We have looked at the popular myths about the lost years and true identity of Jesus in several articles here (see our Library section), and have come away from the study discovering that none of the fringe claims is true. Does this mean we have no answers?
Not at all.
We can put the puzzle pieces together from Jewish history, the traditions of Judaism, and the Gospel accounts.
We have to approach the quest for truth like an historian. It is a common misconception that we have to apply the scientific method. This is fallacious, since we are dealing with an issue of history, not science. So we should apply the Historical Method. The Scientific Method requires any proposition be proven in a controlled environment, by experimentation, and be repeatable and observable. One can hardly go back in time and prove anything historical using such criteria. The Historical Method, by contrast, relies on the following criteria:
- Written Records
- Oral Tradition
- Physical Evidence
While we admit the historical evidence for the veracity of the Gospel's and the truths they contain is not absolute, it is sufficient to prove its reliability. This does not place our quest at any deficit, since you cannot prove anything historical with 100% certainty. As Blaise Pascal wrote:
“There is enough evidence to convince anyone who is not set against it, but not enough to bring anyone into the kingdom who will not come.”
We must also reject the approach that truth is relative. The statement, “That is your truth, I have mine” is a logical fallacy. Merely believing something does not make it true. Belief and Truth are not synonymous. For example, if I believe that if I jump from the tallest building in the city, I will not fall, does this make it true? Of course not! Gravity will act on me and I'll fall like a stone.
We also have to reject the idea that it does not matter what we believe, as long as we have faith. Faith does not make belief true. With this said, we can proceed with our quest.
Any reputable historian (and this disqualifies Nephilim hunters, and the like) will start his study by going to the primary source documents. In this case, the primary source documents are the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament. The first question before us is, are the primary source documents reliable?
The following are the premises we will work from:
- The New Testament is historically accurate and trustworthy.
- On the basis of this reliable and accurate historical document, we can know for a certainty who Jesus was.
- On these bases, we can conclude that Jesus was who He said He was, and did what the Gospels say He did.
Let us first look at the objections to our premises.
“You can't say the Gospels are reliable and accurate! They were written at least 200 years after the life of Jesus. They're obviously distorted over time.”
The fact of the matter is, the New Testament was written within 60 years of the life of Christ, and some within 30 years. There have been manuscripts found that date within the first century A.D. For example, the Ryland's Papyri. 1 As this is a copy of the original, the original itself must have been written prior to 125 A.D. We must also take into account that Church Fathers Clement and Ignatius were quoting from the New Testament canon approximately 100A.D. Logically this tells us that the books had to have been in circulation in the church for some time prior.
It is also very telling that the New Testament authors make no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. Certainly, if it had already happened they would have noted this, as Jesus prophesied of the coming destruction of the Temple. Then we have Paul, who died sometime in the mid-60s A.D. When we look in the book of Acts, written by Luke, Paul is still alive at the time of its writing. We know that Luke write his gospel account before he wrote Acts. Thus, the Gospel According to Luke had to have been written prior to 60 A.D. when Paul died.
From these historical evidences we can conclude that there would have been little time for mythology or egregious error to appear in the gospel accounts, and that they were written much earlier than even 100 A.D.
If we examine the gospels using the Bibliographical Criteria, we will find they are reliable as well.
Bibliographical Criteria evaluates the reliability of a manuscript based on the time span between the original and the existing documents, the number of manuscripts, and the quality of the manuscripts. It examines how much variation exists between the written records of each text. This allows historians to evaluate how well a document has been preserved from error or addition.
The time span between the original classical Greek documents and the earliest existing copies of the same is approximately 1,000 years. For example, the time span for the works of Aristotle is 1,400 years. The time span for the works of Tacitus is 1,000 years. The time span for the works of Caesar is 950 years. This is quite a significant span of time, yet no one suggests the classical literature is corrupt or untrustworthy. Thus, if there were significantly less time between the original New Testament manuscripts and the earliest existing copies available to us today, then the New Testament would have an air tight claim to reliability.
The time span between the original and earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament is approximately 90 years. The conclusion we can reach as a result is that there was simply not enough time for the gospel accounts to be corrupted.
“But what about differences in the gospel accounts?”
The more manuscripts we possess for comparison, the likelier we are to find the original manuscript content. Let us look again at the number of New Testament manuscripts and fragments extant.
- 5,700 classical Greek manuscripts
- 10,000 classical Latin manuscripts
- 9,300 miscellaneous versions
This means we have roughly 25,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the New Testament books. In addition, we have thousands upon thousands of quotations from these books by the earliest Church Fathers.
Now let us compare this to classical Greek and Roman literature. The number of manuscripts for both is actually very small. Homer's The Iliad has the greatest number of existing manuscripts, at 643 copies. So that is 25,000 for the New Testament and 643 for Homer. Clearly the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is overwhelmingly superior to that of classical Greek and Roman literature. 2
When we examine closely the differences in the New Testament manuscripts we find that only 1/60th of the manuscripts differ, and these differences are so minor that they do not impact the history of the books, nor their theology in any way. This does not leave room for the argument that the differences in any way impact the reliability of the Gospel accounts.
