One of the popular topics of speculation in religious circles, both Christian and non-, is “what happened during Jesus’ Silent Years?” Of course, the silent years being the time in Christ’s life between His twelfth birthday and His baptism by John in the Jordan, when He went off into the desert for forty days.
But here’s the deal about those supposed silent years—while the Gospels don’t give us specifics concerning any particular event in the life of Christ prior to ministry, (other than His youthful visit to the Temple), we have enough historical writings to know what His life was like as He grew, and how He was preparing for His public ministry.
Galilee—Hotbed of Religious Fervor
In the United States, the great mass between the east and west coasts is commonly referred to as “fly-over” country by America’s bi-coastal elite, and is populated by rubes who “hold on to their God and guns,” despite the wisdom that their betters try to instill in them. Galilee was the “fly-over” territory of first-century Judah.
While only ninety miles from Jerusalem, the people of Galilee had an identifiable accent that caused the proud Jerusalem elite to look down on them. After all,
- “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jn. 1:46
- “Search and see that no prophet comes from Galilee.” Jn. 7:52
But cling to God and guns, the Galileans did. A fact for you to store in your trivia bank: of all the revolts against Rome, 98% of them originated in Galilee, and all were religiously inspired. As well, discussion of the Torah saturated the Galilee. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern write in The Jewish People in the First Century,
“Torah study was a remarkable feature in Jewish life at the time of the Second Temple and during the period following it. It was not restricted to the formal setting of schools and synagogue, nor to sages only, but became an integral part of ordinary Jewish life. The Torah was studied at all possible times, even if only a little at a time… The sound of Torah learning issuing from houses at night was a common phenomenon. When people assembled for a joyous occasion such as a circumcision or a wedding, a group might withdraw to engage in study of the Law.”
In essence, Jesus was raised in the most Jewish part of Judea, where a true “God and guns” mentality resided. After all, if you live in a place where a good discussion on Leviticus can break out at a wedding party, you’re pretty much living in the buckle of that nation’s Bible Belt.
This climate of devout religious fervor included Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary. While we don’t know that Jesus’ parents were of the “God and guns” mindset, we do know that they were pious Jews, devout in their service to God. In Matt. 1:19, Joseph is described as “just”, “righteous” or “faithful to the Law” (depending on which translation you use), while Mary….
Do I really have to justify a statement that Mary was devout? Really?
There are a couple of hints of their devotion and piety in the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, in Luke 2. V. 41 tells us that it was the practice of Joseph and Mary to go to Jerusalem every year, for Passover. This was a yearly commitment that they made, to travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem, yearly. Not all Jews made this sort of pilgrimage, but Mary and Joseph went yearly.
The second hint (and to me, the clincher) is found in v. 43:
And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, (ESV)
“So?”, you may ask. “What’s the big deal? They stayed for Passover and went home, right?”
No, that’s not the end of it. Actually there are three Jewish holidays instituted by God that occur at this time, and they are observed over the course of 8-10 days. The first month of the religious year is Nisan, and two weeks after the turn of the year, this happens:
- 14th of Nisan, Passover. (Lev. 23:4-5)
- 15th of Nisan, Feast of Unleavened Bread, the next day after Passover. (Lev. 23:6-8) This feast lasted for seven days.
- 16th of Nisan, Feast of First Fruits. (Lev. 23:9-14)
Three major feasts in the space of three days, and one of them was a week-long observance! Note that Lk. 2:43 says that Mary and Joseph started to return home “when the Feast was ended”, speaking of the entire week of religious observation. Their observance of the feasts was complete, demonstrating total commitment to God and His law. This was the home in which Jesus was raised.
Rabbi In Training?
You’ve heard or read about those stories and speculations, how Jesus, as He grew, went to India to learn enlightenment from the masters, etc., or how he made pilgrimage to Tibet to become all-wise and all-knowing, a guru who was misunderstood by the Jews, and so on. Pure bilgewater!
Devotion to God and His Torah was the culture into which Jesus was born and raised, and in which He eventually became a rabbi. The story of the boy Jesus in the Temple “confounding the elders” is neither unusual, nor is it what we usually assume it to be, a “confounding of the elders.” Why? Simply because learning and discussing Torah was part of the education of Jewish boys and many Jewish girls, and in how this education was conducted.
Depending on the source you read, there were certain ages and activities that a Jewish boy engaged in as he matured and developed. For example, one ancient Jewish sage, Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said, “Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]…. [Pirke Avot 5:22]
Other sources** I have found all agree that around age five, the father began teaching his children to memorize from the Torah, and that this continued for several years. As well, they would meet at synagogue to learn to read and write, with the Torah again being their focus of learning. This early period of education was called Bet Sefer (“House of the Book”). When the boy reached ten-eleven, he would add the Oral Law (the Mishnah and Talmud mentioned above) to his reading, studying and memorization.
After the bar mitzah, at 13, boys would begin to learn a trade, but those who were especially devout and skilled would also continue to meet with teachers in the Bet Midrash (“House of Interpretation”), the school that was part of every synagogue. As we know from the incident of Jesus and the Elders, we know that He was extremely skilled in the study and knowledge of the Torah.
And we need to understand that learning in the Bet Midrash did not resemble our schools. Teachers and students would ask questions and have vigorous back and forth debates about the texts. This is why Jesus asking and answering questions of the elders at the Bet Midrash of the Temple was not out of place.
There is a story that is told of a rabbi who was trying to get his students in Bet Midrash to engage in discussion, and so kept making more and more outrageous statements. Finally, when no student would challenge him, he shouted in exasperation, “How can we learn anything if no one will disagree with me?”
Debate, active and vociferous, about the meaning of, and obedience to, Torah marked learning in the Bet Midrash. And it was in Bet Midrash, in Nazareth, that Jesus began to walk the path that led to His ministry and teaching.
Perfect Environment and Climate For A Rabbi
While we are not given any specific events from the time he was twelve until the time of His baptism, we do know pretty much the environment in which Jesus grew, and the religious training He received. In essence, when He told Mary and Joseph, “I must be about my Father’s business,” He was telling them that He was preparing to be God’s rabbi to Israel and the world.
** As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I read a book that truly changed my approach to Christianity, and has spurred my continued reading into the Jewish roots and context of our Christian faith. I am including a list of the sources I am reading/viewing, and I hope that readers will be interested in learning about how the Jewishness of Jesus is actually important to our lives. I begin with the book that sparked this new focus.
Sitting At The Feet Of Rabbi Jesus. Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg. (At the time of this writing, only $2.99 on Kindle.)
Walking In The Dust Of Rabbi Jesus. Lois Tverberg & Ray Vander Laan. (Again, only $2.99 on Kindle.)
The Jesus I Never Knew. Philip Yancey. ECPA Book of the Year Award winner, 1996.
The Jewish Roots of Christianity. Day of Discovery video. An excellent three-part video series filmed at the Temple in Jerusalem, featuring a trio of Hebrew Christians. Loved this video.
Our Rabbi Jesus. Website run by Lois Tverberg, co-author of the two Rabbi Jesus books. Articles and blog by a Christian writer who has done a couple of decades worth of research.
Chabad.org. By definition, not a Christian website, but a one-stop site for all things Jewish. A treasure trove of information on Torah, Talmud and Mishnah.