At Christmastime the thoughts of Christians naturally turn to Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly, little of a hard, historically factual nature is known about Jesus the Nazarene, also known as Jesus the Galilean or Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. Besides no “forensics” evidence, there is the “missing 17 years,” that period when reports on the goings on in His life (from ages 13 to 29) are almost non-existent. One thing we did think we knew for sure about Jesus was that he was a carpenter. But now historians are saying the profession of Jesus and his earthly father, Joseph, has been misinterpreted from ancient scripture.
By John Tiffany
Tradition has it that Jesus (Joshua, if you like—or Yehoshua, to give him the name he was probably known by in his life1) was a carpenter. And since that is what we were taught as children, we might like to believe it. But was he really?
From a historian’s secular point of view, we might ask: Given that there is a belief that Jesus was a carpenter, on what evidence is this belief based? Revisionists tend to question everything, since they have already learned that much of what they had been taught is not so.
Most of the primary evidence, such as it is, about the life of Jesus is embodied in the Bible and the Koran. However, when it comes to being a carpenter, the only evidence on the subject seems to be the writings in the Bible. So, then, what does the Bible actually say about it? First, bear in mind the original Biblical writings are in several languages. English, of course, did not even exist when it was first written. Back then, our ancestors were speaking Anglo-Saxon, Old Irish or whatever.
This writer, like most folks, has been taught that the New Testament was originally written in Greek (Koine). However, there are some who claim the New Testament (NT) was originally written in Aramaic, a Semitic language. This would mean the Greek manuscripts are translations from the Aramaic originals. Then the Greek was long ago put into Latin. Of course the Bible was eventually translated into English from the Greek and Latin versions.
It would appear that the disciples and apostles, or at least some of them, were at least able to speak in Greek, although their mother tongue was probably Aramaic. The same may be true of their leader.
As is noted by the director of the Bible-studying organization called Darkness to Light, Gary F. Zeolla, for the most part, the Old Testament (OT) was originally written in Hebrew. There are a few small sections that were written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Daniel chapters 2-7 and one verse in Jeremiah), says Zeolla.
Aramaic, naturally, is similar but not identical to Hebrew. For example, “teach er” in Hebrew is rabbi, while it is rabboni in Aramaic. You doubtless recall that when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus (she was perhaps the first person to do so), she greeted him as “Rabboni!” (After figuring out much to her amazement that he was not the gardener.)
By the turn of the millennium, people living in Judea and Galilee for the most part spoke Aramaic. This is reflected in the recent Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, with the entire dialog being in Aramaic (with English subtitles). Due to this movie, there has been a resurgence of interest in Aramaic, a tongue that is not dead but that has very few speakers today. Most of them live in Iraq, though some have immigrated to the United States.
Half a century before this, as an aside, one notable proponent of the idea of an Aramaic original for the NT was George Lamsa. What is usually referred to as Lamsa’s Bible (published in 1957) was translated from the Syriac Peshitta. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. In the introduction to Lamsa’s Bible are claimed evidences for an Aramaic original for the NT.
The Peshitta texts were discovered in Mesopotamia in the early 1930s, after being lost for more than 18 centuries. (Evidence shows Aramaic texts go all the way back to the Targums; Hebrew translated to Aramaic in the B.C. era. The Dead Sea scrolls are the oldest biblical texts we have, and they are in Aramaic.)
The language barrier has led to a number of problems in trying to understand the Bible. One example of a linguistic-based misinterpretation would be the Lord’s Prayer in the English King James Version (KJV), which of course is not based directly on Aramaic. This prayer contains a line that reads: “Lead us not into temptation.” Many thoughtful Christians have been puzzled by this rather blasphemous-sounding sentence in the KJV. Translated from the Aramaic, this reads very differently as, “Do not let us enter into temptation.” The difference, says Dr. Rocco Errico, a Near Eastern theologian and Aramaic expert, is that God does not “lead us into temptation” (which sounds more like something one would imagine the devil doing) but that one could ask for his guidance not to “enter” into temptation.
Our lack of understanding of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, Near Eastern biblical culture has led to thousands of misinterpretations of what was meant to be idiomatic and metaphoric (not necessarily historical) speech in the original writings—a matter that, incidentally, has inspired George Wesley Buchanan to take a new look at the books of Daniel and Revelation. (More on that in a future edition of The Barnes Review.—Ed.)
To return to our core topic, Jesus in English-language Bibles is only directly called a carpenter once, in Mark 6:3. Matthew 13:55 describes him as the son of a carpenter. Naturally, in those days, as in all ages until recently, it was customary for most boys to follow in their father’s footsteps.
It has been suggested, without much evidence, that Jesus and Joseph built or repaired boats by the Sea of Galilee, or made and repaired plows and yokes for farmers. The early church writer Justin2 says: “He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making plows and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life).”
