How Jesus became a carpenter

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by Neil Godfrey

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

It looks to me very much as if the association of carpentry (or artisan of any kind) being associated with Jesus originated as a clever rhetorical device. Mark is regularly associated with “irony” and maybe that trait was also the origin of Jesus’ first job description.

The word Mark uses is tekton, and BibleStudyTools offers its meanings (bluntly and without discrimination as to the when’s and where’s of such meanings) here as:

a worker in wood, a carpenter, joiner, builder
a ship’s carpenter or builder
any craftsman, or workman
the art of poetry, maker of songs
a planner, contriver, plotter
an author

Mark wrote 6:1-6:

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow hm.

And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?

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.

But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.

The interlinear Greek and English for the critical verses 2-3 can be viewed here.

I can’t help being a little curious about a couple of details here, and one is the way the tekton word is introduced.

Jesus is called a ‘tekton/artisan’ in response to the rhetorical reference to “mighty works wrought by his hands“. (Mark 6:2-3).

Now “handiwork” is exactly what a tekton does.

Doesn’t this come across as another example of Mark’s portrayal of the spiritual blindness of the lesser mortals — similar to sceptics saying: Is this the shepherd/potter of Israel? And the narrator has them trip over themselves by replying: Nah, just a shepherd/potter.

Whether the tekton reference is historical or not, there certainly appears to be literary artifice in the way it is introduced. And perhaps not only literary artifice, but also theological intent. Does not Mark regularly depict spiritual blindness by mundane images taken at face value, and elsewhere lace his stories with details that are really spiritual symbols? (the fruitless fig tree, leaven, temple destruction and rebuilding in 3 days, blind Bartimaeus’s garment, healing the blind, 40 days in the wilderness, Simon-Jairus inverted parallels, etc.)

Does not this literary and theological context of Mark give some cause to pause before assuming the tekton reference is referring to historical reality?

Does it not look as if the tekton/carpenter/artisan job of Jesus is planted there by Mark in “Markan-ironic” response to the charge that he was rumoured to have produced so many “great works by his hands”.

And if there is a literary-theological explanation for such a detail as Jesus’ job description at hand, on what basis can we take a leap into wherever and assert that Jesus really was, historically, a carpenter, or even a son of a carpenter?

Afterthought: I should add to the above the additional irony (if it were intended) that according to both Cicero and Sirach people of the artisan class were incapable of aspiring to any sort of higher “wisdom”. Note the cynical reference to “wisdom” in the Markan passage.

See Sirach 38:24-34 and Cicero, Off. 1.150-51 as evidence that Jews and Romans did not believe an artisan can be “counted among the wise, educated, and learned”.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “How Jesus became a carpenter”

  1. you little liars do nothing but antagonize…

    and you try to eliminate all the dreams and hopes of humanity…

    but you LOST…



    Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism…




    atheists deny their own life element…



  2. Yes, the carpenter storyline is interesting. Why not a butcher or a candlestick maker…..

    The definition you referenced includes the idea of an author – which would take one into the realm of ideas etc. And, interestingly, it is after Jesus has preached in the synagogue that the carpenter designation is first put upon him. Mark having the people asking just where did Jesus get his wisdom from. A little while back, on FRDB, a reference was made to the book ‘Jesus the Jew’ by Vermes, page 21, and its mention that the Talmudic sayings have the Aramaic noun denoting carpenter or craftsman (naggar) standing for a ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’.

    From a mythicist perspective, what could be symbolized by ‘the carpenter’s son’. Building comes to the fore. In both the building of David’s palace and the building of Solomon’s temple, carpenters were involved. The King of Tyre sending Cedar logs and carpenters, along with the stonemasons, for work on the palace. Carpenters again coming from Tyre, with Cedar logs from Lebanon, for the re-building of the Temple – as authorized by Cyrus.

    Like the literal, man-made, earthly temple, the new spiritual temple, likewise, required ‘carpenters’………the chief cornerstone, the masonry, being the risen Christ…….

    So, instead of the Cedar logs from Lebanon used by carpenters for the re-building of Solomon’s temple – the new spiritual temple is being built with ‘logs’ of intellectual fiber. Scholars and learned men – the usual background from which intellectual evolution springs…

    Methinks the gospel storyline re a carpenter from Nazareth has little to do with a carpenter with the kitchen table on his mind!

