In our Christian lives, we refer to Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God, the Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Lamb of God, the Light of the Word and the King of the Jews. However, there is one title that we often overlook, Jesus, the Carpenter. Before beginning his ministry, this human title of “the carpenter” is how the people of his hometown of Nazareth knew him. We know very little of Jesus’ early years. What we do know from the scriptures is that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary and that at 12 years old he spoke in the temple and astonished the people with his understanding and answers, but from this time until he reemerges on the scene being baptized by John the Baptist in the desert, there is nearly eighteen years of Jesus’ life where the Bible is silent. The teachings of Jesus were directed to the audience he spoke them to, namely the Jews. To use an analogy akin to the ones Jesus made, while it is possible to digest the meal of his teachings, we can miss the delight of the flavorful spices if we do not understand the context of his audience. Accordingly, by getting to know the man, Jesus, we can better understand the teachings of the Savior, Jesus. We will see that this period of his quiet, human life was not in vain as Jesus waited for the fullness of time to begin his ministry. In fact, hidden within the teachings of Jesus, this early period and occupation prior to being known as Rabbi jumps out at the reader through his own words and experiences that he uses to teach the people about who he is and what he is here to do. By examining the customs, lifestyle, and historical events during Jesus’ early years, and his later teachings recorded for us in the Bible, we can help remove the mask from this hidden period and reveal Jesus, the Carpenter.
Jesus, the man is inseparable from Jesus, the Christ and yet because the latter is emphasized in the New Testament, Christians tend to forget the man whose youth and imparted wisdom of God helped to shape Jesus, the Christ. As Gentiles, it is easy to read the message of redemption and salvation that the New Testament teaches, while in “constant danger of letting Jesus’ Jewishness, and even his humanity, slip away.”1 As is recorded for us in the New Testament, Jesus followed customs and traditions as well as the Jewish law he was born under. He was circumcised at eight days old, was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, had a sacrifice offered for him, attended synagogue and customarily read from the Torah, observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, and attended the religious festivals in Jerusalem. He also followed Jewish customs such as wearing fringed tassels called tzitzit.2 Modern Jews also assert his Jewishness, albeit denying his deity, saying, “He is a teacher, a prophetic figure and a martyr in the best of Jewish traditions; for there is an almost complete agreement between his teachings in the Sermon of the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the best of rabbinical halacha [or Jewish law – both written and in customs and traditions].”3
Before becoming known as the carpenter, Jesus’ early years would have also been steeped in the Jewish culture. He would have been called by his Jewish name Yeshua ben Joseph or Joshua, son of Joseph. As was customary, Yeshua, or Jesus as we know him, would have grown up studying the law. The Jewish philosopher Philo said concerning the preservation of their customs and laws:
“For all men are eager to preserve their own customs and laws, and the Jewish nation above all others; for looking upon their laws as oracles directly given to them by God Himself, and having been instructed in this doctrine from their very earliest infancy they bear in their souls the images of the commandments contained in these laws as sacred.”4
Another famous historian, Flavius Josephus tells us of the requirement of educating children in the law:
“Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the births of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess; but it ordains that the very beginning of our education should be immediately directed to sobriety. It also commands us to bring those children up in learning, and to exercise them in the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors, in order to their imitation of them, and that they might be nourished up in the laws from their infancy, and might neither transgress them, nor have any pretense for their ignorance of them.”5
Whether Jesus attended a formal school or not we do not know, nor do the scriptures say. However, it is unlikely since it was Joshua ben Gamaliel, the high priest in about 64 A.D., who according to the Talmud “is regarded as the founder of the institution of formal Jewish education for children as young as 6 years old.”6 It is reasonable to assume then that Jesus was schooled at home by his father and in the local synagogue, as was customary of Jewish boys at this time.7 At a younger age, Jesus would have memorized scripture and sayings of other teachers. This type of learning method explains why at times he only quotes parts of scripture – his audience had memorized the same verses and could fill in the rest. The synagogue would have housed the sacred texts that were used by the student to learn to read and write, since easily accessible books in that day and age were a rarity. We know from Luke 4:16 and John 8:6, 8 that Jesus could both read and write. He even references the jot and tittle, referring to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the small hook on a Hebrew letter that distinguishes it from another, indicating his familiarity with the language.8
In addition to his academic learning, the father was also responsible for teaching his son the family trade or profession. In Matthew 13:55-56 it is recorded that the people of his hometown of Nazareth asked, “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?” Matthew refers to Jesus as the carpenter’s son, while Mark states in 6:3 that Jesus himself was a carpenter. “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?” Either saying would have been accurate as the father and son typically held the same occupation. In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah illustrates that without a trade, the son would not be able to earn money for his family in order to buy food, leaving thievery as the inevitable option.
