Have you ever wondered how Jesus actually grew up under his parents, Mary and Joseph? Or what he did between the age of twelve, when he is found at the temple (Luke 2:41-52), and around 30 years of age when he started his ministry (Luke 3:210-23)? Or how he lived with his family up in Nazareth as a teenager? Or what he really did for a profession? Or how he related to his four younger brothers and possibly the same number of sisters (Matthew 13:55-56)? Or to the wider community in and around the hamlet of Nazareth? Have you ever wondered if he knew how to cook, build houses, shape stone and wood, manage a small business, sow a wheat crop, sail a boat, all on top of diligently studying the Old Testament at night under candlelight? This essay will try to answer those questions.
So, why do we need to nail down these missing years? It’s because Jesus was a really cool guy, one of the greatest in all of history, and therefore lots of religions and cults want him on their side. To get him on their team they create fanciful narratives of what happened in those 18 silent years. For example, when I was on holiday in India in 2008 I came across a book titled Jesus Lived in India that claimed he sat at the feet of their esteemed Hindu gurus during his 18 silent years. Then we have the Mormons claiming Jesus visited North America and left evidence behind for Joseph Smith to discover thousands of years later. I even found a website recently about the Urantia Book, which claims that extra-terrestrial beings have now told us what Jesus did during those silent years. Human imagination, and Satan’s, knows no limits!
So that we do not fall for these simple deceptions it is important that we as Christians try to fill in the 18 silent years of the life of Jesus with as much real evidence from scripture, history and archaeology as possible.
This essay will try to give you some intelligent insights to those 18 silent years using only scriptural references, arguments from scriptural silence, clues from the stories Jesus told, and a little Jewish history and archaeology. Unlike the Hindus, the Mormons and the Urantians, I just want to get as close as possible to what really happened in that tiny village of Nazareth 2000 years ago. I’ll probably make a few mistakes, but I’ll do my best.
Note: In the paragraphs below, I have referred to Jesus’ siblings and family in the full earthly sense for simplicity’s sake, knowing perfectly well they are only half siblings and family. I absolutely believe he was the Messiah, God with us, Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23). However, until he turned 30 years of age only Mary and a few others fully knew the truth about his divine nature. Everyone else in his life just thought of him as a normal local small businessman. Even his younger brothers were embarrassed when he revealed his true identity (John 7:2-9). But, rest assured, they were convinced by the time of the resurrection (Acts 1:14).
2. CLUES FROM SILENCE
I would have liked to have started with evidence from scripture, however, as you will quickly find out, there is an argument from silence about the life of Joseph, husband of Mary, that is crucial to much of what transpired. Therefore, this is where we begin.
The Missing Joseph
When Jesus was 12 years old and at the temple in Jerusalem, we read that Joseph was still alive (John 2:1-11). However, 18 years later when Jesus began his ministry, we no longer hear anything about Joseph. For example, in John 2:11-12, right after Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding we find Joseph missing from the list of family members who travelled from Cana to Capernaum to visit Jesus. A year or so later in Matthew 12:46 we find Jesus’ mother and brothers coming from Nazareth to Lake Galilee again to visit him again, and again they travelled without Joseph. When Jesus returns to Nazareth with them a few days later, we still do not hear anything about Joseph while Jesus is in his hometown (Matthew 13:53-57). Joseph is also missing from the scene before the cross (John 19:26), and from the upper room when Mary and some of Jesus’ brothers were present (Acts 1:14).
Christian tradition therefore says Joseph must have died or was incapacitated some years before Jesus started his ministry. Working on the assumption that Mary would have been around 45-50 years of age when Jesus turned 30, and that Joseph was older than her by some years, and that life was short in that era, this makes sense, even if only an argument from silence. I therefore also conclude that the absence of evidence is evidence for absence. If it is true that Joseph had already died, then this means Jesus was well acquainted with the deep grief and loss so central to the human condition.
