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!
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