What Can We Say about Jesus' Childhood and Early Years?
by Doug Kennard In our day in which we wrestle with post-truth, Christianity is built upon the historical reality of Jesus. The New Testament begins with four Gospels which most scholars today regard as a type of ancient biography. Quality Hellenistic biography and Jewish historical narrative from the early days of the faith incorporate only one account from childhood, which demonstrates the qualities into which the person will develop (Plutarch, Lives: Alexander, & Caesar; 1 Sam 3; 16:20-17:28). The rest of any good biography develops the events of adult heroes. Luke follows this established pattern. This is one reason the Infancy Gospel of Thomas discussing Jesus’ childhood is considered by most to be a suspect account.
Joseph's family moved to Nazareth in Galilee sometime between 3 BC and 6 AD, reflecting the Jewish distrust of King Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea and Samaria (Matt 2:22-23; 13:53-58; Mark 1:24; Luke 1:26-27; 2:39, 51; Josephus, Ant. 17.11.1-4). Archelaus was deposed as an abusive King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 6 AD (Josephus, Ant. 17.13.1-5; J.W. 2.7.3-8.1; Strabo, Geog. 16.2.46; Dio Cassius, Hist. 55.27.6). Coming from the hick town, Nazareth, Jesus fulfills prophecy that he would be a rejected individual (John 1:46; 7:42, 52; Acts 24:5; Isa 53:3-8; Pss 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Tob. 1.10-12; 4.12-13).
As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have attended some schooling in a Pharisaic synagogue to study the scriptures from age five until about twelve. He would have been educated in torah to develop socially and psychologically as a Pharisee by a rabbi of Nazareth (Josephus, Ant. 13.289; m. ’Abott 1.18; 5.17; y. Meg. 4.74a; y. Pe’ah 2.17a; b. Šabb. 17a; b. Giṭ. 60b; b. Yoma 28ab). Outside of Jerusalem the Pharisees were the most prominent Jewish sect.
To supplement this Pharisaic schooling, Jesus’ family expressed normal Jewish piety taking twelve year old Jesus to religious festivals in the Temple in Jerusalem. On one of these trips, Jesus missed the family caravan to return to Nazareth. As a pious Jew, Jesus was aware of a unique calling and personal relationship with the divine Father (Luke 2:41-52; Infancy Gospel of Thomas 19.1-5). On this trip, the Jewish Temple teachers were amazed at Jesus’ learning as a boy (Luke 2:47; Infancy Gospel of Thomas 19.1; also corroborated by 6-7).
Jesus followed his father, Joseph, into the role as a day laborer (tekton; Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3). Such a day laborer would have meant that Jesus did rough work as a carpenter and/or stone mason (2 Macc 7). He probably practiced this trade at construction projects in Sepphoris (a few miles up the road from Nazareth) which was extensively being re-built by Herod Antipas as his strongest Jewish city in Galilee (Josephus, Ant. 17.289; 18.27; J. W. 2.56, 511; Life 232). Each day Joseph and Jesus would get up and walk four miles to Sepphoris to be available on the work line at dawn . They would labor until sunset and be paid for the work that day. In the twilight hours they would walk four miles back to Nazareth for dinner. Sleeping on a reed mat would refresh them to start the process all over again.
Construction at Sepphoris slowed about 27 A.D. when Herod Antipas shifted his treasury and construction activities to Tiberias (Josephus, Life 37-39). Since it was about twenty miles from Nazareth, Tiberias was too far for Jesus to commute daily for work.
Jesus grew strong, increasing filled by divinely gracious wisdom and in favor with God and humans (Luke 2:52; Infancy Gospel of Thomas 6-7; 19.1).
At about 31 years old, during the fifteenth year of Tiberias’ reign, or likely 28 AD (Luke 3:1-2; Tacitus, Ann. 1), Jesus traveled to Bethany, beyond the Jordan River, now in Jordan, to be baptized by his cousin John (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34; Gospel of Hebrews 2; Gospel of Ebionites 4:1-6; Gospel of Nazareans 2). Jesus’ baptism expressed an initiation rite in identifying with John’s kingdom oriented Judaism (similar to conversion baptism: Acts 2:38-41; 10:28; 19:3-4; 1QS 3.3-9; 4QTLevi ar; Josephus, J.W. 2.150; Ant. 14.285; 18.93-4; 18.117; T. Levi 2.3.1-2; Sib. Or. 4.162-70; Epictetus, Dissertationes 2.9.19-20; Apoc. Moses 29.6-13; b. Yebam. 46a-48b; Midrash Sifre Num. 15.14; m. Tohar 7.6; t. Yoma 4.20; t. Pesah 7.13).
Dr. Doug Kennard is Professor of New Testament at Houston Graduate School of Theology.