Approximately 2,000 years ago today, Jesus Christ was alive and walking the earth – and he was becoming a teenager! Wrap your mind around that one.
What must life have been like for, and with, a teenage Jesus? The last thing that we know for sure about him is just before this period, and comes from Luke’s Gospel.
At age 12, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem during the Passover festival. When the festival was over they left, and at some point realized that Jesus was not with their traveling party.
The worried parents returned to the city and searched for three days. Finally they found him, sitting in the courtyards at the Temple, questioning the teachers.
It was at this point, if they didn’t already have an idea, that Mary and Joseph got some sense of what was in store for the family. Jesus was amazing the teachers with both his questions and with his own comments in his understanding.
But while they were themselves impressed to hear their pre-teen son, they were also worried parents. Have you ever lost a child, even for a moment? Remember how frantic those few moments were? How about three days lost?
“Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!” said Mary, his mother. And what was Jesus’ reply? An apology? To run crying into his mommy’s arms? Not even close. “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?“
By all accounts, his tone was innocent and matter-of-fact, not wise-cracking. Luke relates that he returned to Nazareth with them, and was obedient to them, and that Mary treasured all she had seen and heard in her heart. So she obviously took it well, not as an incidence of insolence or disobedience or disrespect.
Luke then goes on to tell the only ideas that we know about Jesus from that point until his public ministry begins a decade and a half later: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” What must those years have actually been like? Especially those next few teenage years, with puberty and hormones and body growth for our Lord?
Anything that anyone tries to say, and many have, is purely speculation. But there are some things that we should be able to surmise as being fairly certain, especially in light of Luke’s glowing words about his apparently steady growth as a young man.
Jesus did not grow through those teen years in isolation. His mother and father were with him, of course. His mother for the entirety, and his father for a significant portion of his teenage years. Various accounts of his later life also refer to brothers and sisters. This could, however, mean almost anything.
A respected account written in the years immediately after Mary’s lifespan known as the ‘Protoevangelium of James’ teaches that she was indeed a virgin for life, raised holy by her own mother Anne, to be devoted in service to the upbringing of the Lord. It is not hard to accept that Mary, a teenager herself when Jesus was born, would remain a virgin devoted to raising, educating, and serving him. A real key to his teenage years lies with his earthly ‘father’, Joseph.
So what was Joseph’s role and why was it so vital? James tells that even though Mary was dedicated to her purity, her family still required a guardian, or a chaperone of sorts, to guarantee this reputation of her cleanliness. Joseph was a respected elderly widow in the community who already had children, and was chosen for all these reasons by the family for the role.
So Jesus was raised in a household that included his mother and father, his stepbrothers and sisters, and possibly even more children from extended family such as cousins, as put forth by Jerome in his fourth century scholarly writings. A bustling home where Jesus got to play, work, learn, and otherwise interact with others in a family setting.
It is not too hard to understand how Jesus spent his time in these years either. With Joseph known to have been a carpenter, likely a highly skilled and well-paid one with a strong professional reputation, Jesus would have been taught this craft from his earliest years. He and his male family members would have been raised to be such craftsmen as well, and they would likely have been working regularly.
So for those who need a clearer picture of the teenage Jesus, and then on into his early-mid 20’s during his pre-ministry life, the picture is simple: a young man growing in an active, large family setting, working in his father’s business, and also being trained religiously and spiritually by his mother. It is a decade and a half to be noted for it’s normalcy in the human world of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.
As Jesus emerged into his public ministry, we can also glean another important incident that happened at some point during those ‘missing’ years: the death of Joseph. Such an important event would absolutely have been documented by his followers during the Gospel years. And at his crucifixion, he entrusts Mary’s care to one of them, not to Joseph.
Joseph was much older than Mary. He took on the role as protector of her honor. When she turned up pregnant due to the Incarnation of Jesus, he continued to fight for her honor, and in part thanks to his own spiritual awakening and inspiration he raised Jesus as his own. And then at some point, most likely when Jesus was well-trained, Joseph passed away.
It is not hard to imagine the family, with Jesus around 20 years of age, having been formally trained and working with his father and his ‘brothers’ for years in the surrounding community, suffering the loss of this elderly patriarch. They would have mourned and buried Joseph together, and Jesus would have provided both emotional support for his mother, but also material support in continuing his earthly work.
This was the life of the teenage Jesus of Nazareth: learning the carpentry and artisan craft from Joseph, gaining a familial and spiritual foundation from Mary, interacting with his adoptive brothers and sisters in this setting. He helped support his family during the period around the death of Joseph, and into his early adulthood.
It is here that we formally pick up the story in the Gospels. Jesus’ life will change forever with two primary spiritual events: his baptism at the river Jordan by his cousin, John the Baptist, and his subsequent 40-day and night stay in the Judaean desert where he meditated and where he was tempted by the devil. On emerging from the desert, Jesus will begin his public ministry.