Joseph was a carpenter, and built the house he and Mary would live in, and where they would raise Jesus. I’ve spent most of this evening trying to look up images of various kinds of houses in ancient Nazareth, and most I see were made set into rocks. I like the looks of the houses I see that were made of stone, but if Joseph was a carpenter, he couldn’t have made their house stone. I’ve described it as being made of wooden beams, smoothed over with clay and mud. Would this have been true?
“Carpenter” is our typical English translation but the Greek τέκτων (tektōn) could really refer to a wider variety of manual labor (including stone work, I’m relatively sure. Basically a laboring artisan.
“The Greek word … signifies merely an “artisan,” and is used of workers in stone (masons) and in metal (smiths) as well as in wood (carpenters).” (, on Matthew 13:55A Commentary on the New Testament)
Joseph and Jesus were tekton, which isn’t really as specific as our English word ‘carpenter’. The word just meant something like ‘worker’ or ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsman’, someone who made something.
The idea that Jesus (and by extension Joseph) was a tekton who worked on wood is an ancient one: there is already a popular belief among early Christians that Jesus made ploughs and yokes. (It’s likely that this idea arose by association with the wood of the cross. After all, the word patibulum - usually applied to the horizontal beam of the cross - means ‘yoke’.)
However, historically speaking it would have been more likely that Joseph and Jesus would have found more job opportunities making things with stone (stone houses, stone cups, etc.) than with wood, because stone is more in abundance in the area than good quality timber was (these would have been imported from other areas and would have been unlikely to end up in a small village like Nazareth).
Just to give you an idea of how rare wood was: Jewish houses in the Galilee at the time were usually made of stone and wood. Stone (and plaster/mud) was used for the walls while the roof was usually made of wooden logs, straw/reeds and clay. (Remember in the story of the paralytic, how they dug through the roof of the house where Jesus was?)
However, suitable timber and straw could not always be had, so the next best thing was to make the roof beams out of stone. There was this Galilean village called Er-Rafid where the houses (including the roof) were made completely out of stone: instead of using timber and reeds, houses there used criss-crossed stone (basalt) beams for the roof.
- 1 on “Tekton”.
Also, in Israel there really is not a lot of wood. What wood there is is mostly smaller trees like the olive, which don’t yield large beams. So most houses would be stone.
My Irish grandpa had a saying that was probably passed down to him and it goes something like this: “Poor Joseph, he can’t have been too bright, being a carpenter in a land which no wood.” Always made me chuckle, anyway.
I am an electrician by trade. I have a degree in electrical engineering. I am studying theology. I’ve hung sheet rock, wired houses, plumbed them, built the walls, helped build barns, etc etc. Just because he was a carpenter does not mean the only thing he could have done was build stuff with wood.