It has become a commonplace in books about the historical Jesus to refer to Jesus as a peasant in prominent, rhetorically charged places. Indeed, in many prominent works in the past 30 years, by such scholars as Crossan, Fredriksen, and Ehrman, this designation appears on the very first page of the introduction or body of the monograph. The frequent and prominent presence in scholarly and popular literature of the claim that Jesus was a peasant is puzzling, since it is transparently untrue. Jesus was not a peasant, that is, a subsistence farmer, by any meaningful definition. He was, by all evidence available to us, a craftsman and itinerant teacher.
This insight itself is not new. Scholars have carefully and convincingly argued that what seems to be the case in fact is the case: Jesus was not a peasant. Instead of relitigating that debate, this paper intends to trace the history and rhetorical purposes which the claim of Jesus as peasant has served from its surprising 18th c. origin in apologetic theological literature, through its adoption by Romantics, Unitarians, and modernists in the 19th c., and to its use in 20th and 21st c. historical Jesus studies.