Jesus The Carpenter Was A Class Mediator, Too

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Posted: Sep 05, 2018 10:23 AM
Jesus The Carpenter Was A Class Mediator, Too

Theologically speaking, Jesus is the mediator between God and man. But I didn't learn until recently that Jesus was also a member of a socio-economic class which was known for its mediating characteristics. This is not something I learned from Christian thinkers, but rather from secular historians. Certain groups of people—members of the priesthood, lower order government officials, and, yes, artisans—were cultural and political 'brokers' in the ancient world. They were able to mediate across various boundaries, such as those between rich and poor and between city and country. David Fiensy, author of Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy lays this idea out:

D. Sabean23 maintains that peasants often turn to the town market centers and to the leaders within those centers. The village artisans, priests, and officials are the brokers who mediate between peasants and the elite. These people have already established a network of both peasants and rulers. They have grown used to playing the intermediate role between the two. Thus, Sabean terms them "brokers." They can move comfortably in either world. Usually these brokers, who serve as rebel leaders, say they have been pressured by the peasantry to do so. They struggle with the tensions between loyalty to the elite and service to the peasants, and in the end choose the latter because only in that way can they remain brokers…

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 40

This is not just true in the ancient world but can be observed throughout longer periods of history and across the world. In general, peasants don't lead political reform movements. In fact, they don't even tend to lead peasant revolts. Peasants look to members of mediating classes, people they look up to, in order to lead broad-based social or political movements.

…For example, in the German Peasants' War, the mayor of a market town became a rebel leader when the peasants voted for war. He later claimed that he did not want war but went along with it when so many of the poor people voted for it, and thus he became their leader.24 The brokers, then, often retain their structural function even in mass movements.

Thus, peasant studies of both Western and Eastern societies, both medieval and contemporary, indicate the peasant need for leadership outside the peasantry…

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 40

One of the reasons that such 'brokers' or mediating classes are needed is that, often, rural peasants lack a knowledge of the speaking and rhetorical styles of the ruling class which comes from exposure to urban culture. They are not in touch with what scholars call the 'Great Tradition' of books, rituals, historical allusions, and knowledge of law and business practices that city dwellers absorb by cultural osmosis. Even dialects differ in significant ways.  This may lay behind some of the Gospel accounts which point to city dwellers in Jerusalem noticing the Galilean dialect of Peter.

…Peasants need someone in touch with the Great Tradition, someone from the city with contacts with the elite. These potential leaders of peasant movements Sabean terms "brokers." Second, many (probably all) peasant rebellions have taken on a religious or even millenarian meaning for the peasants …

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 40

How did Jesus fit into this pattern? He was an artisan, which put him in the mediating class naturally. Plus, he grew up in close proximity to at least two fairly sophisticated metropolitan cities—quite close to the greater of the two.

…This networking resulting from his work in the urban centers of Galilee exposed him to urban culture, to the ideas of the Great Tradition. Therefore Jesus was a good candidate to become a broker, acting as intermediary between peasants and the elite. In other words, he articulated their needs and wants. We should not expect, however, that Jesus's goals and agenda were the same as the peasants. As I explained above, the peasants often had more limited goals than their leaders.

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 50

In some ways, Jesus was even better positioned that most ancient artisans to play this broker role. First, Galilee had a more reciprocal role between city and country than the rest of the Mediterranean world. City elites in general thought of rural dwellers as barely human.

The natural result of different cultural experiences was a sense of superiority on the part of the urbanite over the country peasant. Lenski shows that in agrarian societies in general, the urban elite viewed peasants as subhuman. M. Rostovtzeff observed that city residents in the Roman Empire regarded the farmer as an inferior, uncivilized being.17 R. MacMullen writes that the urbanite regarded the peasant as an "unmannerly, ignorant being."18

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 8

But Galilee, perhaps because it was largely rural, or perhaps because it was a younger and less differentiated economy, or maybe due to Jewish religious solidarity in the face the Gentile challenge, had more than the usual amount of mutual respect compared to most of the Mediterranean world at the time. 

…As L. White has observed, for medieval agrarian societies, "cities were atolls of civilization… on an ocean of primitivism.”12

This description of ancient society, while typical for classical historians, should be modified somewhat for Lower Galilee. In the first place, E. Meyers has shown that Greek made strong inroads into that region.13 Thus the linguistic differences between urban and rural areas, so marked in other parts of the empire, were less striking--though still existent--in Lower Galilee. Second, D. R. Edwards has argued persuasively for economic reciprocity and cultural continuity between urban and rural areas of Lower Galilee.14

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 8

Second, Jews had a different attitude towards those who work with their hands than the dominant Greco-Roman world-view of the Empire. Greek culture had a highly negative view of the artisan class, seeing it as tantamount to slavery.

