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Readers’ Mailbag 1/20/2019: The Only Story of Jesus as a Boy in the New Testament

Based on the feedback I’ve received on the blog this past week, I’ve decided to reinstate the weekly Readers’ Mailbag.   I have actually continued responding to questions since abandoning the feature of the blog, but in a less formal way.  Formalizing it seems like a popular option, and so I’ll try to do this once a week.   I start this week with an interesting question about Jesus as a boy.



Outside the birth narratives, the only canonical story about the young Jesus is in Luke 2, although there are numerous childhood legends in the apocryphal gospels. Do you have any opinion, please, as to why this story of Jesus at twelve made it into Luke?



Over the years I have found among readers of the Bible an almost endless fascination about the “missing” years of Jesus’ life.  The narratives of our earliest and latest canonical Gospels, Mark and John, begin with Jesus as an adult associating with John the Baptism.  In Matthew and Luke, we have the stories of his birth; but then, apart from the story the questioner has mentioned, the action skips again to Jesus baptism by John.

What about the intervening years?  What was Jesus doing then?   How was he raised?  What was his family life like?  What were his influences?  What kind of friends did he have?  Did he have any education?  Who were his teachers?  What did he actually do as a child?  Or a teenager?  Or a young adult?  Was he put to work to help the family survive a hand-to-mouth existence from the time he was a young boy?  Was he a carpenter by trade?  Some other craftsman?  Was he dirt poor and on the edge of starvation most of his life?  Where did he acquire his religious training?  Was he a child prodigy?  Did he ever have any love interests?  Did he have any serious illnesses?  Did he ever travel outside of Nazareth?  Etc. etc. etc.  The list is virtually endless.

And we have virtually no information from the Gospels to help us.   Anything we learn comes from mere hints, here and there, and from a knowledge of life in rural and impoverished Jewish Galilee from other sources of information, both texts (Josephus, e.g.,) and archaeology (excavations of Nazareth, e.g.).

Early Christians wanted to know about these early years as well, but they were in the same bind: they also had no sources of information.  And so how did they handle this gap in their knowledge?  They made up stories.

That’s why we have the fascinating “Infancy Gospels” that tell of Jesus as a young boy, most famously the Proto-Gospel of James (dealing with the amazing events connected with Joseph and Mary, leading up to his birth, not discussed in the NT) and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (starting with stories about the young Jesus from ages 5-12).

And what about stories connected with Jesus from age twelve to adulthood?  Nothing like that comes to us from the early church.  And so in modern times authors have forged accounts, claiming to have “discovered” them in ancient manuscripts.  I talk about these modern forgeries (Jesus went to India!  Jesus learned from the Brahmins!) in the final chapter of my book Forged.

And so the question, given this otherwise entire lack, why is it that we do have a story about Jesus as a twelve-year old in Luke’s Gospel?

I think the answer is relatively simple.  Unlike the other Gospels, Luke was particularly keen to present his narrative of Jesus’ life as a Greco-Roman biography.

We have lots of biographies of famous people from the ancient world.  The best known examples come to us in the “Greek and Roman Lives” written by the second-century Plutarch.    Such biographies are always of famous people – politicians, military leaders, and renowned holy men, for example.

There are certain characteristics of this genre of writing (as with any genre).  In many ways biographies in antiquity are like the ones we read today by modern authors, but there are some very important differences of well.  Most notably and obviously is the fact that ancient biographers could not do their research the way modern scholars do.  Very few writings were available to examine; no data bases or electronic means of retrieval.  A good deal of the research involved examining and critiquing oral traditions.

One other key difference is that living before modern advances in psychology, ancient people understood human development differently from us.  Today we know, or think we know, that formative influences and personal contacts shape a person’s character and personality.   That wasn’t true in antiquity.  Instead assumed that a person’s character was given at birth, and was manifest throughout life with remarkable consistency.

And so biographies of great men (they were almost *always* men!) told stories about their youth not in order to show how they were influenced to become who they were, but in order to show how their essential characteristics and the distinctive aspects of their lives, views, understandings of the world, interactions with other people, and so on were manifest already when they were children.

