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!


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).

The Nativity of the Herodian Temple and the Nativity of Mary

The role of the Temple in the Bible is crucial, and for Christians the role of Jesus and  his Mother ties into this biblical theme. This essay will focus on a small aspect of the Temple, namely the timeline for the construction of the Herodian Temple. When we compare the testimony of Josephus and the author of the Infancy Gospel of James we can see some striking similarities. The building of the Herodian Temple and the life of Mary correspond very closely in time. Let’s look at the data.


The Infancy Gospel of James

This is an interesting early Christian document. No strong position will be taken on the authorship or dating of the text, nor will a very close reading be undertaken (for a brief introduction to the text and a quick read through it, see my series of posts here).

Instead, we will focus on the content of the PJ in regard to the early life of Mary, the Theotokos. Since the text has influenced (or was inspired by) Christian hymnography we will focus on the narrative of Mary’s birth being announced, her birth, her presentation in the Temple, her receiving the Annunciation, and her giving birth to Jesus.



The other half of our material is from Josephus. He gives testimony regarding the speech of Herod which announced that he was going to rebuild the Temple to the proper specifications and the glory that it deserved. Scholars have argued that based on seemingly conflicting testimony from Josephus, the actual building began 3 years later (this has been discussed by a number of scholars, here is an explanation of the evidence). Josephus also tells us that the Temple was “finished” 8 years after the building project started.



A Timeline

We will now construct a timeline of the pertinent events, with the caveat that all dates are open to revision within a year or two. It should also be kept in mind that some dates are dependent upon others, so a single change (or mistake) in our dating could throw off the dating of multiple events.

  • 22 – Conception of Mary Announced
  • 21 – Mary Born
  • 19 – Building of Temple Announced
  • 18 – Mary Brought to the Temple
  • 17 – Temple Construction Begins
  • 15 – Inner Court finished
  •   9 – Temple construction finished (possibly Mary leaves Temple at this point)
  •   6 – Mary leaves Temple
  •   5 – Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Death of Herod


The Narrative Suggested by the Timeline

Joachim and Anna are told that they will conceive a child, and they they dedicate the child to serve God at this time. The child is born and is miraculous when presented at the Temple. She lives at home in a Temple-like environment. Herod announces that he will rebuild the Temple. Mary is brought to the Temple to live there, when the preparations for building the Temple are still underway.

When the Temple construction begins, Mary is 5. It ends when she is 13, and she leaves the Temple 2 years later at the age of 15 (the PJ is usually interpreted as saying that Mary was 12 when she left the Temple, but I suggest that the text is better understood as indicating the time she was in the Temple as being 12 years). The following year the Annunciation occurs when she is 16, and Jesus is born when she is 17. That same year Herod dies.

Mary is in the Temple for the entire period of construction. The announcement of her future birth and the birth itself precede the same for the Temple by 3 years.

At no point in Josephus do we read of Mary, and although he does mention Jesus in one passage, it is contested among scholars as to whether the text is authentic. Even f it is authentic, there is no mention of Jesus’ early life or mother. At no point in the PJ do we hear about Temple construction or a mention of Herod building the Temple. So it appears that both texts are writing of the same period, from different perspectives, and yet when we compare their dates the correspondence is uncanny. It is as if the author of PJ is using the timeline of the Herodian Temple and applying it to Mary.

We can add to this that the building program of Herod the Great was not simply good economics or a display of megalomania. It was also spoken in he language of eschatology: Herod declared that he was going to rebuild the Temple according to its proper glory, a privilege that he felt was due to the Romans. The Jews were expecting an eschatological Temple built by God, and Herod gave them a physical Temple built by Rome and Edom. At the same time and in the same place God was preparing Mary as a “rival Temple,” built by God and not man (as is made explicit by the lack of human input in the conception of Jesus). This image of Mary as the Temple or Tabernacle is seen in the text of Luke, as Brodie so expertly pointed out in his 1979 article “A New Temple and a New Law: The Unity and Chronicler-based Nature of Luke 1:1-4:22a.”


Some of the irony lies in the Temple imagery of Mary being linked to the historical accounts of Josephus. Herod tries to improve the Temple, which was obviously flawed (see 1 Enoch, Tobit, Jubilees, etc.), by building a flashy Temple. God initiates the “building” of Mary and announces it to her parents. The building of Herod’s Temple and Mary occur within a year of each other. Both events are unprecedented in Jewish history.

