In popular accounts of the life of Jesus, he is often portrayed as a carpenter. But is it true?
Throughout most English translations of the Gospels, the Son of God is referred to as a “carpenter” as in Mark 6:3, which reads: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
Yet the Greek work here is “tekton” — often translated in English as “carpenter”— is better translated “builder,” which could just as easily refer to a stone mason, according to religious scholar James Tabor.
Tabor noted in a December blog entry that it is important to note the context in which Jesus lived and how that informed his teachings.
“If one looks at the various stories Jesus tells as parables and analogies, related to his message of the Kingdom of God, the image of a stone mason or builder is dominant — even down to the details of how to plan, finance, and properly lay a solid foundation for a substantial building or tower,” Tabor wrote.
“Whether he was a skilled day laborer, a contract worker, or perhaps, even a managing contractor, we have no way of knowing.”
The scholar continued that during the years when Jesus was growing up walking the earth, Herod Antipas was rebuilding the city of Sepphoris (Tspori in Hebrew), as his capital. Nazareth, which was located less than four miles to the southeast, “would have been caught up in the economic building boom spurred by this major project.”
“It is quite easy to imagine Jesus, his adopted father Joseph, and his brothers as they came along in age, working in the building trades in Sepphoris. This is quite a different picture than the quaint romanticized image of little Jesus working in his father Joseph’s wood shop, so often pictured in family Bibles.”
Indeed it is no coincidence that Jesus employed the language of his profession to communicate important truths. Following the chief priests, scribes, and elders questioning of Jesus’s authority in the temple in Luke 20, Jesus shared the parable of the wicked tenants. When he finished, he looked at them and said: “What then is this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?”‘
Likewise, Hebraic scholar James W. Fleming, has noted in his 2004 book The Jewish Background of Jesus that the majority of homes were constructed with stone.
“Jesus and Joseph would have formed and made nine out of ten projects from stone either by chiseling or carving the stone or stacking building blocks.”
Trees are not plentiful in the region of the world where Jesus lived, making it thereby less likely that he used wood in his daily work.