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”.


The imaginary siblings of Jesus

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Brothers of Jesus
Brothers of Jesus; Image by djking via Flickr

The Gospel narratives provide strong positive evidence for why their authors chose to write about Jesus’ siblings. They explicitly meet a clear and specific requirement for the portrayal of a man of God who is to both follow and emulate the prophets who came before him. They also serve to illustrate a moral instruction of Jesus in the Gospels. These are positive reasons for thinking the family of Jesus is most probably a creation of the narratives’ authors.

Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers. The theme of rejection of the righteous and godly man by those close to him, including his own kin, is one of the most pervasive of themes in the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms and the Prophets.

The dismissive family serves as a foil to enhance the image of the divine calling and godliness of the hero. It is a trope probably as old as folklore itself. There is nothing embarrassing at all about their inclusion in the narrative. The rejection of Jesus by his siblings serves to enhance the readers’ sympathies for Jesus and places him squarely in the literary tradition of the way and the fate of all the godly.

So the narrative itself contains the reasons for the inclusion of the siblings of Jesus. They are portrayed as disbelievers who isolate Jesus on account of his real (hidden) identity.

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)

The Gospel authors also taught the need for a devotion to him that was so total that it excluded room for the affections of normal family relations (Mark 10:29-30). So they presented Jesus as the ideal type illustrative of such an attitude, and delivering teaching on the new affections that were to replace the old:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In all of this we can see how the authors find a narrative or theological reason for introducing the siblings of Jesus. We can say that the appearance of Jesus’ siblings is plot-driven.

The memorable scene of Jesus’ rejection in the earliest Gospel echoes several other rejection narratives in the “Old Testament”.

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

Again the author has explicitly stated that the reason for introducing this narrative detail about the family of Jesus is to illustrate a prophecy, or at least to place Jesus firmly within the prophetic tradition.

We cannot appeal to later traditions about the siblings of Jesus as evidence for their historicity since these most likely were born out of the Gospel narratives. (And the Josephus reference is worthless as evidence, for reasons summarized here.)

What, no James?

I think that the quick assumption that Galatians 1:19 is “proof” that Jesus had a physical brother is linked to some extent with our familiarity with the memorable (negative) role of Jesus’ brothers in the later Gospel narratives.

If the passage in Galatians referring to James “the brother of the Lord” was really written prior to the Gospels, and if this indeed spoke of a physical blood relationship, and if this same James became the head of the Church itself in Jerusalem, the Gospel authors have chosen to suppress any interest in this James or his destined conversion and future lead role.

I am tempted here to drop in the obvious argument from incredulity, “Why would they not contain a hint of any of this?”,  but I won’t say it (again). It is hardly necessary. We have no evidence at all to justify thinking there was a historical basis to the siblings of Jesus. But we do have strong narrative reasons for assuming they are literary creations.

But given the fact that the presumably later Gospel authors do not demonstrate any knowledge of a brother of Jesus destined to become the leader (or one of three leaders beside Peter and John) of the Church after the death of Jesus, and given the fact that there is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century), and given the fact that Paul used ‘brothers’ most commonly metaphorically, and given the fact of demonstrated layers and intentional and accidental editings in both biblical and nonbiblical writings of the time, to insist, in the face of these facts that Galatians 1:19 alone is “proof” of the historicity of Jesus, shows more courage than discretion.

(There are other speculations about possible motives for giving Jesus siblings, and these relate to doctrinal disputes over the physical or immaterial nature of Jesus at the time the Gospels were being composed. But I have opted not to discuss these since they also stray from the evidence at hand. It is worth noting, however, that at least such conjectures are based on known evidence. The assumption of the historicity of the siblings is based on no evidence at all. It is entirely a piece of unsupported but highly charged cultural heritage.)

James & Jesus
The historical James & Jesus; Image by trixie via Flickr


The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

When I wrote The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1) I was looking at the Jesus who emerges from the gospels after they had achieved the status of being the definitive life of Jesus. The intention is to examine the psychology of the family relationships of Jesus. The idea was sparked by a much more accomplished psychological study in relation to Achilles and Socrates by Richard Holway. In that article I was intrigued by the what the subtext of the personal relationships implied for the values and/or experiences of those who saw these men as models of certain virtues. Achilles is semi-divine in the mythology, but whether mythological or literary, the characters are viewed as creations of the human mind and as such their actions are the products human psychological processes. Ditto for Jesus. For what it’s worth, I’m adding another scratch to the surface of this exploratory thoughts here, though by no means in the depth that Holway delved. Continue reading “The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (2)”


The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Unlike Greek saviour-type heroes such as Achilles (and even Socrates), not once in the canonical gospels is Jesus shown to have had a healthy relationship with a normal loving woman, not even at birth. And is there a complementary dark significance to the absence of any hint of a relationship with his presumed stepfather, Joseph? What follows is my extrapolation of some thoughts brought to the surface by Richard Holway in his discussion of the mythology and psychology of Achilles and Socrates in his article Achilles, Socrates, and Democracy published in Political Theory, Vol. 22, No. 4. (Nov., 1994), pp.561-590. Continue reading “The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1)”