As I mentioned previously, the received wisdom about the economic environment in which Jesus grew up starting in the '70s was heavily influenced by social science models informed by Marxist presuppositions.
"On the other hand, Dennis Groh, from the archaeologists' group, maintains that we have been too influenced by Marxist historians, who invented the ancient tension between cities and villages, between elites and rural peasants. We do not find evidence, he insists, in Galilee of great distance between the rich and the poor. Galilee, he concludes, was a "largely egalitarian society (at least in external appearance) .""
David Fiensy, Christian Origins and The Ancient Economy, pg. 93
Since those times, there has been both more published material about archaeological remains from the region and a great deal of newly uncovered remains as well.
We no longer have to depend on theoretical models and ideological wish-fulfillment. We have archaeological findings from Nazareth. It is somewhat developed so it's tougher to dig there than in undeveloped cities.
(Images are from BibleWorks, published by Hermeneutica.)
But it is a high priority so digs have gone on. But as important is the digging around the environs of Nazareth. For example, Nazareth was a small village within an hour walk of the one of a very important Galilean city, Sepphoris. Sepphoris was on and off the political, cultural and economic center of Galilee, an honor that it shared alternately with Tiberias.
It's important to look at the history of Sepphoris before and during Jesus' life in the region. When Herod the Great died (generally considered to have happened in 4 BC), the leaders of Sepphoris sought to take advantage of the situation and revolted against Rome. Rome won, and Sepphoris was destroyed.
Roughly a decade later, Herod's son Antipas came into power and began to rebuild Sepphoris, which means that a very large building project was going on during Jesus' adolescence and early adulthood within easy walking distance of His home town.
When one considers this, it is very likely that Jesus, a tekton (a builder with expertise in carpentry and stone work) would have worked there. When you add to that the fact that Joseph, the primary breadwinner, clearly dropped out of the picture before Jesus' ministry (at roughly age 30) and that Nazareth was a small village, with very limited need for a skilled artisan -- after all, how many plows, yokes, doors, and tables do fifteen or twenty households need? Add to all of that the fact that there was a shortage of skilled artisans in the building trades, which meant that builders were highly mobile and much in demand. Whether that demand expressed itself in higher daily wages or rather in more hours, a major building boom in easy walking distance was too good to pass up for a faithful young Jewish man seeking to replace a father's earnings.
Let's put the economic picture together. Nazareth itself appears not to be a poor village at all, but solidly working class. Not wealthy, but nice working class houses, including one recent dig of a fairly nice house across the road from the Church of the Annunciation, the traditional location of Mary's home.
Other signs of a reasonably prosperous village are the local cemetery. Nazareth was a farming village and such villages were able to export food to the relatively wealthy cities, for example, Sepphoris, which is of sufficient size and proximity to Nazareth as to render the village of Nazareth possibly an exurb of that prominent city.
Sepphoris was a well-developed city, developed enough that a mansion has been excavated as well as a synagogue, both well-appointed artistically.
"The suggestion that the elites of Sepphoris were, for the most part, families of modest wealth also harmonizes with what archaeologists have noticed about the houses in the Western Domestic Quarter of Sepphoris. They are nice but not as elaborate as those discovered in the Jewish Quarter of old Jerusalem. If we compare the houses of the aristocrats of Sepphoris-those of the "western domestic quarter" whose inhabitants according to Eric Meyers, were "well-to-do aristocratic Jews"70-with aristocratic houses of Jerusalem, we notice some striking differences. The houses in Sepphoris were certainly nice by ancient standards. They had multiple rooms and a courtyard. Many had fresco paintings, and some had mosaic floors. Several were multistoried. They were impressive for their time and place. But compared with the Jerusalem houses ( excavated in the Jewish quarter of the old city), they were modest. For example, the "Great Mansion" of Jerusalem had a living area of 600 square meters while a large house of Sepphoris (labeled 84.1) had an area of 300 square meters. The size difference alone is remarkable. Further, the small finds in the aristocratic houses of Sepphoris indicate modest wealth. Bone in- stead of ivory was used for cosmetic applications. Aristocrats in Sepphoris employed common pottery, not fine ware. They imported no wines. 71 Thus based on the evidence of the houses rom first-century Sepphoris discovered so far-Tiberias has not been excavated adequately for such assessment-we would have to say that the extreme distance between the elite and lower class, found elsewhere in the Roman Empire, and evidently in Judea, was diminished in Galilee. While there certainly was an economic distance between the two groups, it was not as great as in other regions."
David Fiensy, Christian Origins and The Ancient Economy, pg 115
Sepphoris had a bank and a Hellenic-style theater. It is not 100% certain that the theater was built before the period when Jesus might have seen it, though that might explain possible allusions from Jesus to Greek literature.
