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.



Was Jesus Really a Carpenter? Part II: The LXX Evidence

In our first installment we introduced the idea that Jesus was called a “carpenter” in Mark 6:3, and “the carpenter’s son” in Matthew 13:5. Aside from these two instances, nothing of the sort is found in the NT, leaving the meaning less than clear for modern readers. In this installment we will look specifically at the evidence from the Greek OT (LXX), the text of the Scriptures that the NT authors and their readers were familiar with.

This will be our methodology: we will look at instances of the word τέκτων in the LXX, with the English translation according to Brenton provided. The instances will be in bold italics for emphasis and for the benefit of those with little knowledge of Greek. Participial [verbal] forms of the word will not be noted unless they accompany a nominal form.

The reader is encouraged to invest as much time as they like in the material below. One can simply note that there are 21 different verses where the word occurs, indicating that the term was well known and had a well established meaning. Or one can read the entire verses for context, or follow the hyperlinks to find the individual chapters for a deeper understanding of the greater context.

Here they are:

1 Samuel 13:19  And there was not found a smith in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make themselves sword or spear.

καὶ τέκτων σιδήρου οὐχ εὑρίσκετο ἐν πάσῃ γῇ ᾿Ισραήλ, ὅτι εἶπον οἱ ἀλλόφυλοι· μὴ ποιήσωσιν οἱ ῾Εβραῖοι ρομφαίαν καὶ δόρυ.


2 Samuel 5:11  And Chiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar wood, and carpenters, and stone-masons: and they built a house for David.

καὶ ἀπέστειλε Χειρὰμ βασιλεὺς Τύρου ἀγγέλους πρὸς Δαυὶδ καὶ ξύλα κέδρινα καὶ τέκτονας ξύλων καί τέκτονας λίθων καὶ ᾠκοδόμησαν οἶκον τῷ Δαυίδ.


1 Kings 7:2  the son of a widow woman; and he [was] of the tribe of Nephthalim, and his father [was] a Tyrian; a worker in brass, and accomplished in art and skill and knowledge to work every work in brass: and he was brought in to king Solomon, and he wrought all the works.

υἱὸν γυναικὸς χήρας, καὶ οὗτος ἀπὸ τῆς φυλῆς τῆς Νεφθαλίμ, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἀνὴρ Τύριος, τέκτων χαλκοῦ καὶ πεπληρωμένος τῆς τέχνης καὶ συνέσεως καὶ ἐπιγνώσεως τοῦ ποιεῖν πᾶν ἔργον ἐν χαλκῷ· καὶ εἰσηνέχθη πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα Σαλωμὼν καὶ ἐποίησε πάντα τὰ ἔργα.


2 Kings 24:14  And he carried away [the inhabitants of] Jerusalem, and all the captains, and the mighty men, taking captive ten thousand prisoners, and every artificer and smith: and only the poor of the land were left.

καὶ ἀπῴκισε τὴν ῾Ιερουσαλὴμ καὶ πάντας τοὺς ἄρχοντας καὶ τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἰσχύϊ αἰχμαλωσίας δέκα χιλιάδας αἰχμαλωτίσας καὶ πᾶν τέκτονα καὶ τὸν συγκλείοντα, καὶ οὐχ ὑπελείφθη πλὴν οἱ πτωχοὶ τῆς γῆς.

2 Kings 24:16  And all the men of might, even seven thousand, and one thousand artificers and smiths: all [were] mighty [men] fit for war; and the king of Babylon carried them captive to Babylon.

καὶ πάντας τοὺς ἄνδρας τῆς δυνάμεως ἑπτακισχιλίους καὶ τὸν τέκτονα καὶ τὸν συγκλείοντα χιλίους, πάντες δυνατοὶ ποιοῦντες πόλεμον, καὶ ἤγαγεν αὐτοὺς βασιλεὺς Βαβυλῶνος μετοικεσίαν εἰς Βαβυλῶνα.


1 Chronicles 4:14  And Manathi begot Gophera: and Saraia begot Jobab, the father of Ageaddair, for they were artificers.

καὶ Μαναθὶ ἐγέννησε τὸν Γοφερά. καὶ Σαραΐα ἐγέννησε τὸν ᾿Ιωὰβ πατέρα ᾿Αγεαδδαΐρ, ὅτι τέκτονες ἦσαν.


