It's common for sermons and some academic theological writings to portray Jesus as a poor man who led an attempted peasant revolt. The problem is that neither historical texts nor archaeological records are consistent with this picture.
David Fiensy is a specialist in the archaeology of Galilee during Jesus' time there. He is the author of Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy and one of the editors of the two most comprehensive volumes on the topic of the archaeology of Galilee during the 1st Century, and the massive two-volume set, Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods.
According to Fiensy, it is likely that Jesus was not poor, but he was also not rich. As a skilled artisan he would not be like peasant farmers, who were one or two bad harvests away from hunger and even starvation.
Jesus was described as a 'tekton' which is a carpenter, but also connotes a person who was involved in building as opposed to someone just making tables (as Joseph and Jesus are often depicted in art). That's because buildings need wooden frames, even for stone-masonry projects. The carpenter would build the frame, then the stone workers would fit stones inside. In addition, carpenters would build the scaffolding that workers would stand on for the tops of walls or for second stories.
So, Jesus was almost certainly a builder, instead of just a handyman fixing doors or someone who built chairs, tables, and plows.
If you had a skill like that, you weren't going to go hungry. This was especially true of Galilee in those days, during which highly skilled artisans were in very high demand.
According to another interview with Fiensy, there was a perennial shortage of skilled craftsman in Israel during Jesus' early adulthood. The most important source for labor demand was probably the city of Sepphoris, which was destroyed by the Romans, but was rebuilt starting in 3 AD. Nazareth was within easy commuting distance from Sepphoris. According to Fiensy it is "very, extremely unlikely that he just worked in Nazareth." As a builder, he and Joseph would have worked on the gigantic building project which was happening at the city around which the small village of Nazareth was an exurb. In a village of 100 or so people, there are really only so many plows and doors for Joseph and Son(s?) to fix.
In addition, construction of the city of Tiberias began in the 20s. Tiberias was a bit further away, but artisans were highly mobile and often traveled much further than the modest distance from Nazareth to Tiberias. In fact, it's even conceivable that Jesus would have worked on the Temple, according to Fiensy. Tiberias, like Sepphoris, also would have been a major building project and a magnet for skilled artisans such as tektons.
How lucrative an occupation would this have been? Fairly lucrative. There was a perennial shortage of artisans in the entire Mediterranean region at the time, but especially in ancient Israel during Jesus' time there. The Herodian dynasty was a dynasty of builders. Building was a source of wealth, power and prestige for Herod the Great and his successors. It kept workers busy…and tired. It is an interesting aside that the building boom ended in roughly 65 AD. The debt revolt which triggered the war with Rome started the very next year. Busts, which follow building booms, are historically associated with political instability. The end of the Herodian project certainly fits that pattern.
But during the boom, builders would have been in high demand. In fact, Herod the Great recruited and trained artisans:
"Since this was the case throughout the Mediterranean world, we should expect that in Palestine in the Herodian period artisans from surrounding cities and villages were used for large building projects. This expectation is confirmed by a passage in Josephus. Josephus relates that Herod the Great (ruled 37 to 4 BCE) made the following preparations to build his temple in 20 BCE: "He made ready 1,000 wagons which would carry the stones. He gathered 10,0 00 of the most skillful workers ...and he taught some to be masons and others to be carpenters" (Ant. 15.390). Josephus's description of Herod's collection and training of carpenters and builders in preparation for building his temple implies there was a shortage of artisans in Jerusalem for this massive construction project. Furthermore, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.219-20), the completion of the temple, which did not occur until the procuratorship of Albinus ( 62-64 CE), put 18,000 artisans out of work. Although Josephus's figure may be somewhat exaggerated113 the construction of the temple required a large force of artisans throughout most of the first century CE.
"The evidence from Josephus confirms that an extensive public works project like building the temple required recruiting and importing-and even training-artisans from distant cities and employing them over long periods of time. The construction of Sepphoris and Tiberias must have required a similar contribution of skilled labor. Given the urbanization of Lower Galilee ( e.g., Sepphoris, Tiberias, Magdala, Capernaum, and Scythopolis114) and also of the Tetrarchy of Philip (Caesarea. Philippi and Bethsaida Julius), one can well imagine that an artisan in the building trade would be in demand. Since such was the case in the Greco- Roman world in general, causing artisans to move frequently from job to job, we should expect the same to have been true in Galilee. It is even possible that Jesus and his family worked on the temple in Jerusalem from time to time.115
113. A colossal project such as Herod's Temple surely required a very large force of craftsmen. Burford notes, for example ( Craftsmen, 62), that the tiny Erechtheum in Athens needed 100 craftsmen to complete its final stages in 408 BCE. These included 44 masons; 9 sculptors; 7 woodcarvers; 22 carpenters, sawyers, and joiners; 1 lathe worker; 3 painters; 1 gilder; and 9 laborers and other unspecified workers…"
David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, page 28
This means that Jesus would likely have been higher-income than the typical Mediterranean artisan, or than artisans would have been both before and after the 1st Century building boom. Dr. Fiensy and I disagree about some specifics of how that higher income would be achieved. Dr. Fiensy believes that in that era, demand and supply did not set wages: custom would have dictated wages. My view, as an economist, is that markets existed even before they were understood and embraced, that there are fixed laws of human nature and that a shortage of builders would have boosted the wage rates of that class. Yes, this was a traditional society and custom would have been an important influence on behavior. For example, different occupations would have received different pay rates, reflecting different amounts of value created. Lower-resolution commentary points out that the typical worker was paid one denarius per day. But there was wide variation between professions, which reflects market forces. In addition, we find in Roman records that the salaries of soldiers rose during times of currency debasement (which began during the 1st Century.) Furthermore, we see examples of at least some wage negotiation in the Parable of the Workers, in which an employer pays a full day's wage for a half day's work. If this is not an act of pure grace, then it would be in response to market conditions, for example the discovery at mid-day that the existing work force would not be adequate to finish the harvest for that day. On the other hand, Jesus' commentary on the parable suggests at least some generosity on the part of the employer who did not dicker the wage down to a half-day's wage for a half day's work.
