Lost years of Jesus
|Christ died for|
our articles about
|Devil's in the details|
The Lost years of Jesus are the years of Jesus's adulthood before he began his ministry, traditionally at the age of 30. Little detail is given about them in the four canonical gospels, aside from the nativity myths, and even Luke doesn't go beyond age 12. These infancy narratives are problematic for historical reasons and largely viewed as later inventions or pretty stories. But even if you believe in the literal truth, there is a massive gap in Jesus's life from the ages of 12 to 30. From the early days of Christianity, a large body of myth and folklore grew up to fill in the spaces.
There are also many apocryphal or traditional stories about Jesus's childhood that don't fit into the mainstream nativity narratives. The term "lost years" or "unknown years" is sometimes also applied to stories about what Jesus did later in life after the shit went down on Golgotha. Therefore this article provides a brief runthrough of non-canonical Christ biography. It need hardly be pointed out that even by the standards of the early church, this is dubious stuff as historical writing.
Of the four canonical gospels only the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke describe Jesus's early years, the so-called nativity, wherein he is born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, visited by various people who marvel at his greatness, then goes to Nazareth for some reason. The articles on those gospels contain more information.
There are other stories of Jesus's early childhood in non-canonical gospels, the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the earlier adult Gospel of Thomas, a sayings collection), but these are obvious confections of folk tale and miracle-woo. Thomas is a hilarious depiction in the genre of Smallville, the Superman infancy gospel. We see Jesus turning clay models to life, stretching wood to help his dad's carpentry business, killing other boys and blinding their parents, and finishing up with some resurrections. It's hard to imagine anyone took it seriously, which probably explains its omission from the New Testament.
The mainstream view seems to be that Jesus worked as a carpenter until he was approximately 30; Jesus is called a carpenter in Mark 6:3. R. A. Batey suggested there would be a lot of work for carpenters in Sepphoris, a Galilean town near Nazareth. While carpentry is certainly a very likely profession for a Mediterranean peasant during that period, the actual word used in the Greek Bible is tektōn, which is a general term for a craftsman. During the time of Christ, tektōn more often referred to a stone-worker or mason. Either way, like most non-military peasant men of the Iron Age, Jesus likely earned subsistence through manual labor.
For those who find this a little boring, or have an ax to grind, various alternatives have him traveling around the world, learning things that would later be of use.
Trip to England
The idea that Jesus visited England with Joseph of Arimathea is connected with grail legend, and can be considered an obvious medieval invention. It was popularised by William Blake in his poem "And did those feet…" which forms the lyrics of popular hymn "Jerusalem". Blake was a master of symbolism, allegory, and irony, and is not considered a reliable authority on anything.
One defender of the idea is Scottish theologian and mason-enthusiast Gordon Strachan. He notes that merchants from the eastern Mediterranean visited southwest England to purchase tin, which is well attested, but jumps from that firstly to the idea that one such visitor was Joseph of Arimathea (a biblical figure with minimal attestation for any aspect of his life, including no evidence that a place called Arimathea ever existed, such that it's dubious he was real), and thence to the idea that Jesus came along with him as part of his quest for sacred knowledge to talk to the druids.
Trip to India
So what did Jesus do before his 30th birthday? You might suppose that he educated himself about the world, philosophy, and religion, in preparation for his ministry. Hence the idea that he visited India seems to be popular. Louis Jacolliot was perhaps the first person with this idea. Nicolas Notovitch's La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ (Unknown Life of Jesus Christ; 1894) contained details about Jesus's travels to Sind (in what is now Pakistan), based on what Notovitch claimed was a newly found Islamic biography of Jesus but what is now viewed as a hoax.
These ideas seem motivated by beliefs that the teachings of Jesus have a lot in common with Buddhism or other eastern religions, rather than any historical evidence. While it's true that both religions have vague messages about being nice to people, this is hardly a unique concept. A more direct link is generally considered implausible, although 3rd century BCE Indian emperor Ashoka the Great sent Buddhist missionaries to Syria, Egypt, and Greece, so if Jesus had been influenced by Buddhist ideas, it's possible he could have obtained them in his homeland.
Tradition has it that Jesus began his ministry aged 30, and survived for 3 years before being hanged from a tree. This is sourced from the four canonical gospels, none of which were written by eyewitnesses, as well as apocryