The Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ upbringing—his growing-up years. Church traditions have given us paintings, stained glass windows and statues of Jesus as a child with a halo around his head, many times posing piously.
But is this the real Jesus as he grew up and matured? Was he born a holy icon, knowing and understanding all things? Was his life as a child (and adolescent) that much different from any other Jewish male living during the first century? We read and know from Luke 2:41-52 that at the age of 12 Jesus had already so developed in his understanding of the Scriptures that the teachers of the law were amazed at him. How did a preteen boy gain such understanding, confidence, and wisdom? Was he simply born with it, or did he mature into it?
We can glean some insight to Jesus’s development and learning from Scripture. However, by examining the culture of that period and examining his surroundings, we can see a little bit of what helped shape Jesus’s thoughts, desires, commitment, and determination.
The Formative Years
We learn from Scripture that after the visit by the Magi when Jesus was about 1.5 to 2 years old, Joseph (Jesus’ stepfather) was warned in a dream by an angel of Yahweh to flee to Egypt because Herod the Great wanted the child dead.
Sometime after Herod the Great’s death in 1BC, Archelaus, his son, became king in Judea. After allowing some time to pass for Archelaus to solidify his reign, an angel of Yahweh appeared to Joseph in a second dream telling him it was okay to return to Israel. Thus, Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus returned to Israel and settled in their small, northern former home of Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-23). Jesus would have been between 2.5 to 3.5 years old by this time. Luke records these events in a summary in Chapter 2:40 “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”
Nothing more is said about Jesus until he is 12 years of age. What took place during those formative years? Jesus was and still is human, after all; he did not issue forth from the womb with a halo around his head, having all of this great wisdom and understanding, mesmerizing everyone with his mysterious gaze as we see in the movies and paintings. Luke tells us plainly that “the child grew and became strong and filled with wisdom”. Some versions say “continued to grow”. What happens when children grow up? They learn, experience life, develop their personality, habits, likes and dislikes and they mature. Furthermore, the child Jesus became strong (physically strong) and filled with wisdom. This is a process that takes time, proper training and teaching.
R. C. H. Lenski says the following in The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel regarding Luke 2:40:
“The verbs are imperfect and denote continuance, and this includes also the participle. We refer euxaneto physical growth and ekrataiouto to mental and spiritual increase in strength, for it would be superfluous to add a second verb to tell of the physical development and to leave only a participle for the mental and spiritual growth. The Savior of the world…grew up physically in the most normal way…”
“He grew mentally in the same way and attained more and more strength of mind, understanding and reason.”
“The young lad attained more and more wisdom…in the Biblical sense as the right knowledge of God and his salvation coupled with its application to life.”
Scripture tells us that Joseph was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19) and that Mary had found favor with God (Luke 1:28). They both were of the house (lineage) of David. They knew Torah and were faithful, believing Jews; why else would Yahweh have chosen them to raise, teach, and care for His only begotten Son? Being faithful followers of Yahweh, they knew and followed God’s commandments, and now they had a son, the son of God, to raise. What would Joseph and Mary have read in the Scriptures concerning the raising of children?
1“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that Yahweh your God commanded me to teach you, and you are to carry them out in the land to which you are crossing over to possess, 2so that you will fear Yahweh your God by keeping all his statutes and his commandments that I command you, you and your son and your son’s son, all the days of your life, and so that your days may be prolonged. 3Hear therefore, Israel, and be careful to do them, so that it may be well with you and so that you may increase greatly just as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised to you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. 4“Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone! 5Therefore you are to love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6These words that I command you this day are to be in your heart, 7and you are to repeat them over and over to your children and are to talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8You are to bind them for a sign on your hand, and they are to be for symbols between your eyes. 9You are to write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates.– Deuteronomy 6:1-9 (REV)
In the Jewish culture, the parents were primarily responsible for the education of the children. Although some education would come from the local Rabbi in classes and on Sabbaths in the Synagogue, it was mainly the responsibility of the parents. The father was responsible for teaching his children Torah, but because of the normal activates of daily life (providing a living for his family), the mother performed much of the daily teaching. She would teach basic Torah, morals, etiquette, discipline, and obedience. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) was the first lesson to learn and memorize.
