What Happened During Jesus’ Lost Years?
There have been some interesting attempts to discover the “historical” Jesus, but the only Jesus we really know is the one in the New Testament, and those writers were not interested in historical accuracy.
One of the curious features of Christianity is that we know almost nothing about Jesus before the age of thirty. What did he look like? Was Jesus a carpenter or a carpenter’s son? Mark says he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3), while Matthew changed Mark’s reference to his being a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55). There is almost a complete vacuum of reliable information about his life prior to the beginning of his public ministry. The gospels report very few events between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his public ministry.
Matthew writes that an angel told Joseph in a dream to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Matthew 2:13-14). Matthew 2:15 says this was the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Once Herod died, an angel, once again in a dream, instructed Joseph to return to Israel. After Joseph discovered that Herod’s son, Archelaus, was the ruler of Judea, and was again warned in a dream, he resettled in Nazareth in Galilee. Matthew 2:23 claims the choice of Nazareth was to fulfill another prophecy: “He will be called a Nazorean,” but no one knows where such a prophecy originated.
Luke does not include the flight to Egypt, but says his parents went to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was eight days old to have him circumcised and named. Then forty days later, “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses” (Luke 2:22), they traveled to Jerusalem again to present Jesus to the Lord (the law required “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord,” Luke 2:23) and they offered a sacrifice, as the law required, of a pair of turtle-doves and two young pigeons. While they were in the Temple, a devout man named Simeon, who the Holy Spirit had told that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah, told his father and mother that their child was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:25-35). Also, a very old prophet named Anna, who “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day,” praised God and spoke about Jesus to those “who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38).
Both Matthew and Luke cannot be historically accurate. Since his parents were Jewish, Luke’s version sounds more authentic except for Simeon and Anna’s prediction of greatness for the child. Mary’s reaction to her son’s ministry and the claims of his special status don’t correlate with her having ever been told that he would become someone extra special.
Luke claims that after the circumcision and presentation in the temple, the family returned to Galilee and their hometown, Nazareth, where Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:39-40).
According to Luke, Joseph and Mary made the lengthy trip from Nazareth (Nazara in Q) to Jerusalem (95 miles or 105 kilometers each way) every year in order to celebrate the Feast of Passover. When Jesus was twelve years old, he was allowed to join them. Once the festival ended, Mary and Joseph started home, but, unknown to his parents, Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. After a day’s journey, approximately twenty miles, they discovered Jesus was not with them; they assumed their son was with relatives or friends in the caravan. Any parent can imagine the terror that they must have felt when they discovered that their son was missing. They immediately returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days of searching, they found him in the temple, where he was calmly sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Once Mary realized that Jesus had deliberately stayed behind, she asked why he had treated his parents like this. Seemingly unconcerned, Jesus told her that they should have known that he was “in my Father’s house.” His parents did not understand this mysterious response. After they returned to Nazareth, Jesus “was obedient to them… And (he) increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (this last sentence, verse 52, is very similar to verse 40). (Luke 2:39-52)
Following that episode, there is a blank space of information about Jesus’ life that covers at least eighteen years. A common assumption among Christians is that Jesus simply lived in Nazareth during that period, but we don’t really know. Non-biblical sources make several unverified claims: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas claims that Jesus cursed a playground bully; after he died, Jesus resurrected him with a prayer. He also turned clay pots into flying birds. Another myth claims that he sailed to England with his uncle Joseph from Arimathea and built a church near Glastonbury in honor of his mother. And another suggests that he traveled and studied in India, Persia, and/or Tibet.
No one really knows much about Jesus’ missing years, but Christopher Moore has written Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a hilarious imagination told by Levi, called “Biff,” the Messiah’s best bud, who has been resurrected to write his version of what happened. Some of Biff’s story is direct from the Bible, while other parts are strictly Moore’s, but it is interesting. Jesus must have had friends during his childhood and youth. So what might have occurred during that time?
