Why is there nothing in the Bible about Jesus’ life from when he was 12 to 30 years old? That’s 18 years!
To answer this question and understand why none of the Gospel writers give us the details of most of Jesus’ life, we must first understand the genre of the Gospels, in other words their type of literature.
Though Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are in some sense biographies, they differ from the type of biographies written in our own day and age. The Gospel authors were not concerned with notating every final detail of Jesus’ life; their focus was on his work of salvation, on the reason for his coming as man: to redeem us and save us from our sins.
For example, Mark’s Gospel gives no account whatsoever of Jesus’ origins, divine or earthly. Instead, he begins with the work of St. John the Baptist and moves quickly to Jesus’ own public ministry. Like the other Gospel writers, Mark focuses on Jesus’ public ministry: his preaching and teaching, his miracles, and most importantly, his passion, death and resurrection.
This is certainly not to say that Mark and the other writers thought that what happened in that Nazareth home was without any meaning whatsoever; rather, their focus was on communicating the things Jesus said and did for our salvation. In other words, the Gospels should not be misunderstood as biographies in the modern sense. Rather, they should be understood as biographies with a definitive purpose: to tell us the Good News of Jesus Christ and the salvation he won for us.
It’s worth noting another difference between the Gospels (along with other ancient biographies) and modern biographies, because it’s the cause of some confusion. Catholics who read all four Gospels closely are sometimes surprised to see there are variations in the Gospels, particularly in the ordering of different events in Jesus’ life. Understandably, this often leads to questions about the reliability of the Gospels. If, say, Matthew says A happened before B, but Mark says B happened before A, doesn’t one of them have to be wrong? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is “no.”
Just as ancient biographers (including our four evangelists) were not as concerned as modern biographers about noting every detail of the life of the person they were writing about, so too were they unconcerned about writing everything in the order in which it happened. The point, for ancient biographers, is to tell the truth about whatever their subject did, but in an order that serves some other purpose.
So in our case, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not asserting that Jesus did things precisely in the order they tell it, but they are asserting Jesus did all of these things. Let’s return, now, to Jesus’ “hidden” years.
There is another, deeper, more spiritual lesson to be drawn from the general absence of details regarding Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood in the Gospels. Most of us are inclined to think that period of Jesus’ life must have been extraordinary, literally. After all, even as a child, Jesus was the omnipotent creator of the universe, and surely he was as able to work miracles then just as he was as an adult.
And surely he must have shared the wisdom he had as the God-Man with his family and friends. In fact, most saints and scholars believe Jesus’ “hidden life” was not extraordinary, but was in fact ordinary. Chances are he lived and grew up like any other Jewish boy in Nazareth, and he took up the trade of his earthly father, St. Joseph, and became a hard-working carpenter.
While this might seem somewhat dull and uneventful, it is in fact of great importance. By living a “normal” life, Jesus showed how valuable the “normal” life really is; as some put it, Jesus sanctified the ordinary kind of life that the vast majority of us live—he made it holy.
In other words, by dutifully living a “normal” life, Jesus revealed to us the great importance of that “normal” life. For we are called to follow the example set by our God and sanctify each moment of our own lives, no matter how mundane or normal it might seem.
For the Christian, greatness is defined not so much by our impact on world affairs but by the intensity with which we live each moment of our lives, by the degree to which we offer each moment of our existence to God and sanctify it. By excluding the early years of Jesus’ life from the Gospels, the authors subtly teach us that the ordinary, “hidden” lives of each one of us are opportunities for holiness.
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Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of discipleship formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.