If I live long enough, I'll revise this for publication someday. If I don't, maybe you will. Anon.
Jesus in Nazareth
Why has faith based scholarship been so resistant to anything more than imaginative explorations into Jesus’ early life in Nazareth? Is it simply because the Gospels say little in that regard? Is it also too sacred a topic? Is it simply too daunting, both theologically and morally, to consider in what ways that most perfect of lives was actually lived, in particular detail? Or is this lack of inquiry merely another representation of the fact that faith based approaches to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have tended to avoid historical reconstruction even in general? Or… is there some other reason?
It’s a significant question. Aside from the relative paucity of evidence – which limits but should not prohibit inquiry – what other stated or unstated concerns have kept Christian scholars from venturing far into Nazareth? For that matter, are there any concerns that should prevent a faith based historical inquiry into the Gospels from building on top of what the scripture says?
Are we adding to, or taking away from, the words of the Good Book? No. We are merely working to understand more fully what scripture tells us. We are certainly not building more than Theological systems have been constructing from scripture for centuries.
On that note, are there any theological reasons for keeping us from this inquiry? There should not be. The more complex theologies are built on what is most clear within scripture, adding some philosophical interpretations about what is less clear. Ideas should not trump actuality. However, certain systems of thought may have something to fear from reassessing that actuality.
Without casting aspersions too quickly, I suggest there are three possible factors, each several centuries old, which may have provided additional motivation for the institutional aversion on research into Jesus’ early life. It will not take long to explain each in turn.
The First Two Aversions
First of all, inherited inhibitions are often unconsciously kept. It took nineteen centuries for Christian scholars to embrace the fact that Jesus was fully Jewish. Consciously or unconsciously, some experts still try to minimize the impact of that realization. But the primary and most certain conclusion about Jesus’ early life must be his life in the Synagogue. According to Luke, Jesus, the Jew, grew in favor with his Jewish community. That community, of course, was the Synagogue. It was more than his custom to meet there on Sabbath days. His faith, life and practice all blossomed, however uniquely, in the light and the life of the Nazareth Synagogue.
God in his Sovereignity chose for Jesus to grow up learning Torah, every Sabbath. Any Faith Based Historiography of the Lord’s life has to deal with those facts, and that context. With such a realization, can there be any question that established Christendom, in centuries past, would have been less than eager to embrace such a historically Jewish view? Surely, it was at least partly their conscious or unconscious preference to keep the Lord’s Nazareth years “silent”.
Second, there has always been conjecture involved in constructing our theological view of the Father and Son and their relationship, both on Earth and in Eternity past. By 325 AD, the political survival of the Church had come to depend on careful, intellectual explanation of complex theological arguments about the nature of the Trinity. Since the data we already have from the Lord’s public years is already so challenging, not to mention the rest of the New Testament’s input, Theologians cannot have been eager to allow or potentially have to compete with any historical conjectures.
Most people grasp and hold onto picturesque descriptions more easily than they can comprehend abstract ideas. One reason the early heresies took root so strongly in the first Christian centuries was because their imbalanced views about Jesus’ divinity and humanity were presented in such vivid terms. In and of themselves, the erroneous views of Jesus as a fallen, sinful person or a spirit pretending to be human are simply easier to apprehend. Likewise, the disavowed Infancy Gospels are intriguing in their imaginative visions of a powerful super child.
It was not the fictitiousness of these heresies that made them dangerous. It was their pseudo-realism. Add to that a pre-modern condition that legend and storytelling often passed for real history, among the common people, and it must have been clear what the Church needed to do. Historical conjecture was a danger of the highest order, mostly because it was almost certain to conflict with authorized Theological constructions.
To be clear, the present author certainly affirms the Early Fathers in their judgments about the authoritative cannon, and also affirms historically orthodox Trinitarian Theology as per Nicea, Chalcdon and Augustine. Confirming the uprightness of these positions, however, we may still note that extreme protectionism regarding these views has been one additional reason for discouraging reconstructive historical views on the Lord’s Nazareth years.
The only thing questionable about Theological protectionism is its necessity. Christian ministers rightly uphold the importance of teaching sound doctrine and correcting heresy, but a healthy orthodoxy does not necessarily require detailed explanations for every mysterious aspect of the Godhead. In other words, we cannot fully comprehend how the Trinity was alive in a manger at Bethlehem, but that lack of wisdom does not prevent us from rejoicing and recounting that miraculous event.
If the Story of Jesus that appears in the Gospels can be told with a simple faith (setting complex theology aside but keeping it handy, “in case of emergency”) then the Story of Jesus in Nazareth, as best we might reconstruct that story, also deserves to be told without being burdened by a felt theological need to explain everything. Indeed, proper historiography does involve a degree of conjecture. So does Theology. Noting well that historical conjecture cannot in turn provide theological input equal to that of scripture, where is the harm? Like the Creeds, we have found it convenient to skip from Christmas to the Baptism, but we should not act as if the “hidden years” did not ever exist.
If blatant or subtle anti-Semitism and politically expedient anti-historicism have been even partial causes for such resistance to Nazareth, then perhaps the task is not as impossible as our ancestors taught us to believe. The present day resistance may not be conscious of these motivations, but there may be much more evidence than is usually alleged. At the very least, a fresh investigation is probably warranted. Before we begin it, however, we still have to address…
The Third Aversion
Having no desire to politicize this investigation one way or another, the present author hesitates to consider this point. Unfortunately, there is no getting around it. Please remember our goal here is to research events for events’ sake.
It happens to be an historically indisputable fact that Institutional Christendom has depended deeply, in every practical way, on upholding a strong distinction between clergy and laity. The benefits and drawbacks of that political structure are not for debating here. Again, relevance is the enemy of history. However, we must note that the vast majority of faith-based scholarship on the Gospels has come from allies of hierarchical institutions. This of course is not unusual, but its bearing in this case is very particular.
Since the “third stream” of church history has traditionally received negative treatment, engendering hostility not dissimilar to anti-Semitism and theological anti-historicism, and since we have shown those sentiments may indeed link with the traditional aversion to studies on Jesus in Nazareth, it is reasonable to ask the following question. Is there anything about the clergy-laity structure that might aver itself to closer examinations of Jesus in Nazareth?
Let us consider. Crises and traumas in church history have often included efforts to marginalize egalitarian and mystical movements. Mysticism, historically, has been threatening because it promotes direct dependence on God. In past centuries, apart from monasticism, mystical Christianity always reduced loyalty to the established, hierarchical structures. The Priscillianists, the Celtics, the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, and the Quakers are only some of those who promoted the functional priesthood of every believer, to some degree or another, for many centuries before Catholic and Protestant clergymen began figuring out how to encourage lay ministry.
Today, the priesthood of every believer is generally accepted as being more functional, although that function does not always extend beyond personal spirituality into corporate responsibility. Nevertheless, this issue is not always a conflict these days. The important point to note is that these trends we have been considering are all many centuries old. The current and growing debate over ecclesiology has made both sides more aware that inherited traditions are frequently justified with reasons that have nothing to do with their origins. Likewise, our traditionally skeptical attitudes about reconstructing the early years of Jesus in Nazareth may be about much more than just scanty evidence.
Consider the potential consequences of a fleshed out view on the individual lifetime of Jesus in Nazareth.
If we somehow uncover solid grounds for reasoning that Jesus worshiped and walked with the Father in spirit, in Nazareth (and not just after his baptism) then we would have to conclude that Jesus spent up to thirty or more years knowing God mystically, which is to say, directly. That should make many Christians suppose that we, also, should do the same. This may be common opinion in many circles today, but it was decidedly not so in centuries past, when the whole congregation was instructed to receive God from the clergy.
