Jesus: A Remarkable Journey from Carpenter to Preacher

It’s very common that after meeting someone, the conversation quickly turns to what do you do for a living. What’s your job?

For most of Jesus’ life, his answer would be, I am a carpenter.

Well, technically, he might have responded, “tektōn”. If he was speaking Greek.

But more likely, he would have answered in Aramaic, changing the answer possibly to “Naggar.” Changing the meaning of his occupation and place in his community.

More on that later.

Even the word tektōn, which is used in the gospels, also has multiple meanings.

But before nailing down, what did Jesus do for a living? Answering what was his job before becoming a preacher.

Why is it commonly held that Jesus was a carpenter?

Where does it say Jesus was a Carpenter?

There are two places in the Bible that associate Jesus with carpentry, along with a legendary account.

The first is our earliest source, Mark.

Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.” 

Mark 6:3 NIV

Where we have Jesus’ hometown Nazareth in disbelief that the simple carpenter that they knew, came back to town had become an amazing teacher.

Our second mention is not a direct reference but an assumption in Matthew.

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 

Matthew 13:55 NIV

Similar context, most likely the same event. Jesus shocks his hometown with his teaching in the local synagogue.

But this time, Matthew slightly changes the saying with “son.” Not directly calling Jesus a carpenter but that his father was a carpenter.

In Jesus’s culture, both are likely to be true. With many sons learning their fathers’ trades. Thus, becoming like their father in careers. But more on that later.

Legendary Stories about Jesus Helping His Carpenter Father

The next I will call legendary because of that dating of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Commonly dated between 140-170 C.E., our first quoted source is by Irenaeus in 185 C.E.

But here’s the story, you can make up your own mind if its historical or legendary.

13 Now Jesus’ father was a carpenter, making ploughs and yokes at that time. He received an order from a rich man to make a bed for him. (2) When one board of what is called the crossbeam turned out to be shorter than the other, and Joseph didn’t know what to do, the child Jesus said to his father, “Put the two boards down and line them up at one end.”

(3)Joseph did as the child told him. Jesus stood at the other end and grabbed hold of the shorter board, and, by stretching it, made it the same length as the other.

(4)His father Joseph looked on and marveled, and he hugged and kissed the child, saying, “How fortunate I am that God has given this child to me.”

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Reminds me of a fun trick framers loved to play on the “new guy.” Telling them to go grab the “board stretcher.” Then giggle, watching him running around the site, trying to find it. Each crew member only added to the joke with more useless information about the allusive tool to fix the miss cut board.

Didn’t know that this legend is 1800 years old. Or at least the idea of stretching boards to the right length.

But to our point, here Jesus is placed in the company of a carpenter, his Dad.

The interesting thing is that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas places Jesus in a workshop, working with wood with his carpenter father.

Making Joseph more of a furniture builder than the common carpenter constructing buildings.

Was Jesus a Mason or a Carpenter?

Well, that depends.

What does the word ‘tektōn’ mean?

Almost every English Bible translates carpenter, which only partly helps.

The Strongs Lexicon definition is a little more nuanced.

“an artificer (as producer of fabrics), i.e. (specially), a craftsman in wood:—carpenter.”

Blue Letter Bible

Dr. Sabine R. Huebner gives a broad description of work performed by first-century woodworkers.

Tektōnes built not only roof structures for houses, but also other wooden structures such as oil mills, furniture, wagons, chariot wheels, and also barges and boats. Mechanized wooded water wheels were constructed by carpenters…Perhaps the carpenter also handled the production of wooden doors and windows, since, apart from roof structures, doors and windows were the only parts made of wood in mud-brick buildings in Roman Egypt. Together with other builders, the carpenters also built towers, storage facilities, military defense walls, bridges, and siege machines.”

Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament

But this definition might be too limiting for a Galilean trade person.

A shortage of trees, hence lacking of wood in Palestine, raises questions about what exactly did he work with?

Carpenter Building a Roof

Unlike Canada and the US, where most buildings are built from wood. Not Galilee, stones or brick, with wood rafters, was much more common.

In fact, most buildings are still currently not constructed of wood in the middle east. Some things never change.

Making it possible that Jesus was a mason, not a wood carpenter.

Robby Gallaty, in his book The Forgotten Jesus, lays out the following reasons to think more of Jesus as a mason than a carpenter.

  • Majority of Homes in Jesus’ region were made from stones
  • Few trees in Galilee
  • Sepphoris (Hebrew, Zippori), about 4 miles from Nazareth, under Herod Antipas, was involved in a massive building works project. Requiring much labour during the life of Jesus.
  • Between Sepphoris and Nazareth was a huge rock quarry.

All valid arguments.

Not historical, but even modern carpenters can include framers, finishers, cribbers, and at time drywaller. Many even playing the role of General Contractors, all while identifying as a “carpenter”. It is entirely possible that in Jesus’ time, the title was also broad in definition and application.

Is “Naggar” the Aramaic Equivalent of Carpenter?

I guess now is a good time to discuss the Aramaic equivalent.

Geza Vermes writes in Jesus the Jew that in the Talmudic, Nagger is the word to describe a carpenter or craftsman. But also implies that the person was a learned man. Speaking more of Jesus’ ability to envision complex thoughts, etc.

