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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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CARPENTER.Matthew 13:55 ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ The question of Christ’s own countrymen, when they were offended at the lowly station of the Teacher at whose wisdom they marvelled, tells us the exact conditions under which Jesus passed His early years. The parallel Mark 6:3 ‘Is not this the carpenter?’ is still more interesting, for it tells us how Jesus Himself was occupied in His youth and early manhood. This flashlight photograph of the artisan in the workshop is all we know of the eighteen years between the visit to Jerusalem in His boyhood and the baptism which marked the entry on public life. The passage Matthew 13:53-57 || Mark 6:1-4 presents a curious and quite undesigned antithesis to Sirach 38:25-34, specially these words, ‘How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough?… so every carpenter [Heb. עֹשָׂה, Gr. τέκτων, Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘artificer’] and workmaster that laboureth night and day.… They shall not sit high in the congregation … and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.’ Possibly this reference explains why the people were specially offended at Jesus the carpenter for presuming to speak in the synagogue and in parables. The passage of Sirach quoted is from the chapter describing the honour of a physician, with which may be compared the proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ quoted by Christ in similar circumstances at Nazareth, when they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’

An attempt to make Mark 6:3 conform to Matthew 13:55 is seen in some old MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] (including the good cursives 33–69) as well as in Ethiopic and Arm. versions, where we find ‘carpenter’s son’ in place of ‘carpenter.’ This reading must represent a very old text, for Origen (circa (about) Cels. vi. 36) says, ‘Nowhere in the Gospels current in the Churches is Jesus Himself called a carpenter,’ alluding apparently to other Gospels in which this trade was ascribed to Christ. It is also clear that the TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] reading must be as old, for Celsus founded on it. One may gather that the change in MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] and versions was not merely accidental or harmonistic but deliberate, and due to those who considered that Jesus was dishonoured by being described as a carpenter. Justin Martyr (Dial. circa (about) Tryph. 88) supports TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] in an interesting manner when he says that Jesus, ‘when amongst men, worked as a carpenter, making ploughs and yokes, thus teaching the marks of righteousness, and commending an active life.’ Such making of ploughs and yokes is precisely the kind of work expected of a country carpenter like one at Nazareth, though possibly Justin’s words are a rhetorical expansion of Mark 6:3. A curious anecdote is recorded by Farrar, to the effect that Libanius, a pagan sophist and devoted admirer of Julian the Apostate, inquired of a Christian, ‘What is the carpenter doing now?’ The answer was, ‘He is making a coffin.’ Very soon afterwards came the news of Julian’s death. [Strangely enough, in relating this anecdote, Farrar himself quotes in Life of Christ ‘carpenter’s son,’ but in Life of Lives he has ‘carpenter’].

Whichever of the above readings be adopted, however (and in Mark 6:3 the TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] is supported by all the chief MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] ), the probability is that Joseph by this time was dead, and that Jesus as his reputed son had carried on the business. Nor are we to reckon this as anything derogatory to the Lord. On the contrary, it is another proof of His condescension, when, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). By His toil at the bench He has dignified and consecrated manual labour. We may derive the practical lesson expressed in Faber’s hymn, ‘Labour is sweet, for Thou hast toiled.’ Even more to us than St. Paul the tent-maker is Jesus the carpenter. He was not an Essene, holding Himself aloof from temporal affairs, but a true Son of Man, taking His part in the business of life. Before He preached the good tidings of the kingdom, He preached the gospel of work. The work that His Father had given Him to do was not the exceptional duty of the teacher, but the ordinary industry of the artisan. His first pulpit was the carpenter’s bench, and His first sermons were the implements and utensils He made for the country folk of Galilee.

Attempts have been made to find in Christ’s parables and other utterances some reference to the trade in which for so many years He was actively engaged. The metaphor of the green wood and the dry (Luke 23:31), and the similitude of the splinter and the beam (Matthew 7:3-5), are the nearest approaches to such reminiscences (cf. also one of the recently discovered ‘Sayings of Jesus’: ‘Cleave the wood, and there you will find me’), but are too slight to found on them any inference. Yet may He not have often sighed in the workshop of Nazareth as He handled the nails and the hammer, and thought of the day when the Son of Man must be lifted up? As in Holman Hunt’s famous symbolical picture, the figure of the young carpenter with outstretched arms released from toil as the sun went down, would make the awful shadow of the Cross.

Literature.—The various Lives of Christ; WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] App. on Mark 6:3. With Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death, referred to above, may be compared Millais’ The Carpenter’s Shop (otherwise known as Christ in the House of His Parents). See The Gospels in Art, pp. 110 and 112; Farrar, Christ in Art, p. 274 ff.

Arthur Pollok Sym.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Carpenter'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​c/carpenter.html. 1906-1918.