A biography of a “holy man” such as Apollonius of Tyana would follow a typical pattern.  There would be a miraculous birth; stories of early life revealing his character; becoming an adult and beginning to teach and do great miracles; acquiring followers; life coming to an end, sometimes because of conflict with others; but not actually dying but ascending to heaven.   Not every biography had all these features, but most had most of them.

Luke wants to make his Gospel into a Greco-Roman biography.  His sources were Mark – a narrative that begins with Jesus as an adult and ends with his resurrection – and Q, a collection of Jesus’ sayings.  He had other sources for others of his stories.  But he wanted to shape and frame all these stories differently, by making his account read more like biographies otherwise available to a reading public.   And so he added to Mark an account of Jesus’ unusual birth, an episode of him as a boy that revealed his true character (as would become evident from events in his adult life), and an ascension to heaven at the end.  None of these was in Mark.

And so why the story of Jesus as a twelve year old?  To show, as was the style for ancient biographers, Jesus’ essential character already as a lad.  The way to read this fascinating account – in which Jesus gets left behind, unbeknownst to his parents, in Jersualem during a Passover Festival (note: Passover), leading to a frantic three-day search (note: three days!) in which he is found in his Father’s House (note: in the presence of his Father after three days!) and delivers a one-liner to explain his essential mission – the way to read the account is to see what it reveals about who Jesus really was, in the view of the author, Luke, and in light of the later episodes that transpired during his adult life.

It’s a good assignment to try to see all the ways Luke prefigures Jesus’ adult life in this brief episode (i.e. Luke’s *version* of Jesus’ adult life – not someone else’s version).  You should try it!

If you belonged to the blog, you would get meaty posts of about this length five times a week.  For very little cost — about a dime a post!  And that dime goes straight to charity.  So why not join?

Was Jesus A Great Moral Teacher? A Blast From the Past
The Dangers of Fundamentalism



  1. Avatar
    Judith  January 20, 2019

    As a six-year blog member who never misses a posting, these reruns seem astoundingly new to me as I’d completely forgotten them. Actually, they are too good to read just one time!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2019

      Thanks! But this one wasn’t a rerun! Seemed like it took an unusually long time (for me) to write it yesterday!!

      • Avatar
        Judith  January 21, 2019

        Right! I momentarily confused it with re-posting but what I said still stands: Each and every one is good a second time.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 22, 2019

          Good to know! When I was in seminary I had a friend who said that if a sermon was good enough to be preached once, it was good enough to be preached twice….

  2. Avatar
    nichael  January 20, 2019

    > “And so how did they handle this gap in their knowledge? They made up stories.”

    Needless to say, this sort of “filling-in” is a common reaction to gaps in popular stories. Currently we need only glance at the web to see the vast number of Harry Potter “gap-filling” and “background” stories, written by readers. Likewise, the large number of novels extending the stories of, say, the characters of Jane Austen (apparently, there is a whole cottage industry of novels and stories about Mary Bennet).

    I was describing “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” to my daughter, and she described it, quite perceptively I thought, as “an example of New Testament fan-fiction”.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  January 20, 2019

    Much as I agree with this interpretation, I don’t think Luke does a very good job of prefiguring Jesus here. 12 year old Jesus doesn’t act like adult Jesus at all.

    Adult Jesus tells parables. He performs miracles. He associates mainly with ordinary people, even sinners. He has an antagonistic relationship with Jewish authorities. He may go to synagogues and interact with learned men sometimes, but trouble invariably follows when he does, and he is not received well. There is no learned colloquoy going on.

    There are child prodigies, obviously–similar stories are told about Mozart (some of which are probably also myths). But to believe any of this, we have to believe a poor laborer’s family in Galilee would travel to Jerusalem every year for Passover, a long dangerous expensive trip. And frankly, that kind of undermines the impact of Jesus’ final (only?) trip to Jerusalem at the end of the gospel.

    It’s a stylistic flourish, absolutely. But not an effective one. There’s a reason it rarely if ever makes it into the movies. 12 year old Jesus is kind of a brat. Too cool for school. If he’s already all-knowing, why doesn’t he know his mother is frantic about him? What is the purpose of this? His father’s house? Adult Jesus didn’t seem so impressed by the temple.

