Jesus' Jewish childhood
This session is partly based on extracts from A Feast of Seasons.
It focuses on Luke chapter 2

From a devout family.
Jesus came from a particularly devout Jewish family. When we read the New Testament accounts of his upbringing and compare it to what we know of Jewish practices of the period, we find that both his father and his mother were exceptionally devout for their age. Key passage is in Luke chapter 2.

Luke 2:21-25
V21: Jesus circumcised on the eighth day (OT quote - Lev 12)
     Named Yeshua - Jesus
V 22 Mary and Joseph went up to Jerusalem for two things: for Mary's purification and for Joseph to pay the redemption for their son.
Lev 12:1-8 states that a woman is impure for 40 days after the birth of a son and at the end of this time she must bring an offering to the Temple as a purification.
Early Jewish commentaries on this (Tosefta Keritot 2:21 and Mishnah Keritot 1:7, 2:4,) indicate that a woman is allowed to postpone her sacrifice until she had an opportunity to go to Jerusalem. Sometimes she would wait until she had given birth a number of times until she made the trip - perhaps on a family pilgrimage.
However some women kept strictly to the biblical injunction - Mary did this.

What would have happened?
Mary and Joseph would have approached the Temple from the Southern end. Mary would have parted from her husband and would have first of all queued to undergo ritual immersion in one of the hundreds of immersion pools before the steps to the Temple. She then would have rejoined Joseph and the child and they would have entered the Temple with their sacrifice or with the money to pay for it.

What was Joseph doing
Redemption price: A firstborn son must be redeemed. This is because the angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrews with the blood of the door posts and spared the first born sons. They were then the property of the Lord and given for his service. The redemption price was to buy the son back into the family.
This can happen anytime after the 13th day (see Numbers) (Mishnah, Bechorot 8; Babylonian Talmud Bechorot 12b).
Luke 2:24 - every firstborn son is to be consecrated to the Lord. So Joseph offered the ransom price for their first born son.
M and J brought their child to the Temple. When we have a child we bring them into the church family.

Simeon and the presentation of Christ
Luke 2:25 - 40
Simeon was an old priest and it would have been difficult for him to have performed the major sacrificial duties (imagine trying to sacrifice a bull when you are in your eighties). Older priests were given lighter duties like receiving the redemption money for firstborn sons.
I think that it is especially nice that it is the old people Simeon and Anna, who recognise Jesus here. They have the wisdom and discernment from years and years of prayer. We too need to look to the discernment of the older members of our congregation.

So not only were Mary and Joseph very observant in Jesus' birth, but Luke records this precisely. Luke wanted to convey to his Jewish readers what sort of family Jesus had come from. His parents had known what they were doing in religious terms. Jesus was brought up very much within the Jewish faith in a strongly faithful and religiously knowledgeable family.


The Calendar year
I would like to briefly outline the calendar year that would have been familiar to Jesus from his childhood onwards. It is important to remember that in Judaism at this time, it was not so much about theology as about a calendar. Their faith was so tied up with the rhythm of the year that you could not imagine any worship of God outside of these parameters.
Leviticus 23 sets out the festivals:
Passover - start of festival year (April) is combined with
First Fruits of the barley harvest;
Pentecost; first fruits of the wheat harvest - May/June
Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah); Sept
Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) - Sept
Tabernacles (Sukkot). - Sept/Oct
The last three of these festivals come together and are known as the High Holy Days.
In Temple times Passover, Pentecost Tabernacles developed into the three times in the year when it was commanded to go up to Jerusalem.
A pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Galilee was prohibitively expensive and very time consuming for working people. There is quite a debate in the literature about how often Galilians would have gone up to Jerusalem. Many may well have gone up every Passover. But many others would only go up a few times in their life. And Galilians would be less likely to go up for the other festivals - especially Pentecost, which was in the middle of Harvest time. Tabernacles was a bit more likely and we see that Jesus' brothers expected him to go up with them to this festival (John 7).

