A friend recently pointed me to a new book, which claims that Joseph was not a carpenter, but rather a successful, middle class and highly intellectual architect, and that from ages 12 to 30 Jesus attended religious schools and became the highest ranking rabbi in the land. The self-published book, by Adam Bradford, is called The Jesus Discovery, and the thesis is described in this newspaper article. I’d like to explore the issue of Jesus’ occupation a little bit in response to this type of claim.
This issue comes up in two verses in the Gospels; first, Mark 6:3:
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.
Second, Matthew 13:55:
Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
The Greek word rendered “carpenter” in these passages is tektOn. So what is a tektOn? The word basically means one who makes or constructs, and is used primarily for a builder, carpenter, craftsman. (The root tek- “to make” comes into English in such words as tectonic “of or related to building” and architect “master builder.”)
Note that the context in these two passages from the Gospels is mildly pejorative; the occupation of tekton does not seem to be held in excessively high esteem by the townspeople of Nazareth. It has been suggested that the later Matthean parallel fudged the passage a little bit by juxtaposing the term of Joseph rather than Jesus. It is of course true that Jesus almost certainly would have followed the same trade as his (putative) father Joseph, but not actually predicating the word tekton of Jesus himself may have been an attempt at softening the criticism against him by the townspeople by making it apply directly to his father and only indirectly to himself.
It is true that the rendering “carpenter,” which in English implies working only in wood, is too narrow a rendering, as a tekton can be one who works in wood, stone or even metal. In the Septuagint, the word tekton is an artificer of wood or stone (often used of idol makers), but usually of wood. There are also some 2nd century sources: According to Maximus Tyrius, the tekton makes arotra (plows). Justin says that he makes both arotra and zuga (yokes). Epictetus said he worked with wood. Aelius Aristides says with stone.
If Jesus worked primarily with wood, he probably made plows, yokes, and things like tables and chairs (cf. that scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is making a table and talking to his mother Mary; I thought that was the most delightful scene in the entire film). If he worked with stone, perhaps he was a home builder, as homes in that region were primarily made of stone, not wood.
Nazareth was a very small village and may not have been able to support a full-time tekton. But it is interesting that Nazareth was not far (less than six kilometers) from Sepphoris, which was a bustling center of Greco-Roman civilization.
In 1931 L. Waterman made excavations on the site. To the Roman period belongs a large theater, of which only a section was excavated. This building is of the Roman type, about 110 feet in diameter, and is estimated to have seated between 4,000 and 5,000 spectators. The stage (scaenae frons) was about 90 feet long and 18 feet wide. There were no entrances in the stage building, but it had towers at each end. To the same period belong remains of an aqueduct, a tunnel and reservoirs, part of the water-supply system of the city, through which water was brought from a spring miles away. (See Negev, A. (1996, c1990). The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press.) This would have been a logical place for a tekton from Nazareth to find work.
It’s interesting to note that, according to Geza Vermes in his book Jesus the Jew, in Talmudic sayings the Aramaic word for carpenter or craftsman, naggar, was sometimes used metaphorically to stand for “scholar” or “learned man.” I’m guessing that this is the kind of point that the author is relying on in claiming that Jesus was a profound and recognized religious scholar and rabbi. Also, I know there is at least one passage in classical Greek where the word tekton is used to refer to a doctor (physician), and I’ve seen people try to argue that Jesus was actually a doctor(!)
What bothers me about this type of argumentation is the need many people seem to feel to elevate the social class of Jesus. These people are not comfortable conceiving of Jesus as the humble carpenter, craftsman or artificer from Nazareth. I personally disagree with this point of view; I actually very much like that the Savior came from humble origins and learned the trade of his father, working with his hands and making things.
So I’m not buying the author’s argument. What do you think about this?