Was Jesus a carpenter or not

Jesus as a blacksmith? Like father, like son

Heidelberg / Vienna - It was certainly not the center of the world. Almost 2000 years ago Nazareth probably only had a few hundred inhabitants - just a village. One can imagine the place as a collection of low houses on a hill. The streets are unpaved and dusty, and a shepherd is driving his sheep out. Hammer blows can be heard further back. A fire is burning in an open workshop, a man is pushing an iron bar into the embers. The sweat is on his face. That this strong guy will soon found a world religion: Who would guess?

Dismissed as a busybody

The above scene may seem strange to Bible festivals. The Gospel of Mark (6: 3) finally has a clear statement about Jesus' professional activity: "If he is not the carpenter, Mary's son ...", it says at the appearance with his disciples in Nazareth. The villagers have recognized their own, and in his homeland the prophet is not honored at all. You think he's a busybody. Today everyone knows how the story ends. The New Testament reports extensively.

However, some things are not as immovable as is generally believed. The first writings about the life and work of Jesus Christ were written in ancient Greek by chroniclers, as the linguist Frankwalt Möhren from the University of Heidelberg explains. After all, Palestine belonged to the Hellenic cultural area in the first century AD, even if the area was part of the Roman Empire and the vernacular language was Aramaic. "Greek is clearer," says Möhren. In the original Gospel of Mark, both Jesus and his secular father Joseph therefore had the job title "tekton". In German, the term can be translated as "builder" or "craftsman".

The problem arises as early as the 4th century. At that time, Jerome created the so-called Vulgate, the first summary of the biblical texts - translated into Latin. The "tekton" became a "faber". He is also a craftsman, emphasizes Möhren. "He can do anything and is also a builder." The Faber used a wide variety of hard materials, from wood and metal to ivory.

Better identification figure

In large parts of Europe, however, scribes viewed him primarily as a blacksmith. Isidorus of Seville, for example, claims in his Etymologiae, a kind of early medieval lexicon, that the name comes from iron processing. It was no coincidence that Christ was ascribed precisely this activity, says Möhren. The connection with the fire was probably decisive. The latter also distinguished the ancient gods Jupiter and Vulcanus. "It made Jesus a better figure to identify with."

In eastern language areas such as Armenian and Coptic, a different interpretation took place instead. There the "tekton was primarily regarded as a man of wood. The reason for this was perhaps again a question of reputation. Carpenters enjoyed a high reputation in those cultures, and the temple of Jerusalem could have been built mainly from cedar wood.

However, in biblical times there was hardly any clear separation between the two professional groups - especially not in a village like Nazareth. Joseph, so it is said in the Proto-Gospel of James, drops the adze when he goes to the temple to fetch his future bride Mary. What he used the tool for is not mentioned.

Amazing insight

However, none of this played a role in later perception. "Jesus was a blacksmith for a thousand years, but only in the West," emphasizes Frankwalt Möhren. Numerous texts from the time called him that. The new attribution did not begin until Thomas Aquinas in the second half of the 13th century. The famous scholar read the writings of John Chrysostom, the former Patriarch of Constantinople, and was amazed to find that the latter describes St. Joseph as a "woodworker". The profession was passed on from father to son, so Christ must have done the same job. Aquin is shocked. Chrysostom has overwhelming authority for him, as he sat closer to the Greek sources. In the winter semester of 1269/70, during a lecture at the still young University of Paris, Aquin told the students about his discovery. Apparently they were wrong, Jesus must have been a carpenter.

The corresponding view prevailed radically in the following centuries. Today the memory of Christ as a blacksmith seems almost completely forgotten. Only the anthropologist Mary Helms from the University of North Carolina in 2006 pointed to a connection between Joseph and the blacksmithing trade, which in her opinion is related to the pre-Christian creation myth (Anthropos, vol. 101, p. 451). However, the confusion of professions must be of a purely linguistic nature, as Möhren explains. "It is entirely related to the meaning of the Latin 'faber'." One thing is clear: Jesus was definitely an all-rounder. (Kurt de Swaaf, December 24, 2016)