The Accounts of Jesus’ Life Resume
Mark begins his gospel with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer. Jesus reportedly came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing. Matthew claims that John declined Jesus’ request for baptism; he said Jesus should baptize him, but John does baptize him after Jesus insists. According to Mark, after his baptism Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11; compare to Matthew 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34)
Following his baptism, according to Matthew, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days and nights. During this time, the devil tempted Jesus three times to use his supernatural powers as proof of his divinity, but Jesus refused; after each temptation he quoted a scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy. After the third refusal, the devil left and angels brought nourishment to Jesus. (Matthew 4:1-11; compare to Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13)
Although most Christians cringe at the idea, it is very likely that Jesus was John’s disciple until after John was executed by Herod Antipas. The Baptizer’s prominence in both the gospels and in Josephus’ first century writings suggests that he was more popular than Jesus during his lifetime. Jesus’ mission does not begin until after John’s death. John’s movement continued, but some of his disciples became followers of Jesus. Once Jesus began his own ministry, he taught, healed, and exorcised demons in Galilee and Capernaum for one to three years, depending on which gospel you believe, for instance John mentions three Passovers. His primary message was the coming of the kingdom of God (it’s the “kingdom of God” in all the gospels except Matthew who instead uses “kingdom of heaven”), which Jesus claimed was actually already available or present. The kingdom of God (or heaven) was something that could be attained prior to death; it was not about a heavenly reward.
So what do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was Jewish and grew up in Nazareth in Galilee, which was a tiny village at that time in a small agricultural region north of Jerusalem. He lived in a peasant society during a time when the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. Most likely in his twenties, Jesus left Nazareth to become a follower of John the Baptizer, a wilderness prophet. After Herod put John in prison, Jesus may have assumed control of John’s mission. He gained a reputation as a miracle-working rabbi or wisdom teacher. He was criticized for associating with marginalized people like tax collectors and sinners. He also was criticized for sharing a meal with the peasants and those whom society considered outcasts. He taught in parables and aphorisms and was an excellent storyteller. His chief message was the “kingdom of God” – what life on earth would be like if God were king; it would be a world where justice (everyone would have enough) and peace (no more war) would reign supreme. Although he did not accept the way things were or encourage his listeners to wait for heaven, he taught nonviolence. He tried to empower his followers to change the way things were. Violent revolts and uprisings against Roman oppression were the norm and many messiahs emerged as potential saviors of the Jewish people during this time. Jesus was one such figure who was declared “king of the Jews” by others. This caused Jesus to be found guilty of treason against the Emperor and he was crucified by the fifth Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who reigned from 26-36 CE (therefore, we know that Jesus must have died no later than 36 CE). Following his death, some of his followers reported that his tomb was empty and that he had risen from the grave and appeared to them. I will cover more about his passion, death and resurrection in later articles.
Everything that we know about Jesus and what he taught was first transmitted by oral tradition. Some of his disciples continued to be active in and around Palestine. They recalled stories about Jesus and told them to people in the synagogues. The disciples recalled things Jesus said and told them as the situation demanded. These stories and sayings preserved and sometimes enhanced Jesus’ miraculous deeds and wisdom teachings. This was all that the early church knew about Jesus. Many of the stories did not survive – for example, the legend that Jesus was born in a cave. Even after the gospels were written, the oral tradition continued to thrive in many communities.
Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea from 315 to 340 CE, had read a now-lost work by the church elder Papias who lived and wrote around 100 CE. In his Church History, Eusebius quotes Papias as saying that written material did not help him nearly as much as “the word of a living and surviving voice” of the sayings of Jesus. Papias collected the stories he could find from the elders who had known one of the disciples and wrote them down in the Oracles of the Lord.
What Can Paul Tell Us About Jesus?
Paul letters or epistles are the earliest testimony about Jesus, but he was converted two years after Jesus’ crucifixion, so he did not know Jesus personally. Paul never speaks of Jesus’ life and very rarely mentions anything that he supposedly said. This is because Paul’s letters to the various communities he founded were designed to organize the fledgling church and were not intended to communicate the sayings or biography of Jesus. Since Paul had no personal knowledge about Jesus and fought with those who did, he is not very helpful in discovering the historical Jesus.
Three years after his conversion, Paul visited Peter in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Jesus movement for fifteen days (Galatians 1:16-19). There he feuded with the “Cephas faction,” Peter and some of the other disciples, who questioned his theology (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). The Jerusalem faction followed Mosaic law and insisted on circumcision of the Gentile converts to the new faith. Paul claims that he did not receive any instruction from the disciples in Jerusalem and, since he claims to have received his theology through a direct revelation with the risen Christ, his understanding of Jesus’ teachings is quite often in disagreement with the understanding and practices of Peter and his associates in Jerusalem. In his second letter to the community at Corinth, Paul complains about those “superlative apostles” who preach a different Jesus than the one that he preached (2 Corinthians 11:4-6). He even calls them “false apostles” who are working for Satan (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
The closest thing we have to Jesus’ actual words is Q (from the German Quelle which means “source”). Scholars date Q to about 50 CE, which would mean it was earlier than the synoptic gospels. Biblical scholars generally agree that Q and Mark predate and were sources for Matthew and Luke. Q is a collection of Jesus’ sayings. Modern biblical scholars suspect that the majority of Jesus’ words preserved in the gospels reflect the theology of the early church rather than being the actual words of the historical Jesus.