Mary and Joseph most certainly would have shared with Jesus some of the things that were said and prophesied about him. Those things that were spoken by the Angel of God, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon and Anna (Matthew 1:20-21, 2:10-11, Luke 1:31-35, 41-45, 2:8-20, 25-35 & 36-38). Scripture states in Luke 2:19 that Mary ‘treasured up all these things”. The things Mary and Joseph would share with Jesus would be at the very foundation of his learning and development.
The father was also socially responsible to teach his son a trade, a means to support his future family. Generally (and logically), that trade would be the one the father was most familiar with—his own (ex. Genesis 47:1-4). He was also responsible to teach his children the importance of places and events. He would explain how these had formed their lives and how God had worked with Israel throughout the ages so they could follow in the footsteps of their forefathers.
When we read that Jesus grew in “strength and wisdom”, these are not trite words. Joseph was a builder (tekton)—not just a worker of wood, as wood was not the primary building material of choice. He would have been adept in working with stone, mud bricks, and, yes, also wood, but possibly plaster and excavation as well. He was a builder, a construction worker, and would have taught Jesus this art; thus, Jesus grew in strength. This is not speaking of spiritual strength, it’s the word generally used of physical strength. As a builder, Jesus experienced sore and strained muscles, scrapes, cuts and bruises, thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and long, grueling hours of physically and mentally challenging tasks. This learning would serve him well in the future.
The family had settled in Nazareth, a small, quiet village just a few miles from the Roman Provincial capital Sepphoris, a booming cosmopolitan city very much in need of qualified and experienced builders. As Joseph and Jesus would walk to Sepphoris and places in that area, it would be easy for Joseph to teach the young Jesus about the places within eyesight and about the events that took place there. Any loving Jewish father would have done this. Joseph knew who he was training—the Messiah was in his care. I would imagine the conversations between Joseph and Jesus on their way to work were absolutely wonderful, exciting, and inspiring to Jesus.
Jesus would have also gone to Synagogue growing up. We know this from the Gospel of Luke:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and as his custom was he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.– Luke 4:16
Jesus was accustomed to going to the local synagogue. He grew up there and likely learned from the local rabbi. A young Jewish boy would attend synagogue until the age of 12 or so for his elementary education. Reading the Scriptures and writing on wax tablets, studies in Torah, and Israelite history were all taught there.
There were also academies—institutions of higher learning—in Israel at the time, although most likely only in the largest cities. It is safe to assume Jesus did not attend one as they were very expensive, and only the wealthiest of families could afford them. We also see signs of this in Scripture; further on in Luke 4 the people present at the public opening of Jesus’s ministry were amazed that he could speak with such grace and expound the Scriptures with such authority.
And they all were giving a good testimony about him, and were amazed at the words of grace that proceeded out of his mouth, and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”– Luke 4:22
At the age of 12, Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem speaking with the teachers of the law:
And it came to pass, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.– Luke 2:46-47
The record in Luke 2 with Jesus at the Temple concludes with verse 52 “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.”
Here Lenski writes:
“Compare verse 40. “Wisdom” is placed first because Jesus at twelve already revealed its possession in a high degree; he kept attaining more and more of it. We refer elikia to bodily stature, not to age, for it need not be said that he grew older. Most of the pictures of Jesus are too weak. He must have grown into a strong, impressive, commanding figure. These pale, anemic, Christs ought to be abolished from our imagination. The sense of charis as it is explained in V. 40 is substantiated here, for it came to Jesus from men as well as from God. He stood in high favor with both. The imperfect tense states that not only this progress continued but, as an open tense, that more is to follow. The three nouns are datives of relation.”
Had he attended one of the academies, there would not have been any reason for their marveling at his grace, authority, understanding of Scripture or ability to ask and answer deep questions.