“The father is required to circumcise his son; to redeem him [referring to the first-born son, as per the Biblical passages in Numbers 18:15-16]; to teach him Torah; to assure that he marries; and to teach him a trade… Rabbi Judah says, whoever does not teach his son a trade teaches him robbery (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, p. 29a).”9
The occupation that we know of as carpenter today had a more generic meaning in Jesus’ time. The Greek word tekton, which has been translated in our Bibles as carpenter, is better translated as a craftsman or builder. In the Septuigant, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, the same Greek word is used for the Hebrew word charash, meaning artisan, craftsman, or engraver. While carpentry could have referred to a woodworker as well, wood was a rare commodity in the Galilean region and therefore expensive.10 James Tabor in his book “The Jesus Dynasty” states that “Wood was used sparingly, mostly for roof beams and doors, since wood was a scarce building material in the rocky terrain of Palestine.”11 It is more likely that the word refers to a builder of homes and other structures or stoneworker, as most of the houses and structures were in that region. [Image Source]
The idea that Jesus worked with wood instead of stone was popularized by Justin Martyr. In his book Diaglogue with Trypho, written in about 120 A.D., Martyr states that Jesus made plows and yokes.12 This idea of his working with wood has persisted through the years, though we see no reference to woodworking in any of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus makes a statement in Matthew 11:28-30 where he speaks of “tak[ing] my yoke upon you.” Noticably absent is the allusion to constructing and crafting the yoke. Rather it is believed that he is making a reference to the Sirach, a Jewish writing from the early second century B.C. Fellow Jews would have been familiar with the Sirach, which states “Put on the yoke, and be willing to learn…”13
As a tekton, Jesus would have belonged to the lower-class. Ramsay MacMullen notes that a carpenter’s lower-class status would be common knowledge to those living in the Greco-Roman era.14 He indicates that there was a dividing line between those who worked with their hands and those who did not. “He was not among the poorest in society and did not require all of his followers to disown their possessions, though he had harsh things to say about the way people used wealth.”15 Luke tells us of the meager beginnings of Mary and Joseph by the sacrifice offered at Jesus’ birth of either two turtledoves or two pigeons, a substitute for the lamb. This humble entrance into the world foreshadows the man who had no place to lay his head. The prophet Isaiah wrote about him hundreds of years before his birth:
“For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.”16
Tektons were more than likely day laborers. They were easily identified by a wooden rule which they wore behind their ear. “Articles of clothes and social demeanor also marked a man and his status. A man might go about with a Qolemos, or reed-pen, behind his ear, as a badge of his employment and, similarly, a carpenter carried a small wooden rule behind his ear. The use of more official identifications, made of copper, brass, silver, or gold with family seals, was a common practice.”17 Whether or not Jesus wore the badge of his trade is debatable, however it is here that the Tractate Shabbat refers to this profession as a laborer.18 James Tabor goes on to clarify that the tekton was a day laborer, who was too poor to own land and “took work as one could find it.”19 The idea of landless peasants and wealthy land owners often surfaces in Jesus’ teachings, such as can be seen in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable, workers gathered early in the morning in the marketplace hoping to be picked up to do a day’s work in exchange for payment. The landowner of a vineyard came along and hired them for a denarius, a day’s wages. Jesus makes mention of the burden of the day and the scorching heat. More than an observation, Jesus’ seems to be relating a familiarity he had with working in such conditions.
Jesus would also have been familiar with the position of a master as a tekton. A select number of the tektons of Jesus’ time were able to “climb the corporate ladder” to become the arkhi-tekton, or architect. The word comes from the Latin word architectus, which in turn came from the Greek word arkhitekton (arkhi-, “chief” or “master” and tekton, “builder”), i.e. master builder.20 The arkhitekton would have been responsible for directing the workers under him, engineering the foundation of a building, and calculating the budget of a project, all of which we see pronounced in Jesus’ teachings.21 Similarly, Jesus was the one in charge of others, who made decisions and lead the disciples under him. We see him referred to in scripture at least 45 times as a master.22 Although we do not know for certain, it may have been that Jesus had held the position of arkhitekton before beginning his ministry. [Image Source]
Nazareth, located in northern Galilee, was the home town of Jesus. “The northernmost part of Palestine was Galilee, the area in which Jesus began his ministry.”23 This land of his early years was used as a backdrop of many of Jesus’ parables. “With fertile land, beautiful vistas, and moderate climate, Galilee had its attractions… The laborious method of separating wheat and chaff, the fig trees and grapevines dotting the hillsides, the fields white unto harvest – all these would show up later in his parables and sayings.”24 One of these Galilean parables he tells was the story of the barren fig tree. After three years of growing, a fig tree had not produced any fruit. The owner wanted to uproot it as it was being unfruitful, but the vineyard-keeper wanted to give it one more year of care to see if it would produce. By being a native of the region, Jesus would have known that fig trees typically take three to five years to produce fruit and its fruit production can vary depending on multiple factors.25 By giving it the extra year, the tree still had a chance to show its worth.