1 Chronicles 14:1  And Chiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar timbers, and masons, and carpenters, to build a house for him.

ΚΑΙ ἀπέστειλε Χιρὰμ βασιλεὺς Τύρου ἀγγέλους πρὸς Δαυὶδ καὶ ξύλα κέδρινα καὶ οἰκοδόμους καὶ τέκτονας ξύλων τοῦ οἰκοδομῆσαι αὐτῷ οἶκον.


1 Chronicles 22:15  And [of them that are] with thee do thou add to the multitude of workmen; [let there be] artificers and masons, and carpenters, and every skilful [workman] in every work;

καὶ μετὰ σοῦ εἰς πλῆθος ποιούντων ἔργα, τεχνῖται καὶ οἰκοδόμοι λίθων καὶ τέκτονες ξύλων καὶ πᾶς σοφὸς ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ,


2 Chronicles 24:12  And the king and Jodae the priest gave it to the workmen employed in the service of the house of the Lord, and they hired masons and carpenters to repair the house of the Lord, also smiths and braziers to repair the house of the Lord.

καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὸ ὁ βασιλεὺς καὶ ᾿Ιωδαὲ ὁ ἱερεὺς τοῖς ποιοῦσι τὰ ἔργα εἰς ἐργασίαν οἴκου Κυρίου, καὶ ἐμισθοῦντο λατόμους καὶ τέκτονας ἐπισκευάσαι τὸν οἶκον Κυρίου καὶ χαλκεῖς σιδήρου καὶ χαλκοῦ ἐπισκευάσαι τὸν οἶκον Κυρίου.


Proverbs 14:22  They that go astray devise evils: but the good devise mercy and truth. The framers of evil do not understand mercy and truth: but compassion and faithfulness are with the framers of good.

πλανώμενοι τεκταίνουσι κακά, ἔλεον δὲ καὶ ἀλήθειαν τεκταίνουσιν ἀγαθοί. οὐκ ἐπίστανται ἔλεον καὶ πίστιν τέκτονες κακῶν, ἐλεημοσύναι δὲ καὶ πίστεις παρὰ τέκτοσιν ἀγαθοῖς.


Wisdom of Sirach 38:27  So every carpenter and workmaster, that laboureth night and day: and they that cut and grave seals, and are diligent to make great variety, and give themselves to counterfeit imagery, and watch to finish a work:

οὕτως πᾶς τέκτων καὶ ἀρχιτέκτων, ὅστις νύκτωρ ὡς ἡμέρας διάγει· οἱ γλύφοντες γλύμματα σφραγίδων, καὶ ἡ ὑπομονὴ αὐτοῦ ἀλλοιῶσαι ποικιλίαν· καρδίαν αὐτοῦ δώσει εἰς τὸ ὁμοιῶσαι ζωγραφίαν, καὶ ἡ ἀγρυπνία αὐτοῦ τελέσαι ἔργον.


Hosea 13:2  And now they have sinned increasingly, and have made for themselves a molten image of their silver, according to the fashion of idols, the work of artificers accomplished for them: they say, Sacrifice men, for the calves have come to an end.

καὶ νῦν προσέθεντο τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν ἔτι, καὶ ἐποίησαν ἑαυτοῖς χώνευμα ἐκ τοῦ ἀργυρίου αὐτῶν κατ᾿ εἰκόνα εἰδώλων, ἔργα τεκτόνων συντετελεσμένα αὐτοῖς· αὐτοὶ λέγουσι· θύσατε ἀνθρώπους, μόσχοι γὰρ ἐκλελοίπασι.


Zechariah 2:3  And the Lord shewed me four artificers.

καὶ ἔδειξέ μοι Κύριος τέσσαρας τέκτονας.

(note: this is at the end of Zech. 1:20 in the Hebrew numbering, but the only difference is in the chapter division, not in what precedes and follows this verse)


Isaiah 40:19  Has not the artificer made an image, or the goldsmith having melted gold, gilt it over, [and] made it a similitude?

μὴ εἰκόνα ἐποίησε τέκτων, ἢ χρυσοχόος χωνεύσας χρυσίον περιεχρύσωσεν αὐτόν, ὁμοίωμα κατεσκεύασεν αὐτόν;

Isaiah 40:20  For the artificer chooses out a wood that will not rot, and will wisely enquire how he shall set up his image, and [that so] that it should not be moved.

