by Luke Wayne
Jesus' public ministry encompassed only the last few years of His life. Prior to that, we don't have a lot of details. The Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense. They are not trying to report all the details of Jesus' life from beginning to end. In fact, only Matthew and Luke contain any details about Jesus' early life at all. There is one story, however, that does appear to tell us that Jesus worked in the trade of His earthly father before the appointed time of His preaching ministry, and thus He spent much of his adult life working as a carpenter. Mark's account reads:
"Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, 'Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?' And they took offense at Him," (Mark 6:1-3).
Matthew describes the same event:
"He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him," (Matthew 13:54-57a).
The references to Jesus alternately as a "carpenter" and a "carpenter's son," as well as the greater context of listing other family ties and questioning the origin of His wisdom, seem to imply that these titles were meant more as a reference to His uneducated, working-class household than to describe for us His daily work. Still, based on these details, it seems likely that Jesus lived much of His adult life working in carpentry just as His earthly father, Joseph, had apparently done.
Some have argued, however, that "carpenter" is a poor translation here. They point out that wood was relatively scarce in the region of Nazareth and that most construction was done primarily with stone rather than wood. They further point out that the Greek word used here does not necessarily mean specifically a carpenter. They conclude from this that Joseph and Jesus were more likely craftsman who worked with stone. This conclusion is entirely possible. However, it seems unlikely. While the word "tekton" CAN be used in the general sense of any craftsman, it's primary sense was that of "a craftsman who shapes and joins wood; a carpenter." While buildings in the area may not have used much wood, that doesn't mean that there would not have been other tools, implements, or even furniture made from wood. In fact, Justin Martyr, who lived in Samaria (between Galilee and Judea) in the early second century claimed that Jesus was called a carpenter because He made yokes and plows1. Even if Justin embellished with these details, his embellishments would still show that he understood "tekton" to mean a woodworker or carpenter who made tools and implements. Other early Christian writers likewise described Jesus or Joseph explicitly as working with wood rather than other materials.2 Even the ancient, heretical forgers who made up counterfeit "gospels" about Jesus' early life described Him and His family working with wood to make "ox-yokes, and plows, and implements of husbandry, and wooden beds."3 These stories, of course, are pure fiction and were made up a few centuries after Jesus' life. But those making up these stories clearly read the true gospels to inspire their fake tales, so even they provide evidence that ancient readers understood "tekton" in Mark and Matthew to specifically mean "carpenter" rather than a general builder or tradesman.
It is no surprise, then, that translators (both historic and modern) have pretty much unanimously rendered the word specifically as "carpenter." English translators of the Bible as far back as John Wycliffe in the 14th Century and all the way up to every major translation today have always chosen the word "carpenter" rather than a general word like "craftsman." Martin Luther, likewise, used the word "zimmermann" which means "carpenter, woodworker, joiner." From this, we see that scholars of different cultures, times, and ages have all looked at the data and come to the same conclusion: Jesus and Joseph were carpenters. This is not a mistake of cultural bias or late innovation. It is what best fits the facts of the language and context in these passages.
- 1. Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 88
- 2. See, for example, Origen “Against Celsus” Book 6, Chapter 34, which speaks of Jesus as a Carpenter with specific reference to working with wood and in contrast to being one who works with leather, stone, or iron.
- 3. gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 37, see also the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.