A short 30 minute walk north of there was a town named Sepphoris. At the time of Jesus’ birth, around 4 B.C., the arsenal at Sepphoris was vandalized and in the process of recapturing the city, Herod Antipas had it burned to the ground as punishment for those responsible for the death of his father, Herod the Great. For most of Jesus’ early years, including the time he was a carpenter, Sepphoris was being rebuilt into a beautiful Greco-Roman metropolis. “Fortunately, there has been a great deal of archaeological excavation in Galilee in the past twenty-five years, including the important New Testament period sites of Sepphoris, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Caesarea Philippi.”26 This excavation has shown colonnaded streets, a forum, palace, bath and gymnasium, and luxurious villas, built from the labor of people such as tektons – the artisans, craftsmen and builders of buildings. It is supposed that Joseph and Jesus worked there rebuilding the city as it became the “economic hub of the dozens of peasant villages that crowded the Bet Netofa valley of lower Galilee – including Nazareth.”27 Greek actors, known as hypocrites, entertained the crowds at the forum. Jesus used this word in his teachings to refer to people who were pretenders or actors.
It is from his experience as a carpenter that he drew upon images in his parables of foundations, corner stones, and the building of structures to illustrate his points. The first of these is in Matthew 7:24-27, he discusses two builders – one who built his house on rock and the other on sand:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell – and great was its fall.”
In this context, Jesus is making reference to the need of a solid foundation in supporting a structure, something a tekton would have had to have been familiar with. It is also interesting to note the weather conditions mentioned in the passage. Jesus is preaching to people in the Galilean area. The people living around the Sea of Galilee would have known the violent storms that appear quickly and without warning on the sea, caused by winds of differing temperature that converge on the lake’s center.28 The Sea of Galilee’s lower elevation causes the winds to become trapped between the mountains and a violent storm ensues. During one of these storms, waves ten feet high came crashing into nearby downtown Tiberias, causing significant damage.29 The Galileans would have been able to appreciate the significance of the parable in more ways than one.
In Matthew 16:16-18, we see Jesus commending Peter in his answer to his question about his identity:
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.’”
Jesus refers to the building of his church upon the statement Peter makes. Although not a physical rock or stone, the parallel is made between Peter’s affirmation of his deity and the building of his spiritual church. The Greek word for rock, petra, that is referred to here is not a pebble, but a large stone, one that would be used in construction.
Jesus again points to his work as a carpenter, in Luke 14:28-30:
“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’”
Counting the cost of a construction project would have been a vital part of his work, especially that of the arkhitekton, even as it is for anyone wanting to construct a structure today. [Image Source]
Referring to his resurrection Jesus states in John 2:19, “’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” Here, he references himself as the tekton or builder. It is particularly interesting that John makes special note of the latter sentence and brings attention to the title with which he was addressed by Mary in John 20:16, “She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means, Teacher).” This is the only instance in scripture that the title of Rabboni is used. The Freemasons claim that this particular remark was a deliberate act on the part of John to exclaim Jesus Christ as the supreme architect of the spiritual temple: [Image Source]
“The significance of this exchange is totally lost in modern exoteric Christianity and the very curious word Rabboni is either conveniently ignored, or euphemistically glossed as [an irregular] Aramaic form of ‘Rabbei’ – ‘Master’. Neither of these tactics shed any light on the word. However, its true significance has long been known to the Freemasons, and this is why ‘Rabboni’ is a critical password in the Royal Arch degree… In explaining the etymology of Rabboni, Albert Pike demonstrated that it is not Aramaic at all, but simply derives from the Hebrew, “RB BNI’: these two words mean the Master of the Builders, or the Master Builder. Thus Mary’s comment clearly refers back to the passage cited above predicting the rebuilding [of] the temple in three days. What she is saying is, ‘Behold, the Master Builder.’”30
There are also passages mentioned in scripture where Jesus himself is referred to as the cornerstone, and the foundation. 1 Peter 2:6, “For this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’” And in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Time and time again, we see Jesus illustrating the analogy of construction work, as he draws on his experiences as a tekton from Galilee. “He was a master of His Father’s trade”31 both earthly and spiritually. Jesus, the Carpenter and Jesus, the Christ are intimately intertwined. We should resist the urge to separate the two as that would be a misguided attempt to remove his humanity from his deity. His teachings are rife with allusions to his work as a carpenter – laboring under the hot sun, laying foundations, constructing buildings, and working for the wealthy landowners. Hidden within Jesus’ own teachings, we catch a glimpse of his early life. It is from these teachings that we can look into his past to reveal Jesus, the Carpenter.
