Was Jesus Really a Carpenter? Part III: A Type of Confession

In looking at whether Jesus was really a carpenter I had expected to write a series of three posts: the first would introduce the problem, the second would deal with the linguistic evidence, and the third would give perspective to the evidence and draw a valid conclusion.

Yet, as happens so often in honest research, these plans were thwarted. I found something rather different than what I had expected, and as such I am forced to change directions and follow where the evidence has led me. Below is a a reassessment of where I’m at on the issue.


The Historical Jesus

Nothing is quite so fashionable in biblical studies in the past century as the notion of the Historical Jesus. The original question I intended to answer is implicitly tied to historicity: “Was Jesus ‘really’ a carpenter?” implies to the modern reader that the answer will deal with the historical Jesus. He was either “really” a carpenter or not according to what “actually happened” in history.

Yet this approach is fundamentally flawed and ultimately an exercise in futility. We have no reliable way of determining whether Jesus even existed, at least in terms of modern ideas of history, let alone what his day job may or may not have been. Instead, we have literary evidence that tells us a story about a man who lived, died, and lived again. This evidence is therefor outside of the realm of modern history. There is no “objective” (read: reasonably non-biased) data set to even gauge the plausibility of the story, much less the historical veracity of it.

Instead of looking for what “really happened” (a fairly futile endeavor even for modern news stories) we should take the evidence for what it is: a story that is intended to communicate meaning. As such, we might reframe the original question in the following manner: What does it mean for Mark to tell us that Jesus was a carpenter?

In the first two installments of this study we have seen that the modern connotations of “carpenter” do not exactly fit what the Greek of Mark conveys, yet no single English rendering can accurately reproduce the connotations of the Greek. As such, “carpenter” is close enough for our purposes, while we should keep in mind that “builder” and “mason” are close to the mark as well, and perhaps even superior to “carpenter.”



Rather than pursue the dead end approach of the Historical Jesus, we should adopt the narrative logic of Mark. After all, Mark is our starting point for the idea that Jesus was a carpenter. To take his account as historically factual is an ignorant approach and one which disrespects him as an author. Instead we should adopt the well attested and undeniably valid criteria of typological analysis.

The OT writings use genres of myth, prophecy, ancient history, and wisdom literature to convey meaning to their readers. They are constantly self-referential. One cannot understand the ending of the book of Judges, for example, without realizing that the last 3 chapters are a retelling of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. One cannot understand Ezekiel’s contention that Jerusalem is like Sodom without knowing the story of Sodom to which he refers, nor can we understand his depiction of the king of Tyre if don’t notice that it is based on the typology of both Adam and Satan. The Old Testament is a tightly woven set of texts that constantly allude to and at times explicitly cite other texts within Jewish tradition.

Perhaps the greatest living Old Testament scholar today is Dr. Paul Nadim Tarazi. He has demonstrated for several decades the literary meaning of the Old and consequently the New Testaments. Much of the typology and allusion is lost on the English reader since the original languages of their composition (Hebrew and Greek) contain wordplay that cannot be conveyed in English. What was obvious for the original readers of the texts is no longer obvious to English readers.

Tom Dykstra, a protege of Tarazi, has written a brilliant book on Mark, but for our purposes what he says on the issue of genre is important in this article. His thesis is that Mark wrote his Gospel as “scripture.” That is to say that we should not approach Mark as modern history, ancient biography, or even as Homeric epic. Instead, we should approach it as a text self-consciously written as holy scripture, taking on the models of the OT writings rather than merely occasionally quoting from them.

This approach is not confined to the school of Tarazi, although in my opinion he is the leading light of it. Dykstra’s book, for example, is endorsed by the likes of David Trobisch and Thomas Brodie, both brilliant and uncompromising scholars. A scholar who has garnered more attention in the field is Richard Hays. For whatever reason, he has been able to communicate the scholastic validity of the typological/literary approach to the New Testament to a wide range of both liberal and conservative scholars. (I say “for whatever reason” because while Hays is a great scholar and superb writer, he is not as original as Tarazi. Perhaps it is his position at Duke as opposed to the smaller St Vladimir’s Seminary that has afforded him more publicity amongst scholars than Tarazi has received.)

In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel WitnesHayes shows the importance of reading the Gospels in light of the Old Testament texts. The authors of the NT consciously wrote with OT literature in mind. We should note here that this approach is hardly novel, but is rather the traditional way that the Bible was read up until the modern period. The novelty that Tarazi and Hays bring to the table is novel only in the context of modern scholarship; the figural or typological approach was always how Scripture used to be read, and we know this from the Old Testament texts themselves. As such we should look for answers to our carpenter query in the Old Testament. We already began this process in the second installation of the series, but now we will do so in a more focused way. In particular, we will look at the theme of fulfilled typologies.

By this we mean the following: in the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament heroes. He is the new Moses, the new David, the new Solomon, the new Joshua, etc.

All too often this thesis is accepted, but never followed to its logical conclusion. For example, the portrayal of Jesus as the new David is beyond question. He is the son of David, the Davidic Messiah, etc. It is all too obvious. Likewise the new Moses theme is in the forefront of the portrayals of Jesus as fulfilling the Mosaic Law, giving the Sermon on the Mount, etc. The Elijah/Elisha story cycles are also found throughout the Gospels and Revelation, and Jesus as the new Solomon is driven home to the reader of the NT quite forcefully and repeatedly. All of these assertions are backed up by plain readings as well as solid scholarship, to the point that no legitimate scholar could possibly object to them. They are that obvious.

But some other typologies have been neglected. One obvious one that is seldom if ever mentioned is Jesus as the new Joshua (son of Nun). This is obvious because both men lead Israel into the Promised Land. Moses never gets to the Promised Land, nor do any people from that generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. Joshua goes on to conquer Canaan and establish possession of the Promised Land. He is the rightful leader and successor to Moses. The first book following the Pentateuch in the Bible is named after him, and it was reckoned as the first book of the Prophets by Jews. What makes this typology painfully obvious is that “Joshua” and “Jesus” are literally the same name. There is not one shade of difference between the two, in spite of the misleading translation in English. No Jew could hear/read the name of Jesus and not think of Jesus the son of Nun, the most famous Jesus in history prior to Jesus of Nazareth.

In the upcoming posts we will see that this typological fulfillment theme extends to two other figures in the Old Testament, ones that are not well-known to us today but were of utmost importance in the 1st century. Not only that, but these two figures were related to each other already within the Old Testament narratives.

I’m willing to bet that although these figures are important and were well-known to first century Jews, if I gave you their names and asked you to describe them you would be as clueless as I was. In other words, this is new information for modern readers.

As always, thanks for reading.



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