Jesus Becomes The Head Of The Family
The absence of Joseph would have made Jesus the new head of the family some time before he started his ministry. He would have taken over the family business. His business skills would have involved budgeting, possibly quoting for jobs, managing the finances, walking far and wide to work on local building projects. His business would have involved much more stonework than woodwork as that was the main construction material in that area. To construct a building in ancient Israel you needed many sets of skills. Jesus would have therefore been a reasonably strong and fit man. His work was his gym!
There was no government welfare in the ancient world. The head of the household was solely responsible for the wellbeing of all under his care. As a man responsible for the welfare of his family Jesus could not start his ministry until they were on a sure financial footing. He probably worked with one or more of his brothers for several years until they were fully trained to take over the family business. Only then could Jesus have responsibly left home. This time to move out came by when he was 30 years of age. This age is spiritually significant as it was the age that Levites were requested to begin their ministry of service in the house of God (Numbers 4:1-3). Jesus looked after his family first, then started his ministry. This is how it should always be.
If Jesus was indeed the head of the household, then he would have been also responsible for the choosing of his siblings’ spouses and their weddings. This was the Jewish tradition. He would have negotiated his sister’s dowries and had the final decision in whom they married, which was usually within the clan. This may explain why Jesus felt compelled to turn the water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-5). Perhaps, and this is an educated guess, this was actually a wedding of a cousin, or even his younger sister. If it was his sister’s wedding then it would explain why the waiters came straight to Mary for a solution to their problem, and why Mary went straight to Jesus and dumped the problem on him as the head of the family, and why she put Jesus on the spot in front of the waiters after his initial hesitation. As the head of the household, Jesus would have been responsible for these details.
Where Did Jesus Work?
Just an hour’s walk north of Nazareth was the administrative city of Sepphoris, which is intriguingly never mentioned in the Gospels. Until around 20AD it was the capital of Herod Agrippa’s government in Galilee before he moved his capital to the new city of Tiberius on shores of Lake Galilee. Everyone loves a water view. Sepphoris was still an administrative city in Jesus’ day. It was largely gentile in demography and loyal to Rome under Herod Antipas to the point that it did not join in the Jewish revolts a generation later that destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD. It probably also housed the Galilean Roman Garrison and was the home of the Centurion who came looking for Jesus in Matthew 8:5-13. It was a small city, but big enough to build an amphitheater that held 4,000 people. It is very likely that Jesus worked on building projects in Sepphoris either under his father or later with his brothers. Jesus probably also worked alongside other artisans on these projects, all the while negotiating bids, securing supplies, completing projects and working darned hard. Today the city is a rich archaeological site and it is possible that Jesus and his family could have worked on some of the ruins to be seen today. But we will never know.
3. CLUES FROM SCRIPTURE
During these 18 silent years we are not told anything specific about the life of Jesus…zip and zilch. However, there are many clues from scriptural snippets that can be pieced together to form a reasonably clear picture, with some assumptions built in of course, and I will acknowledge them as we go.
What Sort of Teenager Was He?
We know Jesus was quite an intelligent young lad, literate and academic, as he could hold his own with learned religious teachers at the age of 12 years (Luke 2:46-7). As observant Jews, it was his parent’s duty to teach all their smaller children to read and to understand the scriptures. Jesus then took his own deeper dive into the Jewish scriptures before the age of 12 years. This must have been fascinating and rewarding for his parents to watch. He was obviously a brilliant scholar.
His deep spiritual life and scriptural knowledge at such a tender age launched him onto the national stage on that infamous trip to Jerusalem when his parents lost track of him in the large caravan of cousins and clan members that was headed back to Galilee (Luke 2:41-52). The point Luke emphasises is that Jesus knew exactly who he was at this tender age. He did not become a god as time progressed (V.49). He was already telling his parents that he was divine. There must have been some very interesting conversations between their first born and Mary and Joseph while Jesus was a teenager!
We also know from scripture that he was obedient to his parents after this visit to Jerusalem (Luke 2:51), and that he grew up a strong, wise, and popular young man (Luke 2:52). It was around the age of 13 years that young Jewish lads went through their Bar Mitzvah and were then apprenticed into their father’s occupation. In Galilee this usually meant farming, but for Jesus it meant learning the skills of a craftsman throughout his teenage years in the family workshop and on building sites in and around Nazareth and beyond.
