Every so often, I see a car with a bumper sticker that says “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter.” This sentiment plays on the idea of Jesus came as a folksy working class guy who walked around the Palestinian country side telling stories and healing people. Ultimately, he atoned for our sin through his death and resurrection. But if you want to get to the “real” theology you have to read Paul. In many traditional worship services, we do a gospel reading and then a reading from the epistles. Often the gospel story serves as a mere illustration of the theology taught in the epistles.
As theologian Kenneth Bailey has pointed out through his writings and lectures over the years, we could not have things more backward. Jesus was a master rabbi and theologian. We miss a considerable amount of Jesus' teaching because Jesus taught in the Eastern tradition of metaphorical theology. Some schools of biblical interpretation that teach that each parable has only one point to communicate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Peter Rollins, in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, talks about the “transfinite.” To get the idea, picture how many fractional numbers are there between the real numbers 1 and 2? The answer is that there are an infinite number of fractions between 1 and 2, and yet none of the numbers will be smaller than 1 or larger than 2. There are limitless possibilities within the given parameters. I have come to think of narrative and metaphorical theology as transfinite realities. Stories are woven and listeners are invited to enter the story. Through engaging the characters and the events in the story, we enter into a holistic relational engagement with theological truths. There are many levels of meaning within given parameters.
We all know that Jesus was just a carpenter from Nazareth yet he is repeatedly referred to as a teacher and rabbi in the gospels. We see him teaching with this metaphorical approach. Why was he given the title of rabbi and where did he learn to teach as he did? Kenneth Bailey offers us some important insights:
The stipulation of “not digging with the crown” [receiving material benefit for religious things] harmonized smoothly with the major task of the sages, which was to interpret and apply the Torah to everyday life. Thus, if they had one foot in the work-a-day world and the other in the world of the Torah and its law, it would be easier to make the connection between the two.
Shemmai and Hillel, two of the greatest rabbis, lived one generation before Jesus. Shemmai was a stonemason, and Hillel probably earned his keep as a porter. Thus Jesus (carpenter) and Paul (tentmaker) were not exceptional to the rule but were concrete examples of established practice. Unlike the contemporary Western world, the world of Jesus expected the scholar to be engaged in a trade such as carpentry. The question that naturally follows is: What sort of intellectual life would have been available to a young man growing up in an isolated village?
In Jesus’ day, across the villages of Galilee and Judea, there were associations of serious-minded Jews who called themselves the haberim (the companions/friends). The name was taken from Psalm 119:63, which reads, “I am a companion [haber] of all who fear thee, / of those who keep thy precepts.” These associations were composed of men who were employed in secular trades but who spent their spare time debating the Law and trying to apply it to their world. A young Jew in his early teens had the option of joining such a group. If he decided to do so, he was committed to becoming a “student of the rabbis” and participating in their discussions. Those Jews who wished to spend their spare time in activities other than scholarly debates were not a part of these associations. The rabbis called such types am ha-arets, “the people of the land.” This title was not a compliment, and considerable hostility developed between these two groups. It seems to assume that Jesus joined the haberim. The story about him in the temple at twelve years of age emphasizes his intelligence and his scholarly bent (Lk. 2:41-51). With this pattern of culture in mind, it is easy to assume that Jesus went on to spend eighteen years in sustained discussion with the brightest and best thinkers in Nazareth and the surrounding villages. When, at the age of thirty, Jesus began his public ministry, he demonstrated time and again considerable skill in the rabbinic style of debating, and, therefore, it is not surprising that the community called him “rabbi.”
The title rabbi emerged in first-century Judaism as a title of respect for a scholar. Students used it for a teacher, and the community at large used it for the scribes and sages. Eduard Lohse states, “When Jesus is called Rabbi by His disciples and others, this shows that He conducted Himself like the Jewish scribes. David Flusser, the able Israeli scholar writes, “It is easy to observe that Jesus was far from uneducated. He was perfectly at home both in holy scripture and in oral tradition, and he knew how to apply this scholarly heritage. Flusser goes on to note that carpenters in particular had a reputation for learning. With this in mind Flusser then rejects “the common, sweetly idyllic notion of Jesus as a naïve and amiable, simple manual workman.”
In summary, Jesus was a master in the use of metaphor, parable and dramatic action. His audiences were often composed of scribes and Pharisees. The reader of the Gospels needs to be aware that when a scholarly audience is specifically mentioned, it can be assumed that a sophisticated scholarly exchange is underway. When this assumption is made, new perceptions of Jesus and his message emerge. … (Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel's Story. (Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 24-25.)