Fiensy' view is that during an artisan shortage created by a building boom, Jesus and other workers like him would indeed have commanded higher income, but in the form of more hours/days worked, instead of a higher wage rate. So, under his view and mine both, Jesus would have had a higher income due to the specific economic conditions of that time and place.
So what class would Jesus have been in?
Artisans could actually become wealthy. How do we know? Because we dug one up:
"Archaeology has discovered a family of well-to-do artisans in Palestine as well: the family of Simon the temple builder, buried in Tomb I on Givat ha-Mivtar, north of Jerusalem."
This was a family of craftsmen which did hard manual labor but attained enough financial success to afford both a tomb in a rather high-priced area and ossuaries.
Where would artisans like Jesus typically fall within the economic class hierarchy? Higher than is commonly believed. Many of us have heard sermons about a Jesus who was a working man who would have been looked down upon by wealthy classes. Some scholars, influenced by Marxist presuppositions, have imagined an impoverished Jesus leading a poor people's revolt.
The problem with that thinking is that Jesus was not in an occupation associated with poverty. On the contrary, he would likely have been fairly high on the comparative income curve. The top 2-3 percent were occupied by the ruling class. This would include royalty, nobility, and politically connected elites. They were takers (more on that later) who lived by extracting wealth from others.
Under them would be another 2-3 percent composed of their retainers: bailiffs, stewards, tax collectors (as opposed to head tax-collectors such as Zacchaeus), etc. That group was not necessarily directly under the ruling class in terms of income. They were under them in terms of authority. Some of them would also be fairly wealthy, but some of them would not be very wealthy -- in fact, a significant portion of them would be slaves. So, let's say that half of that group were fairly wealthy. That leaves us with roughly the top 4 percent being represented by the ruling class and their functionaries.
After that, you have the merchant class, perhaps 3-5 percent. But not all merchants were equally prosperous, so let's say that half of that group would be highly prosperous. That would mean that the ruling class, plus wealthy functionaries, plus affluent merchants, all constituted the top 6-7 percent of earners.
Next come the artisans. They were probably about five percent of the population. A few artisans were wealthier than some merchants (as we see above from the high-end burial of Simon the temple builder), but most would not be. Jesus would not likely have been at that level. But he would likely have been somewhere in that 5 percent who fall under the 6-7 percent who constituted ruling class plus affluent retainers plus wealthy merchants. That would leave artisans spanning something like 88th percentile up to 93rd percentile in the wealth distribution. It would be hard to know where Jesus would fall in this zone: he lived in Nazareth, not affluent, but not poor either. That would push him down a bit in the distribution away from the Jerusalem which gave Simon the temple builder the money to afford his expensive tomb. In addition, Jesus was probably at least a partial orphan, the absence of Joseph would have been a financial burden for the family. But on the other hand, that would have increased the pressure on him to earn more, so it might mean that Jesus had less in accumulated assets, but higher earnings. Also, on the higher earnings side was the fact that, as noted above, artisans were in high demand, and Jesus spent his builder years between two cities undergoing building booms, Sepphoris to the East and Tiberias to the West.
That would put Jesus somewhere in the vicinity of 90th percentile when it comes to income, perhaps a bit lower when it comes to personal property. Now, reading that as a modern American, we have a sense of what 90th percentile means that varies quite a bit from what that would have meant then. Currently, 90th percentile would be almost 150,000 dollars per year. In Jesus time, 90th percentile meant not being hungry, having a house of your own, and some land to farm or tools for your work. The world was, by our standards, desperately poor up until 'the Great Takeoff' in the early 1800s in the West.
Of course, these conclusions are back of the envelope and subject to revision if and when more data becomes available. But so far, newer data has supported a picture of a more prosperous Galilee and Nazareth and therefore the greater likelihood of a reasonably prosperous Jesus.