What We Know About Jesus’ Family
Psalm 132:11 tells us that the Messiah would come from the line of David. Matthew 1 and Luke 3 tell us that both Mary and Joseph had royal Davidic bloodlines. Matthew and Luke’s two genealogies tell us that Jesus’ grandfather on his father’s side was Jacob and his grandfather on his mother side was Heli. Since Nazareth was Mary’s home village, and possibly Joseph’s as well, it was quite possible that Jesus knew both his pappa’s Jacob and Heli while growing up.
We also know from scripture that Mary had at least one unnamed sister (John 19:25). Jesus would have most likely known both this unknown sister and her entire family very well as she too grew up in Nazareth and most likely married someone within Nazareth or from a village close by. We are not told in scripture of any other extended family apart from Mary’s first cousin Elizabeth, who probably originally grew up in Nazareth just a few years ahead of Mary, otherwise why would Mary want to stay three months with her when she was pregnant with our Lord (Luke 1:59). Mary and Elizabeth were obviously very close.
Scripture also tells us Jesus had four younger brothers named Simon, James, Joseph and Judas, with at least two younger sisters, probably more (Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 6:3). This makes a total of seven to eight children in the family at a minimum. This snippet of scripture gives us more understanding of what life would have been like in Joseph’s very busy home. Taking two years between births as an average implies that by the time Jesus was turning twenty years of age, some siblings would still have been small children, while others were strapping teenagers. Space in the home would have been limited, so I imagine it would have been a noisy and cramped home, with lots of jobs to be done just to keep the home fires burning. Joseph would most likely have built a workshop next to the house to do some jobs and house his tools, so the dwelling would have looked a little larger than average for the village, with a courtyard as well for the animals needed to transport building materials.
Fast forward ten years to the time when Jesus started his ministry and some of his siblings would have still been teenagers while some, more than likely the older girls, were married, possibly with their own families. If so, then this would have made Jesus an uncle. Some brothers would have been in business with their older brother, others could have branched out. Most likely the girls were married to local men and most local men were farmers. So, farming could well have been on the edge of the work/life roles that Jesus was involved in before he was baptized by John. Each family probably also had their own small orchard and a plot to grow vegetables and herbs. However, the prime purpose of all of Jesus’ business dealings during this time was taking responsibility for the welfare of his family.
To this day weddings are a major feature of any one’s life while travelling through their twenties, and it would have been no different in Nazareth, or for Jesus. I expect Jesus would have attended many in that decade, some of which were his own siblings’ weddings. One such wedding is recorded in John 2:1-11 and it tells us that just after Jesus began his ministry down in Capernaum, he was invited to a wedding back in Cana, which was a slightly more affluent village near Nazareth.
After the miracle at that wedding Jesus, accompanied by Mary, his brothers and his new disciples, went down to Capernaum on the lake for a few days (John 2:11-12). By then Capernaum had become Jesus’ home base. This gives us a clue that there could have been some family connection to that village by the lake that drew Jesus in the first place after he was rejected in Nazareth, and then drew his mother and brothers to join him there after the wedding to visit extended family? Perhaps it was just the wonderful site of all that water? We don’t know the answer, but we do know that they visited him again in Capernaum during his ministry a year or so later (Matthew 12: 46-13:55-56) so there could very well have been some family connection to the fishing village during the silent years.
Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 also give us some information on where the family sat on the social ladder via the nature of its family business. The English translations of the Bible say they were carpenters. However, the Greek word translated carpenter is tekton, from which we get English words such as tectonic and architect. The term was commonly used to refer to a artisan or craftsman, in either stone, wood or other materials. Craftsman would have been a better English translation. In common modern terms we should translate the word as builder. This would put the family of Jesus in the lower middle class.
The fact that they were endowed with substantial financial aid by the three wise men (Matthew 2:11) at the time of Jesus’ birth would have no doubt helped them set themselves up well when they returned to Nazareth from Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Business owners were a small minority of the workforce as most people in Galilee were farmers, and farming in Galilee at the time was a lucrative enterprise as Josephus tells us: The land is so rich in soil and pasturage and produces such a variety of trees, that even the most indolent are tempted by these facilities to devote themselves to agriculture. In fact, every inch of soil has been cultivated by the inhabitants; there is not a parcel of wasteland. The towns, too, are thickly distributed and even the villages, thanks to the fertility of the soil (Josephus. Wars. 3:42-43). This tells there would have been plenty of work for builders, especially after a good harvest.
