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The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus Goes to the Temple

As Luke's infancy overture comes to a close, he makes a transition to John and Jesus' ministry through a single incident from Jesus' adolescence (L. T. Johnson 1991:60). This is the only such incident in the Gospels, though the extrabiblical gospels do include such accounts (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 19:1-5). After the host of witnesses to Jesus in Luke 1:5--2:40, Jesus now speaks for himself for the first time. This is the literary climax of Luke's initial section and shows the sense of mission and self-awareness Jesus possesses. Jesus has a unique relationship to God and a clear sense of his calling, one that transcends his relationship to his earthly parents. That this event, though strictly speaking not an infancy account, belongs in this initial literary division of Luke is indicated by the fact that it takes place in the temple, which is where the section started in Luke 1:5. In addition, the note on Jesus' growth parallels the close of the discussion of John the Baptist in Luke 1:80.The Problem: Jesus Is Missing (2:41-45)

The events leading to Jesus' exchange with his parents begin with their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The parents of Jesus were devout Jews. The Old Testament commanded such a trip for three festivals a year (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles; Ex 23:14-17; 34:22-23; Deut 16:16). But by the first century, God-fearing Jews made only one journey a year because of the distances involved (Josephus on Passover--Life 345-54; Antiquities 17.9.3 213-14; Jewish Wars 2.1.3 10-12; 2.14.3 280; Brown 1977:472). The Passover was the major feast celebrated at the beginning of the Jewish year, Nisan 15, which falls in our month of March or April (Fitzmyer 1981:339-40). Only men were required to make the journey, so Mary's presence shows her commitment (Preisker 1964:373). Jerusalem was eighty miles from Nazareth, so the trip would take three days. Though some have argued that women and children traveled separately from the men as a way to explain how Jesus got lost, there is no ancient text that describes this practice.

Jesus is twelve years old. If the Mishna is relevant to the first-century Jewish practice, which is likely in this case, then religious instruction would have become more intense for Jesus upon his reaching twelve (m. Niddah 5:6; m. Megilla 4:6; m. `Abot 5:12). The custom of bar mitzvah for a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy was not in place at this time (Fitzmyer 1981:440).

After the seven days of celebration, Jesus' family returns home. The text does not say why his parents fail to make sure that he was present in the caravan. Perhaps, as verse 44 suggests, they assume he is with friends or relatives. In any case, on the first evening of their homeward journey they notice that he is missing. Jesus has stayed behind in Jerusalem, so Joseph and Mary turn back to find him.The Resolution: Jesus Explains His Call (2:46-52)

Apparently after one day's journey back to Jerusalem and a day looking for Jesus, it is on the third day that Joseph and Mary discover him at the temple, listening to and asking questions of the teachers. The exact location of the incident within the temple is unstated, but Jesus' discussion with the officials leaves those who listen amazed at his understanding and his answers. At the tender age of twelve, Jesus already shows signs of possessing great wisdom. Clearly Luke wants the reader to develop a sense of respect for this amazing, blessed child.

When the parents finally find him, Mary steps forward to address the young Jesus in a way that both parents and children can appreciate. She expresses concern about the anxiety Jesus has caused by remaining at the temple.

The mild parental complaint leads to Jesus' self-declaration of mission. With the reply appears the first of many dei ("it is necessary") statements in Luke (4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 19:5; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). The key phase in verse 49 is elliptical, making its meaning disputed. The statement reads, "I must be in the . . . of my Father" (the NIV renders this I had to be . . . ). Two views are popular: (1) I must be about my Father's affairs (L. T. Johnson 1991:61); (2) I must be in the house of my Father (Stein 1992:123; NIV). The second view also means that Jesus must be engaged in teaching God's ways, since for Luke the temple is a place where Jesus instructs (20:1--21:4). Greek idiom supports this second view.

Jesus' parents--and Luke's readers--need to appreciate that Jesus understood his mission. From the very beginning he is reflecting on the will of God. He starts revealing himself right in the center of Judaism's religious capital.

But there is a second key detail. Jesus refers to God as his Father. This alludes to the sense of family relationship and intimacy Jesus has with his heavenly Father (10:21-22). Such closeness to God not only is something Jesus' parents need to appreciate but also is a point the disciples will struggle to grasp (9:59-62; 14:26; Mk 10:29-30). In fact, Luke makes this the first note in a series of revelations that will build the case for who Jesus is. The infancy material stresses Jesus as Messiah, but this text is one of two hints early in Luke's Gospel that he is also much more. Luke reveals Jesus' identity gradually, bringing the reader along in an understanding of who Jesus is. So this first clue comes from Jesus himself. The other major clue comes in the infancy section, where Jesus' divine origin is tied to the Spirit (1:31-35).

Jesus is breaking new ground with his parents here, and they need to understand who he is, just as Luke's readers do. The text makes it clear that at the time they still did not understand what he was saying to them. But Mary treasured (or pondered) all these things in her heart, an appropriate response to Jesus' somewhat enigmatic remarks. Mary does what Luke wants his readers to do as well. It is good to pause and contemplate who Jesus is and the mission he performs. Even two thousand years of history does not do away with the need for such reflection.

Obedient to his parents, Jesus goes home with them to Nazareth. While there he grows in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Lk 1:80; 2:40). There he awaits God's timing to begin the ministry associated with God's house. In the meantime he shows respect for his parents through his obedience, a model for us in a world where teenage rebellion is all too common.

Previous commentary:
The Witness of a Man and Woman at the Temple

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