ξύλον γὰρ ἄσηπτον ἐκλέγεται τέκτων καὶ σοφῶς ζητεῖ πῶς στήσει εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἵνα μὴ σαλεύητε.


Isaiah 41:7  The artificer has become strong, and the coppersmith that smites with the hammer, [and] forges also: sometimes he will say, It is a piece well joined: they have fastened them with nails; they will fix them, and they shall not be moved.

ἴσχυσεν ἀνὴρ τέκτων καὶ χαλκεὺς τύπτων σφύρῃ ἅμα ἐλαύνων· ποτὲ μὲν ἐρεῖ· σύμβλημα καλόν ἐστίν· ἰσχύρωσαν αὐτὰ ἐν ἥλοις, θήσουσιν αὐτὰ καὶ οὐ κινηθήσονται.


Isaiah 44:12  For the artificer sharpens the iron; he fashions [the idol] with an axe, and fixes it with an awl, and fashions it with the strength of his arm: and he will be hungry and weak, and will drink no water.

ὅτι ὤξυνε τέκτων σίδηρον, σκεπάρνῳ εἰργάσατο αὐτὸ καὶ ἐν τερέτρῳ ἔστησεν αὐτό, εἰργάσατο αὐτὸ ἐν τῷ βραχίονι τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ· καὶ πεινάσει καὶ ἀσθενήσει καὶ οὐ μὴ πίῃ ὕδωρ.

Isaiah 44:13  The artificer having chosen a piece of wood, marks it out with a rule, and fits it with glue, and makes it as the form of a man, and as the beauty of a man, to set it up in the house.

ἐκλεξάμενος τέκτων ξύλον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέτρῳ καὶ ἐν κόλλῃ ἐρρύθμισεν αὐτὸ καὶ ἐποίησεν αὐτὸ ὡς μορφὴν ἀνδρὸς καὶ ὡς ὡραιότητα ἀνθρώπου στῆσαι αὐτὸ ἐν οἴκῳ.



Jeremiah 10:3  For the customs of the nations are vain; it is a tree cut out of the forest, the work of the carpenter, or a molten image.

ὅτι τὰ νόμιμα τῶν ἐθνῶν μάταια· ξύλον ἐστὶν ἐκ τοῦ δρυμοῦ ἐκκεκομμένον, ἔργον τέκτονος καὶ χώνευμα·


Epistle of Jeremiah 1:7  As for their tongue, it is polished by the workman, and they themselves are gilded and laid over with silver; yet are they but false, and cannot speak.

γλῶσσα γὰρ αὐτῶν ἐστι κετεξυσμένη ὑπὸ τέκτονος, αὐτά τε περίχρυσα καὶ περιάργυρα, ψευδῆ δ’ ἐστὶ καὶ οὐ δύνανται λαλεῖν.


Epistle of Jeremiah 1:45  They are made of carpenters and goldsmiths: they can be nothing else than the workmen will have them to be.

ὐπὸ τεκτόνων καὶ χρυσοχόων κατεσκευασμένα εἰσίν· οὐδὲν ἄλλο μὴ γένωνται ἢ ὃ βούλονται οἱ τεχνῖται αὐτὰ γενέσθαι.



General Observations

There is a lot of material above, but we can note a few a few key themes:

  1. The carpenters are all religious figures. That is to say that none of these people are constructing normal houses or jungle gyms. They are not secular workers.
  2. The carpenters are all either full of wisdom to build structures for the worship of God or they are deluded fools who build for the worship idols.
  3. The carpenters are mentioned in every section of the LXX except the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
  4. The carpenters are foreign. Even if they are born and raised in Jerusalem, if they are building idols they are doing so as foreigners. For the constructors of the Temple in Jerusalem, they ironically are Tyrians, not Israelites. God chooses foreigners to build the one Temple, and (some) Israelites follow the practices of foreigners in constructing idols to worship.
  5. These carpenters are overwhelmingly literal characters, working with actual wood and usually in company of metal workers and masons. They are not purely symbolic or metaphorical, with the exception of the references in Proverbs and Zechariah.

What we can take from this is that when Jesus is called a “carpenter” in Mark 6:3, the 1st-century reader would not have thought of him going to Home Depot, but rather constructing the Temple in Jerusalem or constructing idols. He was a sacred architect or an evil deceiver. The term could not be understood in a neutral way, but instead indicated either a saint or a blasphemer.

