Luke alone makes reference to the end of Jesus’ childhood in Luke 2:41-52. The role of this part of Luke’s narrative is transitional in at least two ways: (1) It provides a transition between Jesus’ infancy and ministry. (2) It describes a moment in his life when Jesus himself becomes conscious of who he is. Luke was quite comfortable with idea that even as a boy Jesus knew that he is God’s Son.
This latter element formed a significant part of many apocryphal gospels of the 2nd century CE in which he was appears as a child magician working miracles and speaking in the same mature language as during his ministry. It was common in other cultures to tell such stories of boyhood figures speaking and acting as men to anticipate their greatness. Most of these so-called gospels were regarded as heretical or of Gnostic origin and rejected by those who created the apostolic canon.
There was a time in liberal biblical studies when this passage was seen as evidence of Jesus’ human development and learning. At least two twentieth century novels and two Canadian church youth programs were based on this story. R.E. Brown rejects this point of view but does admit that Luke had no difficulty with Jesus growing physically as all human beings do, in social graces, as well as in wisdom and spiritual depth.
Brown also notes that this approach is contrary to the position adopted in John’s Gospel and later creeds of Jesus’ eternal pre-existence with God. Instead, Brown views the passage as illustrative of what Luke had said of Jesus in 2:40 and of John the Baptist in 1:80. They were ordinary human beings infused by the Holy Spirit.
The centre of the story, as Brown read it, “is not the boy’s intelligence but his reference to God as his Father in vs. 49.” The story is probably also from an earlier oral tradition that was unfamiliar with the story of the annunciation to Mary of the virginal conception. While Mary did play a significant role in rebuking Jesus for his absence, Joseph was also regarded as one of Jesus’ natural parents. They did not understand what Jesus was talking about when he gave what can be read as an impudent retort by a precocious youth.
No historical evidence can be drawn from the statement that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” This is merely a repetition of an earlier statement attributed to her in 2:19. Some scholars have made these sayings more significant. They see in the Greek word used (symballein = Eng. “Meditate upon, kept with concern, treasured”) a deeper sense of interpreting the meaning of specific events, often with divine assistance. That quality may have contributed to her later and more extreme veneration by the church.
If, as Brown and many other scholars believe, Luke composed this passage later than rest of the gospel as well as the birth narrative, it can be seen as reflecting certain aspects of Jesus’ adult ministry and his relationships with his family and disciples. (Cf. Luke 2:49; 9:45; 18:34; Mark 3:31-45; John 2:4.) As Brown notes, an appreciation of Jesus’ divine sonship came about only after the resurrection.
It is not uncommon for Christians to read this incident as Jesus’ bar mitzvah. Although there are a few earlier references to it in Jewish literature, that coming of age ceremony did not come into common use in Jewish families until the Middle Ages. To reiterate, the story does no more than provide a second conclusion to the birth narrative and a transition to Jesus’ adult ministry.
This final article brings to a conclusion what is by no means an original nor definitive discussion of the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke. It may be used freely and with attribution to the blogger by anyone seriously interested in knowing more about these stories that continue to have such an impact during the Christmas season. Any comments may be posted to this blog or forwarded directly to the author.