The notion that Jesus was a carpenter can largely be attributed to today’s passage from Mark. “Is not this the carpenter the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” There is some debate among biblical scholars about the translation of the Greek term tekton and whether it should be interpreted as carpenter, stone mason, or craftsmen in this instance.
The question of Jesus’ occupation is interesting for a number of reasons. First, recent archaeology has revealed considerable building activity in the nearby provincial center of Sepphoris, a relatively short walk from Nazareth. If Jesus and Joseph were tektons, then it seems quite likely that they would have worked in Sepphoris at times and been somewhat exposed to gentile Greek and Roman culture. Second, it is interesting because unlike in today’s world where those in the building trades have unions and a relatively stable economic prospects, tektons in Jesus day were among the artisan class. In times of drought and famine, unlike agrarians, they had no security in the stores of the farm. Artisans were at the bottom of the economic ladder and had a clear view of the injustices of the Roman imperial system of domination.
John Dominic Crossan writes in The Birth of Christianity that “The Artisan Class “was originally recruited from the ranks of the dispossessed peasantry and their noninheriting sons and was continually replenished from these sources. Furthermore, despite the substantial overlap between the wealth and income of the peasant and the artisan, the median income of the artisans was apparently not so great as that of the peasants.” Peasant artisans were lower, not higher, than peasant farmers in the social class. (The Birth of Christianity, p. 155).
When Jesus preached the good news to the poor, he did so as one of the dispossessed peasantry. Jesus was from the poor among the poor. On a day like July 4th when ideas like the American dream are often mentioned, it is appropriate to ask whether opportunities are available to all or whether there are barriers that tend to keep people in a dispossessed class. What is the good news to the poor today?