The idea that there was a 3 year gap in the annunciation and construction of the Herodian Temple is striking, given that it is based on Josephus and historical probabilities rather than a “spiritual” exegesis of the New Testament or PJ. If we put Josephus and the PJ together, we see that Mary is taken to the Temple a year before the Temple begins to be built. Herod’s Temple was built from start to finish with Mary residing there. We can add to this that if she was indeed in the Holy of Holies (see the Nutzman article for historical plausibility) she lived in the only part of the Temple that Herod did not rebuild.

So what do we make of this correspondence?

Is the PJ inserting a theological timeframe into the story and patterning itself on the construction by Herod?

Is Josephus patterning the construction of the Temple on the timeline of Christian claims in the NT and/or the PJ? (even without the specific information of the PJ the timeline is much the same based on the NT evidence)

Or is the correspondence simply coincidental and happens to contrast the origins of the two rival Temples in the 1st century?

Or is there another explanation for the correspondence?


Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 6 (chapters 17-20)

Chapter 17

“And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enrol her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting. And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.”

Ch. 17 is the story of the census and traveling to Bethlehem. Of note is that Mary is about to give birth in a “desert.” Also of note is that a son of Joseph accompanies them on their journey. We can assume that this is James, but it is noteworthy that the author never writes as if he is in the story. This is rather strange, and almost inexplicable if the author is only pretending to be James.


Chapter 18

“And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a widwife in the district of Bethlehem. And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.”

Here we read that Joseph’s two sons were with the couple, one of which we assume to be James. They were in a cave roughly three miles (ch. 17) from Bethlehem. The early accounts of Jesus’ birth (outside of the NT) also speak of a cave rather than a barn or house.

What is most striking to me about this chapter is the mystical experience of Joseph. If this experience was made up by the author, it seems strange that it is so unique in Jewish and Christian literature. If it is conveyed from a confidant (James) then the portrayal becomes rather intuitive. Joseph’s perception slows down to a stop (it seems) just as most people experience when a momentous event takes place. Here time seems to stand still, and James likely included this aspect of the story to stress the paradox of the Virgin giving birth. All of nature both does and does not act as it always has.


Chapter 19

“And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither art thou going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”

Ch. 19 has Joseph meet a midwife, to whom he explains the situation. A cloud fills the cave in exactly the same way that it filled the Temple when it was dedicated or “born.” (see 1 Kings 8:10-11) When a certain Salome is notified of the event, she says “As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” This is rather transparent parallel to the Thomas episode, with the exception that Salome is punished while Thomas is not. It seems to me that Thomas never actually touched Jesus, since the text does not tell us that he did. Instead he took Jesus at his word, and made a confession of faith. Salome lacks that faith and is punished and restored, as we see in the next chapter. This Salome is likely to be understood as Salome the Myrrhbearer, found in Mark 15:40 and 16:1.


Chapter 20

“And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee. Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.”

Ch. 20 recounts how Salome dares to inspect Mary, has her hand burned, and then is healed. This is very close to the traditional account f the Formation of Mary, where a Jewish opponent attempts to overturn the bier that Mary’s body is being transported on. An angel cuts off his hand, and then it is restored through prayer and repentance. This is almost certainly a later tradition than the PJ.

She then “went forth out of the cave justified” just as Joachim had “went down from the temple of the Lord justified,” in ch. 5. The locus of divine communication here is now the cave, not the Temple. Salome is sworn to secrecy, a theme found throughout the Gospels.

Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 7 (chapters 21-24)

We have only the final four chapters left to examine.

Chapter 21

“And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judaea. And there was a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judaea, for Magi came, saying: Where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod heard, he was much disturbed, and sent officers to the Magi. And he sent for the priests, and examined them, saying: How is it written about the Christ? where is He to be born? And they said: In Bethlehem of Judaea, for so it is written. And he sent them away. And he examined the Magi, saying to them: What sign have you seen in reference to the king that has been born? And the Magi said: We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him. And Herod said: Go and seek him; and if you find him, let me know, in order that I also may go and worship him. And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judaea, they went into their own country by another road.”

Ch. 21 is the story of the Magi, retold in a fairly straightforward manner but with some small differences. For the time being we will let the text speak for itself and simply move on.


