Was Jesus a Carpenter?

Preston Sprinkle —  December 19, 2011

A few days ago, I raised the question whether Jesus was born at an inn and concluded that he probably was not. For some reason, I enjoy questioning our modern view of Jesus, not because I like to be edgy, but because I love to wipe clean our cultural lenses that cloud our reading of Scripture and get to the heart of what God actually said.

On that note, did God actually say that his Son was a carpenter during his 30-year stay on earth?

Maybe, but maybe not. The text is not that clear. Now, most of you may agree with me, since we now know that Jesus was not a carpenter but a stone mason. But this is just as unclear as the tradition about Jesus being a carpenter.

So what was Jesus’ vocation growing up?

To be clear, we don’t have any record in the New Testament about Jesus working with wood, laying stones, or helping his pop out in the shop. The only references we have to Jesus’ vocation are the two times when He’s called a tekton or the son of a tekton (the word often translated “carpenter”).

  • “Is not this the carpenter (tekton), the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?” (Mark 6:3).
  • “Is not this the carpenter’s (tekton) son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt 13:55)

Now, tekton could refer to a carpenter or a stonemason, but the word simply refers to “one who works with his hands.” If someone wants to describe a carpenter, the phrase they’d use would be “a tekton of wood;” if a mason, then “a tekton of stone.” The absence of either stone or wood as a modifier indicates that the gospel writers didn’t specify which occupation Jesus and his father were engaged in. Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 simply say that they worked with their hands—they were laborers who performed physically demanding and socially shameful jobs.

And I think this is the point. In highlighting Jesus’ occupation, the point is not that Jesus was a carpenter and not, say, a fisherman or a mason (or a mason and not a carpenter, etc.), but that Jesus was a blue-collar worker and not a white collar worker; a peasant and not a noble; a man of humble origins and was not born into a family of high social standing.

So how did the tradition arise that Jesus was a carpenter?

In the early church, some leaders assumed that Jesus worked with wood. Justin Martyr, for instance, noted that Jesus made various farm instruments out of wood—plows, yokes, and other tools (Dial. 88). In an effort to glorify Jesus’ humble occupation, the Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas has the boy Jesus miraculously extending wood that his father cut too short. In any case, the retelling of Jesus’ vocation as a woodworker became as firm as a 2×4, so that even today this tradition is more or less assumed.

Again, maybe Jesus was a carpenter or a stonemason—or maybe he tried his hand at both. The text isn’t clear. But the point of the reference to his occupation in Mark 6/Matt 13 is to show that our majestic Savior, born in a feeding trough to an underprivileged couple with a shameful reputation, learned the trade of a peasant. He was a tekton, he worked with his hands, unlike the high and mighty kings of the day. In doing so, Jesus is the exemplar of Deuteronomy 17—the king whose “heart may not be lifted up above his brothers.”

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Jonathan Bowman

    Preston,

    Totally unrelated, but I am reading your book “Paul and Judaism Revisited” and am really enjoying it. I found it interesting that the book is dedicated to Joey Dodson. He is speaking to my students in a few weeks. Anyway, I enjoyed your post. Keep lifting up Jesus!

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks for dropping in, Jonathan! That’s super cool to have Joey come speak to your students. He’s a pretty awesome dude!

  • john

    my king was a day laborer born to laborers, he was never a wealthy man yet gave and provided for the many. He was tortured and murdered by the wealthy and powerful upper class. He was betrayed by those he taught and the religious leadership to men of false laws. They wished to keep their pride and wrath over spiritual fortitude. They chose a foreign king’s gold over their own people. His physical life ended with no clothes, starving and thirsty and no shelter over his head. He taught that the least of humanity who is in dire ned should receive the same treatment of hospitality and care any of his subjects would show him. His final words were not asking mercy for himself, but requesting answers to lifes riddles and that his mother be well cared for in her old age. His spirit was made eternal in his self sacrifice. He did not bring war and all its suffering, yet taught a higher form of peace

  • Mike Hardwick

    Another point maybe that as a humble General-Builder his occupation was putting roofs over the heads of the local families rather than ornamenting the temple!

  • http://christiangirl3712.posterous.com HeatherEV

    He wasn’t the son of a carpenter? Wow. Didn’t know that. Interesting.

    (BTW, what does it say about my math skills when I have trouble answering the math question at the bottom in order to write my comment? Thinking I need a refresher class somewhere…)

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Matt 13 says he was the son of a carpenter, while Mark 6 says he was a carpenter.

      • preston sprinkle

        Sorry, just so people don’t think I’m nuts, Matt 13 says that Jesus was the son of a tekton (usually translated carpenter) and Mark 6 says that Jesus was a tekton (again, usually translated carpenter).

  • http://www.theologyislife.com Andy Snider

    Well, I’m not a tekton nor the son of a tekton, but I appreciate this post. Good stuff, my friend.

    Oh, BTW, that last picture is from Popular Science about 10 years ago, isn’t it? I’ve used it in class before, but I’ve always found it mildly disturbing, like those supposed facial reconstructions of a pre-human hominid somewhere up the evolutionary chain? I think it’s the vacant expression that bugs me. Looks like one of those stones he may or may not have worked with just fell on his head. I don’t picture Jesus having that expression on his face.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks Andy. I didn’t actually know where I got that picture from. A couple years ago, I Googled Jesus and of all the pictures that pop up, this one seemed the most historically accurate. Jewish men in the first century didn’t have long hair, and neither does this picture. Jesus is portrayed as a middle-eastern peasant, and again, this picture seems to capture this. So overall, it’s the best (or better) picture I’ve found, but I agree with you that his expression doesn’t seem to capture the tone of what we have in the gospels. I was cracking up at your description of just getting hit in the head with one of his stones! So ya, the picture is ok, but we could still do a bit better.

      BTW, gotta do that Thai lunch! I’m free next week after Christmas if you are. This week’s still a little nuts.

  • http://saet-online.org/category/blog Jason B. Hood

    ” I enjoy questioning our modern view of Jesus, not because I like to be edgy, but because I love to wipe clean our cultural lenses that cloud our reading of Scripture and get to the heart of what God actually said.”

    “But the point of the reference to his occupation in Mark 6/Matt 13 is to show that our majestic Savior, born in a feeding trough to an underprivileged couple with a shameful reputation, learned the trade of a peasant. He was a tekton, he worked with his hands, unlike the high and mighty kings of the day.”

    Great stuff Preston.

    • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

      Thanks Jason. Glad to have you drop in!