Was Jesus a Carpenter?



Joseph Francis Alward
© Copyright 2001



Mark had the people in Jesus' hometown call him a "carpenter," not because he was actually a carpenter, but because Mark wished to create irony. 


Jesus taught that only those with eyes to see and ears to hear would enter the kingdom of God, but in his hometown, Mark has the townspeople call Jesus a “carpenter”  to remind his readers of the shamed carpenter in Isaiah whose eyes could not see.


This explanation for the “carpenter” verse is in stark contrast to the one suggested by Dennis MacDonald in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

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There's a passage in Isaiah which I believe can be used to rebut the claim by Dennis MacDonald's in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale University Press, 2000) that Mark may have had Jesus emulate Homer's Carpenter, Odysseus, when he had the people in Jesus' hometown refer to him as a "carpenter."


The relevant Marcan passage is below; I've added emphasis to words I'll refer to later:



Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed (Greek, ekplesso). "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.  Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." (Mark 6:1-4)



MacDonald notes



"Scholars routinely treat Mark's identification of Jesus as a carpenter as historically reliable because there is no apparent reason for the evangelist to have concocted this information…..Jesus may have indeed been a carpenter, but [so was Odysseus]; he built the Trojan horse and built his own palace.  Homer went to great lengths to illustrate Odysseus's skill with his hands in order to symbolize his intelligence, foresight, and clever resourcefulness…For Homer….carpentry was a metaphor for wisdom.  The opposite is the case in Mark, and the earliest evangelist may be emulating Homer's hero, making Jesus even wiser and more powerful than Odysseus.  Jesus' neighbors recognized him as a carpenter, but his wisdom and ability to perform miracles far exceeded what they expected even from a skilled craftsman."  (pages 18-19).



I attach a quite different interpretation to Mark's use of "carpenter."  Before I explain, let me first provide the following from Isaiah:



All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing? He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy. The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. He cut down cedars…he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand…a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"  (Isaiah 44:9-20)



When Mark told us the people of Jesus' hometown took offense at him and dishonored him, he may never intended the word "carpenter" (Greek, tekton) be a description of his trade, but as a metaphoric description of one who is misguided and deluded, who knows and understands nothing, and is to be shamed, like Isaiah's carpenter.  This is powerful irony, almost certainly deliberate on Mark’s part.  Here was the son of God--the man Mark had reach out to those who had eyes to see and ears  (Mark 8:18, 25)--being accused by those who knew him best of being like the one who worships false gods and who has not eyes to see.


It may be then that Mark was having the townspeople be sarcastic when he described them as being “amazed” at what they heard.  An alternate meaning of the word ekplesso is “shocked.”  They had, after all, only heard what Jesus was saying; there was no display of his miracle-making powers for them to witness, so it isn’t possible that they were expressing actual wonderment.  The townspeople hadn’t seen anything for them to be amazed at, but they evidently heard teachings from Jesus which they viewed as “shocking.”


Thus, the townspeople weren't recognizing Jesus'  "wisdom and ability to perform miracles," as MacDonald asserts.  It seems Mark was having them do just the opposite; they were ridiculing him, using "carpenter" to call to mind "craftsmen who were nothing but men, and whose eyes, ironically, “are plastered over so they cannot see,” just like the very persons Jesus said wouldn’t be allowed into the kingdom of heaven.   Mark apparently is having the people use sarcasm here in much the same way he did when he had the people after the arrest put “a crown of thorns…on him [and] call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!"  (Mark 15:17-18)  Mark seems clearly to have wanted his readers to know that the people in Jesus' hometown no more thought Jesus was wise than the people at the arrest thought Jesus was "king of the Jews."


In summary, Mark seems to have intended the "carpenter" in his story to call to mind Isaiah's fashioner of idols, one who would be shamed--ironically, one who doesn't have eyes to see.  MacDonald has noted that authors of Mark's time often blended material from several sources, and it is possible that he might argue here that Mark wished for his readers to think not only of Isaiah’s carpenter, but also of Odysseus.  However, it seems inconceivable that Mark intended for his readers simultaneously to connect in their minds Isaiah’s blind and foolish "carpenter" and the wise and heroic one in Homer’s Odyssey.




Other articles about Mark’s gospel:

  Jesus Walks on Water
  Loaves and Fishes.