    But yes, I recognize it, now that you’ve pointed it out. A remarkable man was a remarkable boy. If they couldn’t find a story to prove that, they’d make one up–or dress up an existing story. Hercules strangling snakes in his crib. Caesar really was abducted by pirates, but as a grown man. Versions I read as a kid made it seem like he was a teenager. It’s a durable pattern, and much as we’ve learned about the maturation process, you can still see it in the modern world.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2019

      Yes, that’s right. Luke’s not trying to foreshadow *everything* about Jesus’ adult life here; he’s taking several of the key aspects of his life and character and portraying them in an interesting episode about him as a boy, in anticipation of what he will do and be like as a man.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 21, 2019

        The parts of the gospel that work best, as I see it, as the parts that emphasize the humanity of Jesus. Which are, in the main, probably based on things he really said and did. When writers add to the story, not merely embellish but make things up out of whole cloth, you can see the joins.

        When I studied Celtic Mythology with a fellow named Alexei Kondratiev (a devout but highly unconventional Catholic), he talked about how Standish O’Grady wrote his version of the legend of Cuchullain, the great pagan hero, Ireland’s Achilles, who is anything but moral, even though he has a warrior’s code of honor.

        O’Grady wrote out all the promiscuous sex and warrior women, and makes Cuchullain into a perfect Victorian gentleman, who takes his family Christmas shopping in Dublin.

        The original stories date from before Ireland became Christian, and also before the Viking invasions that led to the founding of Dublin. But it’s a pleasant image, all the same.

        Luke isn’t that bad by comparison, but of course being so much closer to events, he couldn’t be, could he now?

  4. Avatar
    doug  January 20, 2019

    It’s interesting that the author of Luke wrote that “after investigating everything carefully from the very first” (Luke 1:3) he only has one story from between Jesus’ birth and his adulthood.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2019

      Good point! On the other hand, I guess he never says that he’s decided to include everything he’s learned from his research….

  5. Avatar
    James Chalmers  January 20, 2019

    It strikes me that the “missing years” are not years of which we must say “we know nothing about him.” We know Jesus born in a small village in Galilee–so whatever applies to boys born in those circumstances applies to him from the time of his birth to the beginning of his ministry recorded in the gospels. Consistent with the doctrine of the full humanity of Jesus, there’ much he must have done and believed, and much he could not have. We also know that Jesus was baptized by and was himself a Jew who believed in an an imminent apocalyptic ending of this world. That also further constrains what could possibly be true of the missing years, at least those as the baptism and ministry came near. (We can also be pretty damn sure Jesus did NOT do a stint in India.)

    • Rick
      Rick  January 21, 2019

      While I think it is accepted that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist for a while – I don’t recall ever seeing anything on how long he was with John before branching off on his own? That period should, however, account for some of the “missing years”.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 22, 2019

        It’s possible. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that John’s ministry lasted for years….

  6. Avatar
    aquaponics_dude  January 21, 2019

    This only mentioned “Passover” briefly once in the last paragraph.
    and yet Passover is why Jesus died.
    the Passover is what Jesus mentioned to Peter 3 times when resurrected Jesus asked Peter if he loved him.(by Lake Galilee).

    it’s a waste of electricity to even read that whole blog-post. (yes we know, doubts snake questions, doubts, an antithesis of observations, doubts)

    why? learns by memorization, he’s read all the questions about the Gospels, published all the books about doubting the Gospels, and now he’ll never learn that Jesus ate what he himself grew/made_by_miracle/helped_to_grow.
    Lord Jesus had a lamb the first year of his ministry,
    he mated his ewe and ram for the second year of ministry’s lamb,
    but the third year he was unable to by his own morals, eat lamb and upset judas for not holding passover
    how do we know Jesus had a flock of sheep, because he read the Isaiah passage, and further on in Isaiah 61, it says “another shall feed your flocks and you shall be called priests of God” (what happened to Jesus, now our resurrected high-priest and husband-companion of the church)
    so if that whole passage is true, then Jesus would rather risk life than eat what he didn’t help to grow.