Another interesting point from the Gospel of Luke appears in verse 41:
And every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.– Luke 2:41
Jesus’s parents went to Jerusalem every year they were in Israel during Jesus’s upbringing. But where was Jesus? Mary and Joseph certainly would not have left him at home alone; he went with them, (as did presumably, his brothers and sisters). Lenski writes very beautifully concerning this verse:
“During the childhood of Jesus Joseph and Mary regularly attended the Passover festival at Jerusalem. Every male was originally expected to appear in Jerusalem at the Passover, at Pentecost and at Tabernacles, Exod.23:14-17; 34:23; Deut. 16:16; but the dispersion made this impossible. Godly Jews, however, made it a point to attend at least the Passover. Women were not required to attend, yet many did, nevertheless, and Mary belonged to this class. We see the devoutness of the parents of Jesus, the kind of a home in which he grew up.”
Alfred Edersheim (in his work Sketches of Jewish Social Life) paints a picture of what it would be like for a child being at the Temple during one of the feasts:
“Surely no one who had ever worshipped within the courts of Jehovah’s house at Jerusalem could ever have forgotten the scenes he had witnessed, or the words he had heard. Standing in that gorgeous, glorious building, and looking up its terraced vista, the child would watch with solemn awe, not unmingled with wonderment, as the great throng of white-robed priests busily moved about, while the smoke of the sacrifice rose from the altar of burnt-offering. Then, amid the hushed silence of that vast multitude, they had all fallen down to worship at the time of incense. Again, on those steps that led up to the innermost sanctuary the priests had lifted their hands and spoken over the people the words of blessing; and then, while the drink-offering was poured out, the Levites’ chant of Psalms had risen and swelled into a mighty volume; the exquisite treble of the Levite children’s voices being sustained by the rich round notes of the men, and accompanied by instrumental music. The Jewish child knew many of these words. They had been the earliest songs he had heard—almost his first lesson when clinging as a “taph” to his mother. But now, in those white-marbled, gold-adorned halls, under heaven’s blue canopy, and with such surroundings,
they would fall upon his ear like sounds from another world, to which the prolonged threefold blasts from the silver trumpets of the priests would seem to waken him. And they were sounds from another world; for, as his father would tell him, all that he saw was after the exact pattern of heavenly things which God had shown to Moses on Mount Sinai; all that he heard was God-uttered, spoken by Jehovah Himself through the mouth of His servant David, and of the other sweet singers of Israel. Nay, that place and that house were God chosen; and in the thick darkness of the Most Holy Place—there afar off, where the high priest
himself entered on one day of the year only, and in simple pure white vesture, not in those splendid golden garments in which he was ordinarily arrayed—had once stood the ark, with the veritable tables of the law, hewn and graven by the very hand of God; and between the cherubim had then throned in the cloud the visible presence of Jehovah. Verily this Temple with its services was heaven upon earth!”
As Jesus grew and matured, each visit to Jerusalem and the Temple would have increased in significance. By the age of 12 he had been to the Temple some eight or nine times, each visit making a greater impression on his heart until at the age of 12 he desired to be there, in his Father’s house; and to be, (as the KJV translates it), “about (his) Father’s business”. It would not be too many years until Jesus would enter the Temple again and drive out the coin dealers and their sub-standard sacrificial animals (John 2:13-17). The zeal for his Father’s house did indeed consume him.
So where did Jesus gain all of this knowledge, grace, and wisdom? His parents? Most definitely. His local Rabbi? Probably? His study of the Scriptures and the guidance from his heavenly Father? Absolutely!
We also can see in Luke 4 that he knew the Book of Isaiah well enough that he could quickly find where it was written:
17And he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to declare liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are bruised, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.– Luke 4:17-19
We would call this citing of Scripture “a reading of Isaiah 61: 1-2”, but in Jesus’ time there were no chapters or verse numbers, punctuation or paragraphs—not even breaks between the Hebrew words. These were all added later to the modern Bible in the 16th and 17th centuries AD. In addition, the scroll of Isaiah found in the tombs of Qumran measures approximately 24 feet long. A person would need a great working knowledge of the scroll to quickly unroll it and find “the place where it was written”. So did Jesus have access to the scrolls and did he study them with fervor? Yes, he did!