But the term in the Greek Bible is tectone or tekton (in Mark’s gospel). “Artisan” would perhaps be a better translation than “carpenter.” The term means a skilled craftsman and could involve metal, stone or wood.
The Greek word tekton was translated by English speakers into “carpenter” because European building focused more on woodwork and carpentry, Page said. But in the Middle East in the time of Jesus, almost all building required stonework, not carpentry. In view of the scarcity of wood in the area and the ample supply of stone, Joseph and Jesus may actually have been practicing stonemasons.
In the Aramaic language, the corresponding term (naggar) can also be used to metaphorically describe a “scholar” or “learned man.” Could it be that Joseph and/or Jesus were scholars who did not work with their hands? They were, after all, of royal descent, being of the House of David.
The Talmud refers to Jesus as “naggar bar naggar,” which some have rendered as “the carpenter son of a carpenter,” apparently meant to express contempt for a workingman. Interestingly, it also refers to him as “ben charsch etaim,” “the son of a woodworker.” However, we cannot consider the Talmud to be a reliable source of information as it is more a propaganda document against the Christians, against whom the Talmud makes many horrible, obscene and totally absurd allegations.
We do know that Joseph and his family were well off. It is a myth that they were poor.
True, there was no room at the inn, but that just means it was overcrowded, not that they were not middle class. The fact that they even asked for a room at the inn proves that they were not peasants. A peasant family would probably have pitched camp under a bridge or the equivalent.
The family had numerous well-to-do friends and benefactors, of their own class, including some who apparently showered upon them precious gifts long before Jesus began his ministry. An aristocratic bloodline would explain why, at his birth, Jesus was showered with gold and precious gifts: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2) Incidentally, Jesus had at least two sisters, whose names are unknown, and four brothers: James, Joses or Joseph, Simon and Judas. (Matthew 13:55)
Could Jesus and Joseph have been successful builders, architects or perhaps even scholars? If they were scholars, this might help to explain the story that young Jesus taught the rabbis in the temple.
Archeologist Charles Page, for one, says Jesus was almost certainly a stonemason. As a professor of Bible studies at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem and associate director of the Bethsaida excavation in Galilee, people approach Page for insight on the life of Christ. Page finds the best way to bring the Bible to life is to go where Jesus went and study the way people lived during Jesus’s lifetime. “I thought it would help me understand the context of biblical stories,” he said.
Page believes 90% of Jesus’s ministry was done in a region at the north end of the Sea of Galilee that spanned between three and five miles and focused on the towns of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. Page asserts that Jesus and his father, Joseph, worked as masons in Zippori (Sepphoris), a town three miles from Nazareth. At the time Jesus was old enough to accompany Joseph, Zippori was undergoing a massive building campaign to turn the town into a major center of government, commerce, finance and culture. There would have been plenty of masonry work for them.
Nazareth was probably too small to support fulltime tektons, so Jesus and Joseph may have traveled to the nearby larger town of Zippori to find work. However, some might argue against this possibility, in view of the fact that during his ministry Jesus seems to have studiously avoided large towns, until his fatal involvement at the end with Jerusalem. Perhaps Jesus (and Joseph) were “country boys” at heart.
The early 3rd-century church writer Origen3 writes against Celsus’s assertion that Jesus was a carpenter. Origen remarks that “[I]n none of the gospels current in the churches is Jesus himself ever described as being a carpenter.” This is puzzling, since Mark is considered to be the oldest of the four canonical gospels, unless Origen is saying that the word tekton or naggar is not to be construed, in the gospel context, as “carpenter.”
While there does remain a possibility that Jesus was a woodworker, we must be cognizant of the fact that the words used to describe him do have a broader meaning than any one particular vocation. De spite tradition, a translation as “stonemason,” “builder,” “architect” or even “scholar” may have more evidence to back it up.
Then there is the question of Jesus as a Nazarene. Was he from Nazareth, as we have been told all our lives, or just what is a Nazarene anyway? We do not know what the word “Nazarene” means. It may not mean “of Nazareth,” since the town of Nazareth does not seem to have been flourishing circa 1 B.C., when he is thought to have been born. Why do some people say Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? What was his real relationship with John the Baptist? To Apollonia of Tyana? There are many other questions that could be explored about Jesus and his contemporaries. But those are stories for another day.
1When English speakers rendered the Latin Iesvs from the Greeks who translated the Semitic name Yeshua, they came up with Jesus (Yehoshua became Yeshua became Iesous became Jesus), and that name stuck.
2Justin Martyr, a 2nd-century Christian writer, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 88.
3Origen, Against Celsus, 6.36.
Borg, Marcus J., and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, Harper SanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1999.
Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1992.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 1995.
Wright, N.T., Jesus and the Victory of God, Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1997