Artisans did not enjoy a high social standing among the Greeks or the Romans. Herodotus (Histories, in the fifth century BCE) writes that the Egyptians and other foreigners regarded craftsmen as low on the social scale, and that the Greeks also accepted this attitude (2.167). Aristotle (fourth century BCE) allows that some of the crafts are necessary for a society (Pol. 4.3.11-12; cf. Plato, Resp. 2.396b-371e). Nevertheless, he regards the artisans as inferior beings. Artisans are much like slaves (Pol. 1.5.10) and they, the day laborers, and the market people are clearly inferior to other classes, even farmers (Pol. 6.2.7; 7.8.2).

Xenophon (fourth century BCE) has Socrates denigrate the artisans. In some cities, says Socrates, they cannot be citizens (Oec. 4.1-4). The same attitude can be found in later Greek authors, such as Dio Chrysostom (first century CE; see Or. 7.110), Lucian of Samosata (second century CE; see Fug. 12-13), and Celsus (second century CE; see Origen, Cels. 6:36). Important Roman authors, such as Cicero (first century BCE; see Off. 1.42 and Brut. 73) and Livy (first century BCE; see 20.2.25)74 also reflect this attitude, although Cicero also admits that artisans are useful to the city (Rep. 2.22)."

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 18

Jews, on the other hand, had a respectful view towards artisans. Rabbis, a high prestige group in that society, often took up artisanship on top of their scholarly knowledge. Paul appears to be part of that tradition. This probably has something to do with a fundamental difference in world-view and in theology. Neither Plato, nor Aristotle's God, made the material world. In Plato's Timaeus, a lesser power, The Demiurge, is the maker of the material world. Artisans shape that material world. In many ways, artisans are more like the God of the Jewish scriptures than the philosophers are. That God is a builder, and those who worship him are more likely to respect builders.

The same attitude seems not to have prevailed among Palestinian Jews. The rabbinic sources extol both manual labor (m. 'Abot 1:10; `Abot R. Nat. B XXI, 23a) and teaching one's son a craft (m. Qidd. 4:14; t. Qidd. 1:11; b. Qidd. 29a). Artisans often receive special recognition (m. Bik. 3:3; b. Qidd. 33a), and many of the sages were artisans. Josephus also seems to have regarded artisans highly. He praises their skills in building the temples (Ant. 3.200, 8.76), sacred vessels (Ant. 12:58-84), and towers (War 5.175). He never refers to artisans using the pejorative term "mechanical workers."75

It is also interesting that Origen (third century CE), the Christian scholar of Alexandria, tried to deny that Jesus was a carpenter (Cels. 6.36 ). Justin (second century CE) on the other hand, although he was also a Christian philosopher-apologist, was quite willing to admit that Jesus had been a carpenter and maintained that he had made yokes and plows. (Dial. 88.8). Justin grew up in Samaria, the semi-Jewish region between Judea and Galilee, and evidently did not have the Greek elitist view regarding artisans.

David Fiensy, Christian Origins and the Ancient Economy, pg. 19

I would go further than Fiensy, and suggest that Justin didn’t merely admit that Jesus was a carpenter, but he observed it approvingly. As someone who grew up in greater Israel, he seemed to have the more Semitic view of an artisan’s work, and view it as a positive thing, as a way of avoiding idleness:

Jesus came as the son of a carpenter. He was not physically attractive, just as the prophets had predicted of him. He was merely a carpenter, making ploughs and yokes, and instructing us by such symbols of righteousness to avoid an inactive life." DIALOGUE WITH TRYPHO 7.9.

My recent interview with Dr. Fiensy has a section (which you can find here) which paints a picture of how artisans such as Jesus were able to broker between peasant and ruling classes.

So why is this important? God could have sent his son to be raised in any culture in the world. But he chose an entrepreneurial culture with a mix of Jew and Gentile and an unusually high amount of interchange between city and country, and placed him with a family which would train him for an occupation which was well respected by peasants and adequately respected by ruling elites so that he would be able to move in and out of both sets of people with ease. We see in the Gospels a Jesus who knows how to talk with beggars, a Jesus who knows how to recline at table in a banquet (a wealthy Roman way to eat), and a Jesus who knows how to interact with the President of the synagogue and debate with scribes.  Jesus was both God and man, and as man, he learned and developed, picking up skills in social interaction which served his overall mission. The fact that he succeeded in his mission, and that 'he does all things well' shows that his place of preparation was well chosen.

But, as we shall see later, the way of looking at the world that he picked up as a Galilean carpenter clashed with what he saw in Judea. His confrontations with Judean ruling class elites are partly the reactions of a Galilean carpenter to the arrogance of those classes, and I will argue, with the exploitative nature of their economic extraction from productive wealth creators such as artisans, fisherman, manufacturers and farmers. A system of economic extraction by political power and religious manipulation offended the Galilean sensibilities, which he would have learned from his foster father, Joseph, according to the plan of his Heavenly Father, God.