Chapter 22

“And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”

Here Mary places Jesus in a stall not because there was no room at the inn, but because Herod was searching for the child. This recalls the placing of Moses in the “ark” to protect him from Pharaoh.



Chapter 23

“And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where hast thou hid thy son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.”

Herod assumes that the Magi are looking for John the Baptist (simply “John” here, since he had yet to start his baptismal ministry). Zacharias tells Herod that as a priest he is always in the Temple, recalling Mary being always in “the Temple” even before her formal dedication in the Temple. Like Mary, Elizabeth is not with a male protector, and like Mary she has a holy child. Zachary’s is martyred and recalled by Jesus in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 (although this interpretation is hotly contested by scholars).


Chapter 24

“But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom. And the priests stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most High. And he still delaying, they were all afraid. But one of them ventured to go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying: Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his avenger come. And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it to the priests. And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from the top even to the bottom. And they found not his body, but they found his blood turned into stone. And they were afraid, and went out and reported to the people that Zacharias had been murdered. And all the tribes of the people heard, and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights. And after the three days, the priests consulted as to whom they should put in his place; and the lot fell upon Simeon. For it was he who had been warned by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh.

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.””

Zacharias is in the Holy of Holies for too long in Luke, when an angel a[[eared to him and he became mute. Here he lingers because he has been murdered. A voice is heard, and it is assumed to be the voice of God, since it is in the “dabir” (word, oracle) the Jewish name for the Holy of Holies since it functions as the mouthpiece for God.

The fear, fleeing, and returning is both natural and in parallel to the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospels, but here they do find the body. Finally Simeon is elected as the replacement for Zacharias, and he is connected with the Simeon the God-Receiver we read about it Luke 3.

The priests rent their clothes in disobedience to the law that forbade priests from doing so (see Lev. 10:6), showing their absolute grief.

The final paragraph is the only mention of James by name in the entire text. He does not say that he was one of the sons of Joseph, nor the brother of Jesus. The connection between the commotion, the writing, and the retreat to the desert is unclear. The commotion could have to do with the death of Herod (4 BCE), after which James would have left Jerusalem for the desert, then returned to Jerusalem to write the text. He thanks God for granting him the gift of wisdom to write the account, implying that it was not a mundane text but a prophetic one.

The most reasonable explanation is that the author is claiming to be James, the brother of Jesus. He has no need to tell this to the reader since he can assume that they might know him and would then understand that he is in the narrator (and therefor is a (partial) “eye-witness” account), and a family tradition. He nowhere mentions the life of Jesus, indicating that the story is meant to be understood as composed after the death of Herod the Great.

James would have been older than Jesus, but would he have been old enough to write this history? It certainly seems plausible that James could be up to 20 years older than Jesus (he died in 62 CE as an old man). If James was 20 years older, then he would have been 25 when he wrote this account.

While this seems highly unusual (especially if James was only 10-15 years older than Jesus) we should remember that James was portrayed in the NT and elsewhere as extraordinary. Many see him in the NT as a rather mundane figure, in contrast to the more exotic details from later Christian writing. While the NT might not mention that he was a Nazarite, it does mention quite a few things about James that point to him being exceptional. He was the son of Joseph, a righteous man. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church. His Epistle is an example of wisdom literature, not dry ethics. It is entirely plausible, even to be expected, that the son of an exceptionally pious Jew would be a Nazarite, even from birth. The story of Anna and Joachim shows that such a dedication to God was not implausible, and had happened in the OT with Samuel and Samson. If we were to look for a likely Nazarite in the NT, it would be James. He even had Paul pay for the services associated with Nazarite vows.

It is significant that the author does not identify himself as a Christian, or a leader, or he does not mention that Jesus rose from the dead. He does call Jesus “Lord” and “Christ,” but strangely this is only at the end of the text. This could be a later addition, possibly by James himself. It is significant that the ending is in contrast to the rest of the text, both in calling Jesus Lord and Messiah (not mentioned elsewhere) and identifying himself as James (presumably a character in the story never named). It seems a forger would have had the titles of Jesus in the main body of the text, and also made clear that James was the son of Joseph, yet he seems unconcerned with these issues.


Our next post will give a final reflection on some of the issues raised by the text.

Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 5 (chapters 13-16)

Chapters 13-16

Chapter 13

“And she was in her sixth month (ἐγένετο <αὐτῇ> Ϛ´ μήν); and, behold, Joseph came back from his building (τῶν οἰκοδομῶν), and, entering into his house, he discovered that she was big with child. And he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying: With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? and what prayer shall I make about this maiden? because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her. Who is it that has hunted me down? Who has done this evil thing in my house, and defiled the virgin? Has not the history (ἱστορία) of Adam been repeated in me? For just as Adam was in the hour of his singing praise, and the serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her, so it has happened to me also. And Joseph stood up from the sackcloth, and called Mary, and said to her: O thou who hast been cared for by God (Μεμελημένη), why hast thou done this and forgotten the Lord thy God? Why hast thou brought low thy soul (ἐταπείνωσας τὴν ψυχήν σου), thou that wast brought up in the holy of holies, and that didst receive food from the hand of an angel? And she wept bitterly (πικρῶς), saying: I am innocent, and have known no man. And Joseph said to her: Whence then is that which is in thy womb? And she said: As the Lord my God liveth, I do not know whence it is to me.”

Joseph has been out building, and returns home to find that Mary has been busy “building” as well! Joseph reacts to the news that his betrothed is pregnant by recalling the “history” of Adam and Eve: “Has not the history of Adam been repeated in me? For just as Adam was in the hour of his singing praise, and the serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her, so it has happened to me also.”

The connection of Mary to Eve is pregnant with meaning. He goes on: “Why hast thou brought low thy soul, thou that wast brought up in the holy of holies, and that didst receive food from the hand of an angel?” Again the claim is repeated about being fed by an angel, and again the soul is “brought low” just as Anna had been brought low. Yet Anna had been disgraced for not conceiving (being a barren wife), while Mary is disgraced for being fertile (since she is supposed to be a virgin). The chapter concludes with “And Joseph said to her: Whence then is that which is in thy womb? And she said: As the Lord my God liveth, I do not know whence it is to me.” Here we have the repetition of ignorance on the part of Mary, in spite of the situation being explained by the angel.

Joseph and then Mary both “weep bitterly” in ch. 13, and this is repeated in ch. 15 with Mary weeping bitterly in front of the priest. Chapter 16 has Joseph “in tears” in front of the priest, but the language used is not identical to the earlier three occurrences.


Chapter 14

“And Joseph was greatly afraid, and retired from her, and considered what he should do in regard to her. And Joseph said: If I conceal her sin, I find myself fighting against the law of the Lord; and if I expose her to the sons of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel, and I shall be found giving up innocent blood to the doom of death. What then shall I do with her? I will put her away from me secretly. And night came upon him; and, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, saying: Be not afraid for this maiden, for that which is in her is of the Holy Spirit; and she will bring forth a Son, and thou shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And Joseph arose from sleep, and glorified the God of Israel, who had given him this grace; and he kept her.”

Ch. 14 largely corresponds to the reaction of Joseph found in the New Testament (Matthew 1:19). What is most interesting for us is that we are in the same situation as Joseph: if we consider this text as being spurious, we may be fighting against God. If we consider the text authentic, we may be accepting a “bastard” of a text.


Chapter 15

“And Annas the scribe came to him, and said: Why hast thou not appeared in our assembly? And Joseph said to him: Because I was weary from my journey, and rested the first day. And he turned, and saw that Mary was with child. And he ran away to the priest and said to him: Joseph, whom thou didst vouch for, has committed a grievous crime. And the priest said: How so? And he said: He has defiled the virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord, and has married her by stealth, and has not revealed it to the sons of Israel. And the priest answering, said: Has Joseph done this? Then said Annas the scribe: Send officers, and thou wilt find the virgin with child. And the officers went away, and found it as he had said; and they brought her along with Joseph to the tribunal. And the priest said: Mary, why hast thou done this? and why hast thou brought thy soul low, and forgotten the Lord thy God? Thou that wast reared in the holy of holies, and that didst receive food from the hand of an angel, and didst hear the hymns, and didst dance before Him, why hast thou done this? And she wept bitterly, saying: As the Lord my God liveth, I am pure before Him, and know not a man. And the priest said to Joseph: Why hast thou done this? And Joseph said: As the Lord liveth, I am pure concerning her. Then said the priest: Bear not false witness, but speak the truth. Thou hast married her by stealth, and hast not revealed it to the sons of Israel, and hast not bowed thy head under the strong hand, that thy seed might be blessed. And Joseph was silent.