From scripture we can also work out that Mary always knew and believed that her firstborn son was the Messiah. However, she must have kept this a tight secret from the rest of the family for some strange reason. We know this because Jesus’ younger brothers were very sceptical and even sneering of him and his ministry claims (John 7:2-9). They even said at one stage that he is out of his mind (Mark 3:20-22). This gives us a small insight into their negative mindset, which seemed a little pig-headed and arrogant, but perhaps it was just their sense of family embarrassment over the negative publicity their brother was giving them, particularly within the local religious establishment (Mark 3:22).
Was Jesus Cosmopolitan or Provincial?
Without doubt we do know that Jesus was rubbing shoulders with non-Jews on a regular basis. Galilee was known as Galilee of the Gentiles (Matthew 4:15-16) for good reason. It had been conquered by both the Greeks in 330BC and then by the Romans in 63BC. It was only a few generations earlier that Jewish farmers were able to wrestle control of Galilee from the Greeks during the Maccabean Revolt. There were still ten Greek cities just on the eastern side of Lake Galilee at the time of Jesus (Matthew 4:25). Every time Jesus looked across the lake while living in Capernaum, there was a gentile world staring back from the other side. Even Sepphoris, just 5 kilometres north of Nazareth was largely a gentile city as Herod himself was non-Jewish, and fearing the Jews, he surrounded himself with the same ilk. Undoubtedly Jesus would have done some building work for gentile families and government administrators during the years he ran the family business. Later on Jesus would think nothing of visiting Gadara, one of these ten Greek cities (Luke 8:26-38) and even going north to Tyre in Lebanon (Matthew 7:24). Unlike many pious Jews, Jesus was comfortable around gentiles, and this was because he wanted his disciples to later on take the Good News to the whole gentile world (Matthew 28:18-20). He was modelling what he wanted to reproduce in others.
We also know from history that Jesus spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic (Matthew 26:73), a Northwest Semitic language which was the foundation of Hebrew. Aramaic had been the language spoken in royal courts and empires in and around Syria for millennia. Its alphabet was also the foundation of both the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets. Its daughter language, Syriac, would go on to become the mother of the Arabic language five hundred years later as well as the liturgical language of the vast but now unknown Nestorian Church of the Middle East. So, Jesus spoke two slightly different languages, Aramaic and Hebrew. One spoken at home, and one in Jerusalem. With the Greeks and Romans living close by, he also probably knew a smattering of Greek and Latin as well.
4. CLUES FROM HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY
What Was His Hometown Of Nazareth Like?
Jesus is known in scripture and in prophecy as Jesus of Nazareth, or as a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). Isaiah 11:1, Zechariah 6:12 and Jeremiah 23:5 tell us that Jesus will be a branch of Jesse. This word branch in these prophecies is significant as the word Nazareth is derived from netzer, which is Hebrew for branch. We also know from John 1:45-46 that Nazareth had a lousy reputation! Can anything good come out of Nazareth? was the exclamation made by Nathanael when Philip told him that Jesus, an unknown building contractor from the redneck local hamlet of Nazareth was actually the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who had come to liberate them (John 1:45). Sometimes a single sentence can fill a book!
Nazareth was a Galilean Hicksville, the back-blocks, primitive. It was a boring little hamlet of between 200-400 people. Most Nazarenes were related to each other in some way and were living in a cluster of nondescript stone and mud homes. It was mostly full of large, poor, farming families. It was smelly from all the donkeys, cattle and sheep that were kept overnight in courtyards or in pens just outside the village, and the animals brought the flies and extra smell in summer. It was noisy from the chatter of dozens of small grubby children running free or tending animals. This is probably why later on Jesus was very much at ease with small children (Matthew 19:13). Nazareth had narrow dirt lanes between homes and was only where it was because of the excellent spring and well, which was recently excavated under the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in modern Nazareth.
Nazareth was Mary’s hometown (Luke 1:26-27), and scripture also hints that it was Joseph’s hometown as well (Luke 2:4). That’s why Joseph moved his family up there for safety reasons after coming back from Egypt (Matthew 2:19-23). Nathanael was justifiably surprised that anything good could come from that pathetic place. The village Jesus grew up in was exceedingly ordinary, low-class, blue collar to the core. and probably the butt of many local jokes. Today there are a million tiny villages in third world countries all over the world that look exactly the same as Nazareth did. I know them well as I lived in Punjabi villages for weeks at a time in the early 1980’s. Until recently this is how nearly all of humanity lived, all through history. It gives extra meaning to the term: God with us, Emmanuel.
Nazareth was built on soft limestone on a ridge overlooking very rich flat red-soil cropping country to the south. The locals took advantage of this soft limestone to build a labyrinth of cool underground, cellars, cisterns, silos and passageways for both practical storage reasons and for safety. In these cool underground spaces they stored grain, water, wine, olive oil, and anything else they wanted. It is quite possible that Jesus himself worked on digging out some of these structures and the family had their own cellar underneath their family home. Some of these hidey-holes would undoubtedly have also been used to conceal harvest produce from the tax collectors and therefore avoid the insidious levels of taxation the Romans leveed on all Jews. Jesus, as small business owner would have had to pay around 50% of his earnings in taxes to the Romans, and being a devout and honest Jew, he would have reluctantly complied (Matthew 22:15-22).
Nazareth was mainly home to lowly farmers, so it is entirely probably that the family of Jesus was also involved in farming to some degree. Everyone had to eat and there were limited opportunities to buy anything in such a small hamlet. Farming features prominently in the teachings of Jesus (fig trees, mustard seeds, sowing and reaping, sheep and goats, vines and branches) and this flow of ideas probably had its roots in personal experience. Church historian Eusebius tells us that two of the grandsons of Judah, Jesus’ younger brother, were Galilean farmers with a combined plot of 3.4 hectares (Historiae Eccleseastiea, 3:20, 1ff.). If correct this would confirm the family connection to farming, and also tells us that plots were exceedingly small for dryland farms relying on just 580mm of mainly winter rain each year.
Jesus’ Religious Practices
In the years leading up to age 30, Jesus would undoubtedly have been spiritually and intellectually preparing for the day he stepped out onto the national stage. As a devout Jew he would have led the family’s weekly feast every Friday night to celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath. The next day he would attend the local synagogue with all the other men and then rested until sundown. Nazareth’s synagogue was so tiny that the local men took turns reading the scriptures (Luke 4:16-17). He would have also travelled annually the 150 kilometres south to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival, which had been a family tradition (Luke 2:41). He possibly took his mother and siblings with him in the years before his ministry began (John 7:1-9). All the rituals and regulations of the law were kept by this High Priest of men in training (Matthew 5:17-20).
Mary’s first cousin Elizabeth lived not far from Jerusalem in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:64-66), so it is very likely that there was a meeting of lots of extended family during these festival pilgrimages. This would have allowed Jesus to spend quality family time and bond with John the Baptist before coming back down to Judea to be baptized by John years later. He spent some time in the wilderness and with his first cousin, but then when John was arrested, Jesus headed back up to Galilee to start his own ministry (Matthew 4:12).
5. CLUES FROM THE PARABLES
People often tell stories based on their personal experiences. These are deeply ingrained memories in their hearts, and they send the strongest message to others. I will now float the idea that at least some of the parables and stories Jesus told were based on his personal life experiences. If this assumption is correct, then the stories Jesus told give us many more clues as to what was happening in the 18 silent years.
Introducing The Parables
Jesus told about 46 parables and stories in total that are recorded in scripture. He undoubtedly told a lot more, but these 46 were deemed important enough by his disciples to record in the gospels for posterity. Most of them relate to small business, small town living, employment, handling money and debts, the construction industry, farming and herding, fishing, weddings, broken relationships, religious hypocrisy, social status, inheritances, servanthood, paying tax and scheming workers. The list of ordinary events is very revealing when you put it like that. Below is the full list so you can see what I mean:
What The Parables Reveal
The first thing that jumps out from this list is the sheer number of employment/finance/business-related parables and stories. They are by far the majority. Jesus’ use of stories, parables and metaphors was obviously based not only on his intimate knowledge of the Scriptures. However they also seem to be based on his own hard-won experience growing up and running a business in Nazareth, participating in the cyclical life of the village, going to work every day, attending synagogue, and interacting with his family, clan, neighbours, religious leaders and strangers. What we don’t know, and will never know, is how many of the stories recorded in the Gospels come from Jesus’ own personal experience or are about people he personally knew.
Did he know two builders that built on different foundations? Had he observed a pharisee and a tax collector giving offerings at the great temple in Jerusalem? Did he know someone who had lost a precious coin? Or someone who had found a treasure in a field? Did he build barns for a rich farmer, or did he know a rich farmer who had built bigger barns and then dropped dead? Had he been to a wedding where some women forgot to bring enough oil for their lamps? Had he seen a few arrogant selfish sons in nearby Sepphoris demand their inheritance early? Had he heard of a local Galilean farmer who had suffered a spot of bioterrorism when his enemy secretly sowed rye grass in with his newly sown wheat? Did he know a little old lady who had badgered a local official in Sepphoris until she got the justice she deserved? Had he been pruning a cousin’s vineyard, or sown a field for a friend once? Had he known a rich ruler who had given money to his administrators and then gone away on a journey.
We will never know the answers to these questions, but they do raise the possibility that at least some of the stories and parables that Jesus told came directly from personal experience or observation.
One Last Observation
One description that was definitely a result of detailed and lengthy personal observation was the lethal attack on the hypocritical lives, behaviours and attitudes of the Jewish religious leaders in both Galilee and Jerusalem found in Matthew 23. Here we find an extraordinary and detailed assault on the entire religious hierarchy of Israel. There is no doubt that this was the result of a lifetime of observation and frustration with those who had corrupted the true message of the Old Covenant that both Jesus, as the second part of the triune creator of the universe, and his heavenly father, had conveyed to Israel over a four-thousand-year period of continual revelation. And for what: For the sake of male power, religious ego, money, arrogance and status. His choice of repeatedly using the word hypocrite is instructive on its own. It was a Greek theatre term meaning one who wears a mask. This word was probably picked up easily as he lived less than an hour’s walk from an amphitheatre in Sepphoris that held thousands of people and was used for theatre productions.
Jesus lived an ordinary earthly life, complete with the joy, sorrow, drudgery, and excitement that everyone experiences in a village/family/provincial/rural environment. He lived in a large, struggling family in a smelly backwater of a village, taking the burden of financial and social responsibility for his mother and all his siblings. He most likely became the head of a small business. He kept himself pure as regards his religion. He felt the pain of losing a dearly loved parent, the joy of seeing his siblings married, and the rejection of several nit-picking, jealous, backbiting younger brothers. He worked for and mixed with gentiles long before he started his ministry. He was extremely intelligent and theologically brilliant, all while developing a fair amount of muscle working on construction sites.
What strikes me the most about this description is the audacity of the Father to send his son to this type of life before launching his ministry. It was so thoroughly ordinary and boring for the creator of the universe, who made a billion galaxies in an instant with the simplicity of a few spoken words, to be stuck in THAT village living THAT monotonous human life for so long. We often talk about the wisdom of God coming to earth to identify with those he was trying to reach, but this is ridiculous!
However, there was genius in the plan too. The ordinary peasants Jesus was trying to reach would have responded to nothing less than someone who was completely one with them: One with their struggles, their culture, their fears, their religion, their professions, their village life, their clan structure, their frustrations with authority, their political oppression, their sickness, their businesses, and their abject poverty. It was only because Jesus did all the above that they were prepared to listen and embrace him as their prophet, their champion. All this before he gave them the ultimate proof of conquering death.
And it’s been like that right through history.
He was and is one of us, yet he is God, Emmanuel!