Nowadays it is quite common to refer to Jesus as a carpenter from Galilee. You might even see people driving around with a bumper sticker that says, “My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter,” by which they mean Jesus.
But is Jesus really a carpenter? Let’s examine the gospels and see.
They asked, “Is this not the carpenter?”
Right away we find that the words “Jesus” and “carpenter” occur together only once in the New Testament:
On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary [Other ancient authorities read “son of the carpenter and of Mary”] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
—Mark 6:2-3 (NRSV)
There are some interesting aspects to this passage, as well as in its parallel in Matthew 13:55.
Depending on which ancient manuscript you read, the people are either asking if Jesus is a carpenter or if He is the son of a carpenter. Either way, they were asking because they were surprised to see someone whom they thought was a carpenter functioning as a rabbi. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath; in other words, He was preaching the sermon. Since they thought He was a carpenter usurping the role of a rabbi, they understandably took offense. If He were a carpenter, as they wondered, His ability to preach would be quite amazing.
However, the only people who thought this situation was remarkable and offensive were the people who were mistaken. Obviously, the synagogue authorities had allowed Him to preach, which means they knew that He was not a carpenter.
The New Testament calls Jesus ‘rabbi’ about 13 times
Here are three examples.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
—Mark 9:5-6 (NRSV)
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”
—John 1:48-50 (NRSV)
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
—John 4:31-34 (NRSV)
When people called Jesus “rabbi,” He never corrected them. Unless He is being deceptive, this means He is a rabbi.
The New Testament calls Jesus ‘teacher’ about 47 times
You can look these up on your own; I will give you one example.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, ‘My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’”
—Matthew 26:17-19 (NRSV)
Notice that in this passage Jesus is referring to Himself as a teacher, which is really interesting because the same gospel discloses that it uses “teacher” to mean “rabbi.”
The New Testament uses ‘teacher’ to mean ‘rabbi’
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.
—John 1:38-39 (NRSV) See also Matthew 23:8 and John 3:2
Matthew was writing in Greek, but ‘rabbi’ is an Aramaic or Hebrew word, so he explains to the reader what ‘rabbi’ means and that he uses it ‘teacher’ as a translation of the title ‘rabbi.’
So here is our evidence:
- In the gospels, total strangers walk up to Jesus and ask Him cast out demons, heal the sick, settle disputes, and probate wills. Carpenters don’t have that job description, but rabbis do. This also means, incidentally, that Jesus had to have been dressed like a rabbi; otherwise, the people wouldn’t know to ask.
- In the gospels, there is no incident where a Pharisee invites Jesus to fix a wobbly table, but He overhears the dinner conversation, interrupts with His observations, and amazes them with His wisdom. That’s what would happen if He were a carpenter. Instead, the Pharisees keep inviting Jesus to dinner to discuss His teachings. So obviously the Pharisees perceive Jesus as a rabbi, because carpenters do not have teachings, but rabbis do.
- In the gospels, Jesus has disciples. Carpenters don’t have disciples, but rabbis do.
- Matthew informs us in Matthew 23:8 that when he uses ‘teacher’ as a title, he is translating the word ‘rabbi.’ That means Jesus is calling Himself as a rabbi in Matthew 26:17-19. Nowhere does He call Himself a carpenter.
So it is very romantic to think of Jesus as a carpenter, but not very scriptural.
Jesus is a rabbi.