I do like the compliment to Jesus’ intelligence and carpenters in general.

But I do disagree with the interpretation.

In both our stories, they use the term carpenter more as an insult. How could a simple carpenter come up with such ideas and speak in such a way?

Not this man is intelligent and has training in complex thought. Therefore it just makes sense that he knows this stuff.

That being said, Vermes is much more learned on this matter and may understand something I don’t.

But for now, I am going to think of Jesus working as a simple tradesperson. He might have been smart, but still spent his days toiling with his hands.

Opportunity for Jesus to work as a Carpenter.

Jesus’ hometown placed him in an ideal location to work as a carpenter, either wood or stone.

Herod Antipas was involved in many building projects trying to advance his claim to kingship. Like his father, Herod the Great spent enormous amounts of resources on building projects. One was rebuilding Sepporis to become a centre of trade in Galilee and a “the ornament of Galilee.”

Sepphoris had been destroyed in 4 BCE during a rebellion that shortly followed Herod the Great’s death.

Such an undertaking would require much labour, in particular, skilled craftsmen to build theatres, bathhouses along with many governments building to serve as the new capital of Antipas’ kingdom.

Stone Works

Joseph and Jesus living only 4 miles away, roughly an hour and a half walk. They could easily walk to Sepphoris for work. Not likely, but easily could make the commute daily, as many of us do for work. More likely, they would have stayed in Sepphoris during a building project and then bringing their earning back to Nazareth.

Social Status and Income Level of First Century Palestine Carpenters

As a carpenter, it is possible that Jesus would have been a respected member of society.

“Carpenters were artisans, not peasants, and many assign them to the upper ten percent of non aristocratic Galilean society”

Craig S. Keener

As Keener places them near the top of social status. At least compared to peasants who worked the land as subsistence farming. Based off Hengel and Freyne’s research.

Huebner in Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, estimates that a carpenter could earn 50 denarii a month, twice as much as a shepherd or other “unskilled” labours.

He wasn’t rich, but comparatively, he could be doing okay.

In the feeding of the 5000, 200 hundred denarii is Phillip’s estimate of what it would cost to feed the crowd a small snack. (Mark 6:37, John 6:7)

So, making 50 is not setting you up for life, but compared to many of his neighbours. He earned a little more for the “finer” things in life.

But do keep in mind, Jesus’ community used his job to raise doubt about his learning and education.

Being a carpenter may have earned him a slightly better standard of living, but he was no aristocrat with land, servants and power.

But Jesus’ slight edge in life had little to do with his wise career selection

Who Did Jesus Learn Carpentry From?

Our two texts gives us a good clue about common practice of his time.

Father-like son.

Jesus most likely learning carpentry from his father, Joseph.

Probably first learned to work with the tools as a kid around the house or maybe tagging along with his Dad on small projects around town.

Wood Carpentry Tools

Later on, assuming Joseph hadn’t died yet (Common belief that he died when Jesus was younger), going with him possibly to Sepphoris. Working alongside him and being introduced to the foreman. Developing his skills and network to find future work himself.

How old was Jesus when he became a carpenter?

With such brief mentions of Jesus being a carpenter, we do not know exactly when he started working as a carpenter.

But most likely, Jesus began working as an apprentice at 13 and worked as a carpenter by 18 years of age.

This is not stated anywhere, but we can make some assumptions.

Luke 3:23 tells us that he was around 30 when he began to preach. Of when he was already known as a carpenter. Requiring a few years of work before he would be known around town as a carpenter. Unless that is why Matthew calls him a “carpenter’s son,” but I doubt it.

Many first-century Rabbis advise that men should marry by 18 years of age. With marriage would come many responsibilities, the least not being providing for their family.

Requiring a Jewish man to have a trade or means to make an income by 18.

That’s all to say, most likely, Jesus started working with Joseph as a child. Passing on his skills and tagging along with his Dad as he got older till by 18 he was doing projects on his own. Probably even earlier, if the work could be found.

Conclusion about Jesus’ Work Before His Ministry

Overall, Jesus’ work as a “carpenter” has been the subject of much debate over the years.

Not so much was he a carpenter, but what does carpenter mean in his context and culture?

While there is no direct evidence to support that he was either a wood or stone mason specifically, both are plausible given what we know about his hometown and region during his time.

From historical documents, with can infer that carpentry, would have been a respectable job with a decent level of social status and income level in his community.

What we know about cultural norms of marriage age from rabbinical advice, it’s likely that by 18 years old, he had already achieved some degree of success in this field. Working possibly a full decade before heading down to the Jordon, where he was influenced by John the Baptist and began a much different life’s work.

A life work that made his mark in history and possibly one of history’s most influential figures.

Take Away About Jesus

Now for the so what.

Compared to many world-changing people, Jesus’ beginning gives few clues about who he would become.

Buda came from a wealthy, influential family.

Muhammad ibn Abdullah was a wealthy trader and merchant.

The Apostle Paul was groomed in religion from a young age.

Jesus was a carpenter.

If you shook his calloused hands, would you have realized the potential of the man you just met?

I doubt it. He was just another simple tradesperson working in the Roman Empire. Trying to make a living.

I guess we should be careful what we assume about somebody from what they do for a living.

A carpenter changed the world.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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