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 ὁ 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?
A 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!