That is not to say that the doubters in Jesus’s hometown thought he was an idol maker. They simply doubted that he was a “real” carpenter like those who constructed the Temple. They thought that he was rather a common worker who was in a trade associated with idolatry. In terms of literary value (rather than the narrative content above), Mark taps in to the cultic associations of the carpenter. The crowd thinks Jesus is common (in the lowest sense of the word) while Mark’s readers know that he is the Messiah, the one who will be rejected yet build a Temple that makes the Jerusalem Temple look defiled and pathetic. He will do so precisely by allowing his body to be defiled by the leaders of Jerusalem cult and the Roman authorities. This inversion of power so essential to Mark and the entire Christian message is seen in Jesus the “carpenter,” building for himself a house for God (his body) through teaching the people Wisdom/Torah.


I hope to show in my next post the evidence that Mark most likely had 2 specific examples in mind when he called Jesus a carpenter. Thanks for reading!







Was Jesus Really a Carpenter?

You have probably heard the claim that Jesus was a carpenter, but what is the basis for this assertion? I’m going to delve a bit into the evidence below and hopefully shed some light on this commonly held idea.

The Carpenter in the New Testament

We read about Jesus as a carpenter only once in the New Testament, namely in Mark 6:3. Verses 1-6  (KJV) are given below for context.

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.

But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.

The passage is unusual for a number of reasons but we will focus here on the reference to “the carpenter.” Neither Luke nor Matthew include this specific detail in their Gospels (cf. Matthew 13:54-58 and Luke 4:16-30). John’s omission of it is not particularly noteworthy since he differs from the Synoptics as a rule. It should also be noted that Matthew changes Mark’s account to read “Is not this the carpenter‘s son?” In other words, Mark alone tells us that Jesus was thought of as “the carpenter” while Matthew and Luke avoided telling their readers this.

(note: We are here assuming “Markan priority,” meaning that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a basis for their own Gospels. While this is the scholarly consensus, it is not beyond question. Yet for our purposes it is instructive to see that the difference in accounts seems to indicate a conscious omission on the part of Luke and a conscious alteration on the part of Matthew.)


A Short Detour into Non-Canonical Accounts

No other NT author describes Jesus this way, and we have to wait until (presumably) the mid-2nd century to get more information on this in the Infancy Gospel of James (click here for the text and here for the first of several of my posts on the document). There we read that Joseph was a builder of some sort since he told Mary “and now do I leave thee in my house, and I go away to build my buildings.”

In the Arabic Infancy Gospel we read of Jesus doing some tricky carpentry work to assist his (unskilled) father:

38. And Joseph used to go about through the whole city, and take the Lord Jesus with him, when people sent for him in the way of his trade to make for them doors, and milk-pails, and beds, and chests; and the Lord Jesus was with him wherever he went.

As often, therefore, as Joseph had to make anything a cubit or a span longer or shorter, wider or narrower, the Lord Jesus stretched His hand towards it; and as soon as He did so, it became such as Joseph wished. Nor was it necessary for him to make anything with his own hand, for Joseph was not very skilful in carpentry.

39. Now, on a certain day, the king of Jerusalem sent for him, and said: I wish thee, Joseph, to make for me a throne to fit that place in which I usually sit. Joseph obeyed, and began the work immediately, and remained in the palace two years, until he finished the work of that throne.

And when he had it carried to its place, he perceived that each side wanted two spans of the prescribed measure. And the king, seeing this, was angry with Joseph; and Joseph, being in great fear of the king, spent the night without supper, nor did he taste anything at all.

Then, being asked by the Lord Jesus why he was afraid, Joseph said: Because I have spoiled all the work that I have been two years at. And the Lord Jesus said to him: Fear not, and do not lose heart; but do thou take hold of one side of the throne; I shall take the other; and we shall put that to rights. And Joseph, having done as the Lord Jesus had said and each having drawn by his own side, the throne was put to rights, and brought to the exact measure of the place.

And those that stood by and saw this miracle were struck with astonishment, and praised God. And the woods used in that throne were of those which are celebrated in the time of Solomon the son of David; that is, woods of many and various kinds.

While these textual traditions are somewhat interesting, they are later compositions and have less value in the eyes of most readers. Consequently, for now we will simply focus on evidence as found in the canonical Scriptures.

