Jesus Christ, Ph.D.

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?

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  1. Stephanie says:

    To me it seems like a way to discredit the miracle of Christ or His divinity.

  2. I think the argument isn’t necessarily fueled by a desire to elevate the status of Jesus to save him from being seen as a poor man. It could just as easily be fueled by a desire to be as accurate as possible in describing the historical Jesus (however misled or impossible doing so would be). The news article points out that Jesus might be seen as a personal example of one who forsook everything to follow his father, as he then asked the rich young ruler to do.

  3. “Jesus Christ, Ph.D.,” or Jesus Christ, architect,” remind me of arguments my father told me decades ago when he was gospel doctrine teacher researching the New Testament. He must have read some outside articles, but the gist was that he believed the Davidic genealogies created for Jesus by Matthew and Luke proved that if it hadn’t been for Roman interference and Herodian (and presumably Hasmonean) usurpations, Jesus would, in fact, have been the ruling King of Judea, i.e., he argued for “Jesus Christ, legitimate heir to the throne.”

  4. Left Field says:

    John, I believe that idea comes from Talmage.

  5. Stephanie,

    How does it discredit the miracle of Christ, or his divinity whether or not he was born in lower class or upper class? He was, after all, according to his lineage, the actual King of the Jews.

    Isn’t this person’s argument the same as Matthew and Luke’s, who were trying to elevate Jesus by showing his lineage was in line with the Kings of Israel? Was there maybe some embarrassment in the Apostles at the lowliness of Jesus’s birth and life?

  6. In an obvious parallel (but I will point it out anyway) it is strange that Mormons seem to view with significant favor that Joseph Smith came from humble origins, whereas many (most? all?) Catholics view his station in life as a serious strike against the divinity of the religion he started.

    In fact, when Tom Skerritt (the father/Presbyterian minister in A River Runs Through It) dismissively denounced Methodists as just “Baptists that could read”, I laughed out loud and nodded along. I was raised with “Jesuistry” (the heart of Jesus married to the mind of a Jesuit), and thought that although the mind without the heart was unanchored, the heart without the mind was superstitious, which is worse. In fact, avowed atheists teach at Loyola Marymount University in LA, but no to my knowledge no uneducated speakers in tongues.

    Still, if belief in the next world is all the prevents class warfare in this one, count me as a true believer.

  7. It seems to me that I recently heard someone making a similar argument for Jesus being a “mason.” I can’t remember where though.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Daniel #5, my thinking is that if Jesus is considered “trained” in theology, then it lessens the impact of His teachings that He claims come straight from the Father (I’m referring to the part about Him attending religious schools for his whole adult life and achieving the rank of “highest rabbi” in the land).

  9. Well, if nothing else he deserves a few honorary PhDs. :)

  10. Latter-day Guy says:

    9: Yeah, like Glenn Beck.

  11. #10. *No, not like Glenn Beck.*

    Comparing the accomplishments of Glenn Beck to Jesus Christ is a little silly. Even if you reject His divinity (which I’m sure you don’t), Christ’s ideas have influenced the philosophies many of the greatest minds of mankind. (Example: Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Martin Luther and many others.)

    You can earn honorary degrees for such contributions to rational thought, but not for being a bona-fide nut job. (*cough* Glenn Beck *cough*)

  12. #10, but then again you may have been completely joking. (Something I have had a hard time discerning lately here. :)) If so, haha.

  13. Hmm, I’m not so sure. I’m fairly confident that Glenn Beck will be remembered as the Kierkegaard of our time.

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    Comparing the accomplishments of Glenn Beck to Jesus Christ is a little silly… but then again you may have been completely joking.

    Yup, and yup.

  15. I saw something on the History Channel (or maybe National Geographic Channel) which argued that the word “carpenter” in the Gospels would be more accurately translated as “day-laborer”. Like the men I see waiting outside Home Depot every day, waiting for opportunities to work. Even lower in status than a carpenter or artificer.
    Sorry, don’t have a reference for this, though.

  16. Norbert says:

    I’m with you, Kevin. The confounding of the wise and a embodiment of the first being last etc. is a part of the narrative I really connect with.

  17. Aaron R. says:

    Kevin and Norbert, I think both your comments could be read in reverse and also highlight a different notion of how class functions in society. People resist being upper class becase it has connotations of superiority, elitism and pride. Why do we feel the need to hold to Jesus class position in order to assert his humility and his for-the-people attitude. I thought the OP was very interesting as I had not encountered these notions before but I think there are other narratives that could be derived from a Jesus Ph.D origin.

