The New Testament says very little about Jesus’ life before he began his ministry. Only Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts tell us anything about those years.
A natural curiosity arises about what sort of boy Jesus was and what he did with his time. Why doesn’t the Bible say more about Jesus’ childhood?
What We Know
Jesus was raised a Jew by Mary and Joseph. His parents were visiting Bethlehem for the Roman census when Mary gave birth to her first son. He was circumcised on the eighth day as per custom (Luke 2:21) before being presented at the temple for purification (Luke 2:22).
Jesus was visited by Magi with gifts fit for a king (Matthew 2:11). The family fled to Egypt, away from Herod’s massacre of all baby boys following an angel’s warning.
There is a short episode in Luke 2 where a 12-year-old Jesus spoke with the priests in the temple at Jerusalem while his parents and siblings walked home, not realizing their eldest child was still in the city. After that, we read nothing about Jesus until he is about 30 years old.
Small Gospel Details
Luke 2:40 provides a few details about Jesus, which are worth expanding on. He was “strong,” “filled with wisdom,” “the favor of the Lord God was upon him,” and he “grew.” These items tell us:
1. Jesus did not suffer significant illness or disability. He “grew,” which, as parents know, is one indicator of good health. His strength contributes to this assumption, although we must not take it to mean that he was strong in the way Samson was strong.
Nor are we to say that he never got sick the way children do. Simply, there is no indication of his having to overcome a persistent health issue.
2. Jesus was wise from the Greek “sophia” meaning “wisdom, insight, skill (human or divine), intelligence.” His growth and progress were both physical and mental.
The Bible does not portray Jesus as a man in a boy’s body — he was still a child, not born with the understanding of an adult.
Yet, his wisdom, insight, skill, and intelligence were beyond those of ordinary children because he was sinless: That is, not reckless, disobedient, or easily distracted.
One learns skills by taking instruction from a teacher. If Jesus was skilled, then he paid respectful attention to the priests and his father Joseph.
3. God’s favor was recognizable to those who truly loved God. One might hear the echo of Luke 1:80, describing John also as strong and wise, but Jesus enjoys God’s favor “in an unusual and increasing measure” (ESV Study Bible).
Simeon and Anna immediately identified Jesus as King, both because Jesus’ humble birth fulfilled the prophecies, but also because they walked with the Lord closely, so they knew who his Son was without being told.
4. Jesus confidently pursued truth and was not satisfied with anything less. When he was only 12 years old, Jesus’ understanding of Scripture was considerable, although he was still learning from the priests.
The Greek “eperótaó” (Jesus questioned the priests in Luke 2:46) suggests more than deep curiosity and a desire to learn. According to Strong’s Concordance, “eperótaó” suggests that when Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem, he demanded answers from the priests.
Yet, given what we know about his sinless nature, Jesus would have behaved respectfully while searching for satisfying answers to his questions.
Details from Jewish Life
Other general aspects of life as a Jewish child in Galilee tell us what Jesus’ childhood was probably like. “Galilee’s distance from the city afforded a somewhat milder approach that had little respect for legalism.”
Jesus still learned about the Old Testament and memorized considerable amounts of Scripture, which he often quoted during his ministry. “He also likely attended a Jewish school by age six, since these were common even in remote areas.”
The language of his teaching can also provide insight. Jesus uses images relating to building, shepherding, vine dressing, and baking bread. He portrays business transactions and images of hierarchy. These were possibly “the everyday sights of His youth” he would eventually use to flesh out his teaching.
The Old Testament
Jesus is frequently described as a better so-and-so. Like Daniel with Meschach, Shadrach, and Abednego, Jesus would have been in a position of responsibility for his siblings and a role model for his friends. Daniel offers a foretaste of Jesus’ integrity and leadership.
Joseph provides a contrast: A boy of 17 favored by God but hated by his siblings. His brothers “could not speak peacefully to him” (Genesis 37:4) How did Joseph handle favor? He was arrogant and tactless towards his brothers, describing how they would one day bow to him. His character provides insight into how Jesus would not have behaved towards his siblings.
Given how insightful, wise, and studious young Jesus was, and considering he was without sin, he would have perfectly followed God’s command to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Malachi 6:8). He would have walked humbly with his siblings, friends, and towards his parents as well.
Why Doesn’t the Bible Tell Us More?
Alfred Edersheim in “Jesus’ Childhood: The Missing Years?” wrote, “I think the Bible doesn’t say much about the childhood of Jesus because it focuses on his words and his acts by design.” Concentrating too much time on his childhood would have taken our gaze off of this ministry and the purpose of Scripture.
This is not a story about a little boy growing up to be a hero. “The Bible really wanted to focus on the reason he came to earth, which was not just the growing up phase, but the words and the works of Jesus and leading up to his time on the cross.” Since so little has been revealed about those early years, each recollection must be important.
Perhaps Mary and Jesus’ brothers had many possible memories to share. From those memories, however, Luke extracted what was most important for his purpose, which was to compile “an orderly account” of the events recounted in the gospels so that his master Theophilus “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
His methodical study begins from the moment of Mary’s obedience and leads, through Acts, into the formation of the early church. Luke’s purpose was to assure Theophilus of the truth.
The gospel writers might have learned more but decided not to put it in their writing because they were not essential to the redemption narrative.
Another possible reason for there being so little information about Jesus’ childhood in Scripture was that friends and family didn’t share much. This could have been owing to their focus on spreading the good news or, for those who rejected Christ, shame, fear, or anger.
Matthew’s gospel “includes nine proof texts unique to his Gospel […] to drive home his basic theme: Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT predictions of the Messiah.” Among these are verses pertaining to Jesus’ childhood, verses not featured in any of the other three gospels.
Those verses were the only ones he believed were necessary in order for his people — the Jews — to understand that Christ was the Savior they had been waiting for.
Matthew and Luke relied on accurate and detailed record-keeping in their respective fields: Luke was a doctor; Matthew a tax collector. Whatever they left out of their writing was not, in their eyes, relevant to the purpose of Scripture, even though the topic is interesting.
The Gospel Is Not a Biography
A well-written autobiography turns a person’s life into a story with features such as an introduction, rising narrative, and even a climax.
An autobiography typically adopts a single tone or style and is designed to entertain, teach a lesson, take advantage of a money-making opportunity, or promotes an alternative view of someone who feels misunderstood. Such work spans a lifetime and perhaps includes earlier generations to create context. An autobiography promotes personal fame.
When someone is famous, fans want to know all the little details of a celebrity’s life right down to childhood toys and the color of his or her bedroom. The minutiae of growing-up would feed a curious fan, but not a maturing heart for Christ.
Why Does This Matter?
The Son of God came to earth as an infant — this should get our attention. The Son of Man grew up from infancy, but Jesus as one with the Father and the Spirit always was a part of the Great I AM, without beginning or end.
And even when Jesus was here, he pointed disciples to the Father constantly, for he had “not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment — what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
Jesus wants followers, not fans. He said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). In relation to the Trinity, we are God’s children if we follow the risen Christ.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.