The Ancient Greek noun tektōn (τέκτων) is a common term for an artisan/craftsman, in particular a carpenter, wood-worker, mason, builder, teacher, or engineer. The term is frequently contrasted with an iron-worker, or smith (χαλκεύς) and the stone-worker or mason (λιθολόγος, λαξευτής).
The characteristic Ancient Greek distinction between the general worker or wood-worker and the stonemason and the metal-worker occurs frequently in the Septuagint:
So the carpenter (tektōn) encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, ...
The distinction occurs in lists of workmen working on building or repairs to the temple in Jerusalem, for example in the repairs carried out under the priest Jehoiada and "the carpenters and builders, that wrought upon the house of the LORD,... And to masons, and hewers of stone, and to buy timber and hewed stone to repair the breaches of the house of the LORD", in 2 Kings 12:11–12. This same incident is recounted in similar language, using tekton again, in the account of Josephus.
The term is chiefly notable for New Testament commentators' discussion of the employment of Jesus and his adoptive father Joseph, both described as "tekton" in the New Testament. This is translated as "carpenter" in English-language Bibles.
Is not this the carpenter's son (ho tou tektōnos huios)?
In modern scholarship, the word has sometimes been re-interpreted from the traditional meaning of carpenter and has sometimes been translated as craftsman, as the meaning of builder is implied, but can be applied to both wood-work and stone masonry.
Hebrew naggar interpretation
In the Septuagint the Greek noun tektōn either stands for the generic Hebrew noun kharash (חרש), "craftsman," (as Isaiah 41:7) or tekton xylon (τέκτων ξύλον) as a word-for-word rendering of kharash-'etsim (חָרַשׁ עֵצִים) "craftsman of woods." (as Isaiah 44:13). The term kharash occurs 33 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible.
As an alternative to kharash, some authors have speculated that the Greek term corresponds to the Aramaic term naggara (Hebrew |נגר naggar "craftsman") and in 1983 Geza Vermes (1983) suggested that given that the use of the term in the Talmud "carpenter" can signify a very learned man, the New Testament description of Joseph as a carpenter could indicate that he was considered wise and literate in the Torah. This theory was later popularized by A. N. Wilson to suggest that Jesus had some sort of elevated status.
The original text with "There is no carpenter or son of carpenter that can take it apart" is found in Avodah Zarah 50b in discussion of whether to prune a tree on the Sabbath, with "carpenter" used in Isidore Epstein (Soncino) and Michael Rodkinson's translations and Ezra Zion Melamed's Lexicon. In the modern English version of the Talmud Jacob Neusner the passage reads as follows:
1.5 A. Said R. Joseph bar Abba ... "people may remove worms from a tree or patch the bark with dung during the Sabbatical Year, but people may not remove worms or patch the bark during the intermediate days of a festival. ... But there is no craftsman let alone a disciple of a craftsman who can unravel this teaching."
B. Said Rabina, "I am not a craftsman let alone a disciple of a craftsman, but I can unravel this teaching. What is the problem anyhow? ..."
However the Greek term tekton does not carry this meaning, the nearest equivalent in the New Testament is Paul's comparison to Timothy of a "workman" (ἐργάτης ergatēs) rightly "dividing" the word of truth. This has been taken as a carpentry-image by some Christian commentators. The suggested term naggar "craftsman" is not found in biblical Aramaic or Hebrew, or in Aramaic documents of the New Testament period, but is found in later Talmudic texts where the term "craftsman" is used as a metaphor for a skilled handler of the word of God.
- LSJ lexicon entry for tekton "A. worker in wood, carpenter, joiner, “τέκτονες ἄνδρες, οἵ οἱ ἐποίησαν θάλαμον καὶ δῶμα καὶ αὐλήν” Il.6.315, cf. Sapph.91; “τέκτονος υἱόν, Ἁρμονίδεω . . ὂς καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρῳ τεκτήνατο νῆας ἐΐσας” Il.5.59; νηῶν, δούρων τ., Od.9.126, 17.384, cf. 19.56, 21.43; [“πίτυν] οὔρεσι τέκτονες ἄνδρες ἐξέταμον πελέκεσσι” Il.13.390; “τ., ὅς ῥά τε πάσης εὖ εἰδῇ σοφίης” 15.411; “τ. γὰρ ὢν ἔπρασσες οὐ ξυλουργικά” E.Fr.988, cf. A.Fr.357, S.Fr.474, X.Mem.1.2.37: it is freq. opp. to a smith (χαλκεύς), Pl.Prt.319d, R.370d, X.HG3.4.17; to a mason (λιθολόγος), Th.6.44, cf. Ar.Av.1154: freq. in Inscrr., IG12.373.245, etc., and Papyri, PCair.Zen.27.3 (3rd century BC), etc.:—but also,.."
