Only the dullest Christian will fail to wonder about the “lost years of Jesus” – that period in our Lord’s life between (more or less) his twelfth and thirtieth birthdays.
It’s a chasm really, given the importance of the story. But the first century wasn’t a time when writers practiced journalism or biography, and the Gospels were written to proclaim the Good News. No quarrel then with the Evangelists.
Quite a few biographical details are “illuminated” in the apocryphal gospels, but they lack canonical approval and, therefore, authority, and so we’re frustrated. From the time of the Holy Family’s journey home after the Passover visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple, until the start of his public ministry, we’ve no record of what he did, where he went, or what he said. It may be that the famous sermon attributed to James Allen Francis, D.D. (1864-1928) is spot on – that Jesus “wrote no books . . . He held no office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place He was born.”
And yet, as Allen’s very just conclusion puts it, nobody has “affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.” There is much truth in that, yet there may also be falsehood. Ignoring the fact that nobody anywhere went to college in the first century, the truth is we don’t know from any source – biblical or other – what journeys Jesus may have made during that great caesura. Perhaps he never set sail west across the Mediterranean, or walked beyond the southern end of the Dead Sea, or traveled north to Damascus, or caravanned east as far as Mesopotamia. But we don’t know for a fact that he didn’t. We only know that we do not know.
I’m pretty sure that were the Evangelists to meet with a modern book editor, they’d be instructed that the story of Jesus must be expanded to include more about his teenage years, his twenties too. “Or does all that,” a cagey publisher might ask, “belong in a prequel?” I don’t write this to be glib. As an editor and – especially – as a writer, I’m drawn to the omitted narrative and fascinated to imagine what it was like for those who knew Jesus before they knew who Jesus really is.
For instance, in the Bible and possibly in the Talmud we have succinct mention of Joseph of Arimathea. Christians know the story of the man who begged from Pilate the Lord’s crucified body and interred it in his own tomb. But according to the Talmud – or, rather, to internet references I can’t confirm – Joseph was the younger brother of Mary’s father, Joachim, and, therefore, the grand-uncle of Jesus. Let’s stipulate that this is so.
Surely Uncle Joseph saw Jesus at some points after the Nativity and before the Passion. When he saw him, what did he see? We surmise that Mary “treasured up” her knowledge of Jesus and “pondered [it] in her heart,” and we sense that Jesus did too, as when at the wedding in Cana he says to his mother: “Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.” He had disciples at that point and she had friends and relatives, but the revelation of his divine nature remained still hidden. Was Joseph of Arimathea there to celebrate with the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan)? Did he notice a change in the now thirty-year-old man? What did he think when the water was turned to wine? Did it shock him? Did he assume it was the wine steward’s error, not a miracle? Or did he think, “I always suspected . . .”? But what did he suspect? He may have hoped that Jesus was the Messiah; I doubt he had then an inkling of his nephew’s true, divine nature.
Ancient tradition (more like myth) has it that Joseph was a tin merchant who traveled to Britain, specifically to Cornwall, a mining center and a prime source of tin, an essential component in the making of bronze. It’s said Jesus went with him on two occasions, once with Mary. My niece and my grand-nephew, he may have thought, as they sailed the Mediterranean en-route:
Family! Jesus is a good boy; smart as a whip. There’ll be a place for him in my business – and a step up it’ll be from carpentry, if I may say.
Did Joseph marvel at the bond between mother and son? Surely – whether in Cornwall or in Nazareth or later in Jerusalem – he never said to himself: “My nephew is God.”
They say Joseph returned to England – with Pilate and Salome no less – and founded the world’s first Christian church at Glastonbury. By then he knew. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But what did he – and the residents of Nazareth and the scholars in the Temple – know about this remarkable boy and man, Jesus, when He looked them in the eye and spoke to them in the years before the mystery of the Incarnation was confirmed by the Resurrection?
*Image: Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion by William Blake, 1773 [Morgan Library, New York]