Ch. 15 recounts the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy by a Jewish scribe, and the couple is brought to trial. Again the feeding of the angel and dwelling in the holy of holies is referenced, as is the bringing of her soul low by her “defilement.”

Joseph and Mary are called to account by a certain “Annas.” We have already seen that the characters who are named are named for a particular reason. The priest and high priest function in the story without needing to be named, so when they are named this is significant. The accuser of Joachim in ch. 1 was Reuben, the defiler. The accuser of Joseph and Mary in ch. 15 was “Annas,” the scribe. Does he have a similar background story?

We can say with confidence that the author here is alluding to Annas ben Seth, who was appointed by Quirinius to be the high priest in 6 CE. We can be fairly sure that he is in mind because this Annas fits the description and would later be an important figure, serving as high priest as well as having 4 sons that served as high priest.

We don’t know when Annas was born. Some sources say 23 BCE, but this seems unlikely. He was high priest in 6 CE, which would have made him only 29. This would be very young for the high priesthood, to say the least. Yet it is possible inc the appointment was by Quirinius, and it was typically bought rather than earned. The real difficulty is that Annas’ son Eleazar was made high priest in 17 CE, which means that he was born at the earliest in 10 BCE, when Annas was only 13!

If we approach this problem from a different angle, the numbers begin to make sense. Annas was made high priest in 6 CE, and we can assume that he was 30-60 when appointed. This means that he was born in the period of 54-24 BCE. If Eleazar was made high priest in 17 CE, we can assume his birth was from 43-13 BCE. Annas and Eleazar are separated by a mere 11 years, which indicates that Annas was older when serving than Eleazar was (since Annas was unlikely to have fathered Eleazar when 11).

This comes into play when we look at the narrative of the PJ. Annas the scribe accuses Joseph and Mary around the 5 BCE (give or take a year or two). If we take the highly questionable (and unattributed) birth date of 23 BCE as factual, then we have a young 18 year old Annas as a scribe, a plausible outcome. Yet if we take the more rational dating range of 54-24 BCE, we have Annas as a scribe of 19-49 years old. This entire range is acceptable. We can infer from the fact that Annas was made high priest only a decade later that Annas the scribe was powerful in influence. He was the most influential Jewish leader of the period, it would seem, establishing a high priestly dynasty. We can see that this “Annas the scribe” named by our author is not simply a scribe who happens to be named Annas, but Annas the future high priest and patriarch  of the high priests until the mid-40s. He was the one person who symbolized the power of the high priesthood in that era, a high priesthood that was opposed to Jesus.


Chapter 16

“And the priest said: Give up the virgin whom thou didst receive out of the temple of the Lord. And Joseph burst into tears. And the priest said: I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, and He shall make manifest your sins in your eyes. And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt. And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt. And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them. And the priest said: If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you. And he sent them away. And Joseph took Mary, and went away to his own house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel.”

Ch. 16 has both Joseph and Mary being given the water of judgement and being sent into the hill country. Both survive, which indicates that they were telling the truth. The ceremony was an ancient practice used when adultery was suspected, although it was only administered to the woman in Numbers 5:18-27 (Nutzman’s article also covers this in detail). The reaction was that “all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them.” This recalls the sin not appearing to Joachim in the plate of the priest’s forehead in ch. 5. Again the communication of God is through the Temple and priests , and only occasionally through angels outside of the Temple.


Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 4 (chapters 9-12)

Chapters 9-12

Chapter 9

“And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, Thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee. The Lord will protect thee.”

(note: add that Num 17:23 has the budding of the rod of Aaron for Levi)

Joseph answers the summons to assemble, and strangely “throws away his axe.” While we might be tempted to see this as only an allusion to Joseph as a “carpenter” (he is more of a house-builder in this text, as well as in the NT) I think that there is more being said here by the author, who is very interested in Temple matters.

The “axe” that Joseph throws is a σκέπαρνον, which is a “carpenter’s axe” used for smoothing out large pieces of wood. It is a finishing tool rather than a tool for cutting down trees. So this is certainly in line with the idea of Joseph as a carpenter. But why allude to Joseph as a carpenter when it has no relevance to the story? I would contend that the relevence has very much to do with the status of the Temple as being made in a way that is different than how idols are made. The one occurrence of the carpenter’s axe in the LXX is found in 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.”

