Was Jesus born in poverty? There are plenty of people, both Christian and non, who will answer this question with an emphatic ‘yes’. Most base this determination on two verses in the Bible: Luke 2:7, which reads, ‘And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’, and Luke 2:22-24, which indicates Mary offered two turtledoves for her purification sacrifice – two turtledoves being the alternate sacrifice for people who were unable to afford a lamb and a turtledove (see Leviticus 12). Both these verses, it’s said, indicate Joseph and Mary were poor.
Joseph was a carpenter (see Matthew 13:55). The word Greek word for ‘carpenter’ can mean woodworker; it can also mean ‘any craftsman or workman’. As a carpenter/tradesman, Joseph obviously made a comfortable living – enough so that he could afford the tools for his trade, his home and workshop, and a wife (since few parents would have betrothed their daughter to a man who couldn’t support her).
When Joseph and his ‘great with child’ betrothed reached Bethlehem for the enrollment, Joseph sought out a room at an inn; this means 2 things (IMO): one, neither he nor his betrothed had family or friends in Bethlehem (otherwise they could have availed themselves of a place to stay there) and that Joseph had enough money to afford a room at an inn for at least one, and perhaps two nights. He also had enough money to feed himself and his betrothed for the duration of their stay in Bethlehem.
They didn’t stay in a stable because they wanted to, nor did they stay in a stable because they couldn’t afford a room at the inn – they stayed in a stable because they had no other options.
Now we move to the second verse – the one about Mary sacrificing two turtledoves rather than a lamb and a turtledove. This was all they could afford, apparently, and if you think about the situation, it makes perfect sense.
It’s unlikely Joseph and Mary would have anticipated she would go into labor once they’d arrived in Bethlehem. When she did, and she gave birth, two things were set in motion: one, in seven days, she would have to present herself and her newborn son at the Temple for her purification ritual, and on the eighth day Jesus would have to be circumcised. With Nazareth being four days away, they never would have been able to make the round trip from Bethlehem to Nazareth and back to Bethlehem in time. They would have to stay in Bethlehem for the next eight or nine days, which meant they had to move out of the stable and into a human habitation, and they would have to pay for food and lodging while they were there. Joseph, apparently, had enough money for food and lodging with just enough to spare to pay for two turtledoves for his betrothed’s sacrifice, but not enough to pay for a lamb and a turtledove.
When you look at it this way, it becomes understandable that two turtledoves were Mary’s choice of sacrifice – it wasn’t that they were poor, it was because, for the moment, due to circumstances, they were short of cash.
In my researches on this topic, I stumbled across another explanation for the ‘Jesus was born in poverty’ idea: according to this author, Jesus’ ‘swaddling cloths’ were ‘rags’:
The English word “swaddling” indicates that these were clothes in which a baby was wrapped. But the Greek word translated “swaddling” indicates that these clothes were pieces of old castoff clothing which were cut up into strips, and wrapped around a baby. (emphasis added)Well, I went ahead and looked up the verse (Luke 2:7) and discovered that the separate word ‘swaddling’ isn’t even in the Greek – it’s actually part of the word ‘sparganoō’, which, from the Greek, means ‘to wrap in swaddling clothes’. Now, if you go back to the root of that word, you come up with 'sparassō’, which translates into English as ‘to convulse, tear’. So you could put those together and come up with ‘torn strips of cloth for wrapping a newborn’, but you’re hard-pressed (IMO) to jam the word ‘castoff clothing’ into it. And though it’s likely – highly likely, in fact – that Joseph and Mary may have torn an article of their own clothing into strips with which to swaddle their baby, I doubt they would have called the clothing they used as ‘castoffs’ or ‘rags’.