It’s a no-brainer, right? Joseph was a carpenter. The Gospels tell us he was a carpenter. Tradition tells us he was a carpenter. End of discussion.
Not so fast.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only place that mentions Joseph’s occupation and that in the context of identifying Jesus: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?”
We tend to identify carpenters as people who build houses. But houses in first-century Israel, as in much of the Middle East, were never built of wood because there simply wasn’t enough timber for construction purposes. Stones (and mud bricks) were the more common building materials. Joseph couldn’t have been building wooden homes.
A deeper clue to his line of work lies in Matthew use of the word tekton. Coming from the same root as our words, technology and technical, this word is not exclusively limited to woodworking in the same way our word carpenter is. In fact, the Greek refers to a skilled artisan who works in a variety of materials including iron, stone, and wood. What’s more, it can also carry the connotation of something like a general contractor who could have several people working under him.
So already, the image of Joseph as a man toiling away in a little workshop making domestic items must be revisited. (Don’t forget Nazareth was a tiny village. There would only be so many stools, benches, yokes, and plows that could be used by the local population.) He might have been the village craftsman, a man who could build a stone house, forge metal tools, carve wooden items, and generally do whatever skilled labor that was needed, but that means he was more than merely a “carpenter.”
But that might not quite be right either.
Nazareth was only about four miles from the larger town of Sepphoris, which was undergoing extensive reconstruction after being destroyed by the Romans in 4 BC. It is perfectly conceivable that Joseph (and later Jesus) would make the relatively short walk to Sepphoris to work on major projects. From a purely practical financial aspect, it would make much more sense to have a steady source of income rather than sporadic village projects.
So, what did Joseph do? He knew what it was like to provide an income for his family through “the work of human hands.” It doesn’t really matter if he worked in wood or stone, if he worked alone or had employees, or if he stayed in the village or worked on major Roman construction projects. He was a “worker” and that is how we have honored him through the centuries.
Saint Joseph, guardian of Jesus and chaste husband of Mary, you passed your life in loving fulfilment of duty. You supported the holy family of Nazareth with the work of your hands.
–Pope St. John XXIII
Saint Joseph, may we always remember the dignity of work and respect the dignity of workers by providing living wages and safe working conditions. Amen.