When John Everett Millais began the painting that would launch his career as one of 19th-century England’s most prominent artists, he needed props. He envisioned a young Jesus surrounded by his parents, Joseph and Mary, in their working-class carpenter’s shop. It would be a new kind of scene: serene, overindulged with religious symbolism, yet done in a style no one was expecting.
But Millais had a problem. The 20-year-old was not a working-class man. His parents were old money and he lived in Bedford Square, one of the toniest neighborhoods of central London. He could not simply wander over to his father’s garage and sketch what he saw.
So he set out into the nearby cobblestone streets for inspiration. A woodworker on Oxford Street let Millais recreate his shop on canvas in painstaking detail—workbench, wood shavings, and all. A butcher gave the painter two sheep’s heads that he replicated in fields visible through the holy family’s doorway.
The resulting painting, Christ in the House of His Parents, was completed in 1851. It placed a redheaded Christ at the center of a poor family with shabby clothes and shoeless, dirty feet. And it shocked England. For some, the image was so realistically ordinary it bordered on blasphemy. Charles Dickens hated it. Queen Victoria heard so much rumbling that she had it brought to Buckingham Palace so she could see it herself.
People objected to almost everything Millais painted in that carpenter’s shop. The one thing no one questioned, however, was his assumption that Joseph ran a carpenter’s shop in the first place.
Few would today, either. Even people who know little else of Jesus grasp the idea that he, like his father, was a carpenter. From “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” bumper stickers to the names of woodworking businesses to church signs to best-selling apologetics books, Jesus-as-carpenter is ubiquitous. Johnny Cash wrote a song about it in 1970, imagining how well-built the Savior’s furniture must have been. Mel Gibson hinted that Jesus invented the modern table and chairs in his film The Passion of the Christ. (“Tall table, tall chairs!” )
There is obvious poetry in the image of a carpenter, not lost on countless lyricists: A man begins his calling with lumber and nails and fulfills it nailed to a cross.
Unfortunately, carpentry as we think of it was not Jesus’ trade. It is a misperception born of the imprecision inherent in Bible translation and the ethnocentricity of 17th-century England. We have long known this. But a more accurate story has never permeated the cultural mainstream, and our understanding of the life of Christ has suffered for it.
If you had to surmise Jesus’ trade based solely on his teaching illustrations and vocabulary, you might make some informed guesses.
He spoke constantly of agriculture: crops, weeds, farmers, fields, seeds, fruit. Working the land was the primary vocation in first-century Nazareth, and agricultural examples connected with nearly all audiences. But the biblical text, early church tradition, and even apocryphal writings agree: He was not a farmer.
Jesus spoke of fishing. At least a third of his disciples were fishermen. It’s not groundless to imagine he had something to do with the fishing economy.
But when Jesus told the fishermen to cast their nets to the other side of the boat, they tried not to scoff at his outsider’s lack of knowledge of their profession. (The surprise would be theirs.)
Curiously, one trade Jesus never spoke of is carpentry. He hardly mentioned wood at all.
In all four Gospels, he only referred to wood as a material twice. In the first instance he asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). The second is a reference to a green or dry tree in Luke 23:31, but it’s not especially relevant to woodcraft.
So for a supposed carpenter, we have only one mention of workable wood from Jesus.
Even so, that plank from the Sermon on the Mount is sometimes invoked in connection to Jesus and carpentry. At the least, it is not the kind of wood a furniture-builder or toolmaker would use. In the Greek, as many hypocrisy-focused sermons have noted for emphasis, the kind of planks Jesus spoke of were thick timbers meant to support roofs in larger building projects.
It’s not surprising that a Galilean didn’t talk much about wood. Galilee had few trees, and the trees it did have were small. Beams and timbers had to be imported from surrounding countries. And only the biggest-budget projects—like temples and government buildings—could incorporate these planks.
In 1 Kings 5, for example, Solomon went to extreme lengths to acquire timber for the construction of the temple. He negotiated with the Phoenician king of Tyre and Sidon, sending Israelite men by the tens of thousands to learn how to cut down trees and then to actually do the work of cutting, because “we have no one so skilled in felling timber as the Sidonians” (v. 6).
The Israelites had to go abroad precisely because they did not have the trees locally. It’s hard to be a carpenter in a place with so little wood.
Jesus may not have spoken much of wood, but there is one material about which he could not stop talking: stone. This, Jesus and his contemporaries had in abundance, and they built with it.
He spoke of it constantly, particularly of its use in large building projects: towers, foundations, cornerstones, rocks, walls, millstones, temple stones, and winepresses.
When Jesus reached for a metaphor or symbol, stones and building projects filled his semantic toolbox. If those praising him were silent, even the stones would cry out (Luke 19:40). The one who hears his words and does them is like the person who dug deep and laid their foundation on the rock (Matt. 7:24). “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (v. 9, emphasis added).
His disciple Simon’s nickname was not Cedar or Timber, but Cephas in Aramaic and Peter in Greek, which both mean “rock”: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18).
And when Jesus chose to cite the Jewish Scriptures about his mission on earth, stone came to the foreground: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Mark 12:10, from Psalm 118:22).
