Young Jesus: Home, School, and Play
Q: I am doing a school project on life of Jesus. What leisure activities and education did He do when growing up?
A: Scripture only reveals the events from His conception through the family’s flight to Egypt and subsequent return until the one reference to His temple visit at age twelve (see Luke 1:5-2:52 Matthew 1:18-2:23). Therefore, the best we can do is make inferences based upon what we know of Palestine in the First Century. One is that because of his trade, Joseph’s family would have been among the “middle class,” had that distinction been observed at the time.
Since God chose devout Israelites to raise Jesus, we trust that Joseph taught Him the Scriptures, particularly the five Books of Moses, from early on. This is in keeping with Deuteronomy 6:7, where the Lord spoke through Moses, saying, “You shall teach [all God’s statutes and his commandments, cf. vv. 2, 4-5] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Mary, likewise, would have taken advantage of all available opportunities to train Him in the Word. However, according to the Lord, the primary responsibility for religious education belonged to the fathers, so Joseph likely assumed that responsibility until Jesus was old enough to participate in the formal education of His day.
Throughout the Gospels and Acts, as well as in many of the Epistles, we see Jesus, Peter, Paul, and others heading for a community’s synagogue and using it as their initial point of proclamation and teaching. This followed the pattern of their own raising, since these were the centers of worship and education for Jews in Galilee, Judea, and those scattered amidst the Gentiles.
Generally speaking, when they reached age five, Jewish boys commenced their formal education under a local rabbi. Along with ongoing biblical instruction, reading and writing were among their first lessons. Around the age of ten, boys began in-depth study of Jewish law. This included not only the Scriptures but also rabbinical commentary. “School” education usually wrapped up when they were 18.
The synagogue school taught only the boys of the area. Young girls learned at home from their mothers and other women. This segregation of the sexes didn’t mean that they were raised to be illiterate — a large number of women also read, wrote, and knew their arithmetic. This shouldn’t surprise us, since the wife largely directed the economy of the household and she needed these skills in the marketplace. Such a pattern was commended already in the Old Testament, particularly Proverbs 31:10-31.
At the same time as their book learning, boys (and girls) also learned life skills and their future vocations under parents or trusted relatives or friends. As was the way in other cultures throughout history, children tended to follow their parents’ ways. Girls became wives, mothers, and often also business women who made or traded for goods to be sold or who provided services to others. Meanwhile, boys normally entered their fathers’ trades and professions. First they watched, then they worked under close supervision, and finally they either entered the family business or moved elsewhere while practicing the same trade.
The exceptions were few — one being the vocations that required extended education and probationary periods under others. The “scribes” mentioned throughout the Gospels were among these. Their communication skills were polished and their knowledge of the Scriptures and rabbinic interpretations more completely developed by their internships. The scribes did more than just keep written records, as their name implies. Along with providing religious and, quite often, civic, leadership, many scribes also served in offices similar to modern notaries, attorneys, and other professions involving legal or financial issues.
Particularly bright (and often ambitious) students occasionally moved on to more noted rabbis, making themselves disciples to these men in order to themselves become rabbis. Those teachers with the greatest reputations often attracted disciples from beyond their own communities and their reputations sometimes extended internationally. As an aside, consider the difference between these men and the thirty-plus year old Jesus: He was the only known rabbi who so actively went out and called disciples to Himself.
Book learning, instruction in their fathers’ trades, and religious services and education occupied much of their time. Still, boys of that period likely enjoyed toys, games, and general play. Tidbits from the Old and New Testament provide very little information about these activities, although one of Jesus’ illustrations shows that young boys did play together and often learned and played music: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ (Matthew 11:16-17)” As common the world over, running, throwing, and physically challenging oneself and others was probably standard boy behavior.
Archaeology often helps as much as or more than written accounts when we look at ancient family life. Discovered artifacts indicate that most toys were homemade. We’ve lost much of the evidence since people likely used their toys until they broke or were outgrown. If these junked or abandoned toys were made of wood, they likely became fuel for a cooking or heating fire.
Boys dressed in scaled-down versions of adult wear. The undergarment was a “tunic.” The outer garment was called a “cloak” or a “mantle” — loose fitting and fringed, it was bound by blue ribbon. Men almost always wore a belt in public. This was either a wide leather strap or a cloth sash. The “girdle” of the King James Version and other early translations refers to a belt, not to a compression undergarment.
In conclusion, while we have a fairly good idea about his education, Jesus’ leisure activities are open to much conjecture. Yet we are certain that however He may have played, competed, or participated the affairs common to the boys of Nazareth, one difference remains: He never cheated or took sinful advantage over others, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)” Yes, Jesus can “sympathize” with our childhood sins, yet because He remained “without sin,” He also brings forgiveness for each and every one of them.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #583