Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is Not This the Carpenter?

The traditional image of Christ's profession is that of a carpenter. Through the ages this image has been featured in works of art[1], literature[2], music[3], and even film[4].
In the 1970s, Geza Vermes challenged this understanding of Christ as a carpenter.
Those familiar with the language spoken by Jesus are acquainted with a metaphorical use of 'carpenter' and 'carpenter's son' in ancient Jewish writings. In Talmudic sayings the Aramaic noun denoting carpenter or craftsman (naggar) stands for a 'scholar' or 'learned man' :
'This is something no carpenter, son of carpenters, can explain.'
'There is no carpenter, nor a carpenter's son, to explain it'
Thus, although no one can be absolutely sure that the -sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee, proverbs such as these are likely to be age-old. If so, it is possible that the charming picture of 'Jesus the carpenter' may have to be buried and forgotten. -Geza Vermas, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels, 21-22.

On the face of it, Geza Vermes presents a strong case. Is it though?
The talmudic passage geza Vermes refers to begins at the very end of the Balynoian Talmud, m. Avodah Zarah, 50a.
R. Joseph b. Abba said: Rabbah b. Jeremiah once visited our town. When he came he brought with him this teaching: If an idolater took stones from a Mercurius and paved roads and streets with them, they are permitted; if one of Israel took stones from a Mercurius and paved roads and streets with them, they are prohibited; and there is no carpenter nor carpenter's son who could dismantle it. R. Shesheth said: I am neither a carpenter nor a carpenter's son, yet I will dismantle it.
אמר רב יוסף בר אבא איקלע רבה בר ירמיה לאתרין ואתא ואייתי מתניתא בידיה <עובד כוכבים> {גוי} שהביא אבנים מן המרקוליס וחיפה בהן דרכים וטרטיאות
מותרות ישראל שהביא אבנים מן המרקוליס וחיפה בהן דרכים וסרטיאות אסורות ולית נגר ולא בר נגר דיפרקינה אמר רב ששת אנא לא נגר אנא ולא בר נגר אנא ופריקנא

The phrase we-leyith naggar we-la bar naggar diparkeina literally means there is no carpenter or son of a carpenter to dismantle it.
The context is of a rabbinic debate in Babylon over the propriety of a Jew taking stones from a pile dedicated to Mercury and using them in construction. If a Jew does it, the road he paved is forbidden for Jewish use, yet the same thing done by an idolater is permitted. This is said by the Amoraic rabbis to be such a difficult question that there is no carpenter or son of a carpenter to dismantle it. We are obviously dealing here with a proverb, one that seems to mean a problem none can solve. Rav Sheshet says that though he is no carpenter or son of a carpenter, he can solve the problem. Rav Sheshet was a Torah scholar addressing other Torah scholars! If a carpenter was a metaphor for scholar, then the use of it here is rather bewildering. Geza Vermes' interpretation seems to be drawn from what Rashi had wriiten centuries earlier in his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud.
Carpenter... carpenter's son - scholar... scholar's son.
Diparkeinah - who could explain it and explain why the matter before us is difficult.
נגר בן נגר - חכם בן חכם
דיפרקינה - שיוכל לתרצה ולקמן מפרש מאי קא קשיא ליה

Elsewhere in the Talmuds, whenever the word naggar appears, it is always in the context of an actual carpenter or woodworker. Even Rashi explains bar naggara (carpenter's son) as an ordinary woodworker[5].
The context of Mark 6 does not fit a metaphorical reading of the word carpenter either.
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. -Mark 6:1-3.
The people of Nazareth hear Christ teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and are surprised, indeed, startled by his wisdom (and perhaps his originality as well). Why would that come as a surprise if carpenter were a metaphor for learned scholar? The surprise of the people is due rather to their not expecting one of the regular guys, a carpenter whose family everybody knows, to be able to expound scriptures like that.
An added factor to consider is that next door almost to Nazareth was the big, bustling city of Sepphoris, which was undergoing a building boom during Christ's lifetime. A carpenter would be a logical choice of profession. In those days, a carpenter was more of a contractor, he helped with blueprints, and tricky, technical work, such as hinges and shutters. It was one of the only professions to be paid in money. By today's standards, Christ was probably lower middle class.
All in all, I think the "charming picture" stands.

[1]Luca Cambiaso, "The Holy Family in the Carpenter's Shop: Jesus hold a lamp while Joseph carves a design."

[2]Elizabeth Linton, "The True History of Joshua Davidson."

[3]Christopher Wren, "Jesus Was a Carpenter."

[4]Owen Wilson's character in "Meet the Parents."

[5]See Rashi's commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, m. Baba Bathra, 73b.

[6]Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, pg. 51.


  1. I haven't commented on your blog in a while and I apologize. Your insights are excellent and have truly been both enlightening and strengthening to my testimony. For that, my brother, I thank you.

  2. Thanks, Walker! I really enjoyed reading the final version of your presentation at the interfaith dialogue.
    Extremely insightful and well-written.