In this chapter, we will consider the first four stages of faith, those that generally cover the years from birth to young adulthood, even as they might be applied to what little we know of the background and early years of Jesus.
In fact, we know very little for sure. In terms of the three levels of tradition in the Gospels, it is hard to say that the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke contain anything other than third level, theological elaboration, using material that appears to be legendary in origin. Clearly, these accounts do not claim to record the actual words and deeds of Jesus, at least not in the way considered essential for the kind of apostolic witness laid down in Acts 1:15‑26. Nor, for that matter, do the stories even agree, except on a few basic points: first, that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a woman called Mary who was espoused to, but apparently was not yet living with, a man named Joseph; second, that the child was born in Bethlehem of Judea; and third, that later they made their way back to their residence in Nazareth in the Northern province of Galilee. Other than these basic assertions, that’s really all that they agree on. (See Raymond E. Brown, 1977.)
Still, are even these three areas of agreement really historical facts? Obviously, Jesus had to have been born. Yet do we really know for sure exactly where and when? Luke tries to link Jesus’ birth to an imperial census taken while a certain Quirinius was governor of Syria (AD 6‑7), but that is surely much too late. All other calculations point to a more likely date for Jesus’ birth as being between 6‑4 BCE. Nor is there any verifiable historical evidence, other than the rather early veneration of the cave‑grotto at Bethlehem, of that town, approximately five miles south of Jerusalem, really having been the place of his birth. As far as history knows him, our Jesus was Yeshua bar Yosef, the carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, about seventy-five miles north of Jerusalem.
So, exactly what are the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke really meant to tell us? Or even to what extent are they part of the kerygma or proclamation of the Gospel or Good News as preached by the Apostles—the second level or category of gospel material as recognized by contemporary scholars?
Here we have a problem, because although some of this background material made it into the official Christian creeds (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” etc.) it is quite obvious that the earliest apostolic message did not include such details of Jesus’ origin or birth, other than, much as Paul says, that he “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rm 1:3)—a claim that some would consider questionable¾and “born of a woman, born under the law” (Ga 4:4).
Add to this the lack of any infancy narrative in John’s Gospel—unless we persist in trying to see the words about those “who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” in the prologue (Jn 1:13) as being an allusion to this approach—we can only conclude that much like Mark’s gospel, not only does the central message of Christianity as preached by the Apostles really begin with Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, but so does any claim of the gospels to be a historical record of worth.
This is not to say that on the theological level these infancy narratives, like many other stories included in the gospels, do not have a profound role for us in helping us understand the essential meaning of the good news. For example, both these accounts, although again in somewhat different ways, indicate that Mary, although espoused to Joseph, was still a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Yet even here, the purpose seems to be primarily apologetic in the theological sense of the word. This story seems meant to convey, in a way the world might find most convincing at that time, a more basic message yet—that this man, Jesus, truly is what his name (Yeshua in Aramaic or Yehoshua in Hebrew) implies, that through him “God saves” and not only that, but that in him we see “the Son of God”, he who is, in some mysterious way, God‑with‑us, Emmanuel.
Yet for us, these stories have an additional impact, one that is quite the opposite of the more abstract theme of the descent of divine Wisdom or Word that we see featured in the later Pauline writings or in John. It is this same element that accounts for the popularity of the Christmas story and the infancy narratives, even among non‑Christians today. It is the idea that divinity can be revealed in and through humanity, and that even God, if that is what he was, “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40).
So, with this sparse amount of information to go on, but with confidence that he was indeed a human like us, let us proceed.
The Infancy of Jesus: Instinctive Faith
Aside from the uncertainty surrounding the actual circumstances of his birth, Jesus’ growing consciousness, even as an infant or small child, would have been presented with the same or similar range of possibilities that all human infants face. The first contacts with parents, the routines of the household, the emerging awareness of others, relatives, family friends, neighbors, the ebb and flow of village life—all these must have had an effect, whether greater or lesser, on the attitudes and responses of this child, and in turn, shaped and formed that set of attitudes and responses that we can call “trust” or in a more specifically religious context, “faith”.
Yet, to speak about “faith” in infancy presents us with much the same problem as that facing James Fowler when he first attempted to number and name the stages of faith. What does one do with a very small child? Fowler’s first instinct was to speak of such faith as “undifferentiated” and assign it a zero on a scale of 0 to 6 (Fowler, 1981). Later, as the importance as the psycho‑somatic basis for faith in the years to come seems to have impressed Fowler in his later outlines of the stages, the first year of life becomes what amounts to Stage I, or what I call implicit faith. (See Fowler, 1984.) This shift in emphasis is especially telling when we consider the importance of our family roots when it comes to shaping our later life.
That Jesus was a Jew among Jews should be obvious to anyone who reads the gospels even on the most superficial level. In none of these accounts, whether it is in the strident criticisms in Matthew’s gospel against the Pharisees, or the almost constant conspiratorial overtones implied by John regarding the Jewish leadership, is the fact of Jesus being a Jew himself overlooked. Instead, despite it’s silence regarding Jesus’ circumcision and his presentation in the temple, the Gospel of Matthew goes out of its way to emphasize his Jewish identity, attempting to link him, through his presumptive father’s line, to the patriarch Abraham himself and this through the family of David, Israel’s most famous warrior‑king.
Luke, on the other hand, the only non‑Jewish evangelist, without repudiating Jesus’ Jewish descent, chose to place the emphasis on his links to all humanity by symbolically tracing his ancestry clear back to Adam. Still, as we have already noted, it is only Luke that we find a clear allusion to Jesus being circumcised, which was the basic “sacrament” marking all Jewish males, and to his being offered or dedicated specially to God in a special temple ritual prescribed for all Jewish firstborn sons. It could be that Luke felt a need for his gentile readers to have more background on Jewish life and customs. More likely, Luke saw some deep significance in the temple presentation story, even though it is a bit hard to fit in with the Flight into Egypt as found in Matthew’s gospel. Simeon’s prophecy of the child being destined for the “falling and rising of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34)—whether it was really uttered or not—is meant to be an omen of sorts. Yet there is no indication of any other extraordinary occurrences in Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy and early childhood. That will have to wait until later.
Infants do not grow up in a vacuum, or if they do, severe psychological damage can result. What we can see of the personality of the man Jesus leads us to conclude quite the opposite. Psychologically speaking, it is unlikely that anyone could have been such an outgoing and compassionate person as Jesus was had he been deprived of motherly nurture and love. If the common Near‑Eastern pattern of mother‑child relationship which is still evident today in the Arab world, where it is still often customary for male children to be nursed until age three or four—although girls are usually weaned earlier—is any indication of what was the norm back then, we must conclude that Jesus’ infancy was outstandingly supportive for a future life of faith. Add to this Jesus’ favored legal position as “first‑born son”—again an advantage in most societies, even today.
Early Childhood: Intuitive Faith
If the instinctive faith of infancy consists primarily of that psychosomatic bonding of parent and child that builds up an infant’s trust, the intuitive faith of early childhood sees the introduction of more clearly conscious images of that trust, images which will, in years to come, be projected as symbols of the convictions or beliefs held by faith. Clearly, it is an extremely critical stage in faith‑formation. Given the wrong symbols, or distorted ones, a person’s faith development can be crippled for life. Given the correct symbols, that faith, with God’s grace, can blossom into a commitment that knows no bounds.
Even if we do not set aside the whole Matthean story about the flight into Egypt, and imagine that Jesus was brought back as a young child to be raised in Nazareth in the household of Mary and Joseph, we can still conclude that there was nothing extraordinary about either him or his family that attracted attention. Indeed, later in his public life it was in view of his earlier ordinariness that his relatives became quite alarmed and skeptical.
Yet future developments lead us to suppose that there must have been something going on that was much deeper. If early childhood is a time of intuitive faith, one that is learned not only from one’s parents but in the image of one’s parents, Jesus’ extraordinary devotion to God as “Father” speaks volumes of what his early life in Nazareth must have been like, and even more of his regard for Joseph. That God be considered as a father, so to speak, is not at all extraordinary in many of the world’s religions, and certainly not out of line for Judaism with its patriarchal tradition. Still, it is hardly the favored term in the Jewish list of divine names.
By the time of Jesus, with the emphasis on the divine transcendence or otherness, the sacred name of Yahweh, revealed in the scriptures and constantly invoked in the psalms, had now been all but removed from everyday or even ritual use. Jesus would never have heard the divine name pronounced in his synagogue. Instead, even when sacred letters were spelled out in the text, the reader was instructed to substitute Adonai or “Lord” or speak instead of Elohim, the generic term for God—literally “gods” (in the plural) or else use other roundabout Hebrew terms for the divinity. In the face of these taboos, we must conclude that Jesus’ familiar use of Abba or “Father” was extraordinarily free or liberal in terms of the orthodoxy of his day. So easily did he use this word, and with such a sense of endearment, that it would be almost the equivalent of calling God “Daddy”. It is apparently one of the things to which his critics objected most strongly.
How account for this? Might it have been by way of compensation? If there is anything to the old Christian tradition which is found in one of the rejected “apocryphal” gospels, a story about Joseph having been elderly at the time of Jesus’ birth, then it is possible that Jesus lost Joseph’s presence at some critical stage in his upbringing. However, whether it was with or without Joseph’s guiding presence as Jesus later grew into manhood, the sense of God as Abba or as a loving Father remained intense.
Add to this his sense of compassion, his love for nature, his love of children, his childlike sense of freedom to ignore social conventions—all these speak of an atmosphere that was trustful and warmly supportive of a childhood that was rightly summed up in the Jerusalem Bible translation of Luke 2:40. “Meanwhile, the child grew to maturity. He was full of wisdom and God’s favor was with him.”
Childhood to Adolescence of Jesus: Literal Faith
Such growth does not happen all at once. Immediately after the above‑quoted words, it is Luke who again gives us the most insightful story about the possible development of Jesus’ faith—the story about the lost boy Jesus in the Temple, and his disconcerted parents.
According to Luke (2:41‑50), the parents of Jesus like many pious Galileans, were in the habit of making the long journey to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple on the annual feast of the Passover. On this trip, when Jesus was “twelve years old”, he became separated from his parents and kinfolk and was found by them, three days later, sitting among the rabbis in the Temple porch, “listening to them, and asking them questions”. Those who listened to him, in turn, we are informed, “were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” His parents, on the other hand, “were astonished” and seem to have hustled him home uncomprehendingly, especially after he enigmatically asked them why they bothered to look for him, especially when they should have realized he “must be in my father’s house”.
Because it has all the earmarks of a pious legend, not many modern scripture scholars have seemed to take the time to seriously investigate this story in Luke’s gospel—probably because it is so patently symbolic of Jesus’ future mission. Whether or not the story is an authentic recollection or even a fictionalized account of a possible occurrence, it is a story with deep significance coming at a critical point in life.
However, why not go further and see this story as historically true precisely because the whole episode was somewhat disconcerting. Otherwise why would the evangelist admit to something so upsetting, even embarrassing, to his parents’ and relatives’ memory? Certainly, if the writer were indulging in pure fabrication, he would have found a more transparently edifying and consistent story to tell, one that would have stressed obedience of Jesus as well as his unusualness. Instead, Luke explains this apparent lack of obedience as obedience higher call and then tells us he went home and was obedient to Joseph and Mary after all!
Even if we believe the evangelist is putting words into the young Jesus’ mouth, the point of this story is that even then Jesus is pictured as being aware of his special relationship to God. Would this be possible at that age? True, the general impression of the story is one of precocity, not unlike the effect that a child prodigy in any field leaves upon those whose lives follow a more gradual pattern of development. No doubt, Luke wishes to play up this aspect for all it’s worth. Yet, at the same time, we should be aware that the average Jewish boy at that age was, and still is, expected to begin to undertake with all seriousness his religious observances. In some ways, this particular pilgrimage, in that year of his life, could be seen as the equivalent of the modern Bar Mitzvah. That Jesus is depicted as calling God his “Father” should be seen as a natural counterpart of his being now recognized as a dutiful son, that is, a Son (Bar) of Duty (Mitzvah).
Still again, at this point, Luke seems to have wanted to imply a lot more. It is not simply that Jesus sees himself as a dutiful “Son of the Covenant” as it were, but, even as “Son of God”. If the idea of Jews calling themselves “Sons of God”—in the sense of being God’s chosen people and subservient to God’s will—should not be considered exceptional at that time, so too that the young boy Jesus would have spoken of God as “my father”, in much the same sense that he used the same phrase later in the gospels, is hardly beyond the realm of possibility. Still, there is something special or even peculiar about the way that Jesus refers to his own relationship to God. And even if Jesus never directly, explicitly calls himself “Son of God” any place in the gospels that actually record his own words—as most scripture scholars seem to think today—still it is all of a piece. A God addressed personally as “Father” more than implies a relationship which sees oneself, even personally, and not just as part of a collective, as “Son”.
Is it possible Jesus would have thought that way at age twelve? If it is the trait of childhood, even later childhood, to take another’s words trustfully without qualification, then we also may have to conclude that Jesus’ understanding of the God whom he had been taught to think of as Abba was truly as his own personal father, one to whom he owed even a higher obedience than that due his parents. If so, then this whole incident speaks of a literal faith that is without qualification, one that is truly literal in the best sense of that word.
Nevertheless, perhaps we have to look for another emerging quality in Jesus’ faith by age twelve, a more critical one that parents today on a whole are probably more used to confronting than parents of Jesus’ own time. The transition from late childhood to early adolescence is very often a time when a real religious awakening is apt to occur. It may still be far from that kind of personal conversion or commitment that takes place in later life; but still, it can represent a real threshold to a deepened religious consciousness even though it is almost of necessity bound up with all the customary and often conflicting claims of conventional religious life.
Up to this point in life, where religious observance and belief has typically been identical with one’s immediate family, the widening consciousness of early adolescence generally brings about a new sense of identification with one’s peers, one’s culture, and, if favorably presented, with one’s religious inheritance. Certainly, coming from the small provincial town of Nazareth, where Judaism had long fought a battle with alien cultural and religious currents (see Lee, 1988) the years of parental example, synagogue attendance and instruction, where he probably also learned to read and write, must have had a profound influence upon him. (See Meier, 1991, I, pp. 271‑78.)
So now, even though the pilgrimage to the “high place” of Jewish piety, the Temple itself, for the High Holy Days, might have an annual event for Jesus’ family and friends, any such pilgrimage at this particular stage in his life could have conspired to unleash in this young man‑child a new sense of identification with his religious heritage that might have overwhelmed him at the time. It could even be true that he became lost in his enthusiasm for the big city and ended up back in the temple as the best place to be found once he found himself separated from his kin. Who knows? Nevertheless, by the time they found him, it might have been obvious that there also was something very special about this boy who was quickly becoming a young man.
Normally, according to faith development theory, we would expect that at his age Jesus’ faith up to this point would have been what is called literal or “literal‑mythic” when it comes to the contents or intellectual convictions that constitute one’s beliefs. Add to this that there would be little or no reason that even the faith of an adult, particularly in the backwater hill country of Galilee at that time, would be, at least in intellectual terms, any different from a more child‑like mythic‑literal faith in this regard. That God would uproot a tree or throw a mountain into the sea at the bidding of a person of faith was not inconceivable in an age where even pagans considered miracles to hardly be out of the ordinary. At the same time, however, there must have been more than a vague awareness that a more sophisticated reinterpretation of the scriptures was well underway in Alexandria and other intellectual centers of the Jewish world—a sophistication that was, no doubt, considered tantamount to being close to an infidelity by the conservative rabbis in Galilee. Both Lee and Meier underline the conservative strain of Galilean Jewry. The latter remarks (Vol. I, p.277) that such folk were not likely to be drawn to what they must have considered to be the novelties of the Pharisees, unlike the Judaism in and around Jerusalem which had to absorb the brunt of the attempts of the Antiochine empire to turn Jews into Greeks. In half‑pagan Galilee, the “Galilee of the Gentiles”, small enclaves, like Nazareth, could exist apart from the more pagan towns, their distinct Jewishness all the more marked precisely because of their distance from the Jewish capital. Thus, it is no accident that the revitalization of Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and again after the Bar‑Kochba revolt, began in Galilee. In the meantime, pagan towns such as Sepphoris, a scarce four miles away, might seem to have never existed, except possibly as an opportunity for outside employment as far as the inhabitants of Nazareth were concerned. As for the seaside resort of Tiberias, the “sin city” of Galilee, Jesus, like all other good Jews of his time, probably avoided it like the plague.
Could the young Jesus been entirely unaware of all this ferment? While there may be some reason to suspect that Jesus may have learned a bit of Greek (see Meier, I, p. 261‑2) it seems unlikely that Jesus might have known much about the details of the outside world and its thought—other than perhaps being aware that the Hebrew scriptures had already been translated into Greek. Still, would he have been aware that many of its central concepts had been reinterpreted in terms of more philosophically refined Greek concepts by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria? We can only speculate.
At the same time, could the fact that the pharisaic movement was a largely lay‑led reinterpretation of the Old Testament faith away from the temple cult and its ritual priesthood have escaped even a village boy from Galilee—even more so when an annual trip to the big city underlined these major differences? Here is where the young Jesus most likely became aware of a growing division within his own tradition. Certainly, the difference between the opulent temple ritual, with its vested priests and legions of minor clergy, its bloody sacrifices, and the uneasy political accommodation between the hierarchy and the Roman imperial government must have contrasted sharply with the home‑town synagogue with its local rabbi and its simple round of psalms and scriptural lessons. Above all, in these differences he must have begun to sense the division between these two variations within Jewish culture that became expressed, in religious party terms, the Sadducees opposed to the Pharisees. If so, one can hardly doubt what may have been going on in the mind of this precocious boy from Galilee as he sat among the teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions”.
Is it possible that the boy Jesus already begun, as many teen‑agers sooner or later do, to question the why and wherefore of religious belief and observance? Was he already viewing, with some distaste, the ritualism of the official temple cult with its slaughtering of multitudes of cattle and sheep, or comparing it against the more internalized piety of the various pharisaic sects?
From what we may gather from the gospels, Jesus, not unlike the prophets before him, appears to have harbored strong reservations regarding the efficacy of temple worship, even though he revered the temple as a symbol of God’s abiding presence among his people. We can judge from his later remarks and criticisms, and even more by his demonstrated disdain for the legalism and sometimes outright hypocrisy of much of the then-current piety, whether that of the temple or of some of the more legalistic types of phariseeism. Indeed, this might just be the motive behind Luke’s recounting of this story in the first place—a prophecy in a way of what is to come.
Yet all this is so much surmising and that we can say little more except to point out that the story itself again tells us that he returned to his home town and was “obedient” to his parents, and that he “increased in wisdom, and in years, and in favor with God and men” (Lk 2:52).
These are important statements for us, and should dispel the sort of silly speculation that some well‑meaning Christians, and even some later theologians, have engaged in when they let doctrinal presuppositions, orthodox or otherwise, become more important in their minds than the gospel narratives. The obvious meaning of these passages is that Jesus, whether as an infant, child, adolescent or youth, grew and developed just the same as anyone else of his day and age. His growth was not only physical, but also mental (“in wisdom”), and spiritual (“in God’s favor” or “grace”) just as that of any person in his or her early life. Other than this one single incident, there is no hint of anything special about him, at least in any sense of which he was conscious. Even here, allowing for the gospel writer’s hindsight, there is nothing in this story to indicate anything different than a particular precocity and giftedness marking this older boy becoming a young man. Jesus is someone who bears special watching. He will be a marked man and that to some degree he already senses it, because for him God’s business is his father’s business and he seems more than eager to begin his apprenticeship.
The Hidden Years: Unconventional Faith?
After this one incident, are we told nothing more about his youth and young manhood in Nazareth. If the infancy narratives have tried in some way to fill in for the absence of hard information regarding Jesus’ origins, the silence of Matthew and Luke about the years that followed is even more striking. They are truly what the old “Life of Christ” type of book generally called them: “the hidden years”. Still, may we not surmise some more?
If Luke’s portrait of the boy‑soon‑to‑be‑man in the temple is meant to heighten an impression of individual and vocational self‑awareness—certainly this must be part of what is behind Luke’s words about his “father’s business”—the process of coming to full self‑realization must have taken many years. Whether the boy Jesus really ever said those words or not, the impact of its meaning is inescapable as we try to imagine what the self‑consciousness of Jesus was as he passed from later adolescence into manhood.
In my earlier book on faith development, seeking to simplify James Fowler’s terminology and his naming of the next stage of faith as “synthetic‑conventional”, I decided to rename it “conventional” and leave it at that. I somewhat regret that decision now. Conventional can mean merely ordinary, and it is doubtful that Jesus’ own faith was ever that. If I had to choose one of the two terms now, I’d choose “synthetic” as much as I would fear that might be misunderstood as meaning “artificial”. Rather, by “synthetic”, Fowler meant simply that this next stage is marked by the formation of a synthesis, that is, the coming together of many different elements to form a new whole. Normally, what is conventional about such faith is that this synthesis is most apt to consist of elements taken from what is usual or normal in the environment in which it is formed, combining the ideas learned from one’s parents with those learned at school and from friends and from society at large. However, aside from those notional aspects, it is probably questionable that the faith of the adolescent or youthful Jesus would have been judged all that typical of his peers.
As we all know, adolescence can be a time of great turmoil, one during which emotional and psychological stability can be severely tested and the quest for self‑identity often takes on contradictory expressions of conformity and recalcitrance. We have no idea to what extent these moods might have affected Jesus. Pierre Babin, a French religious psychologist, saw three distinct phases to adolescence, all of them marked, to varying degrees, by a young person’s attempt to define himself or herself in the face of the world, with only the final phase harboring the possibility of arriving at the threshold of a truly personal, fully‑committed faith. (See Babin, 1963, esp. pp. 80-86.)
If Jesus’ own faith could be called unconventional during this period, it would be from a different aspect entirely, one that is more in the realm of what we would consider psychological than intellectual. By this is meant the synthetic element which we would expect to be found in the otherwise conventional faith of Jesus in his adolescence may have been complicated to an unusual degree, at least for that day and age, by a crisis of self‑identity. The reasons for hazarding this guess, however, are not in any way based on the infancy narratives or Luke’s single story about Jesus’ own boyhood. Instead, they are calculated from what we can know about Jesus much later on.
It has become commonplace to characterize our own age as one of extreme individualism and self‑awareness, at least compared to previous periods in human history. To an extent that we find it to be almost incomprehensible, we moderns, particularly those of us who live in the culture of the western world, seem unable to grasp the sense of solidarity, the sense of group identity that normally holds individual persons tightly in its grip in other cultures. In fact, we even find it hard to imagine how much this group mentality dominated our own ancestors’ lives. For example, it has been noted that almost all the phrases or words in the English language that begin with the word or prefix self are completely absent from the vocabulary of just a few centuries ago. Such current terms as “self‑awareness”, “self‑identity”, “self‑determination”, “self‑fulfillment”, etc.—these were concepts and goals that were largely unknown or ignored, or if conscious at all, usually regarded with some suspicion.
While, again, it is especially risky to try to delve into what the mentality of Jesus may have been in this regard, particularly at this stage of his life with so little to go on, but we might suspect that where his adolescent or youthful faith may have been most unconventional was in this area of self‑awareness or what the great psychiatrist Carl Jung called “individuation”. The reason for this guess is again the unusual degree to which Jesus referred to God as “Father”. Not only was his use of the term, for his particular culture unusual (for reasons that have already been explained), but also almost outrageously personal in its tone. He taught his followers that not only God was “your (their) father” but seems to have especially referred often to God as “My (his) Father”.
It has often been said that a major element in the process of individuation is the cutting of ties with one’s parent. Freud observed that for a man, probably the greatest or most significant moment in his own self‑development is the death of one’s father, because even if one happens to be closer to one’s mother, still, the death of one’s father means, psychologically speaking, the moment when one must assume full responsibility for oneself. The same is probably true regarding a woman’s relationship to her mother, although, in a more patriarchal society, probably not to the same extent. Yet, at the same time, it is usually only after a parent’s death that the younger person begins to realize how much he or she owes to that parent and how dependent they were upon that person. Accepting that parent’s death, then, is often the precondition to discovery of one’s own true self.
What this means for one’s relationship to God may be uncertain. In some cases, it appears to have no effect whatsoever, but in others, it may occasion a religious break‑through. In the case of Jesus, especially if he had lost the presence of Joseph fairly early, the substitution of the sense of God’s own personal fatherhood may not only have been enhanced but also have brought about, in the process, an even greater sense of self‑awareness that is usual during one’s youth.
Of course, all this is mere speculation, but there might be something to it, especially if the meaning of Luke’s story about the boy Jesus in the temple is meant to be predictive—how else interpret the contrast between Joseph being called “your father” (by Mary) and the answer of Jesus who contrasts Joseph to “my father” and his own need to devote himself to His interests?
One other possible natural reason for Jesus’ own degree of self‑awareness suggests itself. Up to this point, I have stressed the lack of sophistication of the Galilean Jews as compared to what must have been the case in Jewish culture in and around Jerusalem. The jibe “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46) and the condescending remarks about Galileans in general recorded in the gospels indicate, again, that the Jews in that northern province were considered to be unenlightened, potential troublemakers, or generally, of no account. They were regarded as rural ghetto dwellers in an otherwise pagan territory.
While a ghetto mentality often makes people very narrow in their thinking, it may also occasionally have just the opposite effect. When one grows up in a world where one sees oneself as part of an embattled minority, where every situation in life is almost always seen within a mental framework of “them” against “us”, there would seem to be a certain inevitable probability that at least some of the members of that society are going to strike out in a more independent direction of thought, one which to some extent is seen as a betrayal of one’s own group. Chaim Potock, in his novel, The Chosen, described such a process in the mind of a young Orthodox Jew in New York and the effect it had of separating the young man from much of what he had known. However, such a growing awareness of the wider world outside cannot be accomplished without a deeper awareness of oneself. So also it must have been for Jesus in Nazareth. At least we must surmise that, even in what we think of as “conventional” faith, Jesus was in some marked way becoming more unconventional.
Yet the question remains: did this happen all at once, or only over a long period of time? The twenty years from early adolescence to full manhood may have remained hidden because they were outwardly unremarkable—either because they contained a faith life that was indistinguishable from those of his fellow town‑folk or else because they masked a growth that was so profound that it needed the seclusion of complete anonymity to bear its fullest fruit.
There is no way that we will ever know. The Spirit that works unseen will blow where and when it will. So too, the process that marks the conversion from a merely conventional to a more intensely personal faith. For some—the “twice‑born” to use William James’ term—the change can be dramatic and even disorienting. For others—the “once born”—the growth can be imperceptible until it blooms full‑flower. Most likely, Jesus belonged to the latter group. What was to happen alongside the Jordan was the final bursting forth of a vocation many years in the making.
Still, we can assume that outwardly his life was more or less conventional, that he did apprentice “carpentry”—more likely handyman work of all sorts as well as general house‑building—at first under Joseph’s direction and, somewhere along the line, all on his own. If he appeared unusual in any way, it may have been, one might suspect, in his devotion to God in prayer and scripture reading, and perhaps in a certain apartness that was conspicuous in his apparent reluctance to marry.
Certain recent commentators, (for example, John C. Dwyer, 1983) suggest that Jesus probably had married but childless, was either separated or widowed. This thesis, even if rather conservative compared to speculations regarding Jesus’ relationship to Mary Magdalene (based mostly on later apocryphal writings as The Gospel of Philip) seems as unwarranted as it is untraditional. Most authorities, such as Meier, who considers the question at some length (Vol. I, pp. 332‑45), find it improbable. Unusual as the single life was among Jews during that period, we know far sure, on his own testimony, that the apostle Paul remained a celibate. Nor was institutional celibacy among Jews entirely unknown, as we can see from the existence of the Essenes during that same period. No doubt, it would have been generally expected that Jesus would marry, but there seems to be no reason that would militate against him having postponed the decision to do so, particularly if something else may have been brewing in his mind. Again, perhaps Luke’s story of the boy Jesus in the temple is meant to be a hint of some such thing.
There has been much speculation in recent years, ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on what influences the Essenes may have had on Jesus’ own religious consciousness. This Jewish sect may have had an influence that spread far beyond their headquarters at the monastic‑like center that they maintained in the Judean desert at Qumran, just a few miles south of Jericho, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Although the core members of the community appear to have lived a celibate life, there may have been married followers as well—some of whom must have lived elsewhere. Ritual ablutions, or bathing, were one of the major features of their religious practice, while much of their literature speaks in apocalyptic terms of a coming divine judgment and a messiah‑like deliverer who is characterized as, or is to be preceded by, an expected “Teacher of Righteousness”.
We shall see shortly that much of this sounds similar to what is said about John the Baptist. Could Jesus have been aware of all this way up in Galilee? It seems possible, even if no mention of these Essenes appears in the gospels—indeed, until recently we hardly knew of their existence except for a few fleeting references to them in the work of the Jewish‑Roman historian, Flavius Josephus. Even over a half-century since their discovery, much still remains to be learned from them, with many fragmented scrolls still needing to be reconstructed and published. Yet given the religious conservatism of the Sadduccees, fighting to retain their control in the political turmoil of the capitol, the various schools of the Pharisees, the radically nationalist Zealots and the mystical Essenes, each group espousing its own version of Judaism, we can surmise that Jesus, even in the hinterland town of Nazareth, must have been exposed to a bewildering variety of options.
If there is any truth to the adage that “the boy is the father of the man”, then we have to conclude that the youthful Jesus must have been developing an extraordinary sense of mission, of a call toward something else than his work‑a‑day life as an inhabitant of a small provincial town. Yet what that vocation was remained to be seen. By the time he was thirty years of age or thereabouts, the urgency became clear. He must strike out on his own to the Jordan where John was baptizing and calling for a spiritual renewal among the chosen people.