Was the Holy Family poor?
Q: If Catholics and Protestants have a different number of books in the Old Testament, do we have the same number in the New Testament? (Charlotte, NC)
A: Thanks be to God, all mainstream Christians agree that there are 27 books in the New Testament.
Q: Were Joseph and Mary really poor, as they’re often depicted? (Hilton Head, SC)
A: The Holy Family have always been understood to be poor. Aspects of the biblical accounts that have been used to emphasize this point are the occupation of Joseph, the birth of Jesus in a manger, the offering of two turtle doves at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, and their relatively nomadic way of life in Jesus’ early years.
Recent evidence, however, has challenged this portrayal. Developments in linguistics now show that the word for Joseph’s occupation could have been carpenter or a type of general contractor. If Joseph was the latter, then he would have made a comfortable wage. Also, it’s argued that the birth of Jesus in a manger was not because of the lack of wealth but an absence of space.
A major point of debate on the question of the financial status of the Holy Family was the offering of two turtle doves at the Lord’s presentation. The ordinary offering would have been a lamb and it was said that the poor offered two turtle doves in its place. Recent biblical studies, however, point out that the wording in the command of Leviticus 12:8: “not being able,” could address a question more about the availability of a lamb rather than the financial means to buy one.
Lastly, the nomadic life of the Holy Family in Jesus’ early years does not affirm either argument. Incidentally, it was believed by early teachers of our faith that the gifts of the Magi were used by the Holy Family to pay for their travels to Egypt, life in that country, and their return to Galilee.
Two interesting points: St. Paul teaches that Jesus made himself “poor” for our sake (2 Cor 8:9). This quote is used to conclude the disagreement on the Holy Family’s economic status and argue that they were poor. The quote, however, specifically addresses Jesus himself, and not the Holy Family. Also, recent archeological developments in Nazareth reveal ruins believed to be the home of the Holy Family, which are large and indicates a comfortable residence.
If the Holy Family was “middle class,” which would be an anachronistic term applied to New Testament times, it shouldn’t bother us. Compared to the middle class of 21st century Western culture, the Holy Family would still be comparably very poor. The possibility of some (limited) financial means does not lessen the role and mission of the Holy Family, and it doesn’t reflect the actual poverty the Lord took upon himself in his public ministry.
With all this summarized, take the evidence and the different opinions and do your best to figure it out. I suspect there will be disagreement on this point until the Lord returns in glory (and then maybe he’ll tell us how much money his parents really had).
Father Jeffrey Kirby is administrator of St. Joseph Church in Chester and Our Lady of Grace Church in Lancaster. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.