Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jesus' Occupation: Was Jesus a Carpenter?

Jesus was a carpenter, right?  It’s one of the most widely known “facts” about Jesus’ life prior to his ministry.  In many ways, it is the only “fact” we know about Jesus’ life before his baptism by John the Baptist. 

Surprisingly, no text of the New Testament tells us that Jesus was a carpenter.

In only one Gospel is there any hint as to what Jesus’ occupation was prior to the start of his ministry.  This comes from the Gospel of Mark, where he notes that Jesus was a tekton – that is, a builder or craftsman.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament, this same word (tekton) is used to translate the Hebrew word charash, which means the same thing – artisan, craftsman, engraver, etc.

The only other time the word tekton appears in the New Testament is in the Gospel of Matthew, where the writer tells us that Jesus was the son of a tekton.  Perhaps Matthew was implying that Jesus followed in his father’s footsteps, but in any case, the only explicit reference in the New Testament comes from Mark.

Tekton, as stated above, is a word meaning “builder” or “craftsman.”  Literally, it means “someone who creates.”  It certainly can refer to something like a carpenter – that is, a woodworker.  But, like our own word “builder,” it does not exclusively refer to the profession of carpentry.  Unfortunately, there is no context in Mark’s passage (or Matthew’s, for that matter) to imply exactly what sort of tekton Jesus was. 

The tradition that tekton, in the Gospels, referred specifically to carpentry seems to be an early one.  Justin Martyr, writing in the mid-2nd century (only about 80 years after the first Gospel), states that Jesus was a carpenter who built yokes and plows like his father before him.  Justin tells us that Jesus used his woodworking trade to teach “the symbols of righteousness” to his followers and to encourage them to be productive. 

Sometime later, around 200 C.E., another Church father – this time the prolific writer Origen – denies that Jesus was a carpenter and notes explicitly that the Gospels do not, in fact, tell us this widely known “fact” (clearly Origen understood that “tekton” was not a specific reference to carpentry). 

We are left them with a problem: the word used in the New Testament is vague, and the debate about what, exactly, this word referred to is as old as Christianity itself.  How can we possibly hope to clear up the confusion?  Our only option is to look at other available evidence, both textual and historical, and when we do, it seems likely that Jesus was not, in fact, a carpenter.

One of the ways that scholars attempt to better understand the so-called “lost years” of Jesus’ life is by looking at the content of his parables.  What sorts of things did Jesus talk about?  What images and metaphors did he like to use in teaching?  In his parables, we never find references to anything having to do with woodworking – nothing about boat building, for instance, or fashioning plows or yokes (as per Justin Martyr), etc.  What we do find there, however, are parables about stone-working – consider, for instance, the parable of the foolish builders, where Jesus brings up the image of a man digging into solid ground to build a firm (i.e. “stone”) foundation for his house; or consider when Jesus quotes a passage from the Old Testament dealing with “the stone the builders rejected” and how it would become “the cornerstone.”  Think also of when Jesus nicknamed his closest companion, Simon.  Simon did not become “the Hammer.”  No, he became “the Rock” – the foundation on which Jesus’ movement would be built.   

In fact, Jesus brings up images of stone-working quite frequently in his sayings.  The parable of the wise and foolish builders, in particular, seems to imply a fairly intimate understanding of stone building practices in general. 

In addition to these clues, consider also the historical context.  It is known that there was very little in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime that was made of wood.  Wood, in fact, was a scarce commodity in 1st century Galilee.  Houses, for instance, were made of stone or mud-brick, typically with thatched roofs.  Carpentry would not have been a very common trade.  Masonry, on the other hand, would have been a major industry, employing hundreds, if not thousands, throughout Jesus’ homeland. 

During the “lost years” of Jesus’ life, the major Galilean town of Sepphoris was rebuilt.  Sepphoris had been destroyed in the wake of the death of Herod the Great, and his successor, Herod Antipas, wanted to rebuild it to honor his Roman overlords.  Sepphoris, as it happens, was about 4 miles away from Nazareth – literally a new, shining white city on the hill visible from the valley in which the village of Nazareth set.  If Jesus and his family members had anything at all to do with the building industry, it is a virtual certainty that they would have spent a significant amount of time working in Sepphoris.  The buildings in Sepphoris were not made of wood.  They were made of stone.

Might Jesus have lain these stones inside a ritual Jewish bathing pool in Sepphoris?
It's not outside the realm of possibilities.

Considering these textual and historical clues, it seems probable that Jesus was, in fact, someone who worked with stone rather than wood.  Given his background and the historical context, it is likely that he was simply a laborer who helped haul stones and put them in place, rather than actually carving the stones himself.  He was probably not, in other words, an actual stone mason.  Of course, we can never know for certain.  But then again, we can rarely know anything in ancient history “for certain.”  The best we can do is collect evidence and piece together the resulting puzzle.  And in this case, the puzzle puts a rock in the hands of Jesus, not a hammer and nails.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

My Attempt at Vlogging

Okay, so if you don't know what vlogging is, it's basically blogging by video. For those poor saps who either can't write well or are too lazy, vlogging allows you to post thoughts and commentaries about things by just talking about it.

I have no intention of becoming a vlogger. But I've recently purchased a webcam, so I thought I'd make a video. This is really, really embarrassing. Do I really look and act like this when I'm talking about something? I'd make a terrible TV personality. This is why I write.  This is also why women think I'm a creeper.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New Testament Authors, Part II: The Third and Fourth Gospels and Acts

Read Part I

The Gospel of Luke
Date: 90 C.E.
The Acts of the Apostles
Date: 95 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: Luke, a Gentile physician and companion of Paul

The Third Gospel is the only text of the New Testament traditionally attributed to a Gentile – that is, a non-Jewish – author.  This is based on the tradition that its writer was Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul who seems to be called a Gentile in one of Paul’s letters.  The book of Acts is a virtual “second volume” to the Gospel of Luke, and it is widely recognized, understood, and agreed that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts.  The writing style and theology is the same, and the author himself – though he does not provide his own identity – does state, at the start of Acts, that he is writing a second volume to continue where the story of the Gospel of Luke left off.  He also addresses both books to the same person – someone named Theophilus. 

Perhaps the best place to start here is over the issue of whether Luke was, in fact, a Gentile.  Many who are familiar with this very widespread notion may be surprised to discover that there is virtually no evidence to suggest Luke was a Gentile, other than a somewhat vague statement in the New Testament letter of Colossians.  There, Paul lists the names of three of his companions, stating that they are the only Jews who work with him.  He then goes on to list several others, including Luke.  This, then, appears to be evidence that Luke was a Gentile. 

There are two problems here.  The first problem is that Paul doesn’t actually use the word “Jew” in the passage.  Instead, he refers to that first group of people as “those of the circumcision group.”  In other places, Paul uses this colloquialism as a way of referring not necessarily to people who are Jewish by ethnicity or even by religion, but to Christians who believe one must follow the Law of Moses in order to be a Christian.  This group, then, could be made up of either ethnic Jews or ethnic Gentiles.  As a group, they are usually referred to by historians as “Jewish Christians,” but there would certainly have been plenty of ethnic Gentiles among them. 

As a result, those people – including Luke – who are not, according to Paul, “part of the circumcision group,” are not necessarily Gentiles.  They could be Jews who, like Paul, have stopped following the Law of Moses. 

That’s the first problem.  The second problem involves the authorship of Colossians itself.  Since I will be talking later about Colossians, I’ll simply note that many scholars doubt that Paul actually wrote Colossians.  If, in fact, Colossians is a forgery in Paul’s name, then any biographical detail – like the names and ethnicities and religious persuasions of his personal companions – is historically unreliable anyway.  It is important to note here, as an aside, that Colossians is our only source for Luke’s profession as well – that he was a doctor.  If Colossians is a forgery, then there may be no reason to suppose Luke was a physician either. 