Returning to Mark

The term found in Mark 6:3 is not technically “the carpenter” but  τέκτων in the Greek. We should remember that English is not a proper reference for understanding the NT, and so the Greek word rathe than the English translation will be our basis for understanding the claim of Jesus being a “carpenter.” So what is a τέκτων?

τέκτων is basically a builder, or one who uses “technology” (think of the word “architect” which means “head builder,” roughly speaking). A carpenter, on the other hand, usually denotes a person who works with wood (see the etymology here). A mason is a person who tends to work with stone, at least by modern usage (see the etymology here). “Mason” may be a better rendering of τέκτων since it is more general (meaning “maker/builder”) but the modern connotations might mislead readers to think of something more specific than the term actually denotes. Similarly, “architect” carries the connotation of a person who plans a building project rather than one who actually does the work of building. An architect is perceived as being more “hands off” than a mason or carpenter.

Mark and Matthew don’t tell us what materials Jesus and/or Joseph worked with, and since Palestine had both wooden and stone buildings we can only speculate as to which term would be more correct. We can say at this point that the more general term of “builder” is the most appropriate.

(note: the Vulgate reads as follows:

Mt. 13:5 “nonne hic est fabri filius”

Mark 6:3 “nonne iste est faber

ergo the Latin translators understood the Greek text to mean that Jesus and Joseph were makers, craftsmen, workmen, etc.)

However, there is a way to more fully understand what the first readers of the NT would have understand the term to mean by looking at the Greek OT (commonly called the LXX). This was the version of the Scriptures that the NT authors used almost exclusively. We can also look at the corresponding Hebrew terms in the OT to try to grasp a fuller meaning of the term and what it meant to 1st century readers.

This will be the subject of our next post. Thanks for reading!

WordPlay: Roman Power (Ῥώμη Ῥώμη)

Rome was destined to be powerful in Greek eyes and ears.

Rome (Ῥώμη)

In the 1st c. CE the role of the Romans in world history was clear: they were the dominators, the rulers of the known world. While ancient empires had arisen in the past and faded away in the same (Babylon, Persia, etc.) Rome was here to stay. This was not so much a philosophical position as a recognition of current realities: Rome was in control, and would continue to be so until the end of time.

If, for some unforseen reason, Rome was to fall, another like it would arise in its place. In this sense the uniqueness of Rome is somewhat compromised. Rome is the unique One at the moment, but like all other Powerful Ones it will eventually fall. Rome is simply the latest and greatest of the Powerful Ones.

This is tempered with the idea in the 1st c. that the world was coming to an end rather soon. This idea has roots in Jewish writings such as Daniel and 1 Enoch, and the idea had wide acceptance in the 1st c. apocalyptic movements in Judea and elsewhere.

Rome was one beast among many, but at the same time the historical timeline that Jews held to was running out. There was not an expectation that Rome would fall to another empire other than that of God himself. Rome was the last of the Powerful Ones.


Powerful One (Ῥώμη)

The view of Rome by Jews in the 1st c. was ambiguous: on the one hand Rome was a protector and granter of peace, while on the other hand it was a threat to the peace of Jerusalem. Roman power enabled the complete  building of the Temple in Jerusalem, while the earlier Persian power had only allowed the Second Temple to be built to half of the desired height. Imperial power was portrayed in Isaiah as a tool of God. Cyrus was called the “messiah” and he was to return the Jews to Judea and rebuild the Temple. This did not happen under Cyrus, and even when it did happen it was unsatisfactory to many Jews both then and now. It was as if this prophecy had yet to be actually fulfilled, and it was finally fulfilled in the building of the Temple by Herod under Roman power.

Power for the Greco-Romans was not simply a matter of influence, but also of holiness. To be powerful was to be divine, and the more powerful one was, the ore godlike they were. This open acknowledgement of power as the guiding principle of existence is in contrast to the Jewish ad Christian traditions of power in weakness. For Romans, it was axiomatic that power was divine, and the old adage that “power corrupts” would appear to them a partial truth, one which remains silent to the more important fact that “power preserves.” The powerful rise above corrupt mortality and enter into the life of the immortal gods.


The “Prophetic” Coincidence of Ῥώμη

This brings us to our original point: it was a linguistic fact that Romans were powerful. In other words, to call somebody “powerful” was to call them “Roman.” The word for “Rome” and “powerful” were exactly the same (Ῥώμη).

