A SINGLE BIBLICAL reference informs us that Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6.3; cf Matthew 13.55), although the Greek word, as with its Aramaic equivalent, when understood within a first-century Palestinian context, communicated a broader range of meaning than the English would suggest. A tektõn (naggãrã) was a worker in hard materials, principally wood, metal and stone, embracing building and construction as well as the manufacture of furniture and tools. Indeed, Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, describes Jesus as a maker of ‘ploughs and yokes’ (Dialogue with Trypho 88).
And whilst we possess fanciful stories of Jesus’ childhood in which, on one occasion, he remedies an error in his father’s joinery by miraculously extending a length of wood (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 13), there is every reason to believe that he served an apprenticeship, probably under the tutelage of his father as was the custom, in order to acquire the wherewithal to practice a trade and, through doing so, to support his family.
Jesus, then, was an artisan and, as such, belonged to a guild of crafts-persons able to earn a living through skilful dexterity. They were an integral and valued part not only of the communities to which they belonged, but also the Jewish way of life as celebrated in the book of Ecclesiasticus (2nd century BCE):
All these rely on their hands, and all are skilful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry … they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade. (Sirach 38. 31 & 34)
Yet Jesus ben Sirach prefaces this affirmation with a more sober assessment:
The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise. How can one become wise who handles the plough and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls? (Sirach 38. 24-25)
How significant it is, then, as the stock of images and storylines within his parables attests, that Jesus gained a reputation for a wisdom acquired not through detachment and study but through active, yet reflective, participation in the common stuff and routines of existence within which he discerned the extraordinary, ordinariness of God’s Life – woven within the fabric of the created order and human experience.
Given we possess so few reliable details of Jesus’ earlier life, we are well advised to consider carefully the significance of those preserved – presumably, they were thought to illuminate in some way the ministry on which he would embark or the nature of his relationship with God and role within the fulfilment of God’s creative and salvific purposes.
What, then, are we to make of Jesus the carpenter? For one thing, it locates him among those whom we might anachronistically refer to as the proletariat – the peasant and artisan communities populating the villages of much of first-century Galilee, where Jewish faith struggled to find expression among the constraints of survival within a ‘promised land’ starved of blessing, governed by Roman overlords (not King David’s heir) and vulnerable to the confluence of culture, language and ideology concentrated in cities such as Sepphoris, scarcely four miles from Nazareth, and diffused throughout the region via trade and commerce.
And it seems that whatever else we make of Jesus’ preferred self-designation, ‘son of man’, it demonstrates a commitment to his roots and solidarity with his own. ‘Human one’, a more adequate rendering of the original, if an epithet at all, is hardly self-aggrandising. In truth, it sounds more like a non-title, a refusal to be stereotyped by the pervading profiles of gurus or messiahs filling the popular imagination of the time. By referring to himself in these terms (and it is rarely used of him by others; cf Acts 7.56), Jesus places himself firmly within the stock of variegated, unremarkable humanity seeking to eke out an existence in difficult circumstances over which it had little control.
But more than that, carpenters were not simply skilled workers proficient in the use of various tools and techniques; they were purveyors of a craft by which, to borrow the words of the sage, the ‘fabric of the world is maintained’ (cf Sirach 38). Such artisans may well have constituted a socio-economic class in their own right and the faithful Jews among them will almost certainly have understood themselves to be custodians and practitioners of a godly vocation – as Yahweh’s co-workers. Every house grounded on sure foundations, every vineyard built to process the fruit of a generous earth, every sheepfold constructed to protect the flock, every well sunk to irrigate the crops, every yoke fashioned to lighten the toil of labour, a manifestation of sacred taxonomy and covenantal faithfulness in the realisation, however partially, of God’s will on earth.
And how was Noah able to build a lifeboat or a Hebrew mother fashion a rescue vessel for her new-born son? How were Ezra and Nehemiah, and Solomon before them, able to construct a temple, adorn it with beauty, equip it for service and protect it from threat? And how would swords by beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks? Isaiah the prophet, striving to capture a vision for what it would be like to live within the dispensation of God’s gracious rule, speaks of a renewed earth with Yahweh reigning from Jerusalem from whence blessing would flow bringing justice, peace and wholesome living:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth … for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight … No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (Isaiah 65. 17-21)
This was the climate of Jesus’ upbringing and supplied the interpretative framework for the practice of his trade within a faith tradition that was essentially pragmatic in expression and yielded a hope that envisaged the fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham and his offspring in terms of transforming the present order to conform to God’s creative purposes, rather than of being rescued from it, as the stuff of Adam and adamah, of humanity and the earthen clays from which it emerged, make manifest the glory of God.
