The New Testament tells us a great deal about Jesus’ birth, but little is told of his life from then until he started his ministry about the age of 30. We know from the Gospel record that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. By the time the wise men arrived, Jesus was a toddler and he lived with his parents in a house in Bethlehem.
“Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king” (Matt 2:1). This means Jesus was born a couple of years before 4BC, as that’s the year Herod died. Due to the threats from King Herod, Joseph was warned to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt. The gift of gold from the Magi would have been especially helpful to fund their journey as asylum seekers.
After 4BC, when Herod had died, Joseph once again received angelic instruction, this time to travel with his young family back to Israel. “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:22). Archelaus was as cruel and treacherous as his father, and within a few months after his accession, he sent in his horsemen to disperse a multitude, and slew more than 3,000 men. Archelaus reigned from 4BC to 6AD and so it was during this time that Joseph, Mary and Jesus relocated to Nazareth and this is where Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”
It would have been Joseph’s responsibility to teach the young Jesus in the religion of his people (Deut. 6:4-9), and then he would have learned to know and love God from his mother who would teach him to pray and to know the scriptures. Religious instruction was not confined to the home, however. With annual trips to the temple at Jerusalem and practical worship and teaching by the synagogue (Luke 4:16), week after week the boy Jesus heard the scripture in its original Hebrew form, followed by translation into Aramaic, and received instruction from it for daily conduct. Each synagogue established schools. Jesus would have attended school from about six years of age to be taught the scriptures (Luke 4:16-19) and reading and writing of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages. And so Jesus grew, like any other child, from boyhood to manhood.
There’s been a lot of conjecture of what Jesus did during these years. Some say he travelled to Britain to further his education while others suggest he went to India. Within a century of the life of the apostles some wrote that, in his youth, Jesus had a fit of bad temper and struck a companion with death. When accused he cursed his opponents with blindness. Others suggested Jesus mocked his teachers and when they told him off for making clay birds in play on the Sabbath, he caused them to fly. These and many other legends clearly contradict the Bible’s statement that Jesus was without sin.
There is no evidence that Jesus travelled further afield than Jerusalem. Jesus grew up in Nazareth which archaeology shows it to be a small and very poor village. The world’s Saviour was not reared in the Bible belt. The inhabitants of Nazareth were notorious for their wickedness. This is proved by the proverbial saying, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Jesus is proof that good things can come out of bad places.
It’s likely that Joseph died while Jesus was quite young but even if he were still around, the eldest son of a poor family would have been helping them survive in a subsistence peasant culture. If Joseph were dead then Jesus would have been working to support his mother and his six younger siblings. Jesus probably worked as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) in Galilee from the age of 12 till 30. Most of the carpentry jobs were in Sepphoris, a village located in the central Galilee region of Israel, six kilometers from Nazareth. Jesus was also a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55) or a “tekton”, the Greek word describing a builder, a stoneworker or mason.
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. Only men were required to go so the fact that Mary went shows us how committed she was to her faith in God. Luke’s gospel records one such trip to the Passover Festival when Jesus was twelve years old, “After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it … After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” This account shows Jesus’ self-awareness and well as mindfulness of his mission. In this regard it’s interesting to note that at least some of Jesus’ younger years would have been filled with feelings of “being different.” Although I don’t doubt that he enjoyed boyish things when he was younger he was also increasingly aware of who he was and why he was on earth from age 12. This no doubt caused conflict with his siblings – something that is reflected in the gospel accounts when Jesus had begun his ministry (John 7:3-5; Mark 3:21).
The following year at age 13 Jesus would reach Bar Mitzvah – the age of maturity. Most of the customs for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies originated only recently and were not around in the days of the Temple. So Jesus probably did not HAVE a Bar Mitzvah ceremony though he did BECOME Bar Mitzvah at 13. The term teenager wasn’t used until the 1920s in America. Before then adulthood – and the responsibilities that go with it – was assumed from age 13 for boys and 12 for girls.
From this age, as well as working in his craft and supporting his family, it’s likely that Jesus studied with the Pharisees. Jesus was very different to John the Baptist who had his spiritual preparation in the desert. Jesus’ days were filled with hard work, home life and social interaction. As a result we constantly read in the gospels about Jesus being welcomed into people’s homes and lives. Children adored him. He certainly wasn’t a soured-faced religious recluse. His teachings show a man who was well acquainted with his world including nature, history, work, finance, faith, and people from all walks of life.
As he got older it’s likely he took on some responsibilities in the local synagogue that may well have included the public reading and teaching of Scripture. So about the age of 30 – the stage of readiness for the priesthood – Jesus began his public ministry which was only a success because of the disciplined years of formation he had undergone as a child and a young man. We can take many lessons from this not least that a good work ethic is an essential quality for success and satisfaction. Another lesson is that we shouldn’t be in a hurry when it comes to the plan of God for our life. There are no shortcuts. Spend as much time as necessary for God to work in you according to His good pleasure.