Jesus’ imagination was saturated with stones, rocks, building projects, and foundations. It was nearly devoid of wood.
It’s an odd thing, then, that our translations call him a carpenter. Did we get it wrong?
The New Testament records Jesus’ vocation only once, in Mark 6:3: “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?” The word carpenter is translated from the Greek word tektōn, a word that lives on for us in English words like architect (literally, “chief builder”).
Scholarly dictionaries identify tektōn as “one who uses various materials (wood, stone, and metal) in building” and “one who makes, produces” and “one who constructs, builder, carpenter.”
“From our cultural perspective,” said James C. Martin, author of A Visual Guide to Bible Events, “the vocation of Joseph and Jesus would be understood as ‘a builder.’ This would include all aspects of building including materials such as stone, wood, mud thatch, plaster, tiles, nails, etc.”
Craig Keener teaches New Testament backgrounds at Asbury Seminary and has a forthcoming commentary on Mark. He said that “the term [tektōn] was never limited to woodworking in any case; it simply designates a constructive craftsman.”
Scholars are still debating the implications. Keener points to one of his graduate students, Matthew K. Robinson, whose forthcoming article in the peer-reviewed journal Neotestamentica argues the carpenter interpretation has been overused and the most accurate term for Jesus’ occupation is “builder-craftsman.”
And as a rule, craftsmen—handymen, if you will—tend to use materials that work, that are readily available, and that are not prohibitively expensive. In Nazareth, this meant stone.
An early church tradition recorded by Justin Martyr has that Jesus made and repaired plows and yokes, which were made of both wood and metal. It certainly fell to the local tektōn to do this work. But it wasn’t a living.
In a small agrarian village with a few hundred inhabitants, Robinson points out, there simply wasn’t enough need of those implements. The local tektōn made his living in bigger projects, supplementing with smaller side tasks, just as a building contractor would today.
According to biblical studies scholar Ken Campbell, ancient translations recognized the broader use of this term as a “builder” who would be skilled with numerous materials. With one influential translation, however, this was all but forgotten.
In 1611, when the King James translators arrived at the word tektōn, they saw that the Greek term clearly meant something like a craftsman or builder.
But they had two things working against them. For one, their knowledge of Greek was primarily classical Greek, the older Greek of Homer and Plato that developed in Greece. And Greece had trees.
Mark, though, was not steeped in the Greek classics. His use of tektōn, Robinson argues, was colored by the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—which is cited more often in the New Testament than the original Hebrew.
Campbell, who used to teach at Belhaven College, helpfully explained this linguistic hairsplitting in a 2005 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
In the Septuagint, Campbell argued, tektōn is used broadly to stand in for the Hebrew and Aramaic word hārāš, a general term for a builder or craftsman. After all, when the townspeople in Mark 6:3 called Jesus a tektōn, they were actually speaking Aramaic, which the Gospel writers later translated to Greek when they recorded their histories of Jesus. So in Aramaic, they would have called Jesus a hārāš. And whether the builder was using stone or metal or wood, the Septuagint translates it as tektōn.
The second disadvantage for the early English translators was less technical. It was simply, well, England. A shortcoming of the KJV translation—as with most Western scholarship before the era of the passenger jet—was that most scholars never set foot in the biblical lands. They never saw how few trees grow in Galilee.
In England, trees lined the entire country, and wood—not stone—was the readiest material for building. From Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the rudest peasant hut, the English built with a lot of wood. So, given their material culture, English builders were mostly carpenters.
Just as an Ethiopian painting of Jesus looks Ethiopian, and a 20th-century Swedish Jesus looks like he belongs on an Abba album cover, so different peoples imagine that Jesus’ material culture resembled their own.
Around the same time the KJV translators went with carpenter, so did every other major European-language translation, Campbell wrote. And as translation followed translation, we made a carpenter Jesus in the European image and translated him to the ends of the earth.
Where Jesus is concerned, it seems valuable in its own right to draw the most accurate portrait we can, replacing any notions of a man who planed tables for a living with notions of a man who may have spent more time cutting stone with his father from quarries.
But if we’re only debating what kinds of building materials Jesus worked with, it probably doesn’t make much difference. Why quibble?
Jesus’ knowledge of building, however, did not seem to stop at the materials themselves. He spoke constantly of financial practice, of management of both projects and people: payment, debt, wages, investment, hiring and firing, relationships between managers and staff and masters and bondservants.
Consider: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish’” (Luke 14:28–30).
Stand Jesus’ references to masonry next to his references to the business side of construction work, and we begin to fill in gaps in his personal history and cast new light on his entire ministry.
It’s an attractive image for many of us, for example, if Jesus worked mostly alone as a freelance carpenter in his woodshop. In this vision, before he embarked on public ministry, his days were filled with a dedication to the craft, communing with the Father in a prayerful, almost monastic setting not unlike what Mel Gibson’s film portrayed.
But what if, instead of working in silent reverie, Jesus worked with others? On some projects he would have worked under authority, under an arch-tektōn, for example. And as a tektōn, he might also have had authority over others—the day laborers and less-experienced tektōns.