If one reads Q without imposing the theology that developed later, a clear picture emerges:
• Q is a collection of Jesus’ sayings from the oral tradition that tells us his words rather than anything about his life – for instance, Q does not mention his birth, death or resurrection;
• Q emphasized the coming of God’s rule;
• In Q, Jesus is a wisdom teacher; this conforms to the original testimony of Titus Flavius Josephus who refers to Jesus as a wise man and a teacher of those who love truth.
The Q community did not find meaning in Jesus’ death, but were fascinated by his teachings. In contrast, Paul found deeper meaning in the resurrection than in the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings.
What Type of Person Was Jesus?
Leslie Weatherhead writes, “We must resolutely refuse to judge Jesus by the Bible. We must judge the Bible by Jesus; by the total effect of a consistent personality made upon us from all sources, including our own experience.” Therefore, it is difficult to believe that Jesus ever said many of the things that John attributes to him, like “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6) or “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Both of these quotes are intolerably arrogant. They don’t match Jesus’ statements that appear in the other gospels. Even if Jesus is truly God such statements are difficult to justify. Surely many of the Psalms show us the nature of God. How about “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him”? (Psalm 103:13 New International Version) Can we possibly believe that all the great leaders of the Hebrews, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great seers of other religions, like Mohamed, Confucius, or Buddha, will be excluded from the presence of God because they had never heard of Jesus? Isn’t such a statement ridiculous? How can we believe that Jesus ever said that some sins are unpardonable? (Mark 3:28, Matthew 12:31) Surely the nature of God’s love makes every sin pardonable if the person who commits it faithfully seeks forgiveness. Isn’t it more like Jesus when he said, “him who comes to me I will not cast out”? (John 6:37) Jesus could not refuse forgiveness to a penitent sinner, whatever his sin.
It is highly unlikely that the son of a carpenter in an Aramaic-speaking village in Galilee would have learned to read and write. John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest and retired Professor of Religious Studies at Chicago’s DePaul University, agrees. Crossan wrote that ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the Jewish state at the time of Jesus was illiterate, so Jesus was most likely illiterate. However this illiterate peasant had an oral brilliance that few others ever attained. How was that possible? If he was illiterate, how did he learn enough to be a wisdom teacher?
Luke presumes that Jesus was not only literate, but “he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16b) from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Since only approximately three percent of the Jewish population of ancient Israel was literate, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could read. That does not, of course, mean that he could not think or even teach; it just means that he could not read.
Was Jesus Married?
In Holy Blood, Holy Grail and in Margaret Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar a great deal of evidence is presented to suggest that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, the one who was falsely identified as a prostitute. There is nothing in the Bible that proves that they either were or were not married, or that Jesus made a promise or vow not to marry. Priests and rabbis in Israel during Jesus’ time were supposed to marry; to abstain from procreation was seen as an insult to God (and still is among Orthodox Jews). If Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, why isn’t it mentioned in the Bible? There are several possible answers, but two are:
(1) It was edited out, for some reason, before the biblical canon was closed;
(2) There was a physical threat to Mary after the crucifixion, which was enough to exclude her name from all written records.
The books mentioned above speculate that Mary was pregnant with Jesus’ child, which was widely believed in the Middle Ages. Her life would have been in danger because she bore his heir, the heir to the Davidic throne. Accordingly, she fled the country right after the crucifixion for fear of reprisal against herself and her unborn child. Jesus being a husband and father is not a problem for me, nor does it make him any less the Christ. Jesus fathering a child makes him even more human.
In 2012, Karen L. King published an article in the Harvard Theological Review concerning her translation of a fourth-century papyrus fragment. In part, her translation read: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” and “…she will be able to be my disciple…” Although inconclusive, these two fragments certainly suggest that Jesus was married and that his wife became one of his disciples.