This is all the more striking since the coincidence of names is not designed: Rome was named (most probably) for “flowing water” in Etruscan, and later the meaning of “teat” was adopted. This makes sense in Latin, but the Greek interaction with Rome would have interpreted the name rather differently.

For Greeks, Rome was known as Ῥώμη, the Greek meaning of which was “power.” When Rome began to exert its power and domination in the Greek world, it would have appeared to have been forecast by the Greek language itself! This power over the Greeks would never be broken historically, since the end of the Roman Empire in the East did not convert the “Greeks” to a different culture. The legacy of Rome remained powerful in the Greek mind, as it did in their language.

Another Look at Biblical Minimalism

In trying to come to terms with Biblical minimalism and the new approach of historians and literary theorists, a number of misunderstandings and false steps are inevitable. These mistakes can be opportunities to learn and further develop a coherent view. I’d like to address some questions from a FB user and proficient student who may or may not be an historical figure.

1. Lemche and Postmodernism

“Also, I still think that your understanding of historicism is skewed by Lemche. Historicism is not the position that every story in the Old Testament that seems to be related to history must’ve happened [or must be demonstrable by historical methods] exactly as the text says so or else the text is disproven. At least, that’s not how I’ve seen it argued.

What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, “history that is demonstrated/proven” or “objective historiography”. Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. ”

I found Lemche’s book to be excellent. However, I am not a student of his, nor am I “following” his methodology or ideas. I had struck upon such methodology and ideas years ago, and I have been developing them ever since. I basically agree with much of what he writes in the book, but I do so on the basis of recognizing ideas I am already familiar with. These ideas I was exposed to while completing a master’s degree at an Orthodox seminary. The ideas were coming from the professors who had

a) taught the longest

b) were the most “cutting edge” in their scholarship

c) struggled with blowing the minds of seminarians

d) were the most kind people on campus

They taught hermeneutics, OT, NT, homiletics, etc.

Both professors were very much into pushing their students into the great unknown, where the floor drops out and one is left struggling to find one’s bearings. The upshot of this is such a struggle is simply the outcome of becoming aware that we are all in an ambiguous state of becoming. Most people think of themselves as having arrived and having fairly stable supports to shore up the few lingering questions in their mind. Professors such as mine were not afraid to show that the entire edifice of understanding is, for most of us, on the verb of collapsing under its own weight. We have passed the modern period and are firmly in the mournful and bewildering postmodern predicament. Returning to modernism is not an option, as that would be a step backwards and rather naive. That bridge has been burnt, even though many (if not most) today are still crossing it.

So it should be clear that Lemche didn’t drop this bomb by himself, and this thing has been on its way for quite some time.

As for the issue of my definition of historicist criteria, I think it stands. It wasn’t invented by me, and the criteria is simple. The criteria would be softened for historical books that are less important, or more “pedestrian.” But for the Bible, whose readers claim that it is perfect and that the text itself claims to be perfect (although the details of such “perfection” is open to debate), any “mistake” in terms of historicist criteria renders the text false. It has claimed to be inspired and perfect, but it shows itself to be imperfect and therefore false. Perhaps it can be seen as basically true with a bit of falsehood added, but that status in terms of logic makes the text as a whole false. If I right an email to a friend and most of the contents are true, while some are false, the email as a whole is false.

I concede that this is not how many would like to argue the historicist viewpoint. But the reason for that is these historicists want the Bible to be true, and so they are at pains to lower the bar for truth claims so they can somehow squeeze in the flawed (in their pov) text of the Bible. Yet their criteria show that the Bible for them could never be inspired. Only parts can be inspired, since many parts of it are simply wrong.

Getting back to the quote:

“What is argued is the understanding that the Old Testament is a document that contains a special witness to the Hebrew past, and that part of this witness *is* to real events. This is the definition of history that is used. Not, ‘history that is demonstrated/proven’ or ‘objective historiography’.”

Here we have some weasel words: “special witness” is either meaningless or unhelpful, as any text is special in a certain way. How is the OT special? Archeologists would say it is special because it is unique and culturally significant. Yet most of them would not go so far as to say the OT is special because it is accurate or true.

We also need to revisit “historicity”: if an event is not demonstrated or proven (to a reasonable extent), it cannot be validly asserted, and if an historical account is not objective, it is biased and therefore false or half true at best. So perhaps you are correct, but this only shows that the argument used doesn’t employ a strict historicist criterion, but a modified set of standards that in essence renders the OT an ANE text that has value but is not true in all respects. This means that the claims to authority that the Bible holds are false claims.