  3. Do you know the source of that Talmudic reference? I didn’t include it because I couldn’t recall where it was from or when, exactly. But I’d be interested if you can point me to it.

    There are also the Cicero (Off. 1.150-51) and Ben Sirach (38:24-34) statements that artisans belonged to a class that could never aspire to wisdom. And Mark adds speaks also of his own people dismissing the “wisdom” they had heard so much about in connection with Jesus. (Damn, should have thought of that when I wrote the post, too!)

    1. I don’t have Vermes’s book – and it’s not on google books – so where exactly his references are I can’t find them….
      I did find the first page of a review of his book by Leo Landman, a review which mentions that Vermes cites two instances in the Palestinian Talmud to support his understanding of ‘naggar’ – that it was used metaphorically to denote a scholar.


      Possibly both interpretations have something to offer – the scholarly one and the carpenter being required as part of building a spiritual temple (as they were required for the physical temple).

      Interesting also is that the gospel of Matthew has shifted the carpenter tag onto Joseph – as though the carpenter tag on Jesus might somehow have been thought to be an embarrassment…..Luke is not interested in the carpenter storyline but has Jesus, 12 years old, growing in wisdom and sitting among the teachers and questioning them in the temple….- and everyone is amazed at his understanding and his answers….Perhaps Mark is just using word play in his storyline. A word play that could denote an intellectual , metaphorical, context to his Jesus storyline. Matthew, later, decided to downplay this aspect by sidestepping the Markan Jesus as carpenter – giving this role to his father Joseph – thus making the storyline more literal sounding – son learns trade from his father sort of thing…

  4. Robert Price has an alternate explanation for this that has always rang true for me. He mentions it in one of his books but I found it online:

    “Take the gospel Jesus story as a whole, whether earlier or later than the Jesus story of the Epistles; it is part and parcel of the Mythic Hero Archetype shared by cultures and religions worldwide and throughout history (Lord Raglan and then, later, Alan Dundes showed this in great detail.). Leave the gospel story on the table, then. You still do not have any truly historical data. There is no “secular” biographical information about Jesus. Even the seeming “facts” irrelevant to faith dissolve upon scrutiny. Did he live in Nazareth? Or was that a tendentious reinterpretation of the earlier notion he had been thought a member of the Nazorean sect? Did he work some years as a carpenter? Or does that story not rather reflect the crowd’s pegging him as an expert in scripture, a la the Rabbinic proverb, “Not even a carpenter, or a carpenter’s son could solve this one!”? Was his father named Joseph, or is that an historicization of his earlier designation as the Galilean Messiah, Messiah ben Joseph? On and on it goes, and when we are done, there is nothing left of Jesus that does not appear to serve all too clearly the interests of faith, the faith even of rival, hence contradictory, factions among the early Christians.”

    You can read it here: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=193400388&blogId=288405642

  5. Yes, I have come across that, and thanks for supplying the actual saying here. It is certainly plausible. But at the same time the tekton is introduced into the story in response not to the wisdom of his teaching, but to the wisdom/skill of the works of his hands (miracles).

    Maybe it’s not an either/or thing. Who knows if the preaching in the synagogue prompted the thought of the saying (or the saying prompted the setting of preaching in the synagogue), and Mark ran with it just a bit further?

    I don’t think in reality there is any need to wonder if the rabbinic saying went back to the supposed time of Jesus, since I tend to think that Mark was writing in rabbinic times anyway and was indeed writing in part as a “Christian” opposition to the “rabbinic” responses to the crisis of 70 (maybe later).

  6. “The Aramaic equivalent of ‘carpenter’ can also mean ‘learned man’, but it is unlikely that this signification is applicable to Jesus.” p. 399 of ‘The Authentic Gospel of Jesus’ by Geza Vermes.

    1. I found ‘Jesus the Jew’, by Vermes, on Amazon – and was able to have a look at pages 21 and 22. The Talmud says are these:

      This is something that no carpenter, son of carpenter’s, can explain.
      There is no carpenter, nor a son of carpenter’s, to explain it.

