Jesus’ plows

Os Guinness makes an intriguing observation in The Call. He writes that Justin Martyr “notes that the plows made by Joseph and Jesus were still being used widely in his day” (p. 202). Chuck Colson taped a Breakpoint recording around this point and many preachers have mentioned it in sermons. I have myself, but always with the disclaimer that this may be nothing more than an urban legend. Justin’s alleged quote is tantalizing because it demonstrates the importance of our work and doing it well. If Jesus made plows that were still being used a hundred years later, then we should also do our work for the glory of God.

The problem is, it probably isn’t true. For all of his remarkable skill, Guinness has the inexcusable habit of not showing his sources. Where did Justin say this? I did a Google search and found a Jewish website that made Guinness’ point and gave a reference for it, Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 88. I excitedly turned there only to be disappointed. Here is what Justin actually writes:  “He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life”). There is nothing here about the durability of Jesus’ plows, only that he made them as part of an “active life.”

I skimmed the entire Dialogue with Trypho plus the rest of Justin’s writings in volume 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers and came up empty. It’s possible that I missed it but it’s more likely that someone misread chapter 88 and now it’s being spread around by people who never bothered to check. Unless someone can find where Justin actually said that Jesus’ plows were still being used in his day, we should be honest enough to not repeat it. And from now on, let’s check the primary source before repeating what somebody else said about it.

5 Comments

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  1. That text is immediately after the one about the “eye of a needle” being the name of a little door next to the city gate.

  2. I, for one, never knew he was reputed to make them at all, so I’m excited to learn something new. I like the thought of Jesus having to mess about with recalcitrant animals. I feel closer to him now. He understands me more than I knew.

  3. Furthermore, who says that even if Justin made a comment that it would be accurate. He may have just passed on an urban legend. George Wesley Buchanan wrote an article some time back on the term “carpenter” and argued that it was not some back woods wood worker but more like an “architect.” Also, Joseph and Mary were middle class by 1st century standards, not peasants.

  4. Mike,
    I just added the apochryphal quote to Justin’s wikipedia entry, so now it is official!

  5. Dr. Wittmer – this is eerie. I just finished Os Guinness’ book “The Call” (borrowed it from Gordon-Conwell – 1 hour away from here in New England) after seeing high reviews for it on Amazon. It is one of the most profound books I have read to date, especially since I’m at some of my own junctures in life. And my pastor this Sunday was just bugging me to read Butterfield’s biography – the subject of your last post! So these two books were some of the latest on my radar…divine providence?🙂

    Weird, though. I did scratch my head when I read that quote in Guiness’ book and later found that he had no bibliography at the end of the book. (Especially painful for a former Ancient Studies major at CU!)

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