There was no man, in Nazareth, on whom Jesus depended for his personal knowledge of God the Father. John the Baptist did not play a large role in the Lord’s own development. However Jesus spent his early life in devotion to God, he spent it privately, without help from his incredulous neighbors in Nazareth. It is very easy to ascertain these simple facts about Jesus’ life in the “hidden years”, but presenting this view of Him would have greatly conflicted with the needs of the medieval church.
Yes, of course the bulk of the Gospels focus on Jesus’ public years, but that is merely convenient. That is not all of his life. There is an inherent advantage for hierarchical Christendom in keeping everyone strictly focused on those public years. That way, laypeople can naturally identify more strongly with the disciples, leaving Jesus himself as a model, primarily, for the Bishop or the senior minister. This anti-egalitarian impulse is so prevalent in church history, it simply has to be stated that this, also, is probably one extra reason why scholarship, by tradition, has fiercely maintained the labels “silent” and “hidden” in discussing Jesus’ Nazareth years.
To be fair and reasonable, it must quickly be said that a faith-based historiography of Christ’s “hidden years” may not necessarily reach such conclusions. The point at the moment is merely to build the case that there has been large undue resistance. We must strenuously discourage anyone from pursuing these questions in order to increase political trauma as firmly as we discourage others from inhibiting inquiry merely to maintain established stability.
Once more, relevance is the enemy of history. Far too much Christian exegesis has been compromised by political concerns in the past. If we happen to find, and embrace, a historical view of Jesus in Nazareth that is mystical, the significance of that conclusion will be a separate discussion. Thankfully, personal mysticism is not necessarily a political problem in most Christian circles. Regardless of this, faith based historiography must be faithful to seeking the truth in the facts of the scriptures. We must therefore search with all humility and spiritual openness, with a prayer for humility and caution in weighing the value of our discoveries.
The Chronological Outline
We begin with a review of the preceding chronological study. After all, our historical sandbox could hardly hold any sand without putting up boundaries around it. Historically, all conclusions will only stand on the conditional basis of our considerations, but that does not make this study a house upon sand. By faith, to whatever extent our considerations remain valid and sound, we may indeed hope to uncover some worthwhile and truth filled glance at a House that was absolutely and completely built upon the Rock.
So then, the chronology we have presented thus far will continue to govern the current study, at least. We concluded that Jesus was most likely born in spring of 7 BC, that escape from Bethlehem was probably six months later and that the return from Egypt began in March of 4 BC. Altogether, that means Jesus was very near his third birthday when he saw Nazareth for the first time.
We also strengthened our view that Joseph took extreme caution to keep Jesus away from Jerusalem while Herod Archelaus was ruling in Judea. Therefore, we maintain that the exile of Archelaus in the summer of 6 AD, must have come shortly after Jesus had turned twelve, and so Jesus attended his first Jerusalem Passover in March of 7 AD, a month or two before turning thirteen. Judging from his astounding aptitude on display in the Temple, these first ten years in Nazareth must have been critical years, developmentally.
A baptism in the autumn of 28 AD allows the Lord two more decades of simple life in a small village, after his bar-mitzvah year. By these calculations, Jesus turned 34 in the year he was baptized. All told, then, the Son of God spent a total of 31 years in the valley of Nazareth – approximately one third before his first real Passover, and two thirds after that occasion. In those decades, Jesus was growing in ways that were, evidently, well-pleasing to his Father God.
Chronology and Family Life
The Lord’s mother Mary must have been at least thirteen years older than Jesus, so she was over twenty-six when he became a man. Accepting Jesus’ adelphoi to be his biological brothers (4) and sisters (2 or more), we can estimate a range of probable dates for their births. Six pregnancies, with average cycles for gestation and nursing in between, require a minimum of nine years to occur, after which the oldest would be 8 and the youngest less than 1 year old. There is a purpose behind this simple math.
If Jesus had only six siblings, born as the maximum rate of speed, then he became the younger man of the house in time to help care for at least one or two of his youngest siblings. However – given the odds of at least one miscarriage, of having more than two girls, or natural family planning efforts (especially if Joseph felt it prudent in his stewardship of Jesus to delay new pregnancies as much as possible) – it is more likely the siblings were not all born so quickly.
When Jesus was baptized, Mary was over 47 years old, and we should definitely expect she was done having children by that time. Although it is mathematically conceivable that Mary had all her other children after Archelaus was exiled, it is far more likely that some were born during Jesus’ childhood and some during his teen years. At the opposite extreme, if Mary had no children after age 39, then she had at least one or two of her six known kids before Jesus was twenty. In any of these scenarios, spanning all currents of speculation, we have one constant. Assuming Jesus’ adelphoi were his natural brothers and sisters, then he got to be a big brother during his teen years and beyond.
The Lord’s relative maturity in age compared with his siblings means the experience with some number of them was somewhat more as an assistant parent than as a playmate. The range of possibilities also shows that Jesus most likely got a decade or more to spend with his youngest biological sibling. These would be significant factors in anyone’s life and development, not least because they were opportunities to practice nurturing and directing others. With so many younger siblings, likely spread out over more than a decade in birth years, the Lord got a range of varying opportunities to practice caring for little ones as a big brother and surrogate assistant.
Next, we consider Jesus’ adoptive father. We should expect Joseph to be a few years older than Mary, but perhaps no more than twenty when Jesus was born. We know Joseph worked with his hands and relied on his eyesight in performing skilled labor. Most men begin losing their eyesight by age forty, and so it is very likely that the family began to depend on Jesus for a substantial portion of their livelihood by the time Jesus turned twenty, if not before.
By any reasonable estimation, these considerations add quite a bit to the context of Jesus’ obedience in leaving Jerusalem at age twelve. The young man had become singularly focused on pursuing his Heavenly Father’s interests, so we can probably feel justified in concluding that Jesus must have felt God’s interests – from that point on – also involved taking care of his parents and siblings. As they had raised and protected him, they now needed him. Therefore, from God’s point of view, the date of Christ’s baptism might have as much to do with the needs of Jesus’ family in Nazareth as with anything else.
The Nazareth Synagogue – Community
The Gospels agree that Nazareth had a Synagogue community, but archaeology has not yet uncovered what kind of building they might have assembled in during Jesus’ time. However, Luke tells us that a retired centurion in Capernaum was somehow responsible for the construction of their designated meeting house, which means that prior to his benefaction, the Jews there must have been meeting in some type of common or shared space - as was common practice in the ancient world, for obvious and economic reasons. If we assume Nazareth was no better off than Capernaum, it is probable that their physical Synagogue was a large room in someone’s home or a building that served some other purpose during the week.
The modest geographic advantages of Nazareth’s valley give us every reason to believe it was inhabited long before Jesus’ day. It was relatively high ground, hidden from outsiders on almost every angle, close to good farmland and other resources and had at least one natural spring. If the site was occupied before the Hasmoneans took Galilee (c. 134-103 BC) then the village must have been predominantly Jewish for at least a century when Joseph, Mary & Jesus came back from Egypt.
With so many decades of affiliation as a Synagogue, we might be surprised to think they had no special Synagogue building, but in fact their much greater priority would have been to assemble a collection of scrolls. Whichever Jerusalemites were responsible for bringing the Galileans along in their Judaism [in the latter decades, it was mainly the Pharisees] those same parties probably also facilitated the village contract with a scriptorium somewhere. Given the substantial cost of running such a scriptorium, and the modest means of a village like Nazareth, it does not seem unreasonable that ten to sixteen decades might have been required to procure something like one entire Old Testament and then continue saving to build a new Synagogue. Without estimated figures, this point is a generality, but it should hold well enough.
