Reading: Luke 2:41-52
One thing I’ve noticed is that if I want to sit down and read a biography of Jesus, there are a lot of questions that we really have no answers for. We know when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, by tradition — but, I cannot demonstrate that we chose the right date. While we can pretty solidly say that we know when Jesus died, and scripture tells us that Jesus started his ministry at 30, there is some debate about which year Jesus was born, some, such as the 2nd century Christian writer Irenaeus, feeling that because scripture only mentions 3 Passovers, Jesus’ ministry only lasted 3 years and others noticing that it seems odd to say to a 32 year old: “But you are not yet 50,” and taking that to mean that by that point he’d been in public ministry for well over a decade.
I know what the gospels look like if you edit them all into a single narrative, because Tatian also did this in the early 2nd century. Even if this were not done then; somebody would have created the unified narrative at some point; because as long as we’ve had the gospels, people have been talking about how they are the same, how they are different, and how our understanding of Christ can be informed by each one.
What I notice when reading such a unified narrative is that it is not what I expect from a biography — of course we use the term Gospel, good news, to describe these stories of Jesus. A biography and good news are something that are entirely different; so, when we want biographical details, we end up filling in missing details from these hints. When Irenaeus read the gospel, he made this application:
For He came to save all through means of Himself— all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all.
Currently, there are few who currently believe that Jesus was over 50 when he was crucified, but this is a third generation Christian scholar. Even then, there was a range of views about how old Jesus was when he died, ranging from he died at 30, the same year he was baptized to the view that he was over 50 at the crucifixion. Irenaeus was born to Christian parents, and was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by the Apostle John. Irenaeus was one of the earliest theologians to offer a theory about how salvation works — that Jesus sanctified our humanity by being God while living as a human — and even then, some pretty significant biographical details were lost. Obviously, the year Jesus was born and the details of his childhood and education were not something that is vital to the gospel.
Now, I enjoy this sort of speculation, I engage in it from time to time — but, the point is that the gospels do not provide us with a dated itinerary. We have a better knowledge of the end of Jesus’ life than first 30 years. I personally don’t subscribe to Jesus being 50 when he was crucified, but I think it is likely that his ministry covered more than the 3 Passovers mentioned in the gospels.
The story of Jesus getting lost at the temple is one of the places where my mind really starts writing biographical fiction; my speculation goes something like this:
After Jesus’ parents returned from Egypt and made a home in Nazareth, they made it a point to spend every Passover in Jerusalem. Once a year, they and everybody else in town who had that custom would spend 4 days walking to Jerusalem. Now, Joseph was a poor man; when he gave a sacrifice, it was the alternative for the poor, he was displaced having been a political refugee in Egypt, and then relocating to Galilee. Back even before the first Temple was built a tax was established — 10% was given so that the public could celebrate. Without this tax, there would be no way that such a large community could move down the road, and that even the poor could celebrate Passover in Jerusalem — but it is possible, and this was the greatest celebration of the year — the celebration of the people of Israel becoming a free people.
Passover marks the beginning of the year — this was Jesus’ last Passover as a child. Soon it would be time for Jesus to be apprenticed in the trade that he would be in for the rest of his life — at the moment it seems likely that he would formally be apprenticed by his father and become a carpenter.
Something unexpected happened in Jerusalem; Jesus was noticed. Jesus got into a conversation about Torah with some adults, and it turned out that they found the thoughts of this child were remarkable. He got lost in discussion and study, and the group from Nazareth left without him — unfortunately this meant when Mary and Joseph realized he was not with the group, they had to turn around and go back and find him.
When they found him, they found him with the teachers, they called him back because it was past time to go home. The journey would be extra hard for them, because they would need to either make up for lost time, or they would need to travel alone. Mary and Joseph scolded Jesus for this, but he answered: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.”
I imagine that this trip changed everything. Jesus was noticed. Jesus asserted his identity as somebody other than a Carpenter’s son. The best we can do following the gospels is a scene change that reads: 18 years later and jump’s to the Baptism of Jesus — but, we still have some hints; Jesus didn’t make a major public appearance until he was about 30, and when he was addressed, he was addressed as Rabbi.
If I were to translate Rabbi into English, Teacher would be accurate enough, Great one would be more literal, but I think I would do better to translate it “Doctor.” When we see this term used, we see it used to refer to leaders, and teachers, and great scholars. In order to understand what this word means, we have to know where it came from.
The Babylonian wise men were given the title “Rab” (great) — these were the leaders who had gone on to become teachers. The Sanhedrin borrowed this term, and gave the term Rabbi to those scholars who were recognized as being authorities in the law and prophets, able to teach and to judge according to Torah Law. When Jesus was called Rabbi, it meant something — and I suggest that it meant that 12 year old Jesus was discovered by the scholarly elite, and somebody sponsored him, and made him a student of the law. The 18 or so years between 12 and “about 30″ were likely spent in study, until the Sanhedrin were sure they could recognize his ability to teach and to judge.
I don’t know if I am right — but, if Jesus was not trained in the law as a scholar and a judge, then Rabbi was used ironically — and who knows Ph.D.’s to call somebody without credential’s “Doctor?” In general, people like to think that the honors they achieve mean something, and using a title that was not earned in an ironic sense does not help that thinking. Even in the sense of an honorary degree, one lists that in the resume as a reward and not a credential — and, the person who earned an honorary doctorate is not called Doctor.
So, in my imagination, this little moment at 12 years old could be a crisis point in a biography, instead of an isolated story. Maybe this moment set everything else into motion. The truth is that we see only a little bit of the story, and unfortunately attempts to write the biography of Jesus where we fill in the details ends up with us speculating about teenage Jesus arguing with the sons of the Pharisees, so we are left with “18 years later” and a scene change.
What we do know is just before Jesus became an adult, he impressed the religious leaders and scholars, he lost track of time, and he asserted his identity as something other than the son of a Carpenter. We know that when Jesus left his childhood, he had at least a little bit of an understanding that his life was something other than the life of a Jewish peasant in a Roman province. I don’t know what happened when they got home, all I see is 18 years later — but, it is something that sparks my curiosity.