Before looking at the evidence for the profession Jesus most probably followed, consider the reason that most people presume he was a carpenter. There is one verse – and one only – in the whole New Testament that directly links Jesus to carpentry.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that when he spoke in their synagogue the people of Jesus’ home-town of Nazareth angrily exclaimed: “Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us? …” (Mark 6:3). The Gospel of Matthew records the statement a little differently: “Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55). This is not a direct statement that Jesus was a carpenter, although if his father was one it would be likely in that culture that Jesus would have followed the family profession.
But this is presuming that the Greek word used in these verses actually means “carpenter.” In actuality, the word used by both Matthew and Mark was tekton which can mean someone who works with wood but can also signify what we today would call a contractor or house builder. There is nothing in the immediate context of the two texts that can help us decide which meaning of tekton better fits the profession of Jesus, and we must look at the broader evidence of the New Testament in order to make an educated decision on this.
First, we should consider the fact that it is odd if Jesus made his living for thirty years as a carpenter making furniture or other items out of wood, that there is not a single example in his recorded teaching that uses an analogy or example from the carpenter’s trade. On the other hand, it is interesting that all the Gospels record Jesus’ continual use of building in his teaching: his comment on the stone wall that fell down (Luke 13:4), his story of the rich man who built a barn (Luke 12:16-21), the vineyard owner who built a wall (Matthew 21:33), the individual wanting to build a tower (Luke 14:28-30), the individual who built his house on rock as opposed to sand (Matthew 7:24-27), etc. In fact, the Gospels contain more examples of Jesus using stories based on building than any other single activity. So when we find one of the disciples commenting to Jesus on the impressive nature of the stones of the temple (Mark 3:1), it is in a way that would be very natural if he were a builder and interested in such aspects of building.
Archaeology also can contribute to our understanding of the possibility Jesus’ trade was actually that of a builder rather than a carpenter. Good wood was scarce in Judea and was usually imported from Lebanon and too expensive for use by local populations in areas such as Nazareth. On other hand, good building stone was readily available and even poorer homes were usually built of stone.
As it happens, Nazareth was only three miles from the town of Sepphoris, which was the focus of an intensive building program instituted during the reign of King Herod Antipas (c. 4 BC- AD 39) throughout Jesus’ lifetime. Herod chose the site as the capital of his government and, as a result of his building projects, this lakeside town became the largest city in the region and was described as “the jewel of all Galilee” by the Jewish historian Josephus. Importantly, its development doubtless required the involvement of every available tekton in the surrounding area. So it is extremely likely that both Joseph and Jesus could have worked on this project which needed so many skilled builders. Sepphoris was a reasonable “commute” from Nazareth and the road between them actually passed by a large rock quarry where most of the stone needed for building the town was obtained.
If Jesus was, in fact, a builder rather than a carpenter, then many of the things said about him in the New Testament may take on an additional layer of significance. When Jesus told the Jews regarding himself that “… The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…’” (Luke 20:17–18 quoting Psalm 118:22), we may see an analogy that would have especially appealed to Jesus. It was this thought that came to mind when the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus before the religious leaders of Jerusalem: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone…” (Acts 4:11). In Peters’ first epistle he also writes: “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Although we might expect Peter to say that believers were being built into a spiritual temple, the word oikos that he uses primarily means a regular dwelling house.
None of this proves that Jesus was a builder rather than a carpenter. But when we compare the relative lack of carpentry work to the great demand for builders during his lifetime in the very area in which he lived, the lack of carpentry analogies compared to the many building references in the teaching of Jesus, and perhaps even the later New Testament spiritual references to Jesus in the context of building, it seems quite likely that Jesus was not a carpenter, but a builder.