Whatever their physical accommodations, the real Nazareth Synagogue was the community itself, and not merely in meetings on the Sabbath. As in all Jewish Synagogues, the members engaged in various social, civic and governmental activities during other times of the week. Luke tells us it was Jesus’ custom to attend Sabbath meetings, but we may also conclude Jesus was active participant at other times as well, for two reasons. First, Luke says Jesus grew in favor with the people of his village and it should have been impossible for any Nazarene Jew to be seen as gracious if he had been attending on Saturdays but excluding himself from all other parts of their common Synagogue life. And secondly, Mary and Joseph demonstrated that they found it typical for Jesus, by age twelve, to go away for a while and be found in the company of friends and relatives.
It was Jesus’ cousin John in Judea who left his parents and became a hermit. Jesus himself spent three decades as an integral part of a small Jewish village, with all that such inclusion necessarily implies. Thus, our very strongest conclusion about Jesus’ so-called “Hidden Years” must be that Jesus was an active participant in his local Synagogue. The regrettable fact that this would have been an unpopular conclusion in most Christian centuries may partly explain why these years have been traditionally referred to as “hidden”.
The Nazareth Synagogue - Education
On the Sabbath, of course, Synagogue activity was centered on study and prayer. Our evidence for common practice is much stronger after 70 AD, but we know that readings and discussion from the Law and the Prophets were a prominent part of Sabbath day activity. The term “worship” is too vague these days to be helpfully applied, but prayer was undoubtedly an important function of the gathering as well. In many places, the meeting location was known as a Proseuche. The word simply means “prayer” or in this case, “prayer house”. Josephus also suggests it was not unusual for Jewish Sabbath meetings to last all day long.
Thus, scripture and prayer were a part of Jesus’ life from the very beginning. However, his experience with the scripture was vastly different from ours today. Most significantly, he did not have his own “Bible”. It was virtually unheard of for anyone in ancient Palestine to have their own personal copy of the scriptures. The expense and difficulty of procuring even one scroll would have been prohibitive for individuals, not to mention the space required to house an entire collection. Quite simply, the scriptures were valuable financially as well as religiously, and they rightfully belonged to the entire community. In fact, it was not uncommon in some times and places for them to be kept under lock and key. But they were read aloud every Sabbath, for hours upon hours.
By the way, our only direct record of scripture being directly accessible in Nazareth is one single scroll, perhaps less than half of Isaiah. However, granting the Nazarenes as much as a century or more to invest in a local library, we may be safe to imagine they had most if not all of the “Old Testament” and perhaps then some. At the very least, the Gospels attest that Jesus was able to quote from all five books of Moses, some history and psalms of David, all the major prophets and at least half of the minor ones. We must acknowledge that visiting Pharisees could carry scrolls along their journeys, but we should even more strongly acknowledge that the most likely place for Jesus to have learned such scriptures, by far, was in Nazareth. Travel is not much worth considering.
At some point, Jesus learned how to read. Most likely, that was the full extent of his formal training. Primitive forms of “Hebrew School” for children became common only after 70 AD, when survival as a community took precedence over the practical economic needs of individual families. In Jesus’ day, however, the education of children was only common among the wealthy – which Joseph was not. The first-born son of a carpenter with six or more younger siblings (not to mention whatever extended family of Mary’s they cared for) was probably needed on a daily basis. His reading, therefore, might have been learned with other working class children, mainly on Saturdays.
It is possible some wealthy Synagogue members hired a tutor, or that some local rabbi volunteered time for the children, but it is unlikely Nazareth had formalized education for children each day. Whatever they offered, again, Jesus was needed by Joseph & Mary. Our modern sensibilities should not imagine they gave any priority to his education, but if work was slow on a particular day and the chores were done, Jesus would have been free to participate in any classes that were being offered. We must also note again that traveling Pharisees were liable to come through town on any occasion, and they may have
All things considered, however, it is more likely that he had little opportunity to receive educational input from his fellow Jews apart from their weekly Sabbath meetings. On the other hand, the local scroll collection was physically there in the village at literally all times. It is conceivable Jesus was able, at times, to somehow access them privately. This is speculative, of course, but it is worth mentioning that if such study sessions ever took place they must have been undertaken in secret. As we will see in just a moment, the Nazarenes would have been shocked to think their young local carpenter had advanced much beyond them in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures.
Personal Education – The Evidence of Later Years
At Jesus’ first homecoming, according to Luke, his local friends and relatives were not surprised to see him handling a scroll, locating a particular passage and reading aloud from it. It was evidently not very unusual that Jesus could read from the scriptures, which means he must not have done so with much frequency in public, because all literate Synagogue members undoubtedly took turns performing the public readings. Rather, what astonished the Nazarenes at Jesus’ first homecoming, according to Luke, was that their friend and neighbor followed up his reading by speaking words of remarkable favor.
This passage closely follows Luke’s statement that Jesus was known to be full of favor with these townspeople, personally, so their surprise at hearing words of favor must mean they were surprised to hear him speaking words of such significance at all. The Greek word order in Luke’s text also parallels this thought, emphasizing primarily that they were surprised at his words, at their graciousness. In other words, the Nazarenes had known this man for three decades, in the Synagogue, and yet they were amazed at the way he was speaking to them, suddenly.
This odd contradiction is made even more shocking when we consider this homecoming passage also follows Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ twelve year old visit to Jerusalem’s Temple. Jesus wisdom and ability to dialogue with rabbis in the Temple surprised everyone who listened to him, and Mary & Joseph were astonished to find him there. For a twelve year old Jesus to show such skill at discoursing with professional teachers in the holy city, it is hard to believe he could have refrained from revealing such wisdom around his hometown if he had been given to speaking up freely at all, in his local Synagogue.
Even more surprising, that dialogue session was undoubtedly focused on interpretations of the Torah, and the Temple was the natural place for someone to go with deep interest in such questions [much more so on normal days than on festival days], but Joseph & Mary were back in Jerusalem before sundown on day two and did not think to look for their son in the Temple until day three. Apparently, even his own parents were not aware that Jesus was at all passionate about discussing the Jewish Law. And again – to get back to the point – none of the Nazarenes expected to hear Jesus discoursing in any remarkable or unusually impressive ways about the Torah.
This last point comes out with special clarity during Jesus second homecoming visit, the one according to Mark and Matthew. We conclude these are separate occasions because (1) Jesus was run up a hill to be murdered when he went alone, but this time he brings the twelve disciples and no one tries anything, (2) Jesus did not ostensibly provide teaching at the first homecoming, but proclaimed a fulfillment to prophecy before chastising the Synagogue for its small minded bigotry, (3) Jesus spent extensive time teaching and also performed some miracles at his second homecoming, (4) the response in Luke’s account is personal – is this not Joseph’s son? – but the response in Mark & Matthew is vocational – is this not the carpenter/the son of the carpenter? – expressing particular astonishment this time at his didactic skills and his accumulated wisdom.
The most arresting words of the Nazarenes in Mark and Matthew have got to be “Where did this man get these things?” The miracles were a surprise, to be sure, but they doubted the miracles. The fact that Jesus was teaching with his own somewhat peculiar wisdom is what most astonished the Nazarenes, and their response helps us understand that Jesus’ personal education in Nazareth must have been extremely private. Especially given the chronological reminder that this second homecoming took place roughly two years after the Lord’s baptism, we must acknowledge that the primary aspect of the Nazarene’s question – “Where?” – is in fact geographical. Evidently, Jesus’ own townspeople did not believe he could have procured such great wisdom during those thirty years among them, right there, in that very Synagogue.