Does the internal and external evidence point to the reliability of the New Testament writings?
There is an Aristotelian principle known as the “benefit of the doubt”. It basically goes as follows:
“The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document and not to the critic.”3
With this dictum in mind we will proceed to examine the internal and external evidence of the New Testament manuscripts.
The Law of Non-Contradiction states, “If one statement absolutely contradicts another statement, without qualification, at least one of the statements cannot be true.”
In order for one statement to absolutely contradict another, there must be no sense in which both statements can be true. However, if there is a logical explanation, it is not a real contradiction- only a seeming one. For example, we have apparent contradictions between John's account of the timing of the crucifixion and Mark's timing of the crucifixion.
“When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus outside....Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.”- John 19:13,14
“It was nine in the morning when they crucified him.”- Mark 15:25
Mark and John seemingly do not agree. According to Mark, Jesus was crucified at nine o'clock in the morning and died shortly after his so-called "cry of dereliction" at three o'clock in the afternoon. However, John's Gospel still has Jesus before Pilate at noon, with no other time frame given for the actual crucifixion. All four accounts agree that Jesus was dead by evening of that day. Do we have a real contradiction? The answer is no. John was simply using Roman time in his account, while Mark used Jewish. Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified at around 6:00 a.m. (the sixth hour of Roman time), and Jesus was crucified at 9:00 a.m. (the third hour of Jewish time.). All of the claims of discrepancies in the Gospel accounts fall into this same category.
Keep in mind that the authors of the New Testament had to be very careful about presenting only the facts. There were many enemies of the Christian community who served as vociferous critics. These critics would have leaped upon any discrepancy in order to discredit them. The enemies of the fledgling church would certainly have exposed any fallacies. Also it is important to take note of the price paid by the Apostles of Jesus for their historical and spiritual testimony. They were all persecuted, and most murdered as a result. People will not die for what they know to be a lie. The authors of the Gospel's willingly gave their lives in witness to the truth of their historical accounts of Jesus. This should leave little doubt as to their truthfulness.
What about external evidences? Externally we have the corroboration of the early Church Fathers. For example, Papias, a disciple of the Apostle John, writes:
“The Elder, the Apostle John, used to say this also: Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he, Peter, mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order.” 4
Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp (himself a disciple of John), writes:
“So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and starting from these documents, each one of them endeavors to establish his own particular doctrine.”5
Additionally, if we combine the histories given us by Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, and the Talmud, we find that history says:
- Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate at Passover time. (Tacitus, Thallus, Josephus, Talmud)
- His disciples claimed He rose from the dead. (Josephus)
- Jewish leaders charged Jesus with sorcery (referencing his healing power) and claimed He was born of adultery (referencing his virgin birth). (Talmud)
This demonstrates that the history contained in the Gospel accounts is corroborated by non-Christian, and in some cases hostile, secular historical sources.
Having established the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts, we will now turn our attention to the lost years of Jesus and His true identity. Where was He, what did He do, and in what way is the Messianic Secret connected to His true identity?
We have established that Jesus was never in India, Tibet, or any of the other strange claims made for his lost years by various occultists and fringe authors. This means that Jesus grew up where the Gospel accounts say He did- Nazareth. What was His life like in first century Nazareth? What can we say about Jesus' lost years from an examination of orthodox Jewish life at that time?
Jesus spent most of His life around those who farmed and grew vineyards- perhaps even helping in them Himself growing up. The village area of Nazareth was populated mostly by Jews, but also with some diversity of Syrians, Greeks, and Romans. The major city was Jerusalem, which was more cosmopolitan and contained far greater ethnic diversity. Being around Greeks and Romans would have had some impact on His education. For example, the common language in the Roman Empire was Greek. Jesus would have been taught Hebrew and Aramaic, and very likely Greek- as it would have been essential to commerce. Jesus’ every day language was Aramaic.
The center of a village was the marketplace and shops. And for a Jewish village, the synagogue was a central meeting place, and the seat of the local Jewish government. Jesus would certainly have grown up attending synagogue, participating in the traditional holy days of Judaism, and living an orthodox Jewish life.
Houses were all purpose 1 to 2 room squares, with dirt floors, flat roofs, low and narrow doorways, and front wooden doors. Jesus would have slept on the flat roof during hot nights, perhaps gazing up at the stars and praying to His Heavenly Father as He lay on a mat or some other cloth His family purchased at the market. The houses were arranged around a central shared courtyard where neighbors performed daily chores (cooking, laundry, etc.) in each others company. Jesus' mother Mary would have carried in water from a public well and store it in a courtyard cistern. Men generally did not do this type of work, as it was domestic. At night, Jesus would have lit an earthenware oil lamp if He wanted to read from a scroll or just talk with family members.