    For example, we might see the importance of learning to love those socially distant from ourselves, or we might see the importance of resisting and rejecting parts of our own privileged culture and working to critique from within.

    These clearly aren’t considered possibilities but I just think the preference for a poor-humble Christ reveals more about the ideologies constructed around issues of class than it does about Jesus’ character or message.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    If I thought the evidence indicated that Jesus was some sort of upper middle class professional or recognized public intellectual, that would be fine with me. In my view the evidence, such as it is, clearly does not support such fantasies, and so I see efforts to prop up Jesus’ social standing as being driven more by the desires of those doing the propping up.

  19. Aaron R. says:

    Kevin, I appreciate that you do not think the argument is strong but your last two comments do suggest that it might not be fine with you:

    “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.”

    Norbet said a similar thing. It is these comments that I was referring to. Although I am not questioning your analysis I am merely pointing to another dynamic that is implied in your OP. Hopefully I have not mis-understood what you meant by these comments.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    In my view the evidence suggests humble origins. It’s true that I’m perfectly fine with, and even prefer, such an understanding of his origins. But if there really were compelling evidence that Jesus was the chief rabbi of the land, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I just perceive people as pushing that higher social status for reasons other than the actual evidence, and I do have a problem with that.

  21. Fletcher says:

    The next book will say that Jesus’ name is really Art Vandelay, the architect.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, good one, Fletcher!

  23. #13: “I’m fairly confident that Glenn Beck will be remembered as the Kierkegaard of our time.”

    Then he better start learning quickly to be a better writer.

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    Is there any biographical info on Adam Bradford? It seems like many who claim Jesus was wealthy also espouse the prosperity gospel. Hmmm.

  25. I always thought of Jesus’ humble origins as evidence of God’s character. He was willing to send His only begotten son into a place, time and body which wasn’t desirable. Born in a stable, “no apparent beauty”, no blessings and gifts of an upper class upbringing…that sort of thing. Another evidence of what God uses His power for and what really matters in being able to fulfill your life’s work.

    Also considering a bulk of humanity is in the lower class, I’ve always felt it was part of the development of christ’s empathy-understanding the bulk of humanity has to work hard for their food and live more simply.

    It is true some of His teachings would be different if He were upper class…the “go and sell all you hath” sounds a little different if it comes from a rich guy who’s already done that.

    It doesn’t change any of the miracles…it’s not like we could blame the rising of Lazurus on some sort of book learning if He had been trained as a Dr of the day. We are told to study from the best books, so I don’t know how it would be a problem to learn that Jesus had done so.

  26. When a culture or society interprets Jesus (and other important religious figures) they are essentially taking a Rorschach test and disclosing to us their values and priorities. In other words, when we talk about Jesus- we are holding a mirror up to ourselves. MikeInWeHo said that those who consider Jesus to have been rich, believe in the prosperity gospel. So true! We’re imposing our beliefs on history. Puritans believed in a vengeful Jesus- and were a punative society. Here in the states in the ’70’s Jesus was a ‘revolutionary rebel’ and in the ’50’s- a traditionalist. The intellectuals on the bloggernacle highlight Jesus the PhD- and are . . . scholars themselves. Thoughout history various groups have interpreted Jesus to be just about everything- rich/poor, educated/uneducated, middle/hig/low class, alternative/traditional, etc. We do the same thing for Mary mother of Jesus, Jospeh Smith, Brigham, BoM characters (especially Lehi/Nephi and family) and many others- extract or impose those traits that support our own values and priorties. There was a really insightful Newsweek cover story about this a few years back- highlighting the various socieities throughout history and their interpretations of Jesus.

  27. de Pizan says:

    I’m curious in this theory how he explains how Mary and Joseph were so poor at the time of Jesus’ birth that they could only afford 2 doves, the smallest and cheapest sacrifice allowed?

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent points, both about the Rorschach test and the temple offerings.

  29. Of course, the offering for the poor (2 pigeons) came before the Magi with their costly gifts. This line of thought might explain why Jesus was never dismissed by the authorities as uneducated or side-lined as irrelevant. I checked this out and there is an mp3 link to a lecture the guy gave on this at
    Slightly different take to the traditional chair maker line…

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