There is, however, no cause to suppose Jesus went anywhere other than Nazareth for his education. First of all, the fact that Joseph & Mary left him in Nazareth for nine Passovers strongly implies the rest of their lives were lived out in that village for those years, and no where else, except perhaps nearby Sepphoris and Cana. Secondly, the initial development of those years displayed in his twelve year old episode is impressive enough to promise that Jesus could keep learning more and more by continuing with whatever he was learning in his hometown. But finally, the fourth Gospel embeds a Jerusalemite testimony that Jesus had not been formally educated. If that statement is reliable, at least to the extent that Jesus had not been formally educated in Jerusalem, then we have no cause for supposing Jesus went elsewhere for his education.
The answer to the Nazarene’s question, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” must be the obvious answer. He got it right there in Nazareth, among them, but secretly. This brings to mind the reported response of Jesus to the aforementioned Jerusalemites, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.” But this seemingly spiritual statement requires some careful analysis before we can apply it with any practical benefit.
“My teaching is from the Father.”
Although John attributes this statement to Jesus after his baptism, the statement itself seems applied to all the times at which Jesus acquired his Father’s teaching. It accords well with the rest of John’s testimony to presume that this instruction began to come, at some point, through direct mystical communication. John’s account of Jesus’ ministry years certainly shows this type of profound spiritual connection between the Lord and his Father, in Spirit. However, we have no grounds as yet for concluding precisely when that divine personal connection became so well developed that Jesus could actually hear God’s words from some place inside himself.
A careful re-reading of the twelve year old episode does shows that divine marching orders had not necessarily been given out. On the contrary, several aspects of Luke’s account suggest the young man still had a ways to go before finding his ultimate mission. Besides that, the twelve year old Jesus was asking questions. We should not imagine they were all rhetorical questions or that he was exclusively teaching the rabbis. The rabbis were amazed at his understanding (sagacity) and his answers, but the first thing Luke says is that he listened and asked questions. His wisdom was definitely still in development, as Luke acknowledges further by listing the qualities, again, in which Jesus continued to increase.
We cannot, therefore, conclude that Jesus was being mystically instructed at age twelve or before that time. It happened at some point, for sure, but from what we can tell, it had not happened with “cell phone quality” just yet – not by any standard. However, we do also believe that the same God who eventually spoke words of spirit from inside Jesus’ own soul was the very Father God who had predetermined his Son should grow up as a part of a local Synagogue. Given that understanding, we should probably read Jesus’ response to the Jerusalemites on two levels. In addition to any direct spiritual teaching, Jesus was also crediting the Father with everything Jesus had ever learned, providentially.
For example, the very first Old Testament (and I say OT because I am ignoring the matter of whether it was rendered in Nazareth in Hebrew or in Aramaic) scripture that Jesus learned was undoubtedly the same one any Jewish child learned in antiquity – the statement Moses commanded be written on doorposts, worn as clothing, repeated often to children and, most importantly, be on their hearts. “Hear O Israel. The Lord your God is One. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” The fact that this very first scripture Jesus undoubtedly learned became the centerpiece of his teaching about the Law, combined with our view from John that Jesus’ teaching all came from his Father, underscores very nicely that everything Jesus learned in the Synagogue was instruction provided to Him by his Father.
That is all the more true when we realize that Jesus was not only learning what was being said about the scriptures. He was keeping counsel to himself, secretly, and gaining unique insights through personal reflection on the scriptures he’d heard read aloud. Again, if even his childhood insights were deep enough to impress Jerusalem rabbis, he could hardly have been parroting anything said by the Nazareth rabbis. He was learning much more than was being said aloud in the Synagogue. Yet, his learning was taking place right there, in the Nazareth Synagogue.
An Extremely Private Education
There are actually some grounds for demonstrating that Jesus really must have been spending time in private reflection on the scriptures. This is very important, of course, because we are still trying hard not to simply imagine things that seem pleasant about our dear Lord. Most of the relevant information has been discussed already, but we need to review it in the light of what is generally required by the natural process of learning and memorization.
We have already seen that Jesus did not have his own personal copy of the scriptures, and that while it is conceivable Jesus could have snuck in some secret alone time in the Synagogue Library, it may be more likely such valuable documents were kept under lock and key. Since Jesus’ neighbors did not seem to know him as someone who pursued knowledge and learning with special interest or vigor, and because news always gets out in a very small town, it is still most likely that Jesus never had much time to handle the scriptures when no one else was watching.
Furthermore, we have also considered that Jesus probably did not spend any significant hours receiving formal instruction as a child, apart from whatever was done with the children on Sabbath days. We must therefore ask an important question – how could Jesus learn enough of the scriptures to astonish Jerusalem’s rabbis by age twelve, without any formal training, without any extended hours of instruction, and without evidence of mystically divine intervention? In other words, allowing for nothing more than regular Sabbath meetings in Nazareth, how could Jesus have attained such a level of sagacious understanding? More particularly, how could he have learned the Torah to such depths in those ten years of childhood without sharing his gathering insights at all, around town?
The answers are actually simple if we consider the science of learning. First of all, Jesus passed over 500 Sabbaths in Nazareth between the ages of 3 and 13. Ten years of Sabbaths is enough time for a small child to grow into an impressive twelve year old if that child paid very close attention and held a deep personal passion for any and everything that was of the subject material. This, of course, is precisely what we find in Luke’s account – an impressive degree of focus, to the point of fixation, on the “business” of God. As that business seemed to include listening and asking Rabbinical questions about the Torah, we should expect Jesus in Nazareth was every bit as interested in what went on at the Synagogue. As we have noted already, the only shockingly difficult element in all this is that the Lord apparently kept all that insight to himself before and after his Jerusalem trip.
Also while in Jerusalem, the pre-teen Jesus expressed a unique sense of personal sonship to God as his Father. Without attempting to understand this more precisely, it still gives Jesus a strong sense of personal identity as someone with a unique relationship to God. This uniqueness is also evident by the Lord’s secretive development, in Nazareth, of that wisdom he displayed in Jerusalem. These arguments are somewhat circular, but the picture is perfectly consistent. While still a young child, Jesus must have developed a deep, personal interest for anything that was of God. No matter how rarely he let it slip, his entire sense of purpose, direction and identity was completely summed up by one simple reference to his Father. He didn’t go to the Temple to do any particular “business”. It was always, quite simply, about the Father.
Therefore, what we must imagine, historically, is a small boy who became passionately wrapped up in the whole “God thing”. When Jesus obeyed his parents and left Jerusalem, it proved that his obsession with God could remain balanced and healthy. But we have no reason to think that intense focus would have abated. Before and after age twelve, there must have been a genuine and utter devotion to his Father that inspired Jesus to pay close attention each Sabbath day in the Nazareth Synagogue. Focusing on each reading of the Law and Prophets – most acutely in terms of what it had to do with the Father, above anything else – and reflecting on those scriptures at length, afterwards, must be what engendered the insights which so impressed the Jerusalem rabbis. Reflection on scripture and focus on God must have naturally developed into prayer and seeking, which adds up to a full fledged devotional life. Furthermore, it is natural to assume Jesus must have maintained this active devotion for many years before he became proficient in communing, spiritually – mystically – with the One he already adored.
In that process of worshiping God, Jesus also learned scripture. But how did he learn the scriptures so well, just from Saturday meetings? At the risk of repeating some key points from a different angle, we must conclude once again - Jesus must have been paying very close attention.
The Science of Learning
A closer look at some basic educational principles may be helpful for those who wish to grapple further with the previous section.
Incredible memory is hardly unusual. It's common for people to spout off endless reams of knowledge about various topics. It all just depends on whatever you're "into". We have noted that Jesus was "in[to] the things of my Father" at age twelve. And he had reflected upon scripture enough to impress elders and sages with his insights. That's amazing chiefly because his particular field of mastery happened to be so un-child like, but in many other ways it's perfectly normal.
