• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    The Tektōn in Jesus Films

    I've been catching up on some of Mark Goodacre's podcasts and in one of the most recent ones he asks "Was Jesus Really a Carpenter". The answer is that whilst there's some very old traditions that he was the word usually translated "carpenter" Tektōn is more the word for a general craftsman. Mark mentions how different Jesus films portray this part of his life, even ending the episode with a clip from Jesus Christ Superstar's opening number "Heaven on Their Minds"
    Like his father carving wood he'd have made good.
    Tables, chairs, and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best.
    This got me thinking about the more notable examples of how this theme is dealt with in Jesus Films. Obviously I can't cover every single treatment so I will limit myself to the examples that have been, for me at least, most memorable.

    Whilst From the Manger to the Cross doesn't show the adult Jesus working as a carpenter, we do see him assisting Joseph as a boy. There are various short scenes here, but the most notable shot depicts him carrying a plank of wood in the sunshine. The plank and his body cast a cross shaped shadow upon the ground. Mark actually mentions that one of the reasons that the tradition of Jesus as a carpenter has proved so enduring is, in part, because he dies hanging from a piece of wood.

    By the time The King of Kings starts Jesus' ministry is already in full flow, but there is a scene where a child brings Jesus a wooden doll to be healed. Jesus doesn't heal it miraculously, but instead mends it in more ordinary ways. It's a nice joke, which in DeMille's day probably emphasised Jesus' humanity.

    The "remake" also touches on Jesus' roots as a carpenter. I think there are a number of passing references, but the one that sticks out comes during his final visit to Nazareth. It's time for Jesus to go and he, somewhat absent-mindedly, points to one of his unfinished projects and says "The chair will have to wait until I return". Mary, wise to what is about to unfold fires back "That chair will never be mended".

    Eight years later Dennis Potter's Son of Man featured Jesus eulogising over the high quality piece of timber that has been used to crucify another man. A heavy sense of ironic foreboding hangs over this scene for we know that Jesus will be on a cross very similar to this before the play has run its course.

    All the film discussed thus far take the position that whilst Jesus worked as a carpenter until he was "about 30", once he began his ministry he left that life behind him. But in 1975 Rossellini's Il Messia took a decidedly different approach. Here Jesus' carpentry carries on alongside his preaching. Indeed often the two are shown happening at the same time. I have to say that this down to earth approach is one of my favourite treatments of the subject.

    However, perhaps the film that shows Jesus the most at 'work' is Last Temptation of Christ. Here Jesus' carpentry is not merely a detail in the background, but part of the film's overarching theme. Jesus is using his skills to make crosses for the Romans in an a futile attempt to push God away. It earns him the hatred of his fellow countrymen, but not of God. There's an interesting moment in this early scene where Jesus stretches himself out on the cross to see if it's the correct size. The shot is not logical (the time for doing this was before it was cut), but symbolic - whereas here Jesus is trying to see if the cross measures up to him, the rest of the film explores whether he will measure up to the cross.

    Like Last Temptation, Jesus (1999) also starts with Jesus the carpenter. Only here, Joseph is still alive, and the two of them are travelling round the countryside trying to get work. The two do some work for Mary, Martha and Lazarus, although it's clear that these days it is Jesus doing most of the work. I also seem to recall a later scene where these three try, unsuccessfully, to convince Jesus to stick with his profession.

    One of the films MArk specifically mention is The Miracle Maker which also opens showing Jesus at work but about to finish. Here however Jesus is no longer specifically a carpenter, but a general labourer. He's working at the nearby town of Sepphoris, and whilst his ministry is yet to start he gains two new followers - Mary Magdalene whom he protects from being beaten, and Jairus's daughter Tamar, who witness this.

    Lastly there is, of course, The Passion of the Christ with a scene where Jesus invents the modern day table. It's one of the film's low points. Not only is it anachronistic, but the whimsical tone seems completely out of step with the rest of the film. And, as Peter Chattaway points out in his essay on the film in "Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson's Film and Its Critics" [S. Brent Plate (ed.)], this scene also seems to introduce romantic touches to the relationship between Jesus and Mary.


    • At 11:49 am, December 19, 2009, Blogger Vic Van Den Bergh said…

      I remember a lecture where Donald Guthrie pointed out that a 'tekton' could have ranged from carpenter through to being a 'craftsman' or 'skilled' person.

      He pointed out that he could therefore have actually, despite tradition, been one who wrote poetry or commented on the world in a journalistic manner - something that would have shaken the original concepts (but as he then said - let's stick to a general worker or wood and not rock the boat).

      I read an amazing account about Joseph would have been a boat-builder. Something that would make sense of Jesus' recruiting fishermen.

      I loved the habitat moment when Jesus becomes the Conran of his age and produces the table, mid you - sitting on a floor and eating, perhaps it was too high.

      Great blog - always interesting to read - V


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