A Knowledge of Locations
What were some of the locations visible to Jesus while he grew up in Nazareth? The town sat atop a hill on the north edge of the Jezreel valley, inside which stood the famous city of Jezreel in the tribal area of Issachar. The wicked King Ahab (possibly the most wicked King to have ever reigned in Israel) and Queen Jezebel (a worshiper of Baal) had a large palace in the city of Jezreel. It was in this city that Jezebel framed Naboth and had him killed in order to claim ownership of Naboth’s vineyard, after which Yahweh sent Elijah to curse Ahab and Jezebel; it was also at Jezreel where the curse came to pass by the hands of Jehu, a righteous King (1 Kings 21:1-29, 2 Kings 9:30-37).
From these places, Jesus would have learned the importance of obeying God and keeping His commandments from the examples of the righteous and unrighteous Kings of Israel and what blessing or cursing followed them. Jesus knew from Scripture that he would one day be King and sit on the throne of David. Yahweh, his Father, had provided him with the records of the Kings of Israel to teach him how to rule and how not to.
Many years later Paul would write,
For whatever was written previously was written to teach us, that through perseverance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we would have hope.– Romans 15:4
This is true for you and I, and it’s also a timeless truth. The things written in the Old Testament were written for all to learn from, especially Jesus as he was growing up, maturing, and preparing for his ministry. The examples written in Scripture and on the very soil of the places he could see daily taught the lesson of persevering under pressure and encouraged him to keep his mind and heart focused on his hope—that of being King over the entire world in the millennial kingdom (Isaiah 9:1-7 & Luke 1:32-33) and saving his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
The entire area around Nazareth was filled with places where Joshua (who shared the same name as Jesus) defeated many of the 31 evil Kings while conquering the Promised Land (Joshua 12:7-24). Jesus would have witnessed many camel caravans coming from the North and East traveling along The Great Trunk Road, or Via Maris, through the valley of Jezreel on their way to the ports in Caesarea Marittima or down to the markets of Jerusalem, or on to Egypt. These caravans would have looked like a small army of men and beasts moving as one toward their objective. From this Jesus would have likely been reminded of Joshua’s leadership, his victories leading God’s people to and through the Promised Land, just as Jesus would do for all who believed in him.
To the northeast, Jesus could see the highest peaks of Mount Hermon where Baal worship once thrived, near the area (Bashan) where King Og of the Amorites was defeated by Moses and the Israelites. 20 miles south of the mountain were the ruins of the old city of Dan, where the tribe of Dan had moved after deciding they did not want to fight the Philistines in the area given to them by Joshua (Judges 18). This decision proved to be deleterious for Dan as they became the first line of defense against every army invading from the north and northeast. Jesus could easily see how Dan’s decision was in conflict with God’s promise (compare Joshua 1:1-9 with Joshua 19:40-48 & Judges 1:34). He learned that decisions and actions have consequences—some good, some bad. This shows up numerous times in the parables Jesus taught.
About four miles directly east of Nazareth stands Mount Tabor, where Deborah summoned Barak and an army of 10,000 to defeat Jabin, the King of Canaan (Judges 4). Just to the southeast of Mount Tabor is Mount Moreh, where an army of Midianites 135,000 strong were encamped, near its northern slope. Within eyesight to the southeast of Mount Moreh stands Mount Gilboa, at the base of which Gideon assembled an army at Ein Harod to attack the Midianites. God whittled Gideon’s force down to 300 fighting men before Gideon took them across the Jezreel valley to rout the Midianites (Judges 6:33-7:25). From this, Jesus learned that righteous judgement leads to deliverance and blessings for God’s people (John 8:1-11).
