Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Kathryn Schifferdecker and Mary Hinkle Shore. Article written by Mary Hinkle Shore.
The New Testament includes four gospels. When two of them introduce Jesus, he is already an adult. The Gospels of Mark and John include no information about the birth of Jesus or his childhood. Our information on the infant and the boy Jesus comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These two gospel writers introduce us to the older generation of Jesus’ family first and then tell a few stories of his birth and infancy. In the Gospel of Luke alone, we have a story about Jesus as a boy.
First, let’s look at Matthew. In chapter one, we meet Joseph. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man and unwilling to humiliate his fiancée, Mary, when he learns that she is pregnant -- and this before they have been intimate. An angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20). The angel goes on to say that the son Mary will have should be named “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). At this point, we know almost nothing about the baby or what his life will look like, but we do know that his beginnings are amazing and his name -- “Jesus” is a derivative of “Joshua,” which means “he saves” -- speaks his mission.
Mary and Joseph wed, and Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Sometime when he is a baby, another amazing thing happens. A foreign delegation comes to Jerusalem and asks where is “the one born King of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). They want to pay this new king homage. Herod the Great enlists the wisdom of the scribes, who read the Old Testament prophets and send these wise men to Bethlehem. Herod is the current king of the Jews and does not want rivals. He intends to use the travelers as informants who will return to him with news of where the child is, so that he can send soldiers to kill the baby. The wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and when Herod realizes he has been tricked, he orders all the children in Bethlehem under two years to be killed. Before this order is carried out, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with the child and his mother, and the family escapes to Egypt, where they live for some months, or possibly years. After Herod dies and it is safe to leave Egypt, they settle in the town of Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus grows up.
From Matthew’s account, we know that in his earliest years, Jesus, like Moses before him, was a baby under threat from a tyrant. We know also that the boy and his parents were refugees for a time.
We can infer one other thing about Jesus’ childhood from the Gospel of Matthew. At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he preaches in his hometown, and his neighbors take offense. They know him and his family, and yet Jesus is speaking and working with such authority that they wonder if he isn’t putting on airs. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?” the neighbors want to know. “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matt 13:54-56). From this text, and its parallel in Mark 6:3, we conclude that Jesus was probably raised in the family carpentry shop, learning the trade alongside his father.
From Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy and childhood, we know that his parents were pious and not wealthy. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, his parents travel to Jerusalem and make an offering in the temple. Following the directive in Leviticus 12:8, they offer the more affordable offering of birds rather than a sheep (see Luke 2:24).
We also know that Jesus was a precocious child, eager to learn and discuss things with teachers in the temple. Luke tells us that Jesus’ family made the pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem each year for the Passover festival. When Jesus was twelve years old, he stayed behind in Jerusalem while his family began the trip home. After a day of traveling, his parents discovered that he was not along in the group of extended family, and they returned to Jerusalem and searched for him for days. Finally, they found the boy Jesus in the temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). When his mother told him how worried they had been, Jesus replied, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke adds here, “But they did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2:49-50).
The family’s lack of understanding tells us something more about Jesus’ childhood, namely that it was probably pretty much what we would expect of anyone’s childhood. The gospels do not report that the child Jesus did anything miraculous, or that his family treated him differently because of the dreams, visits and visions that had been part of their experience as he was conceived and born. In fact, they seem to have treated him as a regular child, no more (or less) of a miracle than any of our children are. While Jesus’ birth and his ministry are amazing, the gospel writers regard his childhood as unremarkable. Luke sums it up like this: “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52).
Image credit: "A wood-worker's Pride and Joy" by Dave Emerson licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Mary Hinkle Shore is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, an ELCA congregation in Brevard, N.C. She was professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.