A Chip Off The Old Block - Notes from a Nazarene Carpenter by Jesus bar Joseph (translated from the Aramaic by Vito "Shorty" Libretto).
One of the most curious episodes in the catalogue of what may loosely be described as an amalgam of autobiography and "history of the working man" came to light after a brass-bound carpentry toolbox was recently unearthed under the roots of an ancient olive tree following an Israeli army attack on the garden adjoining a Palestinian delicatessen. Yes, I know reviewers usually turn up their nose at celebrity books, but in this case it was hard to retain a hard-line snobbish stance. Much has been said and written about the author but here, for the first time, we get his own words.
It was hard living up to my father's reputation. He would look at a tree, run his hands over the bark, smell the resin from the leaves and immediately plan the optimum style of tables and shape of stools that it could be coaxed to produce. The local carpenters' guild had a name for him. They called my father "God" because, given the right piece of timber, he could make all things. That was how, as his son, I picked up that rather embarrassing and irreverent nickname.
A lesser man than the author could have been demoralised by his relative modest talents in the family business when pitted against his overwhelming father, but this was no ordinary carpenter. From his late teens to his early twenties he struggled to make his mark in woodwork, at first with limited success. This part of the book is a rare insight into the lives of artisans and their customers two millennia ago, written not in the dry tones of a historian but with the hopeful enthusiasm of a highly educated working man. His ambition seemed to outstrip his abilities until, at the age of thirty three, he devised a revolutionary business scheme to market mass-produced cabinets and dining suites by taking advantage of the occupying force's communications network. He and his apprentices cut prime olive and cedarwood then shaped and packed it ready for shipping to all parts of the Empire, where Roman customers would then follow the Latin instructions and assemble their own furniture. Jesus bar Joseph, ever a practical man, was the first to realise his mistake. "I thought my name would be praised, you know, the customer would look over his villa at the new room fixtures and fittings and say, "blessed are the cabinet makers". Instead I nearly got myself crucified for putting resident craftsmen out of business and threatening the stability of the local economies who served the Empire ." Arrest and humiliation did not dampen his spirit and the book ends defiantly with these words, I am a skilled wood technician, not a miracle worker. I know how to saw straight, work with the grain and make good occasional furniture. One day my work will be accepted; I will be remembered when all other living carpenters are forgotten.
A Chip Off The Old Block is well written, full of insight into the everyday working of the Roman Empire and contains hints that Mr bar Joseph, had he not been conscripted into the family business, could well have become a philosopher of some not inconsiderable influence. Who knows? It also unlocks a hidden mystery. It explains scrolls, found in hundreds of archaeological sites all over Europe and the Middle East, which had hitherto been assumed to be votive offerings or obscure tree-worship rituals. The true cult of bar Joseph, in the view of his followers, is set out in instruction on flat-pack furniture assembly by the carpenter from Nazareth. It did, in the end, make him famous.
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