The writer of Luke/Acts shows a remarkably high level of understanding of Jewish culture, traditions, history, geography, and scriptures.  Coupled with the fact that there is virtually no reliable evidence suggesting the writer was a Gentile anyway, the most likely conclusion, in my mind, is that the writer was a Jew.

With that established, we turn now to the author himself – Luke the companion of Paul.  Regardless of whether he was Jewish or Gentile, what is the evidence that he is the author of the texts that bear his name? 

Our oldest evidence for the tradition dates to the late 2nd century.  Around 180 C.E., Iranaeus, Bishop of Lyons, refers numerous times to the texts in question, and states that they were written by Luke, without making any indication that there might be some doubt as to the author’s identity.  Clearly the tradition of Lukan authorship was well-entrenched by this time.

Unfortunately, Iranaeus was writing nearly 100 years after the texts themselves were composed, and we don’t have much evidence for the tradition of Lukan authorship prior to Iranaeus.  At best, scholars can trace the tradition to about 150 C.E.  As such, it becomes necessary to look at the internal evidence of the texts themselves. 

Within the Gospel of Luke, there is very little to go by.  However, in his second volume, Acts, there are in fact some internal clues that might help us answer the question of whether Luke was the writer.

The most famous pieces of evidence are the so-called “we” passages of Acts.  In these passages, the author suddenly switches the narrative from third-person into first-person – that is, he begins using “we” and “us” – as though he was there in the story himself.  These passages occur during the missionary travels of Paul.  This has led a lot of scholars and armchair enthusiasts to conclude that the tradition of Lukan authorship may have a basis in fact.  Early tradition tells us it was Luke, Acts has first-person passages, so Luke must be the author.

Other scholars, however, have noted several alternate theories.  First, the “we” passages might, in fact, indicate that the writer was an eyewitness to these events, but that does not necessarily mean that the author was actually Luke.  Maybe it was some other eyewitness.  Second, the “we” passages might be the result of what textual experts call “redaction.”  That is, the writer was using another text as source material for these passages, and simply retained the first-person perspective.  And finally, some scholars have noted that in Greek travel literature of the time, it was common for writers to use the first-person when describing sea voyages.  Since the “we” passages in Acts all correspond to sea voyages taken by Paul, perhaps the writer was simply employing a common stylistic convention.

All of these alternative theories cast doubt on the significance of the “we” passages.  They might indicate an eyewitness, and that eyewitness might have been Luke, but the passages don’t really represent the evidential “homerun” that they might appear to represent at first glance.

Perhaps the biggest argument against Lukan authorship is the fact that he seems to get so many things wrong about Paul.  We know this, of course, because we have a number of Paul’s own writings in the New Testament.  In many cases, scholars can compare what Luke says about an event in Paul’s life with what Paul himself says about the same event.  More often than not, Luke’s version of the story differs dramatically from Paul’s version.  For the sake of space, I won’t detail all these scenes, but will simply note that they are there, and the contradictions are plain for any reader to see.  If the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by one of Paul’s companions, why would he get so much vital information so dramatically wrong? 

In the end, I think Luke is the most difficult attribution to nail down.  Scholars apparently feel the same way, because the field is fairly well divided, with many good scholars arguing for Lukan authorship, and many other good scholars arguing against it.  Ultimately, the jury is still out, because the evidence is not conclusive in either direction. 

If you're interested in a bit more on this subject, I've written about it more fully in a previous blog post, from last February.  

The Gospel of John
Date: 95-100 C.E.
Textual Claim: “The disciple whom Jesus loved”  
Church Tradition: John, son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus

Even though it was the last Gospel written, the Fourth Gospel has perhaps had the most impact on Christian theology through the ages.  Traditionally it is attributed to John, one of Jesus’ most prominent and beloved disciples. 