1 Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 50.
2 “Luke 2:21, Luke 2:22-24, Luke 4:16, Mark 2:27-28, John 7:14, Matthew 9:20-22, (NASB)” Biblegateway.com, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
3 Markus Barth, “What can a Jew believe about Jesus and still remain a Jew.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 2, no. 3 (September 1, 1965): 382-405. ALTA Religion Database with ALTA Serials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 29, 2012).
4 Quency E. Wallace, “The Early Life and Background of Paul the Apostle,” The American Journal of Biblical Theology, 3 (April 21, 2002): 8, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/WallaceQ01.html.
5 Flavius Josephus, Flavius Josephus Against Apion: Book II, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/apion-2.htm, 26.
6 “Joshua ben Gamla,” Wikipedia, last modified January 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_ben_Gamaliel.
7 Jeffrey Hays, “Jesus’s Life, Teachings, Disciples, Miracles and Life in the Time of Jesus,” Facts and Details, last modified March 2011, http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=1423&catid=55&subcatid=352.
8 Brenton Minge, Jesus Spoke Hebrew: Busting the “Aramaic” Myth, (Brisbane: Shepherd Publications, 2001), accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.sharesong.org/JESUSSPOKEHEBREW.htm.
9 Chaim I. Waxman, “The Jewish Father: Past and Present,” (Report, Policy Archive, January 1984), http://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/bitstreams/10197.pdf.
10 Ronald F. Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 922.
11 James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 89.
12 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.bombaxo.com/trypho.html, Chp 88.
13 “Sirach 51:26, (GNT)” Biblegateway.com, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=sirach%2051:26&version=GNT.
14 John D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 24.
15 Clive Marsh, “A marginal Jew: rethinking the historical Jesus. V 3, Companions and competitors,” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 26, no. 3 (March 1, 2004): 374-376, ALTA Religion Database with ALTASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2012).
16 “Isaiah 53:2 (NASB),” Biblegateway.com, accessed June 19, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
17 “The Charagma vs. The Card,” His Holy Church, last modified May 16, 2011, http://www.hisholychurch.net/study/gods/cog13chvsca.php.
18 “Tractate Shabbat Chapter 1: Regulations Regarding Transfer on Sabbath,” in Jewish Virtual Library, accessed May 29, 2012, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/shabbat1.html.
19 James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 90.
20 “Architect,” Wikipedia, last modified June 11, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architect.
21 “The Office of Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus Tekton, accessed June 26, 2012, http://jesustekton.blogspot.com/.
23 Sidnie White Crawford, “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: Romans, Greeks, and Jews The World of Jesus and the Disciples,” Journal of Religion & Society, Supplement Series 1, (2004): 5, accessed May 29, 2012, http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2004/2004-7.pdf, 3.
24 Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 59.
25 Angela Ryczkowski, “What if a Fig Tree Won’t Bear Fruit,” eHow, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.ehow.com/info_8094518_fig-tree-wont-bear-fruit.html.
26 Sidnie White Crawford, “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: Romans, Greeks, and Jews The World of Jesus and the Disciples,” Journal of Religion & Society, Supplement Series 1, (2004): 5, accessed May 29, 2012, http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2004/2004-7.pdf, 4.
27 James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 92.
28 Dr. Donald B. DeYoung, “What’s special about the Sea of Galilee?,” ChristianAnswers.net, accessed June 3, 2012, http://christiananswers.net/q-eden/ednk-seaofgalilee.html.
29 “Sea of Galilee,” BiblePlaces.com, accessed June 3, 2012, http://www.bibleplaces.com/seagalilee.htm.
30 Peter Bull, “Jesus Christ Master Mason,” Peter’s Gematria Site, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.masoncode.com/Jesus%20Christ%20Master%20Mason.htm.
31 Clark Halker, “Jesus Was A Carpenter: Labor Song-Poets, Labor Protest, and True Religion in Gilded Age America.” Labor History 32, no. 2 (Spring 91 1991), 273. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed May 28, 2012).