Early life of Jesus


Q. This may be more of a history question, but could you address the life of Jesus from birth until he was 30? Did he have a normal childhood? Did he always live at home until his public ministry began? How many people knew who he was throughout those earlier years?

(We hear of the Magi being aware of Christ's existence, and we read about his teaching in the Temple once as a young boy, but then nothing more until he was 30.) (Curious in Missouri)

A. The period of Christ's life that you ask about -- from infancy until he began his public ministry -- is sometimes referred to as the "hidden years" of Jesus. Matthew in his Gospel describes the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents and the return to Nazareth. Luke adds the visit of the shepherds, the circumcision and the purification of Mary.

Beyond that, the Scriptures are largely silent -- apart from the time Christ was found at the age of 12, to his parents' consternation, speaking with the elders in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Apocryphal writings have tried mightily to fill in the gaps: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (second century), Pseudo-Matthew (sixth to seventh century), the Arabic Infancy Gospel (probably sixth century). They are fanciful and largely incredible accounts of childhood exploits of Christ. One story tells of Jesus, at age 7, fashioning clay animals with his friends, then blowing on them to make them fly. The other boys tell this to their parents who warn them not to play with Jesus.

In answer to your question, I would say that Jesus did have a "normal childhood." Luke says simply that "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (2:52). Jesus would have spoken Aramaic (the common language of Palestine at the time) and probably some Greek (learned largely from regular pilgrimages with his family to the then-Hellenized city of Jerusalem).

He would have been educated in the Scriptures by Mary and Joseph, as well as at the synagogue in Nazareth -- although he evidently had no formal training in the higher rabbinic schools of his day. Remember how the Jews had voiced their surprise that the "carpenter's son" could have spoken so knowledgeably at the Feast of Tabernacles? "How does he know Scripture without having studied?" (John 7:15).
The traditional Catholic teaching is that Mary was given to know the true identity of her Son at the annunciation (Luke 1), and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) was told this by an angel in a dream. Beyond that, I would think that a belief in Christ's divinity was very gradual in the minds of his contemporaries and did not fully blossom until after the resurrection.

To me, the "normal-ness" of the early life of Christ argues all the more strongly for the credibility of the Gospel; it is far from what one would expect in a biography of the Savior of the world.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.