Jesus—His Life and Message: The Young Jesus
January 20, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Young Jesus
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The past few articles covered the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. We now move on to the years between His birth and the start of His ministry.
The Gospels tell us about Mary and Joseph returning from Egypt and settling in Nazareth, and about an incident in the temple when Jesus was 12 years old. Beyond that, they say nothing more about Jesus’ life between His birth and His baptism when He was about 30 years old. In order to get a general picture of what Jesus’ early life might have been like, we can look at what is known about the culture and customs within Israel at that time. Since He grew up in a first-century Palestinian village, we can look at the available historical information about life in Israel at that time, and from there draw some informed conclusions about what His early life would have probably been like.
From Matthew’s gospel we learn that once King Herod died, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, directing him to take Mary and Jesus back to Israel. Upon returning and learning that Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling over Judea, Joseph was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.1
The district of Galilee was the northernmost part of Israel, the province farthest from Jerusalem. With its fertile soil, abundant rain, and mild climate, it was one of the most productive agricultural areas of Israel. It was intensively worked for the export of wheat and olives, and also for wine. The Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, provided bountiful fish which supported a dried fish industry.2 There was a Jewish saying, “If anyone wishes to be rich, let him go north; if he wants to be wise, let him come south.”3 While the intent of the saying was to express that wisdom was to be found in Jerusalem in the south, it also showed there were riches to be made in Galilee, the most prosperous province in the country. The wealth was unevenly distributed, however; alongside the few rich of the upper class, and the somewhat larger middle class which consisted of merchants and owners of their own shops or businesses, were the population’s lower class of tenant farmers and day laborers.
The Galilean people were looked down upon by their neighbors to the south. One author describes it as follows:
Galilee got little respect from the rest of the country. It was the farthest province from Jerusalem and the most backward culturally. Rabbinic literature of the time portrays Galileans as bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes. Galileans who learned Hebrew pronounced it so crudely that they were not called on to read the Torah in other synagogues. Speaking the common language of Aramaic in a slipshod way was a telltale sign of Galilean roots (as Simon Peter would one day find out, betrayed in the courtyard by his rural accent). The Aramaic words preserved in the Gospels show that Jesus, too, spoke in that northern dialect, no doubt encouraging skepticism about Him. “How can the Christ come from Galilee?”4
Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, was a small village of perhaps 200 people.5 It was about ten kilometers from the Via Maris, the main road which linked Damascus—an important center of Greco-Roman culture and a major trading center at the time—with the south of Israel and Egypt.6 About four kilometers to the north was the city of Sepphoris, a Hellenistic Greek-speaking town, which at the time of Jesus’ birth was being rebuilt. It’s thought that perhaps Joseph, Jesus’ father, may have done building work there.
Jesus most likely lived in Nazareth until He was about thirty years old. Growing up in Nazareth, His life would have been similar to that of other children in the village. Though no details are given in Scripture about this time in His life, looking at what village life in a Jewish home in the first century was like can give us an idea of His experience of childhood and youth.
Jesus was Mary’s first child. According to Jewish tradition of the time, she was probably about 14–15 years older than Jesus, and Joseph may have been up to 25 years older than his son. According to Scripture, Jesus had four younger brothers and at least two sisters. His brothers—James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon7—had the names of Jewish patriarchs, pointing to a family rooted in the Jewish faith. The names of His sisters are not mentioned in the Gospels.8 His father, Joseph, is traditionally considered to have been a carpenter, a worker in wood. The Greek word (tekton) translated as carpenter is also used to denote someone who works in stonemasonry, construction of houses, and other similar types of work.9
Jesus grew up in a typical Jewish home, so like all Jewish male children, His religious teaching in the first few years would have come from His mother. As He grew older, His father would begin to teach Him the Torah. Jesus would become familiar with the weekly Sabbath prayers and meal, and with the festivals, prayers, hymns, and ceremonies of the Jewish faith. As He grew up, He would attend synagogue services and listen to Scripture being read. He also would have memorized a great deal of Scripture.
