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Jerry Bowyer Christian Blog and Commentary

Jerry Bowyer

Chief Economist of Vident Financial, Editor of Townhall Finance, and President of Bowyer Research

Recently video footage has emerged which shows Georgia’s Democratic candidate for Senate, Rev. Raphael Warnock, preaching from the pulpit that Jesus was "a poor Palestinian prophet." He says that after making some favorable comments about Marxists.

Not long after that some other footage appeared in which he calls Jesus "a Palestinian peasant."

Leaving aside, for the moment, the false and inflammatory claim that Jesus was a "Palestinian," let's focus on the claim that he was a poor peasant. I deal with this matter extensively in my new book, The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.

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.

Here's an interview that I did with him.

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.

With contributions by Charles Bowyer.

I recently sat down for a second interview with Justin Danhof, director of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research. You can listen to, and read about, our first conversation here. In this new cultural regime that has seen nearly every major corporation in our country drift ever further to the left, Danhof has been a one-man army fighting woke capital.

The conversation, recorded before the election, was wide-ranging: covering the state of woke capital and the fight against it as it stands today, the moral imperative of conservative Christians to engage with corporations, and much more. Danhof explained to me that there's a new website employed by the Free Enterprise Project, called FreeRoots.com, which makes corporate engagement easier than ever before. With FreeRoots.com, you can directly engage with corporations for free, including the board of directors for companies such as Netflix, in literally a matter of minutes. Rather than talking into the void, you can go straight to the offending party, whether it’s Twitter or Netflix or Amazon, and let them know that what they’re doing is offensive to a substantial portion of the country.

Core to our discussion was explaining just how much power the average person has to influence publicly traded corporations. Many of those who would have an interest in engagement also have the capacity for engagement. The conservative movement has failed to articulate this – we sometimes tend to see ourselves as passive victims who lack the ability to meaningfully change the business world, when the reality is that the left has had so much success in remaking corporations using the exact same tools that are available to us. We simply do not show up when we easily could.

The corporate philosophy Danhof provides us is in many ways the opposite of what we as Christians and conservatives have been taught – while our instinct is always to pull-away and boycott, Danhof pulls us back, reminds us that we have not just the power but the responsibility to pull corporations back from the woke brink. If you’re troubled by the immense swing to the cultural left of our institutions and want to actually do something about it, this interview is for you.

You can listen to the full interview here. Below are timestamps for the different topics of conversation.

0:00 – Introduction

1:28 – How the Free Enterprise Project fights back against woke capitalism, and the uphill battle for conservative investors.

5:51 – Exactly how regular shareholders can engage with corporations.

13:06 – Danhof: “You’re voting against your belief system” when you rely on the proxy service monopoly.

17:58 –Netflix and the moral consequences of the conservative retreat from corporate life.

19:43 – How to use The Free Enterprise Projects’ corporate engagement tool “FreeRoots.com”

29:30 – Why conservatives need to show up at the boardroom and break the ideological echo-chamber.

By Jerry Bowyer and Charles Bowyer.

Do I own Netflix? That's the question everyone concerned about Netflix’s recent promotion of the film Cuties should be asking themselves. Much has been said in conservative media about this film, but little of it has been oriented toward actual productive change at the company responsible for its appalling marketing campaign. It is as if conservatives regard Netflix as some foreign political power, the workings of which we have no say in. But nothing could be further from the truth: Netflix is a publicly traded company, which means the true owners are its shareholders. As it is a large-cap company, listed on the widely held S&P 500, a large number of Americans own stock in Netflix in one way or another. Ordinary investors have the power to be a check on any publicly traded company and to help prevent something like what happened with Cuties from happening again.