In the light of this, we should perhaps envisage the ministry Jesus embarks upon through the waters of baptism not so much as a change in vocation as an exchange in the giftings and tools by which he invested his energies in putting faith to work in the workshop of God’s world – as hands ‘skilled at the plane and the lathe’ (J Struther) became proficient in the sacred art of forgiveness and healing, animated by a profound sense of belonging to God and being empowered to be about his heavenly Father’s business, informed by a holy wisdom capable of discerning the grain of God’s will and intentions embedded within the substance and routines of existence, celebrated around an open table of sustenance, celebration and hospitality, and incarnated within a radical and energising embodiment of loving that finds its ultimate expression upon a cross that once he might have fashioned out of wood and now bears the weight of his life – etching his name across the expanse of human history.
Let us make no mistake, Jesus wasn’t a self-styled philosopher of the good life – a DIY practitioner of the virtues to rival the Stoics and Epicureans of his day. Nor was he a religious fanatic in pursuit of utopia or a jobbing activist spoiling for revolution. Rather, he was passionately convinced that his life was intimately related to the God of Life and that living was an invitation, an opportunity, a vocation to inhabit that divine life as wholeheartedly and uncompromisingly as he was able. Equally, he recognised from the outset that this wasn’t a vocation exclusive to him, but one to be extended to all God’s children. For this reason, he trained apprentices to share in this vision and way of life so that they could minister alongside him and extend to others the blessings of heaven upon earth.
In one sense, it is an unremarkable agenda, but there lies his genius: to locate the essence of faithful living within a generative core of insights, practices and disciplines readily transferable and capable of giving rise to seemingly limitless improvisation – creating, to change metaphor, an anatomy of faith able to be animated by God’s Spirit and to mediate divine presence. Jesus, of course, practised this anatomy within a Jewish matrix, but he discovered to his amazement that it wasn’t the prerogative of any group or individual, but the inheritance of all – ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’ (Luke 7.9).
When his Jewish contemporaries placed their trust in the temple and its cult (Sadducees) or the torah and its guidance (Pharisees) or separation and ritual purity (Essenes) or insurgence and revolution (Zealots) or in baptism and repentance (John), Jesus discovered that it is through wholehearted engagement in what it is to be human and to bear the image of our Maker in this time, place and circumstance that the blessings of God become tangible and real. It is through practising the Artistry of Faith – embodying forgiveness, inhabiting (the) Prayer, embracing wisdom, living hospitably, loving creatively, pursuing vocation – that God is encountered in and through human experience.
There is, I suspect, more than a whiff of those Christian misrepresentations of Jewish faith as a religion of self-attainment to all this – but only superficially. For Jesus, to be human is not to define oneself in opposition to or in abstraction from God; it begins, rather, with recognition of our creatureliness and total dependence upon our Maker, who gives and sustains existence and calls us into communion that we might fully and authentically grow into the persons God longs for us to be and, by so doing, come to reflect the life of the One who made us so.
It is true that vain carpenters may boast of their accomplishments, but true exponents of the craft readily acknowledge that they are but practitioners of skills beyond their imagination applied with tools beyond their invention to harness those innate properties of a raw material that no human hand could ever manufacture. And yet without their craftsmanship such potential would remain hidden and unharnessed.
Is it so different, I wonder, with us? So full of natural goodness and creative potential, yet struggling to emerge, disfigured and held in check by millennia of bad choices and their enduring consequences – desperately in need of resurrection, of the touch of the Maker, to come to life. This was Jesus’ preoccupation – fashioning the beauty of God within the raw material of our humanity. Son of Man and Son of God who embodied the conviction that without God our hands are empty and life is vain, yet without us God’s hands are tied and unable to fulfil his loving purposes in us and among us and through us.
And, in a paradoxical way, it is only as we relate to Jesus as a fellow human being, the master craftsman who calls us into his company to serve our apprenticeships in the Artistry of Faith, that we not only discover the truth about ourselves but encounter his glory also. This is what is entrusted to us and this is the challenge he invites us to embrace as he beckons us with those compelling words that remain undiminished by the passage of time. Few of his disciples appreciated this with greater clarity than Albert Schweitzer, musician, philosopher, theologian and medical practitioner, who left behind the status and security of an highly successful professional career in Strasbourg to follow his Master into French Equatorial Africa to tend to God’s needy ones and to establish a mission hospital for their treatment and care. The noble Doctor concludes his great work on the life of Jesus in the following manner:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those [men] who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (The Quest of the Historical Jesus; London: A. & C. Black, 1954, p 401)