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Was Christ a carpenter?

September 24, 2014

The other day I was doing a crossword and one of the clues went something like: ‘What Jesus was to complain about and register for (9)’. Carp is a synonym for ‘complain about’, enter is a synonym for ‘register for’, and so the whole thing comes out as carpenter: ie what Jesus was.

Supposedly.

Because where did this idea that Jesus was a carpenter come from? He wasn’t a carpenter. Let’s grant that he was a real historical figure – I’m not an expert, but I understand there is some doubt about that – anyway, supposing he did exist, what we know of him from the Gospels is that he was an itinerant preacher. There is no record of him doing any carpentry in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

‘Ah, but his father (or stepfather) Joseph was a carpenter!’ That’s right, but Jesus wasn’t.

‘But in those days’ (I’ve heard people argue) ‘sons nearly always followed their father’s trades, so he must have spent some time as a carpenter.’

Well, he might have done, but we don’t have any record of that. What we do know is that from an early age he was running off to debate with rabbis in the synagogue, not planing pieces of wood in the workshop.

Why is this idea that someone who plainly wasn’t a carpenter was a carpenter so persistent? I remember a hymn we used to sing in primary school which included the lines: ‘Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith, Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe’. It is a beautiful hymn, but even at the age of ten I thought that was a dodgy line. It’s obviously only there because there are so few rhymes for ‘faith’.

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