    if you want to see Psalms 19-4, the bridegroom coming out of his tent, then look at a youtube video of the helical model of the solar system, the sun perpetually leaving his 4-sided elliptical orbits of the planets.

    peace of Christ,

  7. Avatar
    RSKICE  January 21, 2019

    Would Jesus not have attended Jewish elementary school to learn the Torha and Talmud and to read and write? Was that not compulsory at his time in Galilea or was that only in Judea?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2019

      No, as it turns out that’s a modern myth. I’ve posted on this a number of times on teh blog. Try searching for “literacy.” Here’s one of the earliest posts on it: https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-literacy-for-members/

      • Rick
        Rick  January 21, 2019

        Professor, do any academics believe, that the gospel stories that attest to Jesus’ profound scriptural knowledge, were simply later efforts to pump up his bona fides? After all, how good a scriptural background would he really need to impress Galilean fishermen et al?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 22, 2019

          I think it’s a serious possibility. Almost no way to know, except for the fact that his knowledge of Scripture is attested in a very wide range of sources…

  8. Avatar
    chixter  January 21, 2019

    I often wondered and still do about the education of Jesus. He had to be well versed in Hebrew scriptures for anyone to be able to take him seriously. And the question that appears in my mind is why he would have a semblance of an education, where as his early followers from the same locale did not. This actually bothers me.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2019

      It’s a pressing question. I’ve long wondered how to work it out myself. Maybe a local teacher took him under his wing? Maybe he didn’t actually have an education at all but stories about his wisdom and intelligence are later embellishments? Maybe … Several options, and I really don’t know how to adjudicate them.

      • Rick
        Rick  January 22, 2019

        Synagogue at Capernaum or Magdala? There is archeological evidence of the later at least. Would speak to the opportunity for scriptural education….

        • Bart
          Bart  January 23, 2019

          Capernaum probalby, in my opinion, though it’s hard to know. Magdala certainly: they’ve recently found it!

  9. Avatar
    jmmarine1  January 22, 2019

    Sorry to come to this posting a bit late; can anything be understood about the early life of Jesus when Mark notes that Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin by John? Does this imply anything about Jesus’ life before he set out on his ministry (Mk 1:4, 9)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2019

      It does indeed seem to suggest that Jesus realized he had not lived a perfect life (conservative Christian interpreters have a different explanation of course, that he was doing it, say, as a model for others, even though he didn’t need it himself….)

  10. Avatar
    Bwana  January 22, 2019

    I can’t remember if I learned this from you or elsewhere, but what about this theory that the first 2 chapters of Luke were a later addition? (Indeed, the very precise dating in Luke 3:1 seems to be a much more logical way to start the story, esp. in light of the much clumsier dating in Luke 1:5.) In my view the atypical inclusion of the young Jesus story in Luke 2 only strengthens this theory. Of course the argument that a holy man requires a special childhood is still valid, but it may have been later editors who thought this requirement merited a prequel.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 22, 2019

      I”ve posted on that before. Maybe I’ll look to see how long ago, and if it was ages, I might repost it. Pretty important stuff!

  11. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  January 22, 2019

    We know about as much about the life of…Shakespeare.

  12. Avatar
    JohnKesler  January 22, 2019

    There’s also his age, 12, as in 12 apostles. And the notice in Luke 2:50 that “[his parents] did not understand what he said to them” in response to Jesus’ statement that he had to be “in [his] Father’s house” seems incongruous if the events surrounding the Nativity actually occurred as narrated in the previous verses.

  13. Avatar
    Apocryphile  January 23, 2019

    I think it’s undeniable that formative influences and personal contacts contribute to a person’s “character” in life, but I would argue that there still seems to be a core in each individual person, present at birth, that, as the ancients thought, stays with us throughout life, and in fact “is” us in a very deep and mysterious sense. Whether this is through genetics, or something else, I think we aren’t wise enough yet to say, but I do think we need to acknowledge that we carry this modern bias that at least leans heavily toward nurture (rather than nature) as the explanation for our personalities. Historically, this is because since its inception psychology has always wanted to be accepted as a modern science in the same way as chemistry, biology, etc., but it is still a long way from attaining the status of a “hard” science, and in my opinion it probably never will.

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