My favourite scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a flashback to Jesus’ pre-messianic days when he was working as a carpenter in the home of Mary his mother. This unique aside diverts our attention from the horror of Christ’s unjust arrest and trials to one of His marvelous construction projects, showing Jesus at work as a careful, creative, master craftsman—Jesus the tekton, Jesus the carpenter.
There are many meanings in this magnificent outtake to ponder. As Mary is preparing lunch, she calls to Jesus, diligently at work in the carpenter’s shop, asking him if he is hungry. “Yes, I am,” he says. Imagine that, the Son of God . . . hungry! In any case, Mary walks to where Jesus is working and begins to examine the unusually tall table he is constructing, commenting on its unfamiliar height. She discovers Jesus is making it for a rich man and wonders aloud if he likes to eat standing up. Jesus acknowledges that it is an unusual piece of furniture for the day, and notes that he has yet to make the chairs on which diners must sit to be able to eat on such a towering surface.
As Jesus watches, Mary clumsily tries out the table, smiles, and laughs at her inability to make use of this new kind of table properly. “It will never catch on!” she declares with confidence. As they begin to move indoors to eat, Mary makes Jesus remove his dirty apron and wash his hands before they enter their home. He then playfully splashes the water on Mary and kisses her on the cheek. Immediately, we are back to the scenes of Jesus’ arrest and trials.
This brief, three-minute episode is worth the price of admission! It not only shows Jesus as a first-rate, paradigm-shifting table-maker, but also exhibits the joyful, affectionate (even submissive) relationship he shared with his mother. Could Jesus’ authentic humanity, reflected here in his roles as a worker and son, be more delightfully portrayed?
I am convinced we can learn a lot about God, humanity, work, intellectuality, and spiritual growth and development from Jesus’ vocation as tekton—as a carpenter.
We learn of Jesus’ vocational identity as a carpenter in less than ideal circumstances. In the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus returns to the home of his upbringing in Nazareth, now as a teacher (or rabbi) with disciples in tow. On the Sabbath, he preaches and heals in the local synagogue, astonishing those in attendance with his wisdom and miracles. From what source did this man get his amazing insight and power? They knew him merely as a working man, the son of Mary, and the sibling of four named brothers and several unnamed sisters. Is not this the carpenter? Perhaps because of jealousy, the Nazarenes stumbled over Jesus and took offense. The carpenter had become a rabbi, and his fellow citizens—perhaps even his family—couldn’t handle it. Their astonishment turned quickly into resentment. Their familiarity with him had bred contempt. They really didn’t know Jesus and upbraided him vituperatively—an early sign of his ultimate rejection (see Isaiah 53:3).
Jesus responded to their rebuff by quoting a common proverb. He noted that prophets, like himself, were typically honored everywhere except in their own towns, in their own homes, and by their own relatives. Apparently, we are sometimes just too close to people and too small in ourselves to recognize the true greatness of others, even if they are right in our midst!
If the people of Nazareth were astonished at Jesus’ teaching and ministry, then he was equally astonished at their unbelief. How could the very same people who clearly recognized Jesus’ divine anointing reject it simultaneously? This inconsistency shows that sometimes our response to Jesus is not just a matter of the intellect, but rather one of the heart and the will. Some folks just don’t want to believe.
In Matthew’s gospel, the episode in which Jesus is identified with the carpenter’s trade is similar to the one in Mark’s account, though the context is different. Jesus has just explained the mystery of the kingdom of heaven in terms of several famous parables. Shortly thereafter, he returns home and teaches in the synagogue, and the response is the same. The people of his village cannot believe that someone so smart and powerful could have arisen in their midst, yet without their recognition. They know his mother Mary, his four brothers, and his sisters. Is not this the carpenter’s son? His schooling was informal; his trade was common; his family ordinary. From what possible source, then, could Jesus have received his astounding insights and abilities (Matthew 13:53-58)?
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is explicitly designated to be “the carpenter,” whereas in Matthew’s gospel he is described more furtively as “the carpenter’s son.” This makes little, if any, difference, since it was quite customary in those days for a son to take up his father’s trade. As the son of a carpenter, Jesus would have naturally learned carpentry at his father’s knee. For all practical purposes, then, the gospels of Mark and Matthew are in agreement: Joseph and Jesus practiced the same vocation.
To be sure, Jesus was “more than a carpenter,” as Josh McDowell has poignantly pointed out. At the same time, he certainly was not less than one. Jesus was the God-Man with dirt under his fingernails and sawdust in his hair. And the fact that Jesus was a tekton or carpenter, as Frederic W. Farrar has noted, has held a noble, even mystical influence over the fortunes and affairs of humankind for a little over two millennia. With great effect, Jesus’ vocation as carpenter has deeply entrenched itself in Christian and cultural consciousness with great influence!
