In Gospel Narrative class this week we discussed how knowledge of the culture in which Jesus lived helps us understand and interpret the Gospels because that knowledge fills in details which we either don’t know or we misunderstand because of our own cultural presuppositions. As an example of this impacting interpretation, my colleague Dr. Hall Harris, with whom I am teaching the class, mentioned the rather cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris, how close that was to Nazareth where Jesus grew up (about four miles away), and how Jesus very likely worked in that city in some form or fashion. His point was that a knowledge of the geography and culture challenges the picture we have of Jesus being a back-woods, rural worker who never made it into the big city, so to speak.
This is also supported by research into the term τέκτων (tekton), which is applied to Jesus and Joseph alike (see Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3). For centuries this term has been translated carpenter, but Ken Campbell makes a strong case that the word does not mean carpenter but rather builder. He makes a very strong point based on the flora of Israel and the multiplicity of building structures we know existed:
In a land of omnipresent stone and few trees, a craftsman worked primarily in stone and much less in wood or metal. Such a craftsman is called “a builder,” and he worked on all the structures mentioned by Jesus in his parables, as described above, as well as wine-presses, millstones, olive press stones, tomb stones, cisterns, farm terraces, vineyards, watch towers, house extensions, etc. (p. 519)
So Jesus’ job is best described as a builder, not as a carpenter. He would have had experience in all types of projects, likely in very cosmopolitan locales within a short distance of his home in Nazareth. This helps explain the breadth and depth of references to work in his teaching. This gave him the ability to speak to people with images and concepts they would understand, it provided many opportunities for him to hone his thinking about people and the world in which they live, and it imbues work with dignity and value in God’s sight.
So the takeaway is that there is no substitute for knowing the cultural background of the NT text; it even proves that our Lord was not afraid to get his hands dirty with work for the glory of God.