The Jews of Jesus’ era were world innovators in comprehensive universal education. The majority, if not all, were taught to read and write. The philosopher Seneca remarked that the Jews were the only people who knew the reasons for their religious faith, something which the apostle Peter continued to commend (1 Peter 3.15).
Jesus undoubtedly received a Jewish education perhaps along these lines: “at 5 years of age” he would be “ready for the study of the written Torah, at 10 years of age for the study of the Oral Torah, . . . at 20 for pursuing a vocation, at 30 for entering one’s full vigor”. Jesus entered his ministry at about 30 years of age.
Very little is said in the Bible about Jesus’ life between the age twelve and the beginning of his public ministry almost two decades later. The Bible does say what Jesus did in that time: “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. “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.” [Mark 6:1-3]
The Greek word describing Joseph’s trade was “tekton” which included a master builder, master mason, master carpenter and one skilled in metal technology. Joseph was more than a simple carpenter in modern terms. Nazareth was probably too small to support any sort of fulltime tekton, so Joseph travelled to Sepphoris to find work by selling his crafts.
The historical city of Sepphoris is situated four miles from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the largest city in Judea outside Jerusalem. Herod the Great had made it his Galilean Capital. When Herod died in 3 BC his three sons were in Rome to confirm their inheritance. While they were absent a rebel leader named Judas attacked Sepphoris. The Roman legions soon crushed the rebellion, burning the city and enslaving the inhabitants.
When the sons returned from Rome, Herod Antipas determined to rebuild the city, and he initiated a great building program that lasted for 20 years until he moved to Tiberias in AD 26.
Jesus was about nine years old when the work began, and obviously much labor from Nazareth was employed in the work, including Joseph and his apprentice Jesus.
Archeological evidence from Sepphoris indicates that Greek was the common tongue.
Jesus’ familiarity with Greek usages and Greek theater is evident.
The word hypocrite comes from a Greek word meaning ‘one who acts in a play,’ and was often used by Jesus.
In Sepphoris Jesus came into contact with Romans and Greeks. The experience of both Jewish and Roman-Greek worlds adds light to Jesus’ ministry.
After Sepphoris Herod Antipas financed a major construction project at Tiberias around 19 AD, which could have provided work for most of the tektons in Galilee, including Jesus. Jesus would have been paid very little, at most 2 sesterces per day – equivalent to about $1.75 today.
When the work at Tiberias was completed, the local job-opportunities for tektons would have plummeted – Jesus and his co-workers would have been thrown upon their own limited resources.
At that time Jesus built or repaired boats by the Sea of Galilee and plows and yokes for farmers.
The majority of wandering rabbis had a trade to support their learning and teaching and there is no reason to doubt that carpentry may have been the trade that supported Jesus.
The Greek writer Justin says that “Jesus was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and Jesus appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and Jesus was deemed a carpenter (for Jesus was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which Jesus taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life).
In Jesus’ own hometown, neighbors and passers-by all identified Jesus, not as someone given to international travel and other flights of fancy, but as a carpenter.
Joseph, Jesus’ father, was a tekton [Matthew 13:55], and Jesus followed the family trade growing up. Career-hopping was rarely practiced at that time; most sons, especially the firstborn, followed in their father’s profession. Jesus was no different. There was a saying among the Jewish men in the nation of Israel: “If you do not teach your son how to work, you teach him how to be a thief.” Joseph and Mary were hardly wealthy, and Nazareth was a small remote town. The family of at least 5 sons needed money to survive and building is honest work.
Jesus’ years as a carpenter was what made his neighbors remember him. If he’d taken years off to study in foreign lands, he wouldn’t be recognized or remembered in such a way – their identification with him points out that Jesus was locally known.
Carpenters at this time were highly skilled as there were so few trees in Israel. Throughout the sermons of Jesus, there are many references to things that a carpenter or tekton would think about. For example, Jesus spoke about the “narrow gate” that we have to go through. Jesus talked about building a house “upon solid rock” and not “upon the shifting sand”, another concept that a good 1st century tekton would have known about. In a beautiful passage, in Matthew 11:29, Jesus said that his “yoke” was easy. Using carpentry skills Jesus could make a yoke that was comfortable for the animals. In Matthew 21:33, Jesus talked about building a tower in a vineyard. In another place, Jesus told the parable of a king who was going to build a tower but did not count the cost. You can see the mind of a tekton working here. You have to know the expenses before you begin such a project. Jesus spoke about the “keystone” and Jesus spoke about a “city on a hill.”
Jesus was a carpenter or tekton much longer than a preacher. There are several things that are very significant about Jesus profession as being a carpenter or tekton. The fact that Jesus was a carpenter, for 15 to 20 years, emphasizes that God respects all honorable work that we might do, even manual labor, as a carpenter or tekton would have been engaged in. Jesus wanted us to understand that as long as it is honest work that we are engaged in, then any work is respectable in the eyes of God. The rulers of Palestine were prejudiced against those who worked with their hands, much as modern mindless Americans robots are today.