Mary and Jesus' sisters' daily job included preparing food for the family-for example, they would grind grain, bake bread, milk the animals, and make cheese. Jesus would have eaten two meals: Breakfast – light or small amounts of food taken to work; and Dinner – A large meal with cheese, wine, vegetables and fruits, and eggs. As for meat, fish was most common, followed by chicken or fowl. Red meat (beef and lamb) was served only on special occasions, and pork and crustaceans were absolutely forbidden by the Law- and thus, Jesus would never have eaten them. Most foods were boiled or stewed in a big pot and seasoned with salt, onions, garlic, cumin, coriander, mint, dill, and mustard. Food was sweetened with wild honey or syrups from dates or grapes. Food was generally served in a common bowl and Jesus and His family would have eaten their meals by dipping in with their fingers.
Jesus' clothing would have been simple. His undergarment was called a “tunic”. His outer garment was called a “mantle” – it was loose fitting with fringes, bound by blue thread. He wore a belt – a four-inch wide leather belt or cloth “girdle”. If one was wearing only an undergarment, then he was said to be “naked” or “stripped”. If one was wearing only an undergarment (tunic) and belt, they were said to be wearing a “loincloth”. The phrase “to gird your loins” meant that the tunic was pulled up between the legs and tucked into the belt. He also wore sandals on His feet, and a white cloth over His head, hanging to His shoulders. This cloth protected Him from the sun.
Joseph (Jesus’ father) was a “tekton” (Greek). The word tekton has often been translated as carpenter, but probably more accurately denotes a stone worker. It is highly likely that Jesus and Joseph worked in nearby Sepphoris. Sepphoris had been destroyed in a political feud in about 4 BCE - the approximate date of the birth of Jesus - and it was rebuilt during the time that Jesus was growing up nearby in Nazareth. Known as the "ornament of the Galilee", Sepphoris was wealthy, sophisticated and predominately Jewish. An elaborate system of water works kept residents supplied with fresh water; satellite villages such as Nazareth may have kept it supplied with food. Jesus was likely employed in rebuilding the city.
Carol Meyers6 states that such employment would have required Jesus to speak Greek, in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic. "Jesus was tri-lingual," she says. "You couldn't deal and wheel, either in the workplace or in the market without knowing a good deal of Greek. And I can hardly imagine anybody worth their salt who wouldn't know some Greek."
This would make His family a part of the middle class. Mary was a teenager who was “promised” by her parents to be married to Joseph. Following their marriage, and Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph had other children as well. Jesus' brother James7 wrote the New Testament epistle that bears his name. Jude is also a brother of Jesus and author of the epistle bearing his name. Jesus had two other brothers, whose names are Joseph and Simon.8 Jesus also had sisters, whose names also did not come down to us.
Jesus' religious upbringing would have been quite orthodox. The Jewish people believe in one God (monotheism) who is invisible and can not be portrayed. In contrast, the surrounding cultures believed in many gods (polytheism) who could be represented by images or idols. Jesus would have looked upon these idols with due disgust.
Jesus' life was centered on the Sabbath Day – the day began on Friday at sundown and ended at Saturday sundown. He would start the Sabbath with prayer, then Mary would have lit the Sabbath candles, and then they would all share joyful Friday supper. Sabbath was considered to be a day of rest and worship, where everything one did was in honor of God.
Jesus' education emphasized Mosaic law, ethics, and history for the purpose of right, moral living. In contrast, the Greek education system called “gymnasium” emphasized science, arts, linguistics and bodily training. Jesus started His formal education at the age of 5, learning to read and write. At age 10, boys would start to learn the Mosaic law. Formal education was complete by age 18. Jesus' sisters would learn at home from Mary and other women, while He was educated by a Rabbi (teacher) from the local synagogue. If Jesus sought advanced education as a “scribe” or doctor of the law, He could have studied a broader range of topics, though we have no record of such training. Jesus certainly studied at the synagogue – in one instance when Jesus was 12 years old as recorded in Jesus’ biography by Luke, the author says, “They (Jesus’ parents) found him (Jesus) in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47)
This then, is the mystery of the lost years of Jesus solved. He lived a normal Jewish life, doing normal Jewish things, until His public ministry at the age of 30.
1A collection of thousands of papyrus fragments and documents from North Africa and Greece housed at the John Rylands University Library, in Manchester, UK. It includes Papyrus P52, St. John's fragment, the earliest extant record of a canonical gospel, dated 125 A.D.
2Venetus A, copied in the 10th century, is the oldest fully extant manuscript of the Iliad.
3Wile, Dr. Jay, Exploring Creation with General Science, Apologia Educational Ministries, 2000
4Bercot, David, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005
6Archaeologist and Professor of Religion at Duke University.
8Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56