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.
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