The relationship between Nazareth and Sepphoris provides ready explanation for the seeming paradox of Jesus (an alleged rural, poor peasant) speaking in sophisticated financial parables, with specific numeric sums which ring true to life for a reasonably prosperous financial operation (for example, the Parable of the Unfaithful Steward). How did Jesus come to know how many bushels of grain or jars of olive oil a typical account would have if he had lived his whole life in rural isolation? The answer is that he grew up within ready proximity to a thriving financial center, which he likely had a hand in building.
"There certainly were large estates in Palestine as well. But were there such large farms specifically in Lower Galilee (the area from Nazareth on the south to the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee) where Jesus came from? So far the archaeological evidence says no. Yet, on the Great Plain, just south of Nazareth, there is both literary and archaeological evidence that large estates had been in existence already for three hundred years by the time Jesus was born. Jesus had only to look over the Great Plain from the edge of the Nazareth ridge to view some of these vast farms. Perhaps Jesus's observation of these estates furnished material for many of his parables. As mentioned above, Mar 12:1 -8, the parable of the Tenants, refers to a vineyard with tenant farmers, an absentee landlord, and several slaves who were sent to collect the rent. In order to support several tenant farmers, the vineyard must have been quite large. Luke 16:1-12 speaks of debts of one hundred measures of oil and one hundred measures of wheat, which would have required at least a medium-sized estate to produce. The same conclusion can be made with respect to the parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30=Luke 19:11-27), the parable of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43=Matt 18:23-34), and the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:21-35). These parables speak of large sums of money that imply great wealth. In the ancient economy one could possibly become wealthy as a merchant…"
David Fiensy, Christian Origins and The Ancient Economy, pg. 70
It is true that Judeans looked down upon Galileans in general and even specifically those from Nazareth:
" 46 And Nathanael said to him, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." (Jn. 1:46 NAS)
And it is not entirely clear that Jesus disagreed with Nathaniel's evaluation:
" 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" (Jn. 1:47 NAS)
But that contempt is likely the result of Galileeans' social interaction with gentiles and perhaps Nazareth's closer proximity to the pagan Decapolis, right across the Jordan. Or perhaps the issue was that Galilee, particularly Sepphoris and environs, were associated with political rebellion.
My point here is that Jesus may have grown up in an area that those closer to the capital, Jerusalem, and its Temple, thought of as religiously suspect. But he did not grow up in an area of misery and squalor -- indeed, he was raised in an area of ancient Israel that was vigorous, entrepreneurial in the sense of an economy made up of small, family-owned businesses with varied exports, and Jesus would even have been exposed to then current examples of financial markets, and sufficiently exposed to have picked up an accurate and detailed picture of how they worked.
It is noteworthy indeed that Jesus' parables are capital-friendly, in the sense that when his parables involve investors interacting with borrowers, farm laborers, renters, or stewards, the parables are told from the point of view of the investor, not the employee or debtor. It is the steward who is unfaithful, not the master. It is the servant who is lazy, not the traveling owner who has entrusted talents to his care. It is the tenants of the vineyard who are withholding and violent and ultimately murderous, not the owner who sends his son to collect the yield. These are indeed very strange stories to be told by a man alleged to be leading a peasant revolt against the evils of commerce.
It is also noteworthy that the Gospels contain no rebukes of wealthy individuals by Jesus while in Galilee. He travels around the region, goes to a fairly lavish wedding at Cana, travels to thriving fishing towns like Capernaum and Bethsaida. Drives demons out of Mary Magdalene (that is, Mary of Magdala, a wealthy center of the fishery industry). There are many confrontations - one in his home town almost leads to death. But the topic is not money. The comment which almost gets Jesus prematurely killed by the mob is one which was likely seen by his home town as over-friendly to Gentiles. This makes sense -- you have religiously conservative Jews living in "Galilee of the Gentiles", strong religion abutting foreign, morally lax paganism is bound to create cultural tension. And Jesus' 'soft on Gentiles' sympathies would naturally be a flash point.
But the fact that there was genuine affluence a morning's walk from Jesus' home, and that Jesus is not recorded rebuking it, and that the economy of Galilee was based largely on free production and free exchange (as opposed to forcible extraction by a ruling class) suggests that Jesus was not troubled by what he saw in the economy of his home district. He certainly was willing to confront evil, including social evil, but his eye apparently was focused on social evils other than the particulars of the Galilean economy.
Jesus' economic critiques do not begin until he leaves Galilee and enters the economy of the South, dominated by Jerusalem, the capital city.
" Mark 10:1 And rising up, He went from there to the region of Judea…He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"" (Mk. 10:1,17 NAS)
More on this encounter with the Rich Young Ruler next.