It has become easy to see in our modern world that any five year old can memorize vast quantities of information with great detail, provided they have become hyper enthusiastic about the material. To be sure, visual material aids memory (although video CGI is not necessarily more effective than a chart on the back of a baseball card) and some people are visual learners. But some are auditory. Brain studies show the more brain-connections (writing, reading, hearing, reciting) are used, preferably all at once, the more effective rehearsal (or studying) can be for instilling vivid long term memorization.
Now then, the fewer connections (modalities) of learning one is able to employ, the more repetition is required to permanently 'bank' a given bit of information into long term memory. However, one final factor in this memory process is unquantifiable, although every teacher knows what it is. Interest. Unlimited resources can never get through to a student who simply could not care less about the information being presented. Contrariwise, hypermotivated individuals can overcome great learning obstacles to master even the most difficult material. So among all the factors in learning and memorization, motivation and interest are key. Age is not really a factor at all.
In all those facts about learning, there is one practical detail that might take us farther towards reconstructing some likely aspects of Jesus' development. That is, repetition. It is possible Jesus may have been a strong auditory learner or had an audio-photographic memory, but we should not expect he was some super-mentalist. In the case of almost every human who has ever lived, it still requires rehearsal and repetition to move recently acquired knowledge from short term into long term memory.
That means Jesus must have worked at remembering what he heard every day. I don't mean he necessarily worked at it like it was a chore, although I would have no problem with that thought. I simply mean he employed active recall. That means he spent time thinking about what he'd heard. As we have seen, he was genuinely interested in God and the things of God and so thinking about scriptures about God and God's business would seem like a natural pass time for Jesus' private thought life.
In order for him to have learned scripture by attending nothing but (or little more than) Sabbath meetings, and without having a personal copy of anything to take home and re-read, we should absolutely conclude his learning process involved these long periods of personal reflection. And since that reflection was about God, we should certainly expect it was directed towards God. In other words, his reflection on scripture, at times, must have naturally flowed into prayer. If we trust John's gospel especially, that prayer life absolutely grew to include mystical communion, at some point.
Conclusions So Far
We can already begin to see why Jesus’ life in Nazareth was pleasing to God. From a very early age, Jesus was aware that he had a special relationship to God as His Father, and Jesus cared a great deal about things that had to do with his Father. God's favor was on Jesus, and Jesus’ favor with God continued to grow.
Jesus attended Sabbath meetings faithfully and grew in favor with the Synagogue community but received no more than a typical public education for his day and age. He was not known in particular for being outstanding in studies but for being the son of a carpenter. As such, the members of his Synagogue never foresaw him becoming a teacher of Mosaic Law. Despite this, Jesus managed to memorize a great deal of scripture by hearing it read aloud and spending long hours remembering passages and reflecting on their deeper meanings.
By age 12, his ability to consider God-centered interpretation of the Law was world class and this wisdom continued increasing for years afterwards. Uniquely, Jesus was learning things at the Nazareth Synagogue that the Father was providing only to him. Perhaps most amazing of all, Jesus never left any memorable impressions on the Jews of Nazareth by speaking words of wisdom or favor about their common faith. Apparently, just as Mary treasured these things in her heart, her son also kept his insightful reflections about God as a secret devotion, just between himself and his Father.
Despite this unique and private devotional life, Jesus was far from a recluse. As an active part of the community, the young Lord was well known in his town. His obedience to his parents was only one reason his favor grew among the Nazarenes. He was gracious and social with his Nazarene neighbors, to the point that Mary and Joseph became accustomed to finding him in the company of friends and relatives. In general, the townspeople of Nazareth held good opinions of Jesus, even though they never thought he was anyone great in worldly terms or according to nomal Jewish conventions.
In his teens and twenties, Jesus continued to participate in the regular activities of his Synagogue community, but his predominant role in the town remained only that of a carpenter's son - and later, a carpenter in his own right. Jesus never married or became a parent, but he spent at least part of his teen years assisting Mary & Joseph with the household’s much younger children. Later, much of his twenties were spent taking over Joseph’s trade and becoming the man of the house.
Evidently, caring a lot about God, studying the scriptures and wanting to be involved in his Father's doings led Jesus into helping his parents, supporting his family and simply being part of his local community for about thirty years - from 4 BC until 28 AD.
Seriously, now, why are these years called the “hidden years’? This is hardly a lack of information about Jesus' life in Nazareth. We have chronology, community life, family life and a strong measure of personal devotion to God (albeit not a well defined one, at this point in our study). All we are missing is specific personal characteristics and habitual behaviors. But if we can develop a careful, precise methodology for mirror reading the Gospels, then we might round out an actual biography here, albeit a brief one.
Matthew, Mark & Luke tell us early in their Gospels that God the Father was well pleased with his beloved son, Jesus. We accept their testimony that God’s voice came out of the sky at the Lord’s baptism, assume that Jesus deserved God’s favor at least partly because of his actions (not merely because of his Sonship), and proceed to ask the question – What things did Jesus do in Nazareth that caused God to be so well pleased? If we can answer that question, with any practical specificity, we know what Jesus was doing before his baptism.
First we need a good working definition of what pleasing God must entail, and we may as well start by asking, what pleases anyone? Doing [or being] what that person happens to like, OR doing what that person wants to see done, OR doing what that person demands or requests. God’s ways are higher than human ways, but throughout scripture, God does seem to like things, want things and command things. This gives us a good working basis from which to proceed.
The next question is – Do Matthew, Mark & Luke tell us anything about what God prefers, what God desires, and what God commands? Yes, of course they do, if sometimes more clearly than others. As it happens, most of what we can find in the first three Gospels about God’s preferences, desires and commands are found in Jesus’ teaching, and in Jesus’ own comments about his own teaching. Without putting too fine a point on this method for now, we can probably agree without much great debate that most [generally] or perhaps even all [essentially] of Jesus’ recorded teachings are directed, in some way or another, at explaining or illustrating what God wants from his people on Earth. Without further qualification on this point, this general sense of things is at least enough grounds to encourage further study – and plenty of it, to be sure.
Instead of attempting an exhaustive inquiry just now, I will simply propose for the sake of argument that we accept Matthew’s summary presentation of Jesus’ teaching as an amply sufficient case in point. I mean, primarily, chapters 5-7, the so-called “Sermon on the Mount”. By any objective or interpretative reckoning, this particular passage fits the description of what we are looking for. It cites the law, God’s commandments, explains what God does or does not actually expect, expounds upon how we should live before God, and even lists a few specific behaviors God rewards. This, in a nutshell, is what God likes, wants and demands, according to Matthew.
Examining the SOTM provides another immediate advantage towards fulfilling our hopes of finding Jesus’ pre-baptism life reflected in the Gospels. Not only is a fine delineation of what pleases God, Matthew goes further and confirms that Jesus himself lived by these teachings. The SOTM concludes, famously, that the people were amazed because Jesus spoke with authority, and not as their typical teachers of Torah. The word for authority <exousia> also means power and it tells us, without nuancing this overly much, that Jesus had the right and/or the ability to perform what he was attempting. I don’t suppose too many critics would argue that what Jesus was attempting was merely to teach. Matthew’s clear implication is that the crowds could tell Jesus knew what he was talking about. Unlike the scribes (whom Jesus repeatedly calls out as hypocrites) Jesus lived what he taught. However much we may doubt that any human being could live up to the SOTM, we must acknowledge Matthew’s purpose and tone is to assert that Jesus himself did live by it. The number of times Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the SOTM is, alone, enough to render any lesser interpretation as contradicting the Gospel itself.
