Jesus’s Mysterious Years
Posted by foryourfaith on January 26, 2010
What happened during the 30 years between Jesus’ infancy and that moment when his ministry began? How did his personality, interests, passions, and perhaps foible develop? How did he become a person who could have such an impact on history?
Generations of would-be biographers have been frustrated by the enigma of the missing years, the puzzling fact that the gospels record only a single story to bridge three decades of Jesus’ spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social development.
In fact, three of the four Gospels provide no specific information about Jesus’ childhood at all. Both the Gospels of Mark and of John begin their stories with Jesus as an adult. The Gospel of Matthew records stories surrounding Jesus’ birth but then skips directly to his adulthood. They were either uninterested in the childhood years, or they had no information concerning them.
Only the Gospel of Luke touches upon the intervening years. Between two summary statements asserting that Jesus has grown in body, in wisdom, and in God’s favor, Luke relates a single incident that he hopes will reveal to the reader something of the character of the youth.
At the age of 12, Luke says, Jesus went with his parents from Nazareth on their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. According to the Laws of Exodus, Jewish males were expected to go to the Temple of Jerusalem three times as year to celebrate pilgrim feasts. Being 12, Jesus was now considered a “Son of the Law,” and was thus expected to attend the Temple feasts. This may well have been the boy’s first journey to the holy city since his circumcision. When Mary and Joseph began the caravan trip home, Jesus stayed behind without telling them, while they supposed that he was among the throng of people in their caravan. After a day of travel they realized that he was missing, and returned to the city to search for the boy. After three days of searching they came upon him in the Temple listening to the teachers of the Torah, questioning them, and responding to their counter-questions with remarkable discernment.
The climax of the story occurs after Mary asks Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” Jesus’ response is mysterious: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49). These are the first words that the Gospels record from Jesus, and, as with many later sayings, Luke notes that they were not understood at the time. Luke writes, “And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.” Still, as Luke looked back and recounted the story many decades later, he found that this momentary glimpse into Jesus’ youth was sufficient to illuminate the mysterious hidden years in a number of significant ways.
For Luke, Jesus’ statement that “I must be in my Father’s house” was crucial. It showed that Jesus’ special identity as “Son of God,” which Luke had already celebrated in the birth narratives, had now become part of Jesus’ own mind and was a motive for his actions even against what would appear as disobedience to his parents. In addition, the entire situation demonstrated that Jesus’ beginnings were firmly rooted in Jewish faith and practice. Already at the age of twelve he was absorbed in the study of the Scriptures and could knowledgeably discourse with professional teachers.
Jesus had grown up in a family faithful in its obedience to the law. Their caravan to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem is a sign of the family’s piety. Other Gospel passages indicate that Jesus was one of at least seven children in his family, and that he was also a carpenter like Joseph, ready for life as a craftsman. Though he could hold his own in the environment of the Jerusalem Temple, his home was in the far less cosmopolitan setting of the villages of Galilee’s hill country. All of these elements, drawn together in a single story, provided for Luke a demonstration of the depth of Jesus’ roots among his own people – in spite of all the conflicts over the torah and Jesus’ teaching that were later to mark his story.