      (unfortunately I couldn’t access the reference numbers…)

      Vermes goes on to say that these type of sayings are probably age-old – but no certainty that they would have been known in Galilee in the first century. He does say that if this Talmud view is possible then ‘the charming picture of Jesus the carpenter’ may have to be buried and forgotten’. (perhaps in his later books he has toned down his earlier perspective……)

      I tried a google search for these Talmud sayings and found this article – which does have the Talmud references…..

      Gerald Brown, Ed.D. (2007)


      Obviously, for the gospel storyline, a literal carpenter, an ordinary everyday workman, who was able to rise above his background and be chosen by god for a special mission – that type of storyline has a strong appeal.

      However, if it’s a historical plausible beginnings for Christianity that we are after – then perhaps it’s more fruitful to look for alternative explanations – particularly when the words used can be interpreted in other than their very literal meaning. And, especially, when dealing with the gospel of Mark – looking out for allegorical or alternative readings might be more rewarding.

  7. Carpenters in Flavius Josephus “Antiquities of the Jews” 15.11.2:

    “(390) He (Herod) got ready a thousand wagons to carry the stones and chose ten thousand of the most skilled workmen and bought a thousand vestments for as many priests and had some trained as stone-cutters and others as carpenters and then began to build, but not until everything had been well prepared.”


    From Liddel/Scott Greek English Lexicon, some of the possible usages or translations of Tekton: ….a planner, contriver, plotter …. Could tekton be a “weasel word” a deliberately ambiguous translation of an earlier source’s “revolutionary” using its synonym plotter or contriver.


    The endnotes quoted below are from “http://www.a4t.org/Sermons/Brown/carpenter-scholar.pdf.”: I find much in the main body of the text questionable, perhaps even divorced from reality, but the references are useful. Mercurius appears to be a Talmudic term for idolator.

    1. Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 7b and 66a. The Jerusalem Talmud has not been translated into English, but these passages have been translated for this article by Rivi Litvin, president of The Hope of Israel Ministries in Corona, California. “This is something that no carpenter nor a son of a carpenter I can explain.” The word (nagar) literally means carpenter or craftsman, but is an idiomatic expression for a scholar.

    2. Babylonian Talmud, Translated by Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Jew’s College/Soncino English translation, Tractate ‘Aboda Zarah 50. “R. Joseph b. Abba said: Rabbah b. Jeremiah once visited our town. When he came he brought with him this teaching: If an idolater took stones from a Mercurius and paved roads and streets with them, they are permitted; if an Israelite took stones from a Mercurius and paved roads 1 and streets with them, they are prohibited; [and he added that] there was no scholar or scholar’s son who could elucidate this teaching. R. Shesheth said: I am neither a scholar nor a scholar’s son, yet I can elucidate it. What is the difficulty?”
    Brackets in the quote are Dr. Epstein’s. The footnote #2 for scholar states: “Lit., ‘skilled artisan’, i.e., an ordained Rabbi.” The footnote #3 for scholar’s son states: “A Rabbinical student.” There is no question in the mind of the Jewish translators that the Hebrew word for skilled craftsman is also applied to one who is a scholar, and that the son of a scholar is a rabbinic student. The Hebrew word is (nagar). Dr. Epstein’s English translation of The Babylonian Talmud can be found online at http://www.come-and-hear.com/tcontents.html. Mishna of Bikkurim, Chapter 3; Mishnah 3,http://www.ou.org/chagim/shavuot/bring.htm

    1. A new thread up on FRDB with a link to this newspaper article re a new book “The Jesus Discovery’ by Adam Bradford.


      “ Not a carpenter: Jesus ‘was the son of a middle-class architect’, new book claims.

      “He says a mistranslation of the Greek word ‘tekton’ to describe the profession of Joseph, Jesus’s father, is one of many mistakes that have led to a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ’s character. “

      “Dr Bradford claims that while ‘tekton’ is usually said to mean carpenter, it more accurately means master builder or architect. As an architect, Joseph would have had a higher social status that enabled him to better educate his son.”