Scholars across the theological spectrum agree that the disciple John almost certainly did not write this text.  In fact, there are very few reputable scholars out there today who still argue for Johannine authorship.  There are numerous reasons for this. 

To begin with, we know John from the Gospels as an uneducated fisherman from the backwoods of Galilee who spoke Aramaic.  That he might later have learned not only to speak, but to write in highly literate Greek is extremely improbable.

Second, our earliest sources for this tradition are, themselves, vague and contradictory.  Iranaeus, for instance, seems to believe there were two Johns among the early Christian evangelists, and it is not entirely clear which one he thinks wrote the Gospel.  Other early writers provide similarly confusing accounts. 

Third, textual scholars have identified several probable textual sources for the Gospel of John, and this begs the question of why a disciple of Jesus and eyewitness to all the events he describes would need to use other sources for information.

Fourth, textual scholars have also identified multiple layers within the Gospel where the text has been redacted – that is, changed, edited, updated, and collated with other sources – implying that the text we have today is not a single document written in a single time period by a single person, but rather a sort of community effort of several writers writing over the course of a number of years/decades. 

Fifth, since most scholars agree that the text was written near the end of the 1st century, the likelihood that John was still alive and able to write coherently (in another language, no less) is very, very low.

Sixth, much of the Gospel’s content differs dramatically from the stories in the other three Gospels, leading even many early Christian writers to admit that the author had a more spiritual purpose than historical purpose, which would seem odd if it was written by an eyewitness who actually knew the accurate historical situation.

This list could go on and on.  Simply put, there is virtually no evidence to support Johannine authorship, while there is overwhelming evidence to doubt Johannine authorship.  Put together, this is the reason why virtually every reputable scholar on the planet agrees that the Fourth Gospel was the work of a community, rather than any single person, and certainly not John, son of Zebedee.  It may well be that the community in question was a community founded by John, or otherwise devoted to John – that, in fact, is a very common conclusion among scholars – but there can be little doubt that John, himself, did not author this text. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day

My father: Byron

My Father-in-Law: Gerald

My Paternal Grandfather: Arthur

My Maternal Grandfather: Oscar

My Maternal Great-Grandfather: Joe

My Paternal Great-Grandfather: Luke

My Paternal Great-Great-Grandfather: John

My Paternal Great-Great-Great Grandfather: Andrew

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Testament Authors, Part I: The First and Second Gospels


I’m often amazed at how disinterested most Christians seem to be on the question of who wrote the Bible.  This perplexes me because it seems, to my mind anyway, that it should matter where the texts came from, who wrote them, when, and why.  Yet these questions don’t seem to concern many Christians that I know. 

Just to test this theory out, I ran it by some of my Christian family members.  None of them cared.

Be that as it may, the authorship of the Bible is an important issue, and some folks may be surprised to discover just how little we really know about who wrote these texts and where they came from.  The history of how we got the Bible is complex and can fill volumes.  Here, I intend simply to provide, in a continuing “series,” an overview of the authorship for each of the 27 books of the New Testament, briefly discussing the various perspectives.  My hope is to keep these discussions brief and accessible, while still detailing the pertinent information. 


Any discussion of the New Testament usually starts with the four Gospels.  These are the books that tell us intimate details about the life of Jesus, from his birth up through his baptism, ministry, and death in Jerusalem.  Almost as interesting as the content of these texts is the discussion about who, exactly, wrote them.  In what follows, it is important to keep in mind that the Gospels, themselves, are anonymous.  They did not come with titles, and nothing in the text tells us who the writer is.  The authors of these Gospels clearly figured their audience would know who they were. 

The Gospel of Mark
Date: 70 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: John Mark, a companion of Peter and Paul

Mark is not the first Gospel in our Bibles, but it was the first Gospel to be written, composed somewhere around 70 C.E., about the time that Jerusalem was falling to the Roman legions and the Jewish people were being dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world.  Because it was traditionally believed to have been the second gospel written, it is typically referred to as the Second Gospel.  I put it first simply because scholars now know that it was, in fact, the first to be written.   