Some brief background for those who are not up to date on this controversy: Netflix advertised a French film by the name of Cuties with a scandalous poster featuring pre-teens dressed like members of a pop band from the 2000s, and a description that peddled it as an empowering story of an 11-year-old girl “rebelling against her conservative family’s traditions” through highly sexualized dancing. There is some debate over the film’s actual content, leaving aside Netflix’s marketing, with the director herself arguing that it was intended as a criticism of how modern culture sexualizes and exploits young girls — a story about a young girl caught between the explicit misogyny of radical Islam and the implicit misogyny of libertine modernity. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that her defense is valid, Netflix’s conduct was still inexcusable — perhaps even more so because it took a film that might have had some nuanced things to say about how our own society can degrade and turned it into the exact thing that part of the film was railing against. In any event, Netflix was implicitly valorizing erotic dancing by children as a liberating act of rebellion against outdated norms.

Needless to say, this has embroiled Netflix in a massive controversy, prompting it to remove the film’s poster and blurb from the site and publicly apologize. Three sitting Republican senators called for an explanation from Netflix directly. Among them was Senator Ted Cruz, who, to his great credit, sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking that it investigate whether Netflix violated federal laws against the production of child pornography. Four state attorneys general have asked Netflix to remove the film from its catalogue.

Leaving aside for a moment the immorality of featuring this film — particularly in the way it was marketed — it was clearly a bad decision on Netflix’s part purely from a business perspective. According to data research company YipitData, Netflix saw a dramatic spike in cancellations after the story broke. Over the course of September, when the controversy over Cuties was particularly fervent, Netflix underperformed the NASDAQ technology sector, dropping by 5.6 percent compared with -3.7 percent for the NDXT.

As for how it happened, given that these decisions are likely made internally within Netflix’s marketing department, it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure, but it does illustrate the necessity of viewpoint diversity at big-tech firms. Would Netflix have designed a marketing campaign in this way if there were, say, some conservative Christians involved in the decision-making process? The lack of any programs to promote diversity of viewpoint at Netflix, or big tech generally, is at least partially to blame here. The reaction to this film has largely been one of outrage and disgust across the political spectrum, so care should be taken not to uniformly blame “the Left” for Netflix’s marketing of Cuties. But the campaign was using a political angle, by casting the child dance crew as a release from conservative family traditions. To be clear, the “conservative family traditions” in the film are those of traditional Islam, such as polygamy, but Netflix opted to use vague and politically charged language that conjured up orthodox religious values in general. Evidently, some employees at Netflix thought they could increase user engagement by portraying the sexual exploitation of minors as simply another bold act of defiance against conservative traditions as a whole. It is a reasonable assumption that a conservative marketer would not have gone down the road Netflix’s current team did.

While that is all true, merely saying it does little to prevent something like this from happening again. Conservatives, and many liberals, have rightly decried the Cuties marketing as appalling exploitation of children, but aside from the actions of a few red-state senators and attorneys general, little has been offered in the way of meaningful action. We could go on and on about how terrible Netflix’s behavior was, and we would be right to, but that would do little to promote actual change at the company. What does promote change is shareholder activism.

As the owners of a publicly traded company, shareholders are in ultimate control and have a say in the matter. Shareholders can propose resolutions, vote on resolutions, and vote on the board of directors. The managements of woke corporations can argue that moral questions are irrelevant to business operations, but that argument holds no water here. By advertising Cuties in the way that it did, Netflix has incurred substantial legal and regulatory risk, to make no mention of the spike in cancellations. The company now has three sitting senators and four attorneys general breathing down its neck, and for good reason. This issue is directly relevant to the company as a whole, which means it is directly relevant to its shareholders.

Shareholders can demand programs promoting viewpoint diversity at Netflix. Shareholders can demand an internal investigation into why something this appalling was allowed to go public. Any and all of those options should be utilized here. What Netflix did was profoundly immoral, and the mere fact that the poster and description passed through the company and no one stopped and pointed this out exposes serious weakness at the company. It’s a weakness that shareholders have the means, and the responsibility, to fix. 

This article originally appeared on National Review.

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