By all of this, I hereby claim, we may conclude that the Gospel writer who composed this summary of Jesus’ teaching did fully intend, among his many other purposes, to provide clear implicit testimony about the way Jesus himself had been living, before his baptism, in Nazareth. The sophistication of Matthew’s overall composition makes this immediately plausible from an authorial standpoint. The conclusion here may be debatable, especially considering that this argument has been so very brief, but the alternatives are completely unacceptable. Note well: nothing in this discussion has yet touched on the still very open question of whether or not Matthew (and Jesus and God) expects us to live up to the SOTM standard. That question may indeed require more careful analysis, from more than one angle, and our eventual answer could turn out to be simple or somewhat complex, but the question at hand is whether Matthew believed that Jesus himself was a man who lived up to that standard.
To be clear, I am saying four things: (1) The SOTM is Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ teaching about how to please God. (2) Matthew’s intentionally implicit attestation is that Jesus himself did live up to the SOTM standard. (3) Matthew’s entire testimony about Jesus’ adult life, pre-baptism, is that Jesus was pleasing to God. (4) Altogether, these points demonstrate that the Gospel writer intended us to apply the SOTM – among other ways – as a reflective consideration of how Jesus lived on the Earth, during his “hidden” life in Nazareth. The “silent years” resound forth as echoes. The Lord’s life is reflected by that which he taught about how to please God.
Personal Lifestyle – Reflecting the SOTM
Any attempt to write someone’s biography certainly hopes to include information about personal habits, distinguishing traits and characteristic behaviors. Fortunately, the SOTM promises to reflect something in that department. Some of these “reflections” are easier to “read” than others. Some are more straightforward and some are more general. For instance, giving, praying and fasting in secret, putting oil on his head, washing his face, going into a room and closing the door – these are simple, clear (and beautiful) discoveries about Jesus in Nazareth. But how, precisely, should we infer that Jesus was rewarded by the Father? Or how should we best reflect the beatitudes? Ideally, the biographical content of a historical narrative should be, like these examples, as objective, specific and behavioral as possible. Our other reflections of the SOTM onto Jesus in Nazareth should be as much like that as possible, keeping a strenuous aversion against creative interpretations – at least, in this type of a project.
Another difficulty is that we sometimes lack data to understand certain points in context. So it will have to be enough to say “If Jesus had any enemies, he loved them” or “whenever anyone asked him to walk a mile with them, he went two”. The first statement acknowledges that we don’t know who these enemies might have been, or anything about the nature of their antagonisms. The second statement is literally absolute but technically general. In classic biographical style, it does the job of describing Jesus’ character without inventing trivial episodes that might better illustrate the point. Likewise, metaphors can be transcribed as long as an accompanying explanation is transcribed along with the metaphor. “Jesus let his light shine before men so that they could see his good deeds. And the townspeople in Nazareth, who noticed, gave the glory to God.”
Sometimes, we may choose to abstain, if a statement has no clear objective meaning. We could fairly say, “Jesus was pure in heart and he saw God.” But that by itself gives us no practical sense of what this “seeing” means. The “pure in heart” is not really so troublesome. Whatever that means, it remains an internal statement about Jesus’ inner being, psyche, personality or soul, worthwhile to repeat for precisely as much as it says. But how do we take “seeing God”? That Jesus visibly, literally saw God? Like Job? How often? Or does it refer to a spiritual sensing? Or is it a metaphor? “Jesus looked at the least of these who lived in Nazareth and saw an opportunity to show his love for the Father by the way he responded to them. This last suggestion is extremely tempting because of the reference to later in Matthew’s Gospel, but if we somehow justify the interpretation, we are no longer reflecting. We might call such statements “refractions” – and this one is may even be historically accurate, but it is not derived from examining the sixth beatitude. We may consider it less likely [in part because anything like the transfiguration would seem to fall under the miracle category, and thus not belong before Cana] but we cannot rule out the more literal sense in which Jesus may have seen God. For the sake of the present reconstruction, we might do best to leave such points alone.
By the way, the preceding considerations merely argue against using Mt.25 as a fill-in for Mt.5:8, but that passage in Matthew 25 probably can be reflected historically if we invert Jesus’ life unto the Father as the prototype of his own teaching about our life to be, unto Him. To invert, however, is a bit more than to reflect and – to be honest – I’m not quite sure at the moment how to justify such an inversion. (For the record, however, I do feel the inversion is justified. Perhaps I’ll be able to explain why in time for the second edition.) Of course, going beyond the SOTM is not really a problem if we can determine that Mt.25 is teaching from Jesus about what pleases the Father. If so, and if the inversion is warranted, then the inversion may be dated to before Jesus’ baptism. Unfortunately, all of this work must be left for another time.
In the end, as Mark Twain said, it is not the mysterious parts of the SOTM that bother us most, but the parts that are clear. The adultery passage alone seems unfathomable, to believe Jesus lived up to that standard of purity. But we affirm again this is clearly what Matthew implies to be true of Jesus. The question is not “Can it be true?” The question is, “How can it be true?” For Jesus to have lived, for three decades in Nazareth, a life genuinely devoid of lust, worry, pride, revenge-taking, jealous ambition, judgment, self-centered giving, pious ostentation, greed, selfishness and hypocrisy – wow! – for Jesus to have actually lived up to such a standard, and for Jesus also to have been completely human, he must have had some advantage. There must be some reason why Jesus was able to succeed at a lifestyle that seems so impossible to so many of us.
The Most Unique Life Ever Lived
We have already determined that Jesus had begun a unique devotion to God from an early age and that he seems to have taken the “greatest commandment” quite deeply and literally to heart. For starters, then, we may say that Jesus must have exhibited a life so pleasing to God because Jesus was primarily motivated by a desire to love and please his Father God. The only historical explanation for Jesus in Nazareth is that he was a common Jew who loved God to an uncommon degree.
This seems like a beautiful and satisfying conclusion. But is it really enough? It fits the logic, but stretches the limits of plausibility. We have determined that Jesus was liked among his community, that he participated actively in the Nazarene Synagogue, that he was social and spent time with people, and yet that he kept his devotional life intensely private. Such a combination of uniqueness and social dexterity is a challenging view to apprehend, but raising the stakes with the whole SOTM makes this lifestyle absolutely astounding. Not only was Jesus living up to that standard, he did so despite his close involvement with a whole community full of people who were surely not doing likewise. (His teaching was unique, so we assume no one else had been living it, besides him.)
We are now faced with a man who must have been constantly absorbing all kinds of human negativities. Typical, daily conflicts, frictions and tragedies that generally cause most people to lash back – Jesus must have taken in stride. Relational stresses and pains that come at human beings from a thousand different angles – Jesus felt them intensely, but did not take his pains out on others. The behavior of relative idiots, being native to absolutely any village, must have occurred as frequently in Nazareth as anywhere else, but according to Matthew, Jesus did not degrade himself in any of his reactions to such people. How can all of this be true about one human being?
I suggest we have only two options for understanding this kind of a person. Option One: Jesus was psychotically fixated on the sins and sufferings of others and somehow took pleasure both from their pain and from being wronged himself. We must reject option one for dozens of obvious reasons. The Gospels certainly do not portray Jesus as a psychotic ‘pain junkie’ with an emotional martyr complex. It is quite the opposite. He did not want to go to the cross and the physical healings he miraculously performed created joy and elation. His preaching , teaching and miracles all aimed at resolving emotional trauma, not prolonging it. Option One was logically necessary to consider, and we have rejected it. But how else could he get through three decades of small town life without committing any of the sins decried by his own later teachings?
The only reasonable explanation is that Jesus must have had some private release valve for getting rid of the emotional trauma that comes with living a normal human life. His devotion to God and his evident prayer life both immediately spring to mind. But, again, is this really enough? In normal human experience, it is not usually enough just to talk to someone about your struggles. Most of us also need to receive affirmations in return, the kind offered with compassion and understanding by a trusted confidant. Whenever one human being is dealing with a really difficult and challenging personal situation, even the most noble and altruistic of souls usually need someone close by to offer support and encouragement. Taking the high road is especially difficult with no other person around to make you feel sane and to comfort you in the ongoing struggle. Succeeding at any difficult endeavor requires social support. Jesus had social connections, but his endeavor was private. With nobody else in his home town to really rely on, in his most difficult moments, how could Jesus possibly have maintained such humane perfection for so long – for three decades – living among the same people and their aggravating disfunctions, year after year?!? What kind of a release valve and support structure was Jesus relying on, in Nazareth?
Reliance on the Father
I suggest there is only one answer. At some point, fairly early in life, Jesus must have developed the ability to receive love and encouragement directly from God. When Jesus was slighted or hurt by someone else, he must have been able to do more than turn to God in prayer. He must have also received some substantial response from God. It may not necessary for us to conclude that this divine response included a verbal component – at least, not right from the start – but Jesus must have felt God’s response internally, and substantially, in a virtually tangible way. In order to provide the kind of support any human would need to live up to that high standard, the Father’s love for his Son must have come through without any ambiguity.
Whatever that was like, for Jesus, whether it came through with words or a feeling, whether it was psychic (mental telepathy) or spiritual (mystical communion), or whether it was eventually both, it must have been very strong, very clear and very non-dubious. In other words, Jesus must have had a private but vivid connection of some kind that enabled the love of God, his Father, to supplant all the regular pains and traumas of life as a human being. With a daily experience of his Father’s love, Jesus was able to get past normal hurts and pains of daily life and avoid falling into the common negativities decried by the SOTM.
To be more specific, this reception of God’s love really had to be more than an emotional feeling, but it must have been an ultra-physical, ultra-psychical, genuinely spiritual sensation. Our own thoughts and emotions are frequently untrustworthy, and if Jesus was mostly being superstitious about “feeling” God’s love, it is impossible to believe he would have received enough sustaining encouragement to accomplish his three decades of moral graciousness. Whether or not Jesus was getting direct words from God’s Spirit in his teens or twenties, whatever he was getting from the Spirit of God had to be very spiritually sensual.
Again, to communicate clearly, this last point really needs to be emphasized. The idea of “finding God” has become somewhat superficial in the western vernacular. The idea that we come to know God “only by Faith” is a western development. “Blind Faith” has almost become a redundancy in our day and age, but when Jesus speaks about faith, in the Gospels, the word he uses is “confidence”. Confidence is pushing away doubts because one truly knows, from experience, and merely needs to remember and focus on that known experience. In other words, “Faith” is believing in that which you cannot see, not believing in that which you cannot “touch”. The Spirit of God is invisible, and incorporeal, but if it is actual and non-theoretical, then it must be spiritually sensual, to those with spiritual senses.
Since Jesus talked about seeing the Father and hearing the Father and worshiping the Father in spirit, we must now conclude that Jesus had spiritual senses for which his only semantic hooks were “seeing” and “hearing”. Again, this conclusion is necessary because otherwise the social situation does not add up. However we understand Jesus’ capacity for interaction with his Father, and whether or not it matches anyone else’s reported spiritual experience, the Lord’s personal sensation of God must have been substantial enough and two-way enough to make up for that utter anomaly in his social life, that he was intimately involved in the life of a village but his outlook and lifestyle were radically, unfathomably unique.
Was his graciousness evident? Of course, it must have been. The SOTM ethic undoubtedly explains how Jesus grew in favor with Nazareth’s people. But the SOTM ethic is also, by its very nature, an invisible ethic. His lack of noticeable flaws in his relating to others was not, by itself, noticeable. People liked Jesus, but he was way too likeable, and too understated, to ever point out why they liked him so much. The Nazarenes knew him as a part of his family, as a carpenter and as an unremarkable Synagogue attendee. They knew him as a person of graciousness but were surprised when he spoke words of graciousness in the Synagogue. They knew him as a kind and gentle person, but they never knew what a close reliance he was developing with his Father, in the Spirit.
On that point, we must now return somewhat to chronology. Concluding that Jesus maintained a private mysticism with God is not much historical good without trying to locate that mysticism at some point in his personal history. Without hopes for too much specificity, we might begin simply by asking if there is any evidence to support one of the following three options: was Jesus was always so mystical, or did his mysticism begin like a miracle at some specific point, or was Jesus’ mystical aptitude something that had to grow and develop, like his physical and mental capacities. The most natural – literally, natural – possibility is the third option, gradual development. But what evidence do we have for observing this development, when we have so little information about Jesus before his baptism? As it turns out, we might have just enough.
Development of Spirituality
John’s Gospel begins with a cosmic-historical view of the Word, who was with God, and John tells us, “In Him was Life”. Later, in telling about the night before Jesus was betrayed, John attests quite plainly that that the Father was “In” Jesus, at least by that time. The “in” is clear enough, by comparison with demon possessions – although in God’s case we observe habitation, not controlling ‘possession’ – but even if we do understand this correctly, how do we deal with it, historically? That is, even after we accept John’s spiritual attestation as an historical fact, we must acknowledge that it raises a chronological question. Furthermore, this question is especially pertinent to our investigation on Jesus’ early life in Nazareth. To the point: How long had the Father been inside of Jesus?
John does not testify as to any particular time at which the Father entered Jesus. Some theologians have claimed that God’s Spirit did not reside in Jesus before his public baptism, but the Gospels are unified in attesting that the Spirit “alighted” or “came upon” Jesus at that time. If it is possible for God to be within Jesus and also speak from the heavens at the same time – and we must allow this is most certainly possible – then the baptism must be rejected as the date at which God began living in Jesus. Besides, it does actually matter that “upon” is not “in”; those reports do not align. However, John does give us one moment of transition at which something from the spiritual realm began living and operating within the physical realm. John tells us, “the Word became flesh.” If this Word that was with God and “was God” also became flesh together with God, or with God inside of Him, then the moment of indwelling came at the moment of Jesus birth, in Bethlehem.
If this is true, then Jesus was born “of water and spirit” at exactly the same time. He was born “from above” at the same moment he was born from the virgin Mary. The scriptures teach that Jesus knew no sin and he must have been so sanctified from his very birth, because – evidently – God himself was pleased to dwell there. But as glorious as this is to behold, we are passing out of historical concerns into theo-logic based on ideas and interpretation. (What is “sin” anyway?) We must come back to history, which is no tragedy, because the historical point is glorious enough.
If we accept John’s cosmic-historical testimony that God became human, then we must suppose – as seems almost certain – that this was the moment when God the Father began to be “in” his human son Jesus. Somewhere between conception and the birth canal, God Himself came inside this tiny infant. Or in other words, the Father was living in Jesus. Or in other words, we may as well say, in Bethlehem, that these words are still true: “In Him was Life.” We accept this, on the strength of John’s testimony, and because of our earlier considerations. But what does it mean, practically?
What does it matter that God the Father had hidden Himself inside of a newborn? If mystical communion between a human and God requires any deliberate action or development for aptitude, then we can only assume the divine infant in Bethlehem was NOT communing with his Father, spiritually. A newborn cannot even put its hand into its own mouth and keep it there! But the stages of physical and psychological development are so organic to our species, we might be safe in assuming this unique child’s spiritual capacities also advanced through some progression of organic functional development.
At any rate, we can more than safely say the baby in the manger was not yet able to pray the prayer in John 17. And we have already observed, far above, that the details of Jesus’ age twelve adventure do not reveal the same level of divine knowledge and self awareness as the adult Jesus displays later in life. Naturally, it makes perfect sense that his spiritual strength at age twelve to be greater than that of his infancy (virtually nill) and less than that of his later years. Furthermore, if we are right in these observations, it does seem to confirm that his spiritual increase came gradually.