Church tradition has attributed this Gospel to a man named John Mark, said to have been a companion of Paul and later a secretary to Peter.  This view goes back quite a long way, all the way back to the first part of the 2nd century, with a writer named Papias, who, we are told, was the leader of the church in Heirapolis, in modern day Turkey. 

Scholars tend to date Papias’ work to roughly 115 C.E.  As far as post-New Testament authors go, Papias is one of the very earliest that we know about.

None of Papias’ writings have survived for scholars to read.  We know of him and his work only because he was quoted by Christian writers who came after him.  As such, we have a few statements from Papias, but no complete works.

One of his quoted pieces deals with the authorship of Mark.  He states: “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.” 

This isn’t much, of course, but it’s enough to establish that by the first part of the 2nd century, Christians were attributing some text or another to Mark, a companion of Peter.  Whether Papias understood this to be the same Mark who had previously been a companion of Paul (and who, according to Acts, parted ways early on with Paul) is unclear.  It is also not clear exactly what text Papias is talking about.  Is he referring to our Gospel of Mark?  Or some other text purportedly written by Peter’s companion?  There is nothing in our Gospel of Mark to suggest that it was written by a companion of Peter (one might expect, for instance, that it would be heavily “pro-Peter” if it was written by one of his followers, but it is not). 

There are other reasons to suspect that Papias may have been talking about a different text.  To begin with, Papias quotes several stories that are not found in any of the four Gospels of the New Testament.  He gives, for instance, an account of the death of Judas that is completely different from the ones found in Matthew and Luke.  Additionally, he quotes a parable of Jesus that is not found in any other source, either inside or outside the New Testament.  Could these stories have come from the text that Papias believed was authored by Mark?  If so, then he certainly was not referring to the text we know as the Gospel of Mark. 

In addition to the general doubts about what text Papias was talking about, there is also the issue of who, exactly, John Mark was.  We know from the letters of Paul that he had a companion by this name, though Paul simply calls him “Mark.”  “John Mark” is how he is referred to in the book of Acts.  In Acts, Mark and Paul have a falling out, and Mark abandons him, never to return to the story.  In the book of 1 Peter, ostensibly written by the apostle Peter, Mark is also referenced as sending his greetings to the recipients of the letter.  Is this, perhaps, where the tradition comes from that Mark, after abandoning Paul, became the secretary of Peter?  Perhaps, but there is nothing in the text itself to indicate that this is the same Mark.  In Acts, for instance, when Mark leaves Paul, he doesn’t go to Peter, but instead sets out with Barnabas.

In the end, it seems likely that the text we know as the Gospel of Mark was probably not written by anyone who was a companion of Peter or Paul, or even by anyone named Mark.  The attribution to Mark, the secretary of Peter/companion of Paul, seems to be a “best guess” by early Church fathers attempting to assimilate the available data and add authority to those texts considered pure and orthodox by the emerging Church.     

The Gospel of Matthew
Date: 80-85 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: Matthew the tax collector, also called Levi, a disciple of Jesus

Matthew is typically called the First Gospel, even though it is now known to have been the second gospel written.  When it comes to this text, the waters become even murkier than with the Gospel of Mark.  Perhaps the best place to start is with the identity of the person we call Matthew.

In Church tradition, Matthew was also known as Levi, and he was a tax collector.  In Mark’s Gospel, this connection is not explicit.  There is a story about Jesus calling a man named Levi, who is a tax collector, but later – when Mark provides a list of the 12 disciples – Levi is absent.  A man named Matthew is named as one of the disciples, but there is no suggestion by Mark that this is the same person as Levi the tax collector.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the conundrum is cleared up.  When this author re-tells Mark’s story about Levi the tax collector, he doesn’t call him Levi at all, but instead calls him Matthew.  Luke does not tell the story of the tax collector, but does mention that one of the disciples was named Matthew.