This is from a long polemic against idolatry. We can add to that the reference of 1 Kings 6:7

“And the house was built in the construction of it with rough hewn stones: and there was not heard in the house in the building of it hammer or axe, or any iron tool.”

Idols are made with these finishing tools, while the tools used on the Temple stones were used in remote locations, and never at the site of the Temple. When Joseph throws away his tool, he is open to housing Mary. We will se that when he takes her home, he then leaves to go build! This leaves her alone in the house, and she weaves theTemple veil and then builds the Temple Jesus in herself. Joseph is not there to help her build by impregnating her, nor is he there to protect her. Both roles are fulfilled by God. Mary builds the Temple veil and then Jesus himself in isolation, and far away from the “tools” of men both metaphorically and literally.

Joseph is miraculously chosen to be the protector/husband of Mary, again with the symbol of a dove (is there a flood connection? spirit connection?). Mary is received “from the Temple of the Lord” rather than from her parents, who are not mentioned past ch. 7. We can add to this that the budding of Joseph’s staff recalls the budding of Aaron’s staff in Numbers 17:23. The tribe of Levi held the staff, and it budded in symbolic approval of Levi being the priestly tribe. Here Joseph’s staff blossoms not flowers, but a dove. This is both more miraculous and also recalls the dove sent by Noah (the Ark being a classic symbol of Israel/the Church). Most obviously it is a reference to Mary being fed in the Temple “as a dove.” Now Joseph shows that from him another “dove” can miraculously be produced.


Chapter 10

“And there was a council of the priests, saying: Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Call to me the undefiled virgins of the family of David. And the officers went away, and sought, and found seven virgins. And the priest remembered the child Mary, that she was of the family of David, and undefiled before God. And the officers went away and brought her. And they brought them into the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple. And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house. And at that time Zacharias was dumb, and Samuel was in his place until the time that Zacharias spake. And Mary took the scarlet (τὸ κόκκινον), and span it.”

As mentioned previously, this part of the narrative is not given a specific timeframe. Does the episode cover 6 months or 3 years? We cannot say for certain, but the 6 months seems more likely if we consider the internal evidence. We can also say that it was believed that the Temple veil was replaced every 6 months. The meeting to make a new veil would not be a novelty, but a semi-annual occurrence.


Chapter 11

“And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, thou who hast received grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple (τὴν πορφύραν), she sat down on her seat, and drew it out. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found grace before the Lord of all, and thou shalt conceive, according to His word. And she hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I bring forth as every woman brings forth? And the angel of the Lord said: Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of the Most High (Ὑψίστου). And thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. And Mary said: Behold, the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be unto me according to thy word.”

The Annunciation happen during the time that Mary was spinning the veil for the Temple. The child will be the Son of the Most High, an irony since Mary is both humiliated and exalted because of the child. At no point is there an intimation that the child will die or that he is the Messiah, which is strange of the author was writing after the Resurrection.


Chapter 12

“And she made the purple and the scarlet, and took them to the priest. And the priest blessed her, and said: Mary, the Lord God hath magnified (ἐμεγάλυνεν) thy name, and thou shall be blessed in all the generations of the earth. And Mary, with great joy, went away to Elizabeth her kinswoman, and knocked at the door. And when Elizabeth heard her, she threw away the scarlet, and ran to the door, and opened it; and seeing Mary, she blessed her, and said: Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? for, behold, that which is in me leaped and blessed thee. But Mary had forgotten the mysteries of which the archangel Gabriel had spoken, and gazed up into heaven, and said: Who am I, O Lord, that all the generations of the earth should bless me? And she remained three months with Elizabeth; and day by day she grew bigger. And Mary being afraid, went away to her own house, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. And she was sixteen years old when these mysteries happened.

Mary’s name is “magnified” by God. Her cousin Elizabeth seems to have been holding scarlet, which she throws away when Mary arrives. This is strange, in that it almost appears that Elizabeth is Temple virgin like Mary. Yet her husband Zacharias is one of the high priests (there were multiple high priests in this era) and so she could not have been a virgin. She is pregnant with a special child, and it is noteworthy that she lives a life of isolation like Mary did. Zacharias tells Herod later that he is always serving in the Temple, so he doesn’t know where his son is.

By the time Elizabeth greeted Mary, Mary had forgotten what the angel had said to her! This is a striking assertion, and one that in my mind is explicable only by bad writing or the lived experience of the author. It seems that only an intimate retelling would render this detail, one which would have been told to James.