This also parallels naturally with the Gospels’ only direct reference to the “hidden years” in Nazareth – Luke’s twin statements that Jesus increased and that Jesus kept growing. If John’s description of Jesus as Life, in whom was Life – if that terminology has more to do with spiritual realism than artful metaphor, then we might find it confirming that life tends to grow. John says he was Life. Luke says he grew. Those statements may not have been made in reference to one another so this point depends, once again, on the reality of what Jesus was. If he had a spiritual side that was born at the same time as his body and mind, then we are completely sensible to conclude his spiritual side grew, increased and developed.
The only questions left are unanswerable. Even if we could somehow measure, quantify and classify some type of levels or stages in his development, we would not be able to pinpoint when he reached each stage, chronologically. Besides, the concept of stages in human growth and development is fairly artificial to begin with. Today’s official stages of physical and psychological development in children are recognized by particular activities the child is able to perform. At a certain point, a child should be able to stand on its own, walk, relieve themselves, or express specific felt needs… and so forth. This makes developmental assessment far more practical, but still, what spiritual activities can we define for Jesus, and when was he able to perform them? As far as we can determine, spiritual aptitude is only one thing – the ability to sense God.
Without further description, that doesn’t lend itself to specific or observable stages. Or maybe spiritual aptitude is more like physical mobility – babies can move but children and teenagers gradually learn how to move in highly specialized and purposeful ways. In that case, again, we cannot be more specific about how Jesus was able to “move” in his spiritual interaction with God. Without more particular descriptions of his spiritual abilities, we cannot be more specific about estimating a timetable for his spiritual development.
With that said, we may be able to conclude a few things about his development in general. First, it probably continued for all thirty years he was in Nazareth. Luke says Jesus grew and increased and the next event Luke shares is the Lord’s public baptism. The implication is that all Jesus’ growing remained a work in progress, so to speak, so long as he was living in Nazareth.
Second, it is once again natural to suppose Jesus probably worked at increasing his own spiritual aptitude. Like a toddler learning to stand up or a teenager rehearsing any skill based activity, Jesus must have stretched himself, spiritually, attempting to reach farther into his Father’s realm. He must have made some kind of efforts to increase his own ability level in whatever aspects there were to the art or science of finding God actually was, as he knew it.
Third, whatever he was able to achieve, in this capacity, by whatever time in life he was able to achieve it, that must have been sufficient to allow him enough closeness with God to supply the social encouragement he needed to live the lifestyle that he did. It is important to remember that our horse must keep pulling our cart – we are not concluding that Jesus lived the SOTM ethic because he was spiritual; we are concluding that Jesus must have been spiritual in order to have lived by the SOTM ethic. We should not leap to conclusions.
That said, this last observation leads us to one more general conclusion that surprisingly comes with a relatively specific chronology. Consider: If it was the relational accountability of being in touch with his Father that helped Jesus to avoid lust as successfully as Matthew implies he did, then Jesus’ spiritual aptitude for receiving his Father’s support and encouragement must have been somewhat advanced by the time he was very far into puberty. The predominant Jewish culture in tiny Nazareth was probably very conservative, but physical desire is all relative despite cultural restrictions.
Again, the question is not can this be true, but how can it be? If Jesus was always self-controlled his thoughts around women – the emphasis being on always – then he must have always felt some helpful awareness of his Father’s encouraging presence. After all, most well behaved men are even more well behaved in the presence of their fathers and mentors, so this point cannot be overemphasized.
In all areas of the SOTM ethic, we should conclude that if Jesus was morally upright it was not because he adhered to a code of conduct by strict discipline and willpower (although he may have done that as well). If Jesus lived by what he later taught about morality, and considering the rest of our data about his life in Nazareth, the only reasonable explanation must be that he was socially empowered and encouraged by a direct, mystical relationship with his Father. In other words, Jesus was able to live like he did only because of the comfort and strength of his Father’s abiding presence. Or to view that from another angle, Jesus must have genuinely desired to love and please the Father in all of his ways. Evidently.
As an observation – It will not be lost on many that this happens to be a standard depiction of classic Christianity. It might fairly be said that the Lord Jesus was the
To drop formal language and speak personally: Accepting the full testimony of the Gospels has led me to this conclusion and I cannot see any other. Perhaps someone will object on some points. But if I have erred in my arguments, I still feel the conclusion is very sound. Perhaps someone will suggest improvements to the argument, but that does not make it flawed. Intuition can be just as good as induction, provided one happens to intuit correctly. Perhaps Truth will make up for whatever is lacking in my method. Perhaps
As a final academic reminder, for laypersons and scholars alike, I acknowledge once more the conditional nature of this faith based but hopefully thoroughly historiographical investigation. Such sacred things are probably not to be “proven” anyway. Praise the Lord’s Holy Name.
So, then, what have we actually concluded, historically? At the most, only this – that IF the Gospel accounts are factually reliable in as many places as their testimony is basically clear, and IF we can accept their accounts of supernatural phenomenon and their opinions about Jesus to be accurate within reasonable limits, and IF we have done a practically rigorous job of analyzing what they really do tell us, without simply seeing what we have been taught to or might wish to see, THEN – in that case – this historical reconstruction of Jesus must present us with the actual authentic Jesus, beginning from Nazareth.
Upon that last statement, I happily rest. I do not care who is convinced. Decide for yourselves. If nothing else, at least I have presented my reasoning for the Jesus pages in the reconstruction that follows. If I have done well, then the story you are about to read is probably very close to what actually happened, in all situational respects. If I have erred, no harm has been done to the scripture. Someone else can improve my mistakes.
History has limitations, but God is infinite and forgives infinitely. I encourage all who read this to continue believing the Gospels are our primary and ultimate account of the life of Christ. Hopefully, this book is just one of the many ways we can all help each other see Him in His Story more fully.
Enjoy Jesus Christ, dear saints of the Living God.
A very well reasoned and informative article. Without s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth of Scripture, you have stretched my understanding of it by using the written
Word, the times and the prevailing culture (along with logic and implications of known facts) to build a believable characterization of Jesus in the now "not-so-hidden" days of His life. Thanks, Bill!
My pleasure. Feel free to share far and wide.
Hi Bill, thank you for sharing this, clearly a very carefully researched and logically argued piece of work that illuminates a section of Christ’s life which is seldom discussed.
The only thing which I struggled with as I read your article was the notion of Jesus ‘learning’. In my understanding, the fullness of Christ as one third of the triune God inhabited a human shell. I suppose that this raises quite interesting questions about the degree to which and manner that Christ experienced his humanity and the amount of awareness/power he was able to use as God himself. As you so rightly identified, time and again Jesus referred to receiving his power from the Father to model how we as mortals can and should do the same. All the same, I did find the notion of Christ’s ignorance (I’m thinking of your point about 12yo Jesus’ questions to the rabbis being genuine and not rhetorical) slightly troubling as I always assumed that Christ was fully ‘aware’ of his Godhood, even if he chose to receive the actual power of God from the Father and Spirit. What are your thoughts on this?
Many thanks again, Bill.
Hi, Chris. Thanks for reading and commenting. Great questions! Perhaps the easiest way for me to answer is to quote Luke, who said Jesus grew in wisdom, and Paul, who said Jesus emptied himself when he became human. It makes no theological sense to suppose the baby in the manger was just pretending. That's not what the incarnation was supposed to be about. So, therefore, if the baby Jesus couldn't yet walk, and didn't yet know how to talk, then the child Jesus and the adolescent Jesus also kept learning things as he went along.
Glory to God, Jesus learned.
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