And finally:

“Sort of like how we would view stories told or handed down generation by generation in the modern era. Yeah, they might not have that critical eye or meticulous attention to detail that characterizes ‘modern’ historians, but it is nevertheless an interesting witness to an event that would not otherwise have been recorded. “

I agree, but again this puts the ancient history of the Bible in the same category as myth and folklore. We don’t read folk tales and fairy tales and then go looking for archeological evidence to confirm those tales. We don’t believe that these tales are “literally” or “historically” true, but morally true (or simply entertaining). It doesn’t matter that these characters never existed, or that if they did exist they were probably very different from their depictions in folklore. That is beside the point.

So it seems that the end of this first quoted objection brings us back to the beginning: the text of the Bible is seen as folklore, not real history. There may be a core of historical truth there, but the whole is not historical and therefore not true for the historicist. The Bible fails the test for the historicist.

2. Ancient Views on Historical Reality

“Yet we’re fairly confident, as historians of first-century Judaism, that the Jews would most certainly believed that Adam had been a real person. What is meant by this? If you were to ask a random, knowledgeable, scholarly Jew from the first-century what they thought about Adam, they would respond that if you were to go back far enough in time, past all these generations of Israelites, to the first man, they would reply that this is Adam, and that he is [or was] no more or less real than you or I would be.”

The assumption from the comment above is that I think ancient Jews were not historicists: they did not think that the Biblical events “really happened.” But if one returns to my somewhat convoluted essay they will see that I affirm that the Biblical writers truly believed (afaik) that the events “really happened.” In this sense they seem to be historicists. Yet I also point out that historicism was an impossibility at that time. Historicism depends on what “really” happened, and this is an option for the curious today while it was not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one could hear competing stories and accounts, but there was no “fact of the matter.” To put it another way, there was no way of showing conclusively whether any event happened other than deferring to stories.

This, of course, is not the situation of today. Today we can take competing stories and rather than simply comparing them to each other we can compare them with the archeological evidence. We can look at DNA instead of relying on the testimony of ancient genealogies.

In the past, there was no way of disproving a genealogy, while today it is a simple task if one has access to the “real” evidence, the physical remains of the actors. It is as if facts have only become available in the modern era. Before this the closest thing to a fact in terms of history was a story.

So the characters were believed to be real, but it needs to be remembered that “reality” at that time was a matter of faith/trust, not proof. If any proof was available, it was in the form of stories, not DNA results or carbon dating. This puts the “historical” reality in the ancient world in the realm of literature, not “science.” It is in the realm of the humanities, a matter to be decided by the wise rather than the scientists (who didn’t really exist).

3. Regarding the use of “Adam” by Paul in the NT 

“The debate then is not whether “Adam’s historical existence” was a basic belief of Paul. The debate is over whether the historical existence of Adam [as defined by way of a fictitious anecdotal story] impacts the significance of who Adam is in the Pauline salvation-history narrative.”

Here we come to the threatening idea that Paul was using a fictional character to make his point about the gospel. If Adam never really existed, then did Jesus?

This is an interesting problem: Paul uses a figure who is mythical/historical/undefined to teach about Christ and the Church. How is this possible if Adam never existed historically? If Adam did exist historically, how is it possible for Paul to make his taking a wife a symbol of Paul’s own situation rather than an historical event at the beginning of time?

We can be thankful that Paul didn’t cite the Adam story with the aim of proving Adam’s historicity and a young Earth. His point was about teaching life, not science.

But what about the use of fictional characters to teach? Is that legitimate? This brings to mind the prayer of repentance in the Orthodox tradition.

“I have sinned in thought, word and deed. I repent my sins. You are the master and I am the servant. Accept me as the prodigal son.”

In this prayer one is literally asking God to act as he did in a clearly fictional story. The Prodigal Son was a parable, a piece of fiction invented by Jesus to teach a lesson to his listeners. Why would we ask God to accept us like he accepted a fictional character?

Jesus (according to the NT) taught with fictional stories. Let that sink in. This means that the argument that Jesus spoke of Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. as historical people is fallacious. The characters could have been real or could have been part of a fictional narrative that is true (e.g. The Prodigal Son and many other parables).