It’s not known whether there was a synagogue school in Nazareth, which would have been where Jesus would have received formal schooling of some sort. However, the Gospels make it clear that Jesus was a learned man. It’s clear that He could read, as He read Scripture in the synagogue in Nazareth.10 He also engaged in debates with intellectual leaders, was called “Rabbi” (a title used in Jesus’ day to describe scholars and teachers of the Torah) and “teacher,” and taught in synagogues.
Jewish author and professor David Flusser wrote:
When Jesus’ sayings are examined against the background of contemporaneous Jewish learning, it is easy to observe that Jesus was far from uneducated. He was perfectly at home both in the Holy Scripture and oral tradition, and He knew how to apply this scholarly heritage.11
Author Robert Stein wrote:
Whereas we do not know how Jesus received His training and education, the fact remains that His ability to read, to debate the Scriptures and to answer exegetical questions reveals that He was an educated man.12
When Jesus was old enough, He learned His father’s trade and probably worked with His father until Joseph’s death. After He began His ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth and spoke in the synagogue. The listeners took offense at Him and said, Is not this the carpenter?13 In Matthew’s gospel they say, Is not this the carpenter’s son?14 These mentions in Scripture are what inform us that Jesus must have had the same trade as His father, and most likely practiced it until He began His ministry at about age 30. The indication is that Joseph died before Jesus started His ministry, since whenever Jesus’ family is referred to, His mother is mentioned (and sometimes His siblings), but never His father.15 If this is the case, then as the firstborn son, Jesus would have become head of the household and would bear responsibility for supporting the family.
Coming from a devout Jewish family, Jesus would have kept the Mosaic law, gone to Jerusalem for the various yearly feasts and to worship in the temple, attended synagogue, prayed the ritual prayers, and done all the things that His contemporaries did at the time. His pre-ministry life would have been typical of an average life of someone in Nazareth. While He most likely excelled in His understanding of Scripture,16 for the most part His childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood before He began His ministry seem to have been normal for a first-century Palestinian Jew.
His years growing up in Galilee, observing the happenings around Him—seeing fields ripe and ready for harvest, watching shepherds tending their flocks and searching for lost sheep, attending wedding parties, seeing day laborers waiting for work, perhaps helping to build a barn for a rich man who had just harvested a bumper crop—would have provided everyday life experiences that He would later use in His teaching and preaching. He would have watched the sowers and the keepers of vines. He knew of the difficulties of debtors and their being imprisoned for their debt. Being a carpenter and builder may have brought Him into contact with large landowners and the stewards who took care of their business. He might have met good stewards, crafty ones, and unfaithful ones. His years of growing up, living, working, and experiencing life in a Galilean village would have prepared Him for His time of ministering to and teaching others.
It’s possible that Jesus spoke the three main languages which were used in Palestine in the first century—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Luke tells us that Jesus was asked to read from the book of the prophets in the synagogue. He read from Isaiah (a rather difficult book to read in Hebrew), which indicates that He could read a high form of Hebrew. It is possible that Jesus knew more than one dialect of Hebrew, even though such knowledge was probably much less common in Galilee than in Judea.17 Scripture was written in a high form of Hebrew, but the Hebrew which was sometimes used when having scriptural debates—as Jesus did with the Scribes and Pharisees—was a different dialect than the Hebrew of Scripture. Since Jesus was debating publicly with scholars of the Law, He would need to be able to use the right dialect in order to effectively make His argument.18
Hebrew, however, wasn’t the language of the street—Aramaic was the most widely used language among Jews of all classes in Galilee and in Judea.19 Aramaic was most likely the everyday language Jesus spoke.