      “’Christ enjoyed social privileges unavailable to an uneducated itinerant carpenter. Not only was he able to clear the official Temple market on two occasions without interference but he was also able to teach unhindered in the Temple courts and synagogues.”

      Seemingly, the book is coming from a historical Jesus perspective. However, the argument re ‘tekton’ is of interest to mythicists, or anyone interested in a plausible historical reconstruction of Christian history. Early Christianity most likely was the product of an intellectual elite – not the gospel storyline of carpenters, fishermen and tax collectors. In other words, the gospel storyline is the product of a highly sophisticated mind, or minds – and not the faded, hand me down, memories of a short lived crucified preacher. Wisdom beyond his years at age 12; a one year preacher, at age 30, who enthralled thousands with his words – and yet the gospel of John has others questioning this man’s learning: “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”
      (John 7:14-16). And Jesus replies: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me”.

      So, from an atheist perspective – the question must be – who sent him? Surely, that intellectual elite who produced the gospel storyline….Jesus just the puppet figure whose strings are being pulled…

  8. In the Eridu Genesis man was made from the blood of Lamga, the craftsman, the god of carpenters.

    “Lamga, Lamga, we will overthrow;
    From his blood mankind we will make,”

    Lamga was a common name of Tammuz, the god who died so that man might live”. Lamga is a common name of Tammuz as the name means ‘artisan, carpenter’, ‘Tammuz who binds together broken ligaments (as god of healing). Tammuz, the god who “died that man might live”. Another moon god, Sin, is ‘the great carpenter of heaven’. Here are a number of puzzling associations to be elucidated.


    Could it be that the lamb slain from the foundation of the world is Tammuz?

  9. One extraneous sentence in that last post. Try this…

    In the Eridu Genesis man was made from the blood of Lamga, the craftsman, the god of carpenters.

    “Lamga, Lamga, we will overthrow;
    From his blood mankind we will make,”

    “Lamga is a common name of Tammuz as the name means ‘artisan, carpenter’, ‘Tammuz who binds together broken ligaments (as god of healing). Tammuz, the god who “died that man might live”. Another moon god, Sin, is ‘the great carpenter of heaven’. Here are a number of puzzling associations to be elucidated.”


    Could it be that the lamb slain from the foundation of the world is Tammuz?

    1. A simpler explanation is that it’s just a story. I listened to the podcast and couldn’t take a single word seriously. It echoes the teachings of the now-defunce cult, the Radio or Worldwide Church of God, once led by Herbert W. Armstrong. His son, Garner Ted Armstrong, wrote a book “The Real Jesus” which said much the same sorts of things with the same speculative off-the-planet extrapolations from a few Greek roots and silences and tea-leaf pointers in the narrative.

      I see in a review “Dr Adam Bradford” is called a “biblical scholar”. But it seems his Doctorate qualifies him as a GP. But no matter. I don’t think having a doctorate in biblical studies necessarily means very much when one looks at a number of those who claim it.

  10. Geza Vermes’ theory is problematic.
    The context of the talmudic quote is a rabbinic debate in Babylon over the propriety of a Jew taking stones from a pile dedicated to Mercury and using them in construction. If a Jew does it, the road he paved is forbidden for Jewish use, yet the same thing done by an idolater is permitted. This is said by the Amoraic rabbis to be such a difficult question that there is no carpenter or son of a carpenter to dismantle it. We are obviously dealing here with a proverb, one that seems to mean a problem none can solve.
    Rav Sheshet says that though he is no carpenter or son of a carpenter, he can solve the problem. Here is the weakest point of the interpretation first offered by Rashi. Rav Sheshet was a Torah scholar addressing other Torah scholars!
    If a carpenter was a metaphor for scholar, then the use of it here is rather bewildering.
    Same thing with the account in Mark.
    The people of Nazareth hear Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and are surprised, indeed, startled by his wisdom (and perhaps his originality as well). Why would that come as a surprise if carpenter were a metaphor for learned scholar? People are surprised because they weren’t expecting a mere artisan to skillfuly expound scripture.


    1. It’s been a while since I read Vermes’ “Jesus the Jew” or Price’s “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man,” but I don’t think they were arguing that Mark actually intended for “carpenter” to mean “scholar” in the context he was using it.

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