The Young Jesus
By Peter Amsterdam
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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. 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.
Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, was a small village. 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.
According to Scripture, Jesus had four younger brothers and at least two sisters. His brothers—James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon—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. His father, Joseph, is traditionally considered to have been a carpenter, a worker in wood.
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.2 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.
When Jesus was old enough, He learned His father’s trade and probably worked with His father until Joseph’s death. 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. 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,3 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—would have provided everyday life experiences that He would later use in His teaching and preaching. 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. Aramaic was the most widely used language among Jews of all classes in Galilee and in Judea, and most likely the everyday language Jesus spoke.
Only educated guesses can be made about the languages Jesus spoke, the education He had, and the exact type of work He did. The Gospels only tell us of one incident in Jesus’ life from His birth until His baptism. 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.4
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. 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. Mary asks Jesus how He could have treated them this way, for she and Joseph had “been searching for Him and were in great distress.” 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. 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. 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.5
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 many years later what Jesus meant. 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.6
Originally published January 2015. Excerpted and republished September 2019.
Read by Gabriel Garcia Valdivieso.
1 Matthew 2:22–23 ESV.
2 Luke 4:16–21.
3 Luke 2:46–47.
4 Luke 2:41–52.
5 Luke 4:43; Luke 9:22.
6 Luke 2:51–52.