Because of centuries of rule by the Greek-speaking Seleucids, whose governmental and business affairs were conducted in Greek, it is safe to say that in the time of Jesus most educated Palestinian Jews of the upper classes knew at least some Greek, especially in the larger cities.20 It’s possible, though not certain, that Jesus knew at least some Greek, as Nazareth was in Lower Galilee, which was an area with many Greek-speaking Gentiles. Though He wasn’t part of the upper class, His work may have put Him in contact with Greek speakers. There are times in the Gospels when Jesus holds conversations with people who would not have been expected to speak either Hebrew or Aramaic, such as when He spoke with a Roman commander21 and with Pontius Pilate.22 There is no mention that a translator was present at those instances, though there could have been. But it’s also possible that Jesus could speak at least some Greek.23
Only educated guesses can be made about the languages Jesus spoke, the education He had, the exact type of work He did, and almost everything else about Jesus’ life from His birth until His baptism. The Gospels only tell us of one incident in His life within that time period. Luke tells us:
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.24
A few points are made by way of this story. To begin, we are again reminded of the piety of Mary and Joseph, as every year they attended the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem. This tells us that Jesus was being raised in a household of faith. He had visited the temple, had witnessed the sacrificing of lambs, and the pouring of the blood on the four corners of the altar for the sins of His people. He had become familiar with the feasting and rejoicing during these times, as well as the prayers and rituals and the meaning behind it all.
The Passover was celebrated in the evening, and thus required those who traveled to Jerusalem to stay at least one night. Then, the seven-day Feast of the Unleavened Bread began the following day; so it’s likely that after making the 130-kilometer, three- or four-day trek from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus’ family would have remained for the second feast and would be in Jerusalem for the full eight days.
It was a long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and sojourners would generally travel in groups for safety. In this case, Joseph and Mary probably traveled with neighbors and relatives and didn’t realize that Jesus wasn’t with the group they were traveling with until the end of the day, after having traveled about 30 kilometers.
Upon their return to Jerusalem, they found Him in the temple listening to and questioning the religious teachers, who were amazed at Jesus’ understanding. The Greek word used for understanding emphasizes His insight rather than just knowledge. His listening to and asking questions of the teachers of the Law foreshadows His future encounters with them, and also reflects both Jesus’ interest in the Law and His piety. Their amazement at Jesus’ understanding and answers was a foreshadowing of the reaction of the people to Jesus’ ministry in the years to come.
This story provides a glimpse of Jesus’ wisdom at a young age. However, the central theme of the story is Jesus’ reference to God as His Father.25 Mary asks Jesus how He could have treated them this way, for she and Joseph “have been searching for Him and were in great distress.” Considering that He had been missing for three days, any parent can imagine their worry, and also that Mary’s words here are probably a toned down and abbreviated version of what she would have said.
Jesus responds with, Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Some translations render this as about my Father’s business. In either case, Jesus is making the point that He is meant to be in His Father’s service, and that in such a vocation His earthly family will have no hold on Him.26 While Mary spoke of “your father and I,” Jesus stresses that another Father has priority over Him. His stating that He must be in His Father’s house shows a sense of obligation like that indicated in statements He makes during His ministry when He is speaking of the role the Father has given Him.
I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.27 The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.28 29
Jesus’ strong sense of identity with and relationship to God is foreshadowed in this story, showing how that relationship will have priority over any family ties. While His parents didn't understand what Jesus meant when He said He must be in His Father's house, His mother, who lived to see His ministry, would most likely understand what Jesus meant many years later. For now, she treasured up all these things in her heart. Jesus obediently returned home with His parents and we’re told that He increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.30
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
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Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
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Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
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Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
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1 Matthew 2:22–23.
2 Riesner, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 252.
3 Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 155.
4 Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 60.
5 Riesner, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 36.
6 Gnilka, Jesus of Nazareth, 68.
7 Mark 6:3.
8 Gnilka, Jesus of Nazareth, 68.
9 Ibid., 69.
10 Luke 4:16–21.
11 Flusser, Jesus, 29–30.
12 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 88.
13 Mark 6:3.
14 Matthew 13:55.
15 John 2:12, Mark 3:31, Luke 8:19.
16 Luke 2:46–47.
17 Wise, Languages of Palestine, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 442.
19 Ibid., 439.
21 Matthew 8:5–7, 13.
22 Luke 23:3; John 18:33–38.
23 Wise, Languages of Palestine, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 443.
24 Luke 2:41–52.
25 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 474–75, 489.
26 Ibid., 493.
27 Luke 4:43.
28 Luke 9:22 (see also Luke 17:25, 22:37, 24:7).
29 Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 490.
30 Luke 2:51–52.