If that’s true, our perception of Jesus’ formative preministry years begins to shift—especially for those of us in the West, where work has an outsized grip on our identities.
For one thing, Jesus had coworkers—probably diverse ones by the era’s standard. King Herod’s first-century public works projects generated massive demand for laborers from across the region, and many scholars believe Joseph and Jesus would have participated.
“Jesus worked in workplaces with coworkers of different worldviews,” said Luke Bobo, a theologian and vice president of networks at the faith-and-work ministry Made to Flourish. “We are not to shun workplaces with coworkers of different worldviews. Rather, we are called to be salt and light in such places.”
Those tradespeople were also common men—undesirables, even. Roman society generally “divided artisans, or craftsmen, into ‘free,’ such as painters and sculptors, and ‘lowly,’ such as carpenters and metalsmiths,” Keener said. “Someone inventing a background for Jesus, one that elites as well as peasants and artisans would appreciate, might choose an occupation such as a scribe; they would not choose a [tektōn].”
That changes how we see Jesus’ familiarity with ruffians, then. He didn’t just dine with sinners when the Pharisees were watching or when the Gospel writers were taking notes. He likely spent a good deal of his life among the lowbrow.
Jesus was not elite. His trade was not respected. Early church leaders of an aristocratic bent found Jesus’ trade to be embarrassing. They wanted to distance him from it. The first substantive polemic against Christianity attacks the respectability of Jesus precisely on this account. In the second century, the pagan philosopher Celsus disparaged Jesus as “only a tektōn.”
The late New Testament scholar William Lane noted in his Mark commentary that the question “Is not this the [tektōn]?” along with calling Jesus the son of Mary (instead of the son of Joseph) are meant to disparage within that cultural setting. Isn’t this the manual laborer whose mother, well…you know?
And some things, it seems, never change. While 19th-century English critics of John Everett Millais’s painting had come to accept the KJV’s assertion that Christ was a carpenter, they were disturbed by the artist’s embrace of the low-class lifestyle that came with it: unswept floors and shirtless houseguests, Joseph’s rough hands and veined muscles that were modeled by an actual carpenter.
Jesus was a laborer. He would have hammered, chiseled, broken, carried, and laid stone for half his life. He did not look like the emaciated Jesus of the medieval paintings.
It’s easy to focus entirely on the salvific meaning of the Incarnation. Or when we read that Jesus took on the “nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7), it’s easy to think immediately of him washing his disciples’ feet.
But to go before us as high priest, Jesus assumed the place of a servant from his earliest years of manhood in every sphere of life. He can fully empathize with human weakness (Heb. 4:15) because he has been made “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). A fully human experience was necessary for his atoning role as a high priest who goes before us.
Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion and a broad range of human circumstance—including how “the fall of man impacts our workplaces,” as Bobo told CT.
We cannot be certain, but Jesus surely experienced or witnessed at least some, if not all, of our workplace suffering. At times, he may have felt exploited. He may have endured drudgery, for days or even years. Despite these difficulties, Bobo said, “Jesus pleased his Father in all that he said and did.”
In a culture that lauds creative-class jobs at the expense of the trades and service work, we would do well to linger on a deeper investigation of Jesus’ vocation. “The idea that Jesus, God incarnate, worked with his heart, head, and hands in an ordinary blue-collar job illustrates that there are no degrees of sacredness,” Bobo said.
It’s all the more reason for us to rejoice in the builder-craftsman rabbi. He was not rich or important or noble or Ivy League–educated. Like most of us, he was not powerful in the way of the world. That’s not the kind of king he came to earth to be.
A culture’s concept of the ideal Messiah shifts over time. Second-century Greeks like Celsus and 19th-century English critics like Dickens preferred a Messiah who was more cultured, like them. First-century Jews, like some Americans today, wanted a savior with political and military influence, a new King David who would free them from Rome and even conquer it.
Pilate interrogated Jesus with that concern in mind. But Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. It cost him untold followers but earned at least some favor from the Roman governor.
It would not be the last time Roman officials evaluated such a claim.
The early church historian Hegesippus, whose work was preserved through another historian by the name of Eusebius, recorded that generations later, two Christian men were called to appear before the emperor Domitian. These men were biological descendants of David and local leaders in the Christian churches.
The emperor said he’d heard the claim that a seed of David would conquer Rome. Just what were the aims of these descendants of David?
The two reported that the kingdom was not of this world. As proof, they extended their hands, showing their permanent dirtied callouses—the hands of men who’d worked field and earth since the time they could walk. These were peasants’ hands, not soldiers’ hands.
The emperor decided the men bore no threat; they were just laborers. So he let them go.
Of course, these farmers, fishermen, and builders did conquer Rome, just not in the way or the time frame the emperor feared. Rome would be majority Christian within just a few centuries.
But that came later.
On their return from their interrogation, the two men surely must have connected their experience with the story of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. They would have known some Scripture. But they also might have heard the story directly from their grandfather, who knew it as well as anyone. His name was Jude.
Jesus, son of Mary. A builder by trade.
Jordan K. Monson is an adjunct professor at the University of Northwestern–St. Paul, a former Bible translator, and the pastor of Capital City Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]
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