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Jesus and His Early Life

By Richard Gunther


Because the Bible tells us nothing about Jesus during his early years, before he began his public ministry (except the brief moment when he was 12 in the Temple) the exact nature of his life before then is a matter of conjecture. We do not know exactly what he did – we assume he took up carpentry – and we do know for certain that he was an obedient son, and we can be sure that he was virtuous. His manners would have been exemplary, his attitude always good. He would have been helpful, kind, and self-disciplined. As a child he would have avoided bad company, and refused to follow the peer pressure of his contemporaries. Whatever good thing he was required to do, he would have applied himself wholeheartedly to it, working hard and with diligence. Whatever job he was asked to do – gathering firewood, bringing in washing, fetching water, dressing his younger siblings, cleaning, washing, carrying messages about, etc – he would have done it to the best of his ability without a complaint or objection. Even in his youth the Scriptures would have been his guide. He would have honoured and respected his parents, and done all he could to make sure their welfare was seen to. Unlike his siblings, he would not have been self-centred, lazy or rebellious. He would never have needed to be corrected or disciplined for bad behaviour and his dealings with all would have been fair and just.


   Mat.13:55 and Mark 6:3.


   Assuming that the sons followed their father in the trade, Jesus and his brothers probably learned carpentry from their father. It was from carpentry that a living was earned. In the Jewish community every man had his trade, and worked with his hands – even those devoted to the study of the Law. Rabbi Hillel, for example, was a woodcutter, and Rabbi Schammai was a carpenter.


   One of the Rabbinical precepts said: “Whoever does not teach his son a trade, is teaching him to thieve”.


   In Genesis 3:19 God said that Mankind would have to earn his bread by the “sweat” of his brow. Since Jesus inherited the fallen body of sinful Mankind through his mother, he would also have had to share in the punishment due to all sinners. There is no doubt therefore that Jesus sweated – something so foreign and so alien to the Mighty Living God, who is Spirit, and who inhabits eternity.  We ‘normal’ humans take sweating for granted. It comes whenever we exert ourselves, but Adam and Eve were not made like us. They had perfect bodies, and were probably clothed in light. They were glorious beings . . . but after they sinned they lost so much . . . it is impossible to imagine how much. Now Jesus was suffering the degradation caused by their sin. Sweat is a sign of this present age, along with hard labour, and the effort humans must put into extracting food from the soil.


   Carpenter = Greek: tekton = artificer. This Greek work signifies both a joiner and an artisan in wood. A carpenter had a wide range of skills. He made props for shoring up walls, yokes for oxen, harness poles and goads, beds, chests, stools, bins and kneading troughs. He had to take the local wood from the trees he found and cut them into many different shapes. He had to know how different woods behaved as they dried out, how they might split, and whether they were suitable for the job they were used for. His tools were simple – saws and drills, planes and sanders. A lot of the skills used were a result of much effort – which leads us to the not unreasonable conclusion that Jesus was a strong man, sinewy but not overly muscular.


   Other skills required by carpenters in those days included making doors, latches, steps, supports for ceilings, window frames, trellises, guard-rails, canopy supports and even toys for children. The dwarf oaks of Bashan supplied good wood for doors and window frames – which the Arabs today call Siindian wood.


   Jesus was called “the son of the carpenter” so we naturally assume that Jesus too was a carpenter. Compared to today’s modern carpenters, he would be called an “old fashioned” carpenter, in the sense that he would have done a lot more than simply make and sell objects. In those days there were also two kinds of carpenter – those who worked entirely from the ground up and supplied what clients needed, and those who simply prepared boards and sold them on to other carpenters.


   In those days a carpenter’s clients were the agricultural labourers of the district. These men of the soil would have come to Joseph’s workshop and discussed their needs, then Joseph would have contracted to make and keep in good repair for the whole year, whatever he made for them. He would have made all the agricultural tools for his clients, and often, instead of a cash payment, he might have received a sack or two of grain for his oxen – a certain amount per yoke of oxen he might own.  Carpenters needed oxen to haul the logs about. At the end of the year, at threshing time, the carpenter would go about from client to client, collecting his payment in wheat, or barley, or sesame seeds, or olives.


   A carpenter in those days also often had a small block of land, which he cultivated and grew a small amount of food for his needs.


   Assuming that Jesus was a typical eldest son, he would naturally have learned the trade from his father. There was no ‘social welfare’ system in those days, so every member of a family had to work to bring in money and food for the rest of the family. It was the eldest son’s responsibility to ensure that his parents were cared for as they aged, so Jesus probably worked hard, learned his skills, and helped to earn money to pay for the necessities of life. If this is so, then we can imagine him lying down in the evenings, weary after another day of hard work, but content that he had done his best. As the proverb says “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet”. It was probably because of his responsibility to provide for his family that Jesus handed his mother over to John’s care as he died on the cross. Mary, apparently, was a widow at this stage, so she might have needed support, since it was unlikely that she was able to support herself. One wonders where all her other children were at this time – and just because they had become Christians surely didn’t obviate them from caring for their mother?


   When the Jews called Jesus “a carpenter” they were not using the word in a complimentary way. What they were saying was “he is just a carpenter”, he is a mere carpenter, an unskilled man, a working class labourer. It was a derogatory term, meant as a put down, even sarcastic. How can a mere labourer think he is a prophet? You don’t expect us to believe that a man who cuts trees into pieces and makes animal toughs is the Messiah?!  Never was it more truly said that ‘appearances can be deceptive’!


   Jesus was raised not in poverty, neither in wealth, but in the normal ways of a working class family. His life was dictated by the daily round of chores. His diet was simple – barley bread, very little meat, vegetable and sour milk. On feast days he ate a little grilled fish. He was certainly not overweight, but he was also not underfed. The food was nutritious and filling, and it was enough to keep his body healthy and strong.


   Jesus probably had many friends. As a man of the book of Proverbs, he would have been wise, and friendly. His outgoing and peaceful temperament would have attracted people, his ability to listen and to sympathise, his willingness to help and care for others, and his unwillingness to compete or try to monopolise would have made him unthreatening and socially agreeable. As a working class man he would have drawn his friends mainly from the working class community. This is probably why he spoke like a labourer. No high Greek came from his mouth, no intellectual, or scholarly sayings. All his speech was simple and uncomplicated, and all the gospels have recorded his words in the same simple way.


   His friends would have included many poor people, fishermen, workmen, labourers in the fields and vineyards. He would have known many ‘simple’ people too, who neither read nor write, people who were not preoccupied with formalities, earthy people, who enjoyed a good meal and a drink or two. People who swore and shouted at times. Genuine people, who had few pretensions – not like the tradition-bound Jewish intellectuals in Jerusalem. Jesus’ community was made up of ‘real’ people, who spoke in the country language, rough and ready. (Remember Peter cursing and swearing as he denied that he knew Jesus?) They spoke Aramaic, which was the low form of Greek, and with it came the idioms and sayings common to the ‘common’ people. It was like two different worlds, Nazareth and Jerusalem, two different cultures.


   So we can assume many things, and build up a probable picture of Jesus in those early years, but because the Bible does not tell us exactly what he was doing, we cannot know for certain. Sometimes the silences of Scripture are just as important as the places where Scripture speaks. By inference we can guess that most of the above is accurate, but what is probably most important of all is the fact that God came to Earth and humbled himself, even to the level of fallen Mankind, and from there God humbled himself even further, even to the death on a cross. The early life of Jesus was a 30 year demonstration of his love for us all, and served as the precursor to the greatest demonstration of love the universe has ever seen.

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