Material wealth was distributed very unevenly throughout the biblical period. A small number of people owned a vast proportion of the land and resources, while most people lived in comparative poverty. The concept of a large middle class is a relatively recent and largely Western phenomenon.
The wealth of the elite was almost always based on extensive land holdings, either inherited or acquired from neighbours or debtors, or the result of war. In Galilee in Jesus’ time, the rich largely owed their wealth to agriculture (e.g., Luke 12:16-21). Two exceptions to this are the merchant who discovered a valuable pearl (Mt.13:45-46) and Zacchaeus who extorted money as a tax-collector (Lk.19:1-10).
Rich people were obvious by their clothing. Jesus described a rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen” (Lk.16:19) and “those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts.” (Lk.7:25). Cotton from Egypt (Isa.19:9) and silk from the orient (Ezek.16:10,13) were available for the rich, but not others. They could also afford expensive dyes such as blue, scarlet and purple (Jer 10:9).
It is possible that someone was called “rich” if they had investments. Most people owned very little and could never afford to own property other than what they lived on, or grow more food than they could eat. But the rich had extensive land holdings and were able to lease it out, or grow sufficient food that the proceeds could be sold at a profit.
Pliny the Younger was a particularly rich man in the first century AD who owned several townhouses and country villas. Just one of his farms in Tuscany brought in 100,000 denarii per year, when one denarius was a day’s wages for labourer (J.E. Stambaugh and D.L. Balch, The social world of the first Christians, SPCK, 1986).
Much earlier, Job is described as the “greatest of all the people of the East”. “He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants.” (Job 1:3)
A widely held belief in the New Testament era (and probably earlier) was that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing. Consequently, the rich were often considered the most righteous. Hence, when Jesus said it was going to be difficult for rich people to enter God’s kingdom (Acts 19:24), everyone was astonished and asked “Who then can be saved”. In other words, if the rich are going to find it difficult, then everyone else will find it impossible. Similarly, when Jesus said “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), he was overturning common cultural beliefs. The same false belief is still widely prevalent in churches which teach that faithful believers will become wealthy. Such nonsense is easily proved wrong by thinking of the example of Jesus who lived as a poor Galilean peasant.