Jesus’ first calling as a carpenter is, therefore, biblically secure. His vocation was also acknowledged early in church history. In the second century A.D., Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), in his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 88), affirmed Jesus’ wood-working along with its spiritual significance. Similarly, the fourth-century verse of Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-73), in his Hymns on the Nativity (#6), poetically extols the physical and spiritual values of Jesus the carpenter.
Even the non-canonical, apocryphal gospels pay tribute to Jesus as a carpenter, albeit in a rather fanciful (and probably non-historical) way. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, various versions of the Gospel of Thomas, and The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior all contain a curious story about how the child Jesus miraculously evens up boards of unequal length so that his father Joseph can complete a promised project.
As the veteran village carpenter of Nazareth for approximately eighteen sweaty years, Jesus would have made things like chests, cupboards, tables, chairs, ploughs, and yokes. In making these and other items, he would have used the tools common to his craft like the axe, adze, hatchet, mallet, measuring line, stylus, plane, and compass. Insights drawn from his woodworking undoubtedly penetrated his consciousness, and necessarily showed up in his teaching ministry. For example, Jesus asked (in Luke 6:42), “How can you say to your brother, â€˜Brother, let me take that splinter out of your eye,’ when all the while you yourself do not see the beam in your own eye?” Don’t you suspect that his experiences as a carpenter were in the background?
At this point, we may wonder why, in the providence of God, did Jesus become a carpenter? Why did he not choose, or receive, some other official occupation prevalent at the time? Why wasn’t he, say, a shepherd, or weaver, or an olive or fig grower, or a tent-maker, or a fisherman, or a potter, or a merchant? Why was he a tekton? Why carpentry?
Perhaps it is because, as Michael Brewer suggests, carpenters do two basic things: they build, and they repair. Carpenters make what is needed and restore what is broken. Carpenters, in other words, create and redeem.
Consequently, Jesus Christ was a carpenter, and not something else, for two basic reasons. First, he shows us in a parallel way God’s essential identity and activities as the creator who builds and the redeemer who repairs all things. Second, it indicates our essential human identity and purposes of cultural construction and repair, as well. In Jesus the tekton, then, we see in God and in ourselves our respective roles as the maker and repairers of all things.
What else might we learn from Jesus’ vocation as a carpenter?
First, through his incarnation as God in the flesh and in his occupation as a carpenter, Jesus highlights the dignity of being human. In Jesus, heaven and earth meet, the spiritual and the physical unite, God and human beings come together as one. He was a fully human and historical person, encountering the regular joys and limits of human experience, yet without sin. In opposition to Docetic tendencies to emphasize Christ’s divine side at the expense of the human, the Church has held fast to the plain and simple fact that Jesus lived a truly human life at a particular time and at a particular place, just like the rest of us. In becoming human, therefore, Jesus crowns humanity with its divinely ordained glory and majesty. He validated our status as human beings, and showed us the only way to be fully and truly human.
Second, through his incarnation as God in the flesh and in his occupation as a carpenter, Jesus ennobled human labour and imparted genuine value to the work of our hands. “Whoever does not teach his son a trade,” ran a common Jewish apothegm, “is as if he brought him up to be a robber.” Thus Jesus was a carpenter, and the apostle Paul was a maker of tents (Acts 18:3). In this wise Jewish tradition, the vocations of the Messiah and His apostle help to confirm the value of ordinary, human work.
Parenthetically, quite a few English hereditary surnames (and some first names) derive from trades primarily because tax collectors needed a relatively easy way to identify people for taxing purposes: Smith, Mason, Carpenter, Stone, Clay, Potter, Tanner, Shoemaker, Fuller, Taylor, Skinner, Sadler, Weaver, Dyer, Barber, Baker, Miller, Cook, Forester, Archer, and so on. My own name “Naugle” has vocational roots as an Americanized form of the German name “Nagel,” which means “nail.” As my dad used to say, “Hit the Naugle on the head!” I wonder if I came from a long line of carpenters in Germany?
Of course, not everyone has shared this elevated perspective of the value of everyday labour. Some Greeks viewed regular work as base or vulgar. Aristotle is a case in point. He believed that reason was the best part of the human soul, and to the degree that we engage in contemplation, we become like the gods and share in their happiness. Even some high-minded, possibly Hellenized, inter-testamental Jews believed that work was a wisdom-killer. They asserted this not for metaphysical reasons as in Aristotle, but for practical reasons: work devoured the time necessary for study. For if you are working, you don’t have leisure and you cannot study and think, and if you cannot think and study, you cannot become wise. As Ecclesiasticus 38:24-25a states, “The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; and [only] he who has little business may become wise. How can he become wise who handles the plow . . . ?”