Jesus at the Temple age 12
The festivals are important background to Jesus childhood and one of the few stories that we have of Jesus' childhood concerns a journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

Luke 2:41-50.
Luke explains that Mary and Joseph went up to Jerusalem every year for this festival. As we have seen this was what a very observant Jewish family would do. The impact of these regular trips was apparent in Jesus' later life, particularly in his familiarity with the city and with the Temple. The disciples in contrast were quite overwhelmed by the Temple on their visit to Jerusalem with him. See Mark 13:1: As he was leaving the Temple one of his disciples said to him - Look Rabbi, What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!
This does not sound to me like a person who had gone up to Jerusalem every year and really know it - but Jesus did.

Also we can see Mary's devotion because the command to go was more for the men than the women, who did not always go. One of the famous and most senior rabbi's of Jesus' childhood, Hillel, is thought to have encouraged women to go to Jerusalem for Passover. We find the influence of Hillel on Jesus and it may well be that Mary and Joseph had also listened to this learned Rabbi and taken on board the message that women should go to Jerusalem for Passover.

So what happened when Jesus was 12?
I don't know how many of you here have had children go through the enthusiast stage. They get some passionate interest - trains, horses, swimming - and this takes over completely on a holiday.
When Jesus visited Jerusalem at the age of 12, I like to think of him as a bit like this. Jesus was potty about the Bible and was drawn like a magnet to the Temple courts and the rabbis. This was probably not the only Passover Jesus spent with these scholars and again this showed in adulthood through his knowledge and ability in rabbinic debate - something we will find out about next week.

Jesus was in an extended family during this week. The group that had travelled together from the Nazareth area, probably shared accommodation and each other's children. Again, if you have ever been on a church holiday, or something like Spring Harvest or New wine, you may be less surprised at parents mislaying a child especially if you had travelled together.
What might be considered more unusual is that Jesus was found debating with the Rabbis.
Need to realise that everyone was encouraged to participate in these discussions and when a question was asked it was often the youngest person who was expected to answer first.
Being seen and not heard has never been considered a good attribute in a Jewish child. Jewish people teach their children to question everything and think for themselves.
Twelve was considered an adult for a Jewish boy at that time. But forget the idea of Bar Mitzvah at this time - this is a later Jewish tradition and would not have been part of Jesus' experience.
How did he get to be so knowledgeable?
Jewish sources (Avot 5.21) of the early third century, indicate that a child would start to study the Bible from five years of age and the aural Bible (or aural Law/Torah) from 10 years of age.
Scroll picture
It was not easy to possess the written scriptures (expensive) and so memorisation was a key tool in study 2.
This leads us to our final part of our text for tonight

Luke 2:51-52
Jesus lived in an ordinary family. Learned from his mother (treasured everything in her heart  joke that every Jewish mother was convinced that her son would be the greatest man that ever lived - it is just that Mary was right!)
He learned from his father and from the local Rabbis. He committed huge portions of scripture to memory - probably the whole of his Bible (OT). Also extensively learnt the aural law and studied the contemporary debates of his day.


Groups for discussion?
First think about your own childhood experiences of faith. Did your parents' have a Christian faith and how did this influence you?
What would the devout nature of Jesus' parents have had on him and his brothers and sisters as they grew up?

How can we apply this importance of being an example especially when children are now growing up in such a fast changing world?


If you had an experience of Christianity as a child. Think about how you were taught about religion.

Jesus was taught to question and think for himself. He was also allowed to take part in discussions with grown ups at quite an early age.
How can we apply these things to the Christian teaching of children today?

Pray for
the children in our church family and those caring for and working with children.



1) Safrai, C. `Jesus' Jewish Parents', Jerusalem Perspective, vol 40 (Sept./Oct. 1993): pp.10-11, 14-15.
2) Bivin, D., Jesus Jewish Childhood, Part II, Shalom Magazine, Herald House Publishers, Issue 1, (1993).