Was Jesus a Carpenter?
Ask anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the New Testament about Jesus’ profession, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: He was a carpenter. The idea of a young Jesus, carving and shaping wood as he would one day reshape lives, is extremely prevalent throughout Christianity. Additionally, carpentry was an arduous, physically demanding occupation, requiring not only a steady hand but also a patient and focused mind — all positive attributes fitting with our idea of the Savior. In today’s technology-focused society, carpentry also takes on certain pastoral elements, and it’s not uncommon for us to think of carpenters as salt-of-the-earth types representing the best and noblest elements of society.
But was Jesus actually a carpenter?
Here, we take a closer look at Jesus the carpenter as he is depicted in the scriptures, and consider the possibility that what we know as carpentry might not be the same vocation that the young Messiah studied before he began his ministry.
Why Do People Say that Jesus Was a Carpenter?
The idea that Jesus was a carpenter comes directly from the New Testament of the Bible. In the Book of Mark, which many biblical scholars believe to be the first written of the Four Gospels, those who heard Jesus teach in the synagogue in his hometown and knew his family asked “Isn’t this the carpenter?” demonstrating their disbelief in his teachings (Mark 6:24). The book of Matthew echoes this scene but instead attributes the profession to Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father, with onlookers asking “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55).
In either case, it would probably have been understood by the scriptures' original audiences that, yes, Jesus worked in carpentry. At the time it was common for a son to take up his father’s profession, and Matthew might have wanted to demonstrate that Jesus was trained in carpentry even if he was not currently engaged in the work itself.
If we take these scriptures as factual accounts of history, then it is safe to say that Jesus was a carpenter — the people from his hometown recognized him as such, and none of the Gospel writers felt the need to correct those statements. But this doesn’t fully answer our question.
Was Jesus a carpenter? He was, but that doesn’t necessarily mean what we sometimes assume it means.
What Did ‘Carpenter’ Mean in Ancient Jerusalem?
When we read the Bible, it can be easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that the scriptures were originally written in languages that have all but been lost to time. The English versions (or whatever language you might prefer) are essentially translations of translations, and in certain cases translators may have chosen words that were subtly different from the words in the original manuscripts. On top of that, even among English versions, we could be dealing with archaic terminology that carried with it different connotations at the time the work was translated. This can make it difficult to pin down the exact meaning of certain terms. Many biblical scholars believe that this is the case with ‘carpentry.’
Today, a carpenter is someone who works with wood. But did the original term in Ancient Greek (the language that the Gospels were first written in) mean the same thing? There is evidence to suggest that the scriptures originally identified Jesus and Joseph as being of the ‘tektōn’ profession, meaning they were craftsmen or builders. This doesn’t preclude them from working with wood, but it does open up other possibilities as well.
Although wood was certainly available in ancient Jerusalem, most structures of that era were constructed primarily of stone. If we take ‘carpenter’ to mean ‘builder,’ it is conceivable that Jesus would have needed to understand masonry techniques in addition to knowing how to shape wood. For Jesus, carpenter work may have been more about working with limestone rather than timber. And, if we expand the definition further to include all-purpose craftsmen, then we may be looking at an occupation that is similar to a modern handyman, skilled in a variety of building and repair work.
Finally, it’s worth recognizing that the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples was probably Aramaic. The term carpenter may correspond with the Aramaic word ‘naggar,’ meaning ‘a learned man.’ If so, this casts a different light on the Savior’s educational upbringing. That said, it may be difficult to rationalize this interpretation with the incredulous response of Jesus’s audience when they used his status as a ‘carpenter’ as an insult.
Why Did the Gospel Writers Include this Detail?
Given how firmly the idea of Jesus as a carpenter is entrenched in Christianity’s collective psyche, it may be surprising for some to learn that we only have one scriptural account (presented by two different authors) that makes any reference to his profession at all. So why did the authors bother to include it?
The most obvious answer is maybe they were sharing an account of something that happened and didn’t want to leave out any details.
Perhaps it’s more likely that the writers wanted to demonstrate Jesus’ low-born status, and how there were many who could not look beyond their own preconceptions to see that the Messiah had finally come. The audience’s dismissive attitude towards the Savior’s teachings, simply because they knew him from his youth and knew his family, is representative of human nature’s tendency to reject the exceptional when it is found in the familiar. It was probably easy for the people of Nazareth to accept ancient prophets and great works to come; they had a harder time believing that one of their own might actually be the fulfillment of prophecy that they had been waiting for.
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