Was James a carpenter like his half-brother Jesus?

Q. We’re using your study guide to biblical wisdom literature in our Sunday School class.  We’re currently studying the book of James and we have a question about its author, the half-brother of Jesus.  Would he have been a carpenter too?

John Everett Millais, “Christ in the House of His Parents” (“The Carpenter Shop”), c. 1849. Is this how we should understand the biblical references to Jesus as a “carpenter”?

The place to begin answering this question is by asking whether Jesus was actually a carpenter himself.  Mark records in his gospel that when Jesus returned to Nazareth and taught in the synagogue there, the hometown crowds were amazed at his wisdom and power and asked, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”  In Matthew‘s version of the same episode, the people ask, “Isn’t this the son of the tektōn?”

In these cases the Greek term tektōn is traditionally translated “carpenter,” and this has led to popular pictures of Jesus at work with his father in a carpenter’s shop, building tables and chairs for friends and neighbors.  But the term actually has a broader meaning.  In classical texts in can refer to a worker in wood (for example, someone who makes plows and yokes for farming).  But it can also refer to a “joiner,” that is, a construction worker who puts together buildings out of wood.  In other texts it describes workers in stone, i.e. masons, and in rarer cases it even describes a metal-worker.

So we should really understand tektōn to mean something like “construction worker.”  This gives us a very different picture of Jesus from the one that has him working in the family carpentry business.  Jesus most likely took construction jobs wherever he could find them, such as over in the larger city of Sepphoris near Nazareth.  He was, in effect, a day laborer. This helps us appreciate, for one thing, how Jesus shared all aspects of our human condition during his incarnation, including uncertainty over employment.

But knowing the broader meaning of the term tektōn also helps us appreciate that Jesus may have been regarded as socially inferior by many in his home town because of his occupation.  The word seems to have those associations.  For example, according to Walter Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, Aristoxenus says that the father of Sophocles was a tektōn. But the Life of Sophocles rejects this idea and suggests instead that the father may have had tektōnes among his slaves.  So the occupation was considered lower class and perhaps even dishonorable.

This gives a more dismissive and condescending ring to the comments Jesus heard from the townspeople when he returned to Nazareth.  But this is another way in which Jesus “made himself nothing” and took on the “nature of a servant” when he came to earth, as Paul says in Philippians.

And as for his half-brother James, if the father and the eldest brother were each a tektōn, then it’s likely that this was a landless family of day laborers and that all of the brothers would have worked in this same profession.  One can easily imagine people from Nazareth hearing the wisdom teaching that was later collected in the book of James and wondering similarly, “Where did this man get these things? . . . Isn’t this the tektōn?”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Was James a carpenter like his half-brother Jesus?”

  1. Dear Mr Smith, I am a Roman Catholic and I take the children’s liturgy on a rota. On the 7th I will be covering the 5th Sunday in Ordinary time Year B. The reading is Mark 1:29-39. I wanted to say to the children; let us think about Jesus. While he knew his father was God and he was now starting the work of his father, he had been, until a few weeks ago the village carpenter. He made everything from tables and chairs, to doors and frames, roofs and boxes. He knew everyone in the village and they knew him. His life was routine; he got up, ate breakfast then went into the workshop to finish Mrs so and so’s table and then deliver and collect the money. Then on with the next job. Now he had this other job to do for his heavenly father; gather disciples, teach and prepare them to go and spread the word about Jesus and God. As people heard about Jesus, everyone wanted a part of him, almost demanding they be healed. That night he probably didn’t get to sleep until very late and he needed some peace and quiet to get his head around the situation. So, what did he do? The very same thing we can do, namely find somewhere quiet and pray. He left very early in the morning and walked of and found a deserted place to say his prayer. My reason for writing to you is because you have written the article about ‘Was James a carpenter like his half-brother Jesus?’ My question is; by treating Jesus as an ordinary man and describing how his life would have changed so much from ordinary to centre of attention from all sides, am I being disrespectful and irreligious in any way?
    Thank you for reading this and I look forward to your reply.

    1. I would say that your planned presentation is very respectful of Jesus as a human being who shared our lives authentically, but who was at the same time God come to earth on a special mission. I wish I could be there to hear you give this talk to the children in your parish!

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