We also have a reference to a disciple named Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas, though no biographical information is provided.  Additionally, there is a reference in the Gospel of Peter to a disciple named Levi, but again there is no biographical information.

Clearly, the author of the Gospel of Matthew believed that Levi the tax collector and the disciple Matthew were one and the same.  This, in and of itself, causes one to wonder if that does not explain where the tradition of Matthean authorship comes from – the assumption being that the author of this text knew Matthew and Levi were the same person quite simply because the author was, in fact, Matthew himself.

Whether that is the source for the tradition of Matthean authorship or not, our earliest reference to this tradition again comes from the aforementioned Papias.  Papias says: “Matthew put together the oracles [sayings of Jesus] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” 

We are faced again with the same problem we saw with Mark.  Is Papias talking about the same text we know as the Gospel of Matthew?  Here, the doubt is even greater, because as anyone familiar with the Gospel of Matthew knows, it is not simply a list of sayings (“oracles”) of Jesus, but an entire “gospel” detailing Jesus’s life from birth to death.  Papias’ description actually sounds more like the Gospel of Thomas than the text we know as the Gospel of Matthew.  Furthermore, the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, not Hebrew.  Before you wonder if it might have originally been written in Hebrew, and simply translated later into Greek, there is no evidence to suggest this.  I am certainly no ancient Greek scholar, but those folks who are scholars of ancient Greek have ways of determining if a Greek text is an original Greek composition or a translation from some other language.  From what I understand, it is widely agreed that this text is an original Greek composition. 

There is one more point to be made about Papias’ identification: recall from the discussion of Mark that Papias gives an account of the death of Judas which is different than the account found in Matthew and Luke.  If the text Papias knew as Matthew was the same text we know as Matthew, why would Papias give an account of Judas’ death that differs from what is found in Matthew? 

It seems likely to me that whatever text Papias was talking about, it was not the Gospel we know as Matthew. 

Again, we are in a position similar to the one we faced with Mark: the disciple Matthew almost certainly didn’t write the text we know as the Gospel of Matthew, and even the disciple Matthew’s very identity is in question. 

In Part II, we will look at the authorship of the Third and Fourth Gospels, Luke and John. 

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Notes from the Cave

Yikes, it's been way too long since I posted on my blog.  Sorry for the absenteeism.  Very busy, as usual.

Work has really taken off in the last few weeks.  It seems like every shift I work now is really busy, and I'm still working at least some overtime every week.  From here forward, I'll be working third shift on my weekends.  We rotate weekends so that we basically work every third weekend, with two weekends off in between.  I like the occasional third shift, so this is a good thing, but it's really difficult to switch back and forth, and my schedule will generally only give me one day off in between.  So, for instance, I will work third on Saturday and Sunday, then have Monday off (which is mostly spent sleeping), then have to be right back at 8 a.m. (or earlier) on Tuesday morning.  When I've done this in the past, even when I've gotten enough sleep the night before, I am always dragging that next day.  It's just hard on the body to switch back and forth like that.  I'm actually facing that scenario right now - worked third shift last night, and have to be at work tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.

I finished Swan Song by Robert McCammon last week - I think I mentioned this book in my last update.  As a counterpart to Stephen King's more famous book, The Stand, there is virtually no comparison.  Swan Song was significantly better.  I had expected this to be the case, since I had read Robert McCammon before and considered his books to be much more readable and enjoyable than Stephen King.  I highly recommend Swan Song.  I've now moved on to book three in the saga of Henry II by Sharon Kay Penman.  I've also started a new non-fiction book called Forged, by biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.  It discusses the authorship of various books within and outside of the New Testament.

I really wish I had more to talk about, but this is about all I've got.  It's hot and dry, after a wet and cool spring, and the grass needs to be mowed, but I failed to do it today.  I did feed the horses for a few minutes though.  There were a bunch out there today, including some that, judging by the looks of them, must have been race horses of some kind.