kingdoms (i.e. Rome) that oppress them. Like the earlier apocalyptic literature, we see the expectations of a future day where the powerful shall be toppled by the powerless in a divinely led revolution.
Even after Paul, during the 70s when Mark wrote, the eschatological belief that "the Kingdom of God has come near" (Mk. 1:15) was apparently still going strong. It's only towards the end of the second century, where several decades of expectation had ended in disappointment, that the belief in the parousia (i.e. the second coming of Christ) and coming eschaton were placed at some point in the indefinite (as opposed to immediate) future. But the eschaton was not just about inverting the power imbalance between competing societies, it was about inverting the power imbalances within societies themselves.
Eschatology, Christianity and Poverty:
The New Testament as we have received it was written by many different authors, living in vastly different parts of the world, over a period spanning many decades. It's important to recognise, therefore, that we cannot expect to find a unified theology or ethical system undergirding all the books that comprise it: different authors, put simply, are bound to have differing opinions. Although there is a unity of sorts in the way that the NT treats poverty (all its authors who breach the subject naturally regard it as a pressing ethical concern), there is no question that different authors treat the issue of poverty in different ways.
For instance, there is no shortage of passages instructing readers to simply show due ethical concern for the plight of the poor. When modern Christians consider their ethical responsibilities to the poor (excluding sola fide Protestants, of course, who don't actually care about the poor at all), these are probably the sort of passages they have in mind:
And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, "Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise."
1 Tim. 6:18:
Do good... be rich in good deeds, and... be generous and willing to share.
When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
Now it goes without saying that each of these injunctions are noble enough in their own right, but it also has to be said that they are otherwise quite pedestrian and unremarkable. Similar sentiments, I am sure, could be found in any other religious work which dwells on the issue of poverty: there is nothing particularly or uniquely "Christian" about any of them. Such injunctions to share if you can, to always be good and generous and to never boast about such deeds could scarcely be said to represent a bold or unique system of ethics.
The interesting thing about each of these passages, though, is that they can all be dated to late "strata" within the New Testament - special Lukan material ("L"), pseudo-Pauline Pastoral material and special Matthean material ("M") respectively, each of which date to the late first century at the earliest. As a general rule, we find that the later material in the NT often has a "softer" edge than the earlier material. Much of the early ethical injunctions concerning poverty in the New Testament have a distinctly unreasonable and polemical tone about them.
Consider some of the most famous ethical injunctions presented by Jesus:
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
When Jesus heard this, He said to him, "One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
A simple reading might tell us simply that Jesus is suggesting that it is good to give to the poor, but the unreasonableness of Jesus' expectations tells us that there is something deeper going on here. What kind of society can function with these counter-intuitive ethical norms of giving more to those who have stolen from you, or where having any possessions at all is a hindrance to future salvation? The answer is simple: a society who didn't expect that the world (as we know it) would last much longer. Recognise that Jesus was not the irenic hippy that we often imagine him to be, going round telling people to be nice to each other out of some general altruistic concern for mankind. He offered all these strict ethical injunctions, rather, because he believed that the world was about to end and that the coming judgement would require everyone to measure up to extremely particular ethical standards.
But again, his beliefs were even more strident than that. He believed not only that giving excessively to the poor was a necessary moral condition for salvation, he apparently believed that poverty in itself was virtuous and wealth, by extension, inherently sinful. Take this famous passage:
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
The message is clear: wealth itself is an anathema to divine salvation. The reasoning behind this idea is that the world is inherently "evil" (for want of a better word) and so therefore those who have profited most here must be evil as well, and that those who have profited least must therefore be "good" - a situation that will be rectified, with each getting their just desserts, when the eschaton finally arrives. It is this belief in a complete reversal of fortunes that scholars refer to as an inversionary ethical eschatology.
The meaning of this is simple enough. It means that "the last shall be [made] first, and the first last" (Mt. 20:16) and that "the meek shall inherit the earth" (Mt. 5:5) when this future kingdom arrives. For this reason "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk. 6:20) and "woe to you who are rich, for you have [already] received your consolation" (Lk. 6:24). The author of the book of James has an especially blunt message for those who amass wealth:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
And an eschatological consolation for the poor:
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Note that the word translated here as "poor" is the Greek word ptochos, which refers not merely to those who are struggling a bit for cash, but rather to the completely destitute: that expendable underclass I spoke of at the top of this post. This inversionary eschatology was both written by and directed to this permanent underclass, giving them the hope that the iniquities of the present ages would soon pass. Jesus, then, was a champion of this poor, a revolutionary who saw his battle as being played out on some future heavenly realm rather than in the present material world. His revolutionary zeal didn't manifest itself in the taking up of swords, but rather the adoption of counter-intuitive standards of ethical piety. The early Christians were also drawn from this underclass, uplifted by the prospect of a divinely inspired revolutionary reversal of fortunes that they - as a lowly and disenfranchised people - could never hope to realise of their own volition. The New Testament is by construction, then, a statement of class warfare.
So what went wrong?
As I have already said, the earlier strata of the New Testament seem to represent a much courser polemic than the later strata. Put simply, as Christianity spread and the plight of rural Galileans became less central to the Christian message, the polemic was necessarily toned down. We can already see this happening in the first century, as Matthew (writing in the cosmopolitan city of Antioch) tones down the invective from the passages he derives from the "Q" gospel (written several decades earlier in the less developed province of Judea). Take the beatitudes, for instance, that both Luke and Matthew have taken from Q:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Compare Luke's rendition of the beatitudes (most scholars believe that his rendering of Q is generally closer to the original wording the Matthew's rendition) to those in gMatthew:
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Note that Matthew's beatitudes are no longer strictly about the poor and hungry, but (with the addition of the bolded words) are softened into more general, spiritual blessings, without class overtones. The later "woe to the rich" passage in gLuke is, not surprisingly, absent from gMatthew. Matthew, in fact, quite frequently seems to deliberately downplay the role of poverty in Jesus' life and message. Whereas in gLuke Jesus is born in a stable and visited by shepherds, in Matthew Jesus is visited by mighty kings from the east. Whereas in gLuke Jesus gives his sermon on a plain, in gMatthew he gives it atop a mountain. Whereas in gLuke Jesus is unequivocal in his denunciation of the rich, in gMatthew he fraternises with tax-collectors (the ultimate class-traitors: those drawn from local communities to procure funds on behalf of the empire). And that's just in gMatthew: by the time we get to gJohn (circa 95-100 CE) there is scarcely any mention of poverty at all.
And, unfortunately, that's the Christianity that we've been left with. A Christianity whose origins are to be found only in a few exposed roots among the surviving literature, otherwise completely obscured by a more dominant theology of vicarious atonement. The idea of salvation being delivered on the basis of need to groups, communities and nations has been supplanted - perhaps inevitably - by the more selfish concerns of personal salvation and "treasures in heaven". However, although the Christian message has been castrated by a church who preaches concern for the poor only in some abstract, pandering sense, it is important not to forget that at the centre of the church's canon lies a bold and revolutionary message: in one way or another, the poor will be delivered salvation at the expense of the rich.