- Septuagint Isaiah 41:7 ἴσχυσεν ἀνὴρ τέκτων καὶ χαλκεὺς τύπτων σφύρῃ ἅμα ἐλαύνων ποτὲ μὲν ἐρεῖ σύμβλημα καλόν ἐστιν ἰσχύρωσαν αὐτὰ ἐν ἥλοις θήσουσιν αὐτὰ καὶ οὐ κινηθήσονται
- Septuagint 2 Kings 12:11–12 τοῖς τέκτοσι τῶν ξύλων
- Josephus: The Essential Writings, Flavius Josephus, Paul L. Maier, 1990, page 166: "When a large amount had been collected, the king and Jehoiada the high priest put carpenters and masons to work and thus restored the temple."
- Markus Bockmuehl (8 November 2001). The Cambridge Companion to Jesus. Cambridge University Press. pp. 14–. ISBN 978-0-521-79678-1. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
- 44:13 τέκτων ξύλον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέτρῳ καὶ ἐν κόλλῃ ἐρρύθμισεν αὐτό ἐποίησεν αὐτὸ ὡς μορφὴν ἀνδρὸς καὶ ὡς ὡραιότητα ἀνθρώπου στῆσαι αὐτὸ ἐν οἴκῳ
- Jesus the Jew: a historian's reading of the Gospels by Jeza Vermes 1983 ISBN 0961614846 page 21 Jesus the Jew: a historian's reading of the Gospel, pages 21–22
- A.N. Wilson (27 May 2003). Jesus. Random House UK. pp. 82–. ISBN 978-0-7126-0697-4. Retrieved 17 November 2012., Page 29: "The term translated into English as 'carpenter' represents the much wider sense of the ancient Greek, ho tekton, which is a rendition of the Semitic word naggar.5 As pointed out by the Semitic scholar Dr. Geza Vermes, this descriptive word [naggar] could perhaps be applied to a trade craftsman, but could equally well define a scholar."
- Larry W. Hurtado (15 September 2005). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 319–. ISBN 978-0-8028-3167-5. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
- Ezra Zion Melamed Aramaic-Hebrew-English Dictionary of the Babylonian Talmud 200, page 353 "NGR – There is no carpenter or son of carpenter (that can take it apart, i.e., solve it) " אסורות ולית נגר ולא בר נגר דיפרקינה אמר רב ששת אנא לא נגר אנא ולא בר נגר
- The Talmud of Babylonia. Tractate Abodah Zarah: chapters 3–5 – Page 57 Jacob Neusner, 1991
- e.g., Witness Lee The Life-Pulse of the Lord's Present Move page 61, 1986 "In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul said, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, an unashamed workman, cutting straight the word of the truth.” To cut ... You as an unashamed workman have to cut the word straight as in carpentry."
- Martin McNamara Targum and New Testament: Collected Essays, page 207, 2011 "The corresponding Aramaic (or Hebrew) term would be NGR or NGRA (naggar, naggara'). This word, however, is not found in biblical Aramaic or Hebrew, or in Aramaic documents of the New Testament period."
- Finding Our Way Together Page 308 Krisztina Stangle, John Stangle, 2006, "Geza Vermes highlights the Aramaic use of the term carpenter or craftsman (“naggar”) to metaphorically describe a “scholar” or “learned man” in Talmudic sayings (Cf. Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, (London: Collins, 1973) p.21.) However, the ..."
- Douglas Welker Kennard Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours, page 71, 2007 "However, if this term is dependent upon the Aramaic nagger (craftsman), the Talmud later takes this metaphor to refer to 'scholar' or 'learned man,' that is, a rabbi.11 Such a later Talmudic meaning would place Jesus within a rabbinically schooled family but there seems to be some surprise among Jewish priests, .."