It is high time that we take seriously the possibility that the NT is closer to a parable than a history.

4. Where the Truth Lies

“You say that “the “truth” of the story lay in the realm of meaning, not disinterested (read: unbiased) historical reporting.” You seem to be saying that the form of the story is not important in itself, but rather what *really* matters is the bits and pieces we can extract after analyzing the story and removing it from its form and structure that we found it in.”

This is not my position, but rather the position I am arguing against (historicism). Instead, for me the form and function of the story is important and the details serve that function. Isolating the details for historical analysis is the preoccupation of the historicist, not the minimalist. By removing or ignoring the form and function, one kills the story and renders the details of the story lifeless and irrelevant. The details find their significance within the stories, and not in the “reality” behind the stories. In other words, the referents for the details are in the story ultimately, not the “outside” world of historicity. The story is an organism that teaches a lesson. The details find their function in the story, not in reconstructing the “historical reality” behind the story. The authors were not interested in history per se.

I’ll end my address of questions here, but another post will follow that answers some additional issues.

Online Resources

I’m posting some links to online resources for scholarly books and links on Biblical studies and related matters. They are in the public domain and very helpful, so the list will continue to grow and will reflect a variety of old scholarly works.


Lexundria has translations of Josephus by Whiston as well as many other ancient texts.

Ellopos has a helpful format for the LXX with 2 columns, reflecting Brenton and the LXX.

Blue Letter Bible has helpful resources for doing word searches and studying the text. The LXX is not searchable in Greek, though, andd neither is Brenton’s translation included.

Kata Biblon is a nice lexicon for the LXX and GNT, and although it is not exhaustive it lists the occurrences of each word and links to lexical definitions. So while some terms in the LXX are not included, most are and the format is easy to navigate.

Early Christian Writings has a wealth of information, with English translations of early texts as well as introductory treatments.

Perseus has two features that I use: the Greek Word Study Tool (which is basically a searchable lexicon with the added feature of parsing whatever form you enter) and the catalogue of texts in Greek, some of which also have English translations on the site. You can search for a word with the Study Tool and then see where in the database that word is also used. This does not include Philo or the LXX, nor the Apostolic Fathers, but it does contain the NT, Eusebius, Josephus, Barnabas, and much more.


Hunter.  Paul and His Predecessors (1961)

Adams. St. Paul’s Vocabulary: St. Paul as a Former of Words (1895)

Referenced by Allen in “The Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.” An interesting linguistic resource.

Alexander. The Leading Ideas of the Gospels (1892).

Ferrar. The early Christian books, a short introduction to Christian literature to the middle of the Second Century (1919)

Giles. The Writings of the Early Christians of the Second Century (1857).

Godet. A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Vol. 1 (1875) and

Godet. A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Vol. 2 (1881).

Godet. Studies of Creation and Life (1882).

Jackson. The Apostolic Fathers and The Apologists of the Second Century (1884).

Swete. The Old Testament in Greek According to the Septuagint. Vols 12, and 3.

A critical edition of the LXX.

Tischendorf. Travels in the East (1847).

Dr Larry Hurtado on the Trinities Podcast

I just thought I would pass along this great interview of Dr Larry Hurtado by Dr. Dale Tuggy. Hurtado is an expert in early Christianity and until 2011 was a Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Tuggy is a professor at The State University of New York at Fredonia whose podcast series focuses on the Trinity.

Hurtado is on episodes 99 and 100, a great way to round out the first century for Tuggy. I think Hurtado is one of the best historical theologians in the world for early Christianity, and his approach is refreshingly honest and inquisitive. I highly recommend the following works by him (a full listing is here):

One God, One Lord, New Edition: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1998)

At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (1999)

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003)

How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (2005)

The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006)

Mark (2011 reprint of a 1995 commentary)

Hurtado plays close attention to the earliest source material, and is careful to not read later ideas (especially regarding monotheism and credal formulas) into the early texts. They should speak for themselves and be understood in their own terminology. This avoids trying to shoehorn the thought of the writers of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers into later Christological categories. It also avoids the notion that such 4th century categories were necessarily novel in content. Instead there is continuity as well as a shift in terminology and mental furniture, so to speak.

Hurtado has also written excellently on text criticism, particularly the feature of nominal sacra. I highly recommend looking through nearly 40 of his published articles here, which are all available as free pdfs.