The Life and Times of First-Century Christians
“Is this not the carpenter’s son?”—MATTHEW 13:55.
JESUS was known not only as “the carpenter’s son” but also as “the carpenter.” (Mark 6:3) He likely learned this trade from his adoptive father, Joseph.
What skills and tools did Jesus need to master when he worked as a carpenter? What products and services might he have provided to the inhabitants of Nazareth? And how might his early training as a woodworking artisan have influenced him later in life?
A Family Business The picture below shows a father instructing his eldest son in the efficient and safe use of the bow drill. A younger son listens and watches attentively.
Boys often began their formal apprenticeship at about 12 to 15 years of age. They usually learned the trade from their father. Training stretched over many years, and the boys would have to put forth intense effort if they wanted to develop the necessary skills to become a master carpenter. Imagine the many pleasant hours Joseph must have spent with Jesus—working with him, conversing with him, passing on his expertise to him. How Joseph must have watched with pride as Jesus mastered the craft!
Knowledge, Strength, and Skill Required A carpenter needed to know the characteristics of the wood he worked with. He could choose from locally grown timber, such as cypress, oak, cedar, sycamore, and olive. However, a first-century carpenter could not visit a lumber yard or a building supply store and pick up lumber cut to his specifications. Rather, he would travel to the forest, select the appropriate trees, fell them, and then haul the heavy logs back to his workshop.
What would a carpenter produce from the lumber he gathered? He might spend many hours outdoors, helping to build houses. He would mill rafters for the roof, manufacture stairs for the interior, and make doors, windows, and frames for the walls.
A carpenter would also produce furniture. The accompanying illustrations show some of these products—storage cabinets with drawers, shelves, or doors (1); stools (2), chairs (3), and tables (4) of various sizes and shapes; and cradles for daytime infant care. To decorate some furniture, he might inlay it with attractive wood carved to form intricate patterns. To protect and beautify the items, he might coat them with beeswax, varnish, or oil.
A carpenter also made products for the local farmers—yokes (5) shaped from heavy wood as well as forks, rakes, and shovels (6). The plows (7) he made had to be sturdy, for their iron points would be gouging furrows through rocky soil. He made wooden carts (8) and wagons and crafted the solid or spoked wheels upon which those vehicles rode. His occupation might also include repairing and maintaining the furniture, tools, and vehicles he made.
Can you imagine how Jesus’ work as a carpenter influenced his appearance? Think of Jesus’ skin bronzed by the Middle Eastern sun, his muscles strengthened by years of physical labor, and his hands hardened from gripping rough wood and wielding axes, hammers, and saws.
A Source of Illustrations Jesus masterfully used simple, familiar objects to teach deep spiritual truths. Did he draw on his background as a carpenter for some of his illustrations? Consider a few possibilities. “Why, then, do you look at the straw in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the rafter in your own eye?” he told one crowd. A carpenter would know how massive a rafter was. (Matthew 7:3) Later, Jesus said to another group: “No man that has put his hand to a plow and looks at the things behind is well fitted for the kingdom of God.” He would also likely have made his share of plows. (Luke 9:62) One of Jesus’ warmest invitations involved a piece of equipment manufactured by a carpenter. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” said Jesus. “My yoke is kindly and my load is light.” (Matthew 11:29, 30) Jesus no doubt knew how to make a yoke that did not chafe but was “kindly,” or well-fitted.
Jesus’ opposers might disparagingly have referred to him as “the carpenter’s son.” Even so, as in the first century, Christians today consider it an honor to follow this humble former carpenter.
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The Carpenter’s Toolbox
A first-century carpenter like Jesus would need to know how to handle the tools depicted here. His saw (1) consisted of a wooden frame holding an iron blade with teeth set in a way that would cut on the pull stroke. He would use a square (2) to lay out his work and a plumb (3) to line up vertical surfaces. Also in his toolbox were a level (4), a rule stick (5), a plane with its sharp, adjustable iron blade for smoothing rough lumber (6), and an ax (7) for cutting down trees.
The carpenter’s bow lathe (8) and gouge (9) were used for cutting and shaping spindles. On the toolbox lid, you can see a wooden mallet (10) used for pounding dowels into joints or for driving chisels. Also shown are a small handsaw (11), a drawknife (12) for shaping, and some nails (13). In front of the toolbox is an iron hammer (14) and an adze (15) for roughing out timber. On the lid is a knife (16) as well as chisels (17) of various widths. A bow drill (18) leans against the toolbox.