Mount Gilboa was also the site of King Saul’s death, a tragic end of a once good King. The Philistines defeated Saul’s army after Saul sought guidance from a spirit medium at Endor, an enemy of God. As a result, all three of Saul’s sons were killed and Saul was mortally wounded and impaled himself on his sword. The Philistines found their bodies on Mount Gilboa and took them to Beth-Shean a few miles to the northeast, where they hung their bodies for public display. (1 Samuel 28:3-25, 1 Samuel 31:1-13). Beth-Shean would have brought to Jesus’ mind the valor, compassion, and reverence of the men of Jabesh Gilead who retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons, in peril of their own lives, and disposed of them properly and reverently (1 Samuel 11:1-10, 31:11-13). These same qualities become manifested in Jesus’s life and ministry in so many places in the Gospels (Luke 22:49-51, Matthew 23:37-39, Luke 7:36-50).
Almost directly across the Jezreel valley from Nazareth are the ruins of Tel Megiddo. It was once a fortified major city of the Canaanites, but after Joshua allocated it to the tribe of Manasseh, the Israelites failed to drive the Canaanites from Megiddo. It sits strategically at a pass in the Carmel mountain range where the main eastern trade route to Egypt, the Via Maris, runs. At Megiddo, Ahaziah, King of Judah, who followed the ways of Ahab and Jezebel, died at the hand of Jehu (2 Kings 9:14-29).
Jesus could have easily taken day hikes (and probably did) to most all of these locations where he might meditate on the Scriptures recalling the events that had taken place there.
To the west, Jesus could see the mountain range called Mount Carmel. Here stood another Canaanite city, the city of Carmel, that Joshua conquered. But one of the most famous records about Mount Carmel is that of the prophet Elijah defeating the 450 false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-42). Jesus learned from the powerful life and office of the prophet Elijah; he also saw Yahweh’s sense of humor, one example of which can be found in verse 27 of the record. ”It came to pass at noon that Elijah mocked them, and said, “Shout loudly, for he is a god. Either he is deep in thought, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.”” Later in Jesus’s ministry one can see between the lines and in the setting Jesus’s sense of humor in records like when Peter and others were tired of waiting for Jesus to appear and decided to go fishing (John 21:1-23). And what an example Elijah must have been to an adolescent Jesus of what a true prophet of Yahweh is walking and speaking with power and boldness even in the face of what appears insurmountable odds. Jesus would do very similar in his ministry (Luke 4:16-30, 4:31-37, 7:11-17, 8:26-56).
Jesus was not a robot or a child running around with a halo over his head. He was a real boy doing real things in real time. He had loving parents (3 in fact) who loved him greatly and taught him everything they could; he was well-respected in his community and synagogue; he learned from Scripture and from his surroundings the history of God’s people Israel and about God’s overall plan for His creation. He learned what a true King, a true Judge, and a true prophet should be; he learned what his father Yahweh expected from the Messiah so well that God reported at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:11b:
“You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”
And again on Mount Hermon at the transfiguration in Matthew 17:5b:
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
If we are going to truly fellowship with Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer (as the apostle John says is the goal in 1 John 1:1-4), then we need to know him as he truly was and is: a man, the only begotten Son of God, and human just like us yet without sin; a man of joy and sorrows, laughter and pain, who learned in the same ways we do. Yet by his faithfulness and determination was the Messiah whom God made both “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
He was not born this way. He earned it. And he earned the obedient following of those who believe. We should listen to him.
Map from BibleWorks/maps/Moody Bible Atlas/Map Index/Map #10 “The Jezreel Valley”
HOW OLD WERE CHRIST’S DISCIPLES? By: OTIS AND FRANK CARY. Available for download at: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/475815
Early Hebrew education and its significance for present-day educational theory and practice by: S. Schoeman. Available for download at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271315861_Early_Hebrew_education_and_its_significance_for_present-day_educational_theory_and_practice
All citing of Scripture are from The Revised English Version available online at https://www.revisedenglishversion.com/
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. two/”Education”
Sketches in Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, by Alfred Edersheim
 Ernest L Martin., The Star That Astonished The World
 See REV Bible Commentary on Luke 2:39-40 (https://www.revisedenglishversion.com/Luke/chapter2/39)
 R.C.H Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, pgs. 159-161
 ibid, pg 170.
 Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Chapter 7, pg. 62