Both the Greeks and some Jews, then, have contributed equitably to the historic social distinction between the intellectual and working classes. The distinction means that those who use their minds to make a living tend to be more highly regarded than those who use their hands. This big rip in the fabric of humanity has manifested itself in countless ways, including the distinctions between messiahs and carpenters, the philosophical and the non-philosophical, the monastic and the non-monastic, the clergy and laity, liberal arts majors and business majors, gown and town, professors and students, scholars and athletes, bosses and workers, management and labour, white collar and blue collar workers, knowledge workers and manual workers, and so on. You get the point. Perhaps, however, these traditional distinctions need to be reconsidered.
In his highly acclaimed 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford has sought to do just that. In his inquiry into the value of work, he takes dead aim at the “widely accepted dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work.” He offers an alternative account that gives due credit to the cognitive demands, necessary skillfulness, fundamental contributions, and personal rewards of manual work. Along the way, the philosopher-mechanic Crawford shows how depersonalizing technology and the effects of globalization, along with increasingly higher levels of abstraction and bureaucracy, have transformed white collar “knowledge work”—the kind which often takes place in a cubicle and the kind for which most universities typically prepare their graduates—into the mind-numbing, body-destroying, life-sucking kind of labour frequently attributed to the manual trades. He also points out how the meretricious and illiberal nature of contemporary university scholarship has gutted the possibilities of genuine intellectual existence.
I’m wondering if Jesus the tekton—the one who had great knowledge of carpentry and had built and repaired many things with his hands—wouldn’t agree! After all, Jesus is the new and greater Bezalel, a biblically-derived designation that embraces and elevates the work of our hands, whether as workers or artists.
Who on earth was Bezalel, you ask? He is the Old Testament figure whom God specifically called to help build and adorn the tabernacle. He was a Spirit-filled master craftsman or artisan who was also able to teach his skill to others. If you are interested, you can read Bezalel’s bio, along with a shout-out to his co-worker Oholiab, in Exodus 35:30-35.
Christ Jesus dignified labour and the crafts, to be sure. But thirdly, we might point out that he also applied himself simultaneously to intellectual cultivation. He highly esteemed the life of mind. This carpenter could think! Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, says Luke 2:52, “and in favor with God and man.” For Jesus, the option wasn’t brawn versus brain, but both, united together. He combined the best of all possible worlds — of head, heart, and hand, as a thinker, lover, and doer, for he was the scholar/saint/worker par excellence, all in one.
I find it interesting that we know only two basic things about Jesus before he launched his messianic calling: one, that he was a carpenter, and two, that he was a learner. After Jesus turned up absent during the trek home from a Passover celebration, Mary and Joseph finally “found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:46-47). Upon returning home to Nazareth, Jesus become an exceedingly thoughtful young man, and also a worker—a journeyman carpenter under Joseph’s connoisseurship en route to his own independent work as a tekton. Jesus combined both work and reflection into a complete, integrated life, and as such, he serves as a poignant example of coherence and wholeness for us all. Could this be one of the reasons why Jesus received such a wholehearted benediction from his father at his baptism, when God said: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”?
Finally, we should also point out the rather obvious spiritual symbolism associated with Jesus’ vocation as tekton. We know that everything is wrecked and in need of repair! Not only could Jesus fix broken things as a carpenter, but he can also repair broken people as their Savior and Lord. My friend Bobby Giles from my Young Life days highlighted this point with in these lyrics from an old, original song of his:
Jesus was a carpenter
And he’s doing a construction
job inside of me.
Jesus the tekton is, emblematically, in the human being repair business. He made us; we are broken. Now he is fixing us. Thankfully, he will faithfully complete the job he has started in and among us (see Philippians 1:6).
However, Jesus is not only redeeming us; he is the creation-repair God-man as well. One day he will also restore the whole world, “putting it to rights,” as Brits such as N. T. Wright like to say. God’s goal is not only personal salvation and sanctification, but also cosmic redemption and restoration as well: “Behold,” says Jesus, “I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5; see also Romans 8:21).
Christianity, after all, is the comprehensive salvaging of a sin, Satan, and death-wrecked world. Yet, this process of comprehensive redemption begins with us now, no matter how broken, or beyond repair, or near death we may feel. As new creations, we are the present signposts of the great things to come, thanks to the capable work of Jesus the tekton.