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by Al Maxey

Issue #745 ------- March 22, 2018
Good for the body is the work of the body,
and good for the soul the work of the soul,
and good for either the work of the other.

Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]

Carpentry or Stone Masonry?
The Earthly Work of the Eternal Word

Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Shelly and I lived with our three young sons for eight years (1984 to 1992), ranks as one of our very favorite places. We loved living and working there. Santa Fe is often characterized as "the city different," and it certainly lives up to that reputation in a number of ways. It is a place where craftsmanship and artistry abound, where several cultures (primarily: Native American, Spanish, Anglo) co-exist, and where, at almost every turn, one encounters fascinating historical sites and structures. One of the most impressive, and it is located just a few blocks from the house in which we lived, is "The Chapel of Our Lady of Light," which is better known to most as "Loretto Chapel." It was built for the Sisters of Loretto in 1873. A century later, in July of 1973, Shelly and I would visit this chapel on our honeymoon (little knowing at the time that in just eleven years we would be raising our three sons in walking distance from this historic site).

These Catholic nuns "had left Kentucky and made an arduous trip across the Mississippi River and the West to establish a convent in Santa Fe under the direction of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. ... The archbishop, the subject of Willa Cather's novel 'Death Comes for the Archbishop,' stirred much controversy by his repression of local customs, including native architecture. It was at his request that the chapel be built in a Gothic style reminiscent of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. French and Italian stone masons were brought in for the project and they would later build the St. Francis Cathedral several blocks away" [Emily Drabanski, "Loretto Chapel," New Mexico Magazine, December 1991, p. 6]. The building of this chapel took five years. There was a problem, however: there was no way to gain access to the choir loft except by climbing a tall wooden ladder, which the sisters found inappropriate for a number of reasons. "The Sisters of Loretto, distressed by the dilemma, decided to pray a novena through St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. According to the legend, on the ninth day, a gray-haired man arrived with a donkey and offered his assistance. To this day, the carpenter, who left without payment, has remained unidentified" [ibid, p. 7]. The wooden staircase, with its two complete 360-degree turns, is truly beautiful to behold; an absolute masterpiece of carpentry. The tradition remains to this day that this construction was a miracle, and that the builder was none other than Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus the Messiah. Thousands of people, from all over the world, visit this chapel every day. To read more about this chapel and its famous staircase, and to see several great pictures of both, Click Here, which will take you to the chapel's official web site. My family and I have visited this chapel many times over the years, but one of my fondest memories was created on the evening of December 6, 1991 when I was privileged to be able to officiate a wedding in this chapel of two members of our congregation. I'll always treasure that remarkable experience!

As noted in the above referenced article in New Mexico Magazine, most of the work of building the chapel itself was entrusted to imported French and Italian stone masons. There was still a need, however, for those skilled in working with wood. It was such a carpenter who mysteriously appeared on the scene, built the much needed wooden staircase, and then just as mysteriously vanished from the scene. The legend is that this unknown carpenter was none other than Joseph. This certainly agrees with the biblical view that Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), a trade that he apparently encouraged Jesus to embrace (Mark 6:3). The occupation of both Joseph and Jesus is something most Christians accept as an absolute fact. They were carpenters. After all, the Bible says so, right?! Actually, and this may surprise some readers, the above two passages are the only place in the entire New Testament canon where the word "carpenter" appears, and the Greek word used by Matthew and Mark is one that may very well suggest a different occupation.

The scene is the synagogue in our Lord's home town of Nazareth. He was invited to speak, and His teaching astonished those assembled in the synagogue that particular Sabbath, and so they wondered, "Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers?" (Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2). They had likely known Jesus for most of His life; they had watched Him grow up; thus, they were puzzled as to how this "local boy" could suddenly be saying and doing the things they were hearing and observing. "Is this not the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55a). "Is this not the carpenter?" (Mark 6:3a). "Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?" (Matthew 13:55b-56; Mark 6:3b). "And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household.' And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief" (Matthew 13:57-58; Mark 6:3c-6a). Mark tells us that Jesus was able to "lay His hands upon a few sick people and heal them" (vs. 5b), but other than that He was unable to accomplish much in Nazareth. Thus, "He wondered at their unbelief" (vs. 6a). Other translations say that He "marveled at" ... "was amazed at" ... "was appalled by" ... "was astonished at" ... "was dumbfounded by" the lack of faith and belief evidenced by these former neighbors of His in the town of Nazareth. Not only did they not believe, they were also very much offended by Him! This is the Greek word "skandalizo" (from which we get "scandalized"). It was simply beyond their comprehension that this "local boy," whom they had watched grow to manhood, and whose family lived among them; a young man who was employed in fairly common trade until just recently, should now be appearing before them as the chosen one of God. "We know all about you; your family, your occupation; you're no more special than any of us!" Therefore, they were horrified by this apparent self-elevation of this "local boy" to a position above them. The Message reads, "They got their noses all out of joint." As a result, Jesus rightly observes, "A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household" (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4).

Nazareth, at that time, was a small town; everybody knew everybody. Even the locals did not expect anyone remarkable to arise from their midst, and the Jews from beyond Nazareth most certainly did not. When Philip went to Nathaniel and said, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph," the immediate response of Nathaniel was, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?!" (John 1:45-46). "How could anyone believe that God had stepped into history in the person of a young man who had spent most of his life in their own community?" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 396]. "The Creator's son? Not likely! We know him. He's just the carpenter's son, and just a carpenter himself." The residents of Nazareth were manifesting a "personal pique that a hometown boy has outstripped them. ... The questions of the people are understandable, if not justifiable. Here was a young artisan from a rough town, with no special breeding or education. Whence, then, his wisdom and miracles?" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 335-336]. "It is sad that every time in the NT somebody is 'scandalized' by someone, that someone is Jesus!" [ibid]. Some even see a further denunciation in the remark, "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:3). "Behind this question may be the rumor, circulated during Jesus' lifetime, that He was illegitimate" [ibid, p. 665]. Mary was pregnant when she married Joseph: a mark against her in the eyes of many. If Jesus was perceived not only as a common laborer, but as also being illegitimate, this made it even harder to accept His claims. These questions are seemingly posed "with the sneer of prejudice and the sting of unbelief. ... They are resurrecting the scandal of Mary's pregnancy before marriage and smearing Jesus with the charge of illegitimacy" [David L. McKenna, The Communicator's Commentary: Mark, p. 126].

There is much more that could be said about this encounter between Jesus and the citizens of Nazareth, but we'll save that for another time. The focus of this present Reflections is the occupation of Jesus. This passage (Mark 6:3) is the only place in the New Covenant writings that tells us what job Jesus held (the Matthew passage assigns the same occupation to Joseph). He is said to have been a "carpenter." We have all heard this all of our lives. If you ask one of our children or grandchildren what kind of work Jesus did before entering upon His public ministry at the age of thirty, they will quickly declare: "He was a carpenter; and so was His father Joseph." Yet, the only place in the entire Bible where this information is provided is in these two passages (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3). Nowhere else is this ever mentioned. In both passages, the Greek word translated "carpenter" is "tekton." This word appears only here in the entire NT; it is never used again in these inspired writings. It comes from a root word meaning "to create," and it depicts one who is a skilled craftsman. It may refer to one who is skilled in creating something from wood, but it is not limited to that alone. It also refers to sculptors, to builders, and to those who work with other mediums. "It was used of any artisan or craftsman in metal or stone, and even of sculpture work" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 120]. The noted Greek scholar Dr. A. T. Robertson concurs: "It is a very old word, from Homer down. It was originally applied to the worker in wood or a builder with wood like our carpenter. Then it was used of any artisan or craftsman in metal, or in stone as well as in wood, and even of sculpture" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. Most English translations follow the King James Version and retain the word "carpenter," although some versions, such as the International Standard Version, use the word "builder." As already noted, the word has reference to one who creates from metal, stone, wood, and other mediums. Probably the best, and most inclusive, translation would be: "a craftsman" or "a builder." Dr. W. E. Vine agrees, pointing out in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words, that "tekton denotes any craftsman." "The Greek word can also apply to a mason, blacksmith, or a builder in general" [Archaeological Study Bible]. As an interesting aside: in modern Greek the word "tekton" means a "Freemason."

"In Palestine all houses were constructed of stone" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 552]. If Jesus and Joseph were builders of houses, then they would more likely be stone masons, although those craftsmen who worked with wood provided the roof beams and door frames of these houses. Their greater work, however, was in making furniture, household utensils, boxes, coffins, and even boats. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), in his work titled "The Dialogue with Trypho," states that it is his understanding that "Jesus was a maker of plows and yokes." This certainly brings to mind such statements by Jesus as: "Take My yoke upon you ... For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matthew 11:29-30) and "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). Yes, there would have been need in Nazareth for one who was skilled in creating and building such objects from wood. It is certainly possible that both Joseph and Jesus were engaged in this type of craftsmanship. On the other hand, it should be noted that Nazareth was only a mile or two from a very large stone quarry, and Herod was actively engaged in a great amount of building in the area as part of his "beautification project." Thus, there would have been a need for many skilled craftsmen who could work with stone. This would have been a great opportunity for both Joseph and Jesus. More and more scholars, therefore, are coming to the conclusion that by using the word "tekton," both Matthew and Mark may be suggesting Joseph and Jesus were craftsmen in stone, thus "stone masons" rather than "carpenters" (in the sense that we today understand that word). Frankly, this makes a lot of sense in light of the following passages:

Although none of these passages prove Jesus worked more with stone than with wood, or exclusively with the former over the latter, it nevertheless indicates a familiarity with this form of craftsmanship that becomes more understandable if He had spent the bulk of His life as a builder with stone. It might also help explain His physical presence, as there are passages that seem to hint that He was rather large and powerful in appearance. One who worked with stone would certainly be getting a daily "work out" that would be quite visible in His body. For example, we read that "Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves" (Matthew 21:12; cf. John 2:14f). Have you ever noticed that nobody stepped up to stop Him?! Where were the temple guards? They too are noticeably uninvolved. Have you noticed also that when it came time to arrest Jesus on the eve prior to His crucifixion, it was a rather large crowd who came to get Him, and that they were well armed? Don't you also find it interesting that when Jesus approached this crowd who had come for Him, they all "drew back and fell to the ground" (John 18:6)? Is it possible that the appearance of Jesus might have been somewhat intimidating; an appearance that may very well have come from years of laboring as a stone mason? Interesting to reflect upon, yet I am most certainly not willing to be dogmatic about this, as we simply have insufficient information to lift such an assumption to the level of absolute certainty, even though there is some evidence for it.


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

Al, you have been a blessing to me for many, many years, both when I was preaching and now that our family runs our mortuary and crematory. I've been wanting to purchase your latest book From Ruin to Resurrection ever since it first came out, but simply kept putting it off. My birthday is this month, so I decided to give myself the present of your book! Please send me a signed copy to the address below. Thank you, brother. My check is enclosed. By the way, Edward Fudge (who wrote the Foreword to your book) was a friend of mine, and we had some wonderful conversations and emails on various subjects. I've read his book, but it's a bit more information than I usually need. I've heard very good things about your book, and am looking forward to reading it. Blessings!

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, I don't mean to "flatter" you, but your resolve to keep on teaching liberty in Christ, and Truth over tradition, in spite of all the hateful opposition that comes your way, reminds me of President Trump. He carries on every day to restore our broken country in spite of constant attempts at character assassination. I haven't written for a while, but I cannot fully express how much your Reflections have helped me! I have attended the ----- ----- Church of Christ for almost three decades, and will probably always stay here because of my deep friendships. I have seen attitudes and some practices change for the better (we actually now have a yearly children's Christmas program), but the basic "old school" Church of Christ doctrine still prevails. However, I share what I have learned from you when I can! Thanks again for all you do in the Kingdom.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Wow! Thank you, Al, for your article "Temporarily Tossed into Tartarus" (Reflections #744) which you wrote in response to the question we sent to you. We are humbled that you thought of us and were moved to do such a thing! Years ago, I would email Jim McGuiggan once in a great while when I had a question about something in one of his commentaries, or some other difficult matter. I remember expecting that someone of his stature wouldn't have time to respond to someone like me. But, his genuinely thorough and comprehensive response would always be in my email the next day! I consider you to be in the same category! Such character and demeanor says a lot about a person!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Thanks for your latest Reflections regarding Tartarus. It was very interesting! Al, I have just come across a book titled "After Jesus: The Triumph of Christianity." It is very informative. One of the chapters ("Bearing the Cross") is quite revealing. It discusses the evolution of baptismal practices in the 2nd and 3rd centuries as they went from spontaneous baptisms to an instruction period in the 2nd century requiring fasting and education in the faith before being baptized. By the 3rd century prospective converts, or "catechumens," spent a three year instruction period known as the "catechumenate" to prepare for initiation into the church. It just shows how things can and do change. It is significant that many in our brotherhood have emphasized the immediacy factor. Customarily, baptism was not necessarily delayed in the 1st century, but it could be argued from Acts 8, regarding the Ethiopian eunuch, that they were traveling on a desert road without the expectation of water, only to be surprised when they came across some. There had to be other similar circumstances, just as there are today. It does make one think! God bless, brother.

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