Jesus the Carpenter: Why?
Isn’t this the carpenter?
Early in the Gospel of Mark, we get a small statement about Jesus’s other profession—that of a carpenter. The back story of this small statement is from Jesus’s visit to his hometown. Previous to this, Jesus had preached the Sermon on the Mount, spent forty days in the wilderness, and had been baptized. Along the way, he gathered up his twelve disciples. He had cured many and cast out demons. Now it was time to return to his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus was around thirty years old at the time of this visit.
During this time in his hometown, he spoke in the synagogue and preached on the streets, but those in his hometown couldn’t accept that he was now this great missionary of God. Amazed, they exclaimed, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” His hometown folks couldn’t separate his past from who he had become. They got angry and rejected Jesus, prompting Jesus to say: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” Jesus left Nazareth and continued his earthly mission.
We all know the rest of the story.
He became a great speaker and the human messenger of God. He died on the cross and rose on the third day. Most of the rest of the Gospels focus on his earthly mission. But, like all items in the Bible, this reference to being a carpenter stands out. It certainly isn’t just a “throw in.”
It is important in what is missing. Consider that there is a silent period in the Gospels about Jesus for approximately eighteen years. We know about his birth and a vague reference to him being in the temple of Jerusalem at the age of twelve. Historians and scholars place his age at around thirty when he started preaching and healing. So what happened to Jesus during this eighteen year period commonly called by scholars as “the hidden period?” It is unlikely Jesus sat on the family couch and did nothing during this time. This statement about being a carpenter gives us a clue.
First, what was the original word for a carpenter in the early first century?
The original language of Mark was ancient Greek, as the Gospel was written for the Gentile audience. The word in the original document was Tekton, meaning craftsman. But did it mean carpenter or something else? Some scholars believe he was really a stonemason, as there was little timber in the area around Nazareth.
Fortunately, we do have some later, non-Biblical writings that give us a clue. For example, a few generations after Jesus’s life St. Justin wrote, “Our Lord, made plows and yokes.”. This seems to suggest that Jesus was, in fact, a carpenter. Okay, so what kind of carpenter? It was the tradition in the first century that the son would take up the craft of his father. Here we get another clue.
In Matthew 13:55 it says, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”
Circumstantially, there is strong evidence that Jesus worked as a carpenter during the “hidden period” from age twelve to thirty. If Jesus did work in Nazareth, a relatively small town, he and his father would have been the only carpentry shop in town, meaning he was likely a capable general carpenter. Perhaps the wood they worked with came from Lebanon or Syria.
So, knowing this, what does this mean in the larger context of Jesus’s life? Well, that depends on how we view Jesus’s awareness of his divinity. Scholars describe it this way—a low awareness of his divinity is called a “Low Christology.” A high awareness by Jesus would be a “High Christology.” What kind of Christology Jesus had at the time is open to much debate amongst scholars. Some say Jesus wasn’t aware of his divinity until he rose from the dead—a low Christology. Others will say, he was very aware throughout his life—a high Christology.
Personally, I think he had a very high Christology based on his constant references to the future. But this is a hotly debated issue among theological scholars. As such, readers have their own thoughts about Jesus’s awareness of his divinity.
However, it doesn’t change the story.
If it is a low Christology, then he had to learn the life of the masses. He didn’t preach to the elite, and his twelve disciples weren’t professional clergy. His message was to the masses. So, what better way to learn than to be one of the everyday people of Judea by being a carpenter. In this way, he would learn what to say and how to reach people. In the first century, nine out of ten people lived at or below subsistence levels. There was no middle class. Most of Judea worked. Becoming familiar with their lives would have been a great asset to Jesus.
If it is a high Christology, then Jesus was fully aware of the subsistent life. As such, perhaps he worked to make himself identifiable—someone the people, other than those in his hometown, could trust.
One thing is clear: of the forty-five parables, thirty-five have a direct connection to everyday life and work. Either he developed knowledge while working as a carpenter, or he worked as a carpenter to become more identifiable. As a carpenter,
Jesus had experience that most would value and trust.
While much of the Gospels relate to Jesus’s teachings and healings, there are hidden clues for the curious as to what he did before the age of thirty. It was a period of preparation for the most remarkable life in human history. Jesus knew the everyday person and was with them. The word “Emmanuel” best describes this. Emmanuel means “God is with us.” Jesus, as a carpenter, was with the first century people and is still with us today.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
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