Tradition can be a subtle thing. We grow up believing something about a Biblical doctrine or event. It might never even occur to us to question where some particular belief came from, especially if that belief happens to be regarding some relatively minor point. I think the financial status of Joseph and Mary is a matter like that for many Christians.
It is a commonly held belief that the mother and “stepfather” of our Lord Jesus Christ were poor, but where does this belief come from? Granted, a newborn baby laid in a manger is indeed a humble picture, but it had nothing to do with their financial well-being. As we should all know, the reason they lodged in a stable is because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger [a crib in the stable for holding food for the animals]; because there was no room for them in the inn.
[As a side note, failing to find lodging in the inn showed no lack of foresight on their part since it was not possible in those days to make reservations ahead of time. It is likely that they did well to find lodging in a stable considering the number of people who would have been converging on Bethlehem at this time. They had likely been sleeping under the stars on their way to Bethlehem. The stable was better. It was not, of course, as good as being in the inn, but the difference was not as dramatic as one might assume if he hadn't really thought about it. It isn't like either one had central heat, flush toilets, or running water.]
Perhaps some have concluded that Joseph and Mary were poor because of misunderstanding the “swaddling clothes.” They were not rags. It was common then, even as it still is, to tightly wrap a newborn baby. In those days, they might perhaps have used strips of cloth, rather than the comfy blankets we have today, but the purpose was the same. Newborns seem to like being wrapped up tightly, restricting their movement. It is more like how they were in the womb. The practice also keeps them warm. The strips of cloth, or piece of cloth, or whatever it was that they used is what is referred to by the term, “swaddling clothes.”
Perhaps some have garnered the “poor” idea just from the line in “The Little Drummer Boy” song: “I am a poor boy too.”
Whatever the reason for the traditional belief, it doesn’t come from the Bible. There is nothing in the Scriptures that shows that Joseph and Mary were poor. [See below for a discussion regarding the sacrifice offered.] They were both of the house and lineage of King David. Being in the royal line, does not necessarily indicate that they were wealthy, but there was a better chance of it than being poor. The Bible does not say what their financial status was at the time of Jesus’ birth, but think about it. If you were God, would you have chosen a woman who would be married to a man who did not have the drive and ability to provide well for his family? I think that choice would be highly unlikely. God wouldn’t choose to have his son raised in a family with a father who was in any way less than competent, would He? I’m thinking that Joseph’s carpentry business did very well.
Jesus was certainly not raised in poverty. At the very least, the family was well set as of the arrival of the wise men from the East. They brought gifts consisting of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were coming to honor a king, a king who was a big enough deal that the stars in the sky had announced his birth. Kingly gifts appropriate for such an occasion would have been very significant indeed.
My point here is not that wealth is better than poverty (though I personally prefer it). Had God’s Word said that Jesus’ family was poor, I would have believed it and had no problem with it. My point is that we should believe what the Scriptures say without being influenced by unfounded tradition even in relatively minor details. When people accept tradition as truth in small matters, they lay the groundwork for not recognizing when they are doing so in more significant matters. Also, if one will not give up his traditional belief when faced with scriptures to the contrary regarding relatively insignificant details, what will he do when faced with the same regarding more significant doctrine?
Here is an update to this post, mostly in consideration of Crescendo’s comment in the comment section below.
Good comment. Had I realized that the sacrifice offered in the Temple was one of the reasons people have thought Joseph and Mary were poor, I would have addressed that in my original article. Thanks for the input. Apparently, I missed the biggest reason. I see your reasoning, but I am still going to stick with my original assertion that the Bible does not say they were poor. Here is why.
The pertinent verse in Leviticus stating the Old Testament law regarding the sacrifice when a newborn infant (40 days old for a boy) is presented in the temple is in Leviticus chapter 12, not the one Crescendo quoted in chapter 5. (The verse in chapter 5 is pertaining to being cleansed of a trespass.)
Leviticus 12: 6 [King James Version] And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
7 Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female.
8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles [turtledoves], or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.
Not having the money could be a reason for not being able to bring a lamb, but there could be other reasons as well. A number of other versions translate this as if she cannot afford it. The Hebrew wording does not demand any such understanding. These translators are inserting what they believe would have been the reason. The King James Version is, I believe, more true to the text here.
Another required sacrifice is an interesting consideration relative to what was expected of the poor. When a man had leprosy, or at least was thought to have had leprosy, and was later declared to be free from it, he was to bring a sacrifice into the temple for his cleansing. This is what he was told to bring:
Leviticus 14: 10 And on the eighth day he shall take two he lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth deals of fine flour for a meat offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil.
He was to bring three lambs, fine flower, and oil. That’s significantly more than our previous record. The record goes on to say what he should do if he is poor. This is different than the wording for the woman bringing in her newborn son. That one says if she cannot (for whatever reason). This one specifically states, “if he be poor, and cannot get so much”.
Leviticus 14: 21 And if he be poor, and cannot get so much; then he shall take one lamb for a trespass offering to be waved, to make an atonement for him, and one tenth deal of fine flour mingled with oil for a meat offering, and a log of oil;
22 And two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, such as he is able to get; and the one shall be a sin offering, and the other a burnt offering.
So the law of Moses allowed for a man who was poor to bring in only one lamb instead of three and also fine flower, and oil, plus either two turtledoves or two young pigeons such as he was able to get. This was the requirement for someone who was “poor”. How poor would Joseph and Mary have had to have been to have not been able to satisfy even as much as the minimal requirements so reduced for someone else because he was poor? Remember that anyone who was even suspected of having leprosy was totally ostracized from society. He could have been very poor indeed.
Another consideration here is the line, “two turtledoves or two young pigeons, such as he is able to get”. Assuming that turtledoves or young pigeons were similar in value, this line documents that there were possible reasons other than money as to why one sacrifice or another might or might not be reasonably available. Did Joseph and Mary not offer a lamb because they could not afford it or because of some other reason? This statement renders other reasons as possibilities. If, however, the reason for their sacrificing two turtledoves or two young pigeons was due to a shortage of liquid capital at the time, it would still only indicate such a circumstance at a particular time, not necessarily a lifestyle.
When Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem, they intended, or at least hoped, to stay at the inn. The reason they didn’t was because there was no room. Had they been destitute (more than just “poor” as referenced in Leviticus 14), room or no room in the inn would have been irrelevant. They had the money to stay at the inn. Since the inn was not available, they still had the money. Probably, the stable cost them something though not as much as the inn.
Forty days later, when Jesus was presented at the Temple, Joseph and Mary were still in Bethlehem. They were apparently not staying with friends or family. If such were available, surely they would have stayed with them from the beginning rather than boarding in the stable. They were perhaps out of money and were sleeping under the stars or perhaps were still staying in paid for accommodations. The concept that they were already out of money is rendered very questionable by the fact that when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem within less than two years, they found the family living in a “house”. (Matthew 2:11). So they could afford an inn; they likely paid for some level accommodations for a number of days or months after this; they could afford to upgrade to a house; but they could not afford even as much as expected of someone the law referred to as poor when they presented Jesus at the temple. It strikes me as highly unlikely. At the very least, we cannot affirm from the Word of God that they were poor.