Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Jesus the Stonemason

As a tekton, what was Jesus' vocation? In most translations of Mk. 6.3; (cf. Mt. 13.55; Gos. Jas. 9.3; Justin, Dial. Tryph. 88) it is usually assumed that he was a carpenter. However, the word has a fairly broad meaning and it can denote a general "craftsman" a "builder" or most often I find a "stonemason". Unfortunately due to a history of translation, not to mention the near canonical status of Josh McDowell's book More than a Carpenter in evangelical cirlces - the notion that Jesus was a carpenter is a translation rarely challenged. I touched on this topic a bit in parts of my doctoral thesis that did not get included in the final revision. I thought it more likely that Jesus was stonemason given the meaning of the word tekton in some strands of Greek literature and he and Joseph probably assisted in the rebuilding of Sepphoris a few miles away from Nazareth after its destruction by Varus' troops (Jos. War 3.31-32; Life 347-48). This has been successfully argued in a recent article: Ken M. Campbell, "What was Jesus' Occupation?" JETS 48.3 (2005): 501-20. This is probably the best review of the evidence I've seen to date. See also Richard A. Batey, "Is not this the Carpenter?" NTS 30 (1984): 249-58 and John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1.278-85.


Peter M. Head said...


Interesting. I haven't seen the JETS article but it's notable that Justin Martyr seems to assume it means worker with wood (yokes & ploughs etc.); and Celsus clearly links Jesus to wood-working as opposed to stone-cutting (cf. Origen, Contra Celsum, VI.34).

Association with Sepphoris romantic perhaps but no evidence.

Justin Jenkins said...

I’m not sure we can argue for Jesus’ occupation based on the content of parables he told.

Jesus speaks about yokes and ploughs in a way that might argue he was a farmer more then a maker of them --- he spoke mostly about their use. He also spoke about farms, seeds, planting, vineyards, sheep tending, etc. Consider that he talked about wedding feasts, and banquets yet he surely wasn’t a wedding planner. He speaks about being a business man, or being rich --- but he was neither.

Of course, one of Jesus’ first parables in Luke 6 was about building foundations. But in the end I think it’s perfectly reasonable to question the thought of Jesus as a ‘wood-worker’ if the most common use of the term was stonemason.

However! If you look at Isaiah 44:13 in the Septuagint they use the word Tekton, the same in Ezra 3:7 except there it says “to the masons and carpenters” yet Tekton is used only for the carpenters. Same deal in Chronicles.

Mark Goodacre said...

Have a look at The Miracle Maker if you get chance -- it begins with Jesus building a house in Sepphoris, so they were there before you! Tom Wright, Rowan Williams, Richard Burridge and others were among the historical advisors on the film.

Justin Jenkins said...

This idea (Jesus’ prior occupation) was also discussed on the National Geographic Channel show "Science of the Bible" a while back, along with some other interesting ideas.

Peter M. Head said...

Interesting that BDAG erroneously refers Justin Martyr's comment to Joseph (not Jesus), but the Greek is absolutely clear that Justin describes both Joseph and Jesus as a TEKTWN, and that Jesus is described as working as a TEKTWN making ploughs and yokes.

Cf. Dial. 88 (emph in this ET from
And when Jesus came to the Jordan, He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life); but then the Holy Ghost, and for man's sake, as I formerly stated, lighted on Him in the form of a dove, ...

J. B. Hood said...

Perhaps the connection to woodwork stemmed (in part) from the (wooden) Cross? The references to ploughs, yokes, etc. also would make sense.

Thanks for the Batey reference--I studied under him at Rhodes during my undergrad years, my first exposure to academic NT study. We read his book Jesus and the Forgotten City--my first introduction to Sepphoris and historical Jesus. Maybe no evidence, as Peter notes, but it would be hard to avoid, wouldn't it? Given Jesus' occupation and geography? The use of "hypocrite" and a few other items are well explained by connection to Sepphoris--though it's not a slam dunk, as we say over here.

Michael F. Bird said...

I wouldn't deny that there is a possibility that Jesus was a Wood-worker. But we must be cognizant of the fact that the word does have a broader meaning than any one particular vocation. In fact, despite the testimony of tradition, a translation of "stonemason" or "builder" may have more linguistic evidence to back it up.

Peter M. Head said...

Go on Michael, for those of us without JETS - what is the best evidence for TEKTWN = 'stonemason'?

Michael F. Bird said...

I think Peter's response is best paraphrased, "Let's see what cards you're holding lad". Well, here's a meagre selection from JETS:
Dio Chrysostom: "Someone affected by riches and fame 'goes about as neither farmer nor trader nor soldier nor general, nor as shoemaker or builder (TEKTWN) or physician or orator'" (Orat. 80.1.5).
Epictetus: "The builder (TEKTWN) does not come forward and say, 'Listen to me deliver a discourse about the art of building" (TEKTONIKWN); but he takes a contract for a house, builds it, and thereby proves that he possesses the art. (Diss.
Josephus: "Josephus ... summoned masons (TEKTONAS) and directed them to increase the height of the wall" (War 3.171 and see 3.173).

Now, I'm not denying that TEKTWN can mean carpenter or wood-worker, it clearly does in some writings, but there is a whole host of references in literature which regard the vocation as relating to a broader meaning of builder or craftsman. In hindsight, perhaps a translation of "builder" or "craftsman" is better than either "carpenter" or "stonemason" since "craftsman/builder" could include both. And who knows, maybe Jesus and Joseph switched materials they worked with (stone or wood) depending on demand and supply.

J. B. Hood said...

Is there anything in the context of Dio Chrysostom's quote to suggest that it's a builder working with something other than wood? In Epictetus, do we know that the houses were stone and not wood (in his particular context)?

Could tektwn then possibly mean "builder"--whether of furnishings, housing, or other; and whether with wood or stone or other?

If so, we have a word in the States, "handyman" that might fit nicely.

Justin Jenkins said...

Jesus the Handyman! ha.

I kind of like the stoneworker, since: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

daviv52 said...

what Hebrew/Aramaic word do you think lies behind the Greek?

ChristosTekton said...

The main issues of reading the Bible as a history book is that of imprecise translatability, lack of true culture understanding of the region during the time, revisionism, and the fact stuff was generally written down a generation or two later in "telephone game" fashion. The truth is that nobody knows what Jesus actually ever said. If we had someone taking notes and writing down every word, we wouldn't understand the context. We cannot ever know what Jesus or Joseph did for a living.

Remember also that the bible is coded allegory. Tekton can mean many things, and how on earth would you ever know if the writers meant the word literally or figuratively. AND how would you know what they meant figuratively.

If I use the word 'fag' for example you might think it a derogatory word for homosexuals. However, if I were British, I might be talking about a cigarrette. And this is still modern language. Try decifering what I mean in 2000 years after passing the story through 50 or 60 people, each adding their own stuff.

Personally I belive the word Tekton is symbolic. It is used as 'mason' in the same way freemasons used it. This is the mystic root of that word.

John said...

A 'teknon' is someone who builds, constructs or designs--this could mean carpenter or stone mason or archi-tect-on but it could also be interpreted not in a materialistic sense but in more spiritual sense, i.e. instead of using materials like stone or clay or mud, one could use the flow or spirit of the energies or powers (elohim) to form (barah, create) concepts, which are the bricks of our thought, with which we build conceptual structures (such as religious doctrinal systems).

When Jesus said I am the Truth, he referred to himself as the unmanifest divine reality itself,

When he said I am the Way (the Tao, in Chinese) he referred to himself as the 'whole flow' (or 'holy spirit') of energies (or elohim')

and when he said I am the Word (the Logos in Greek) he may have referred to himself as the prototype physical being that was manifested by (and within) the divine reality (the Truth) through the movement of the 'whole flow of energies' (or the 'Holy Spirit of Elohim')

I suggest therefore we all take a fresh look at what Jesus was saying, and what he might have meant:

The Truth, the Way and the Word might stand for:

(1) the Absolute, unmanifest divine reality
(2) the Breath, flow or spirit of the unmanifest (the Holy Spirit)
(3) the conceptual and material bricks (used in the realm
of thought and the physical world)
of which Christians would see Jesus as the prototype or perfect example.

However, in other religious or philosophical traditions the 'material prototype' might take on a different mask or per-sona to 'sound through' or communicate with human beings of other traditions--or even be bypassed in systems that emphasize the spiritual rather than the material nature of manifest reality.

Religious materialism is not a healthy system since it sets up one religon or ideology or philosophy over against another (Hey dude,my material prototype is bigger and better than yours buddy)
while religion based on the spirit
or flow of energies (the breath of elohim, or god) understands that nothing is separate from that flow of energies (spirit of elohim) unless we ourselves cut it up into conceptual and physical bricks (words and objects)--and I don't think the Holy Spirit likes to be cut up. Sin comes from sound, as in Long Island Sound and has the same root as asunder and afzonderlijk in Dutch--a language in which 'zonde' means 'sin'
The purpose of religion is to reconnect what we have put asunder, i.e by reintegrating consciously into the whole flow or Holy spirit--which is the breath of the divine reality.

For comments--write to - and if interested, check my website by googling on forthuyse or clicking on

or go directly to these pages:
since they are relevant on this topic:

John said...

When I reread my comment, Homer's line sprang to mind: 'O teknon emon poion se epos fugen herkos odonton!' Oh my child, what kind of word excapes the hedge of your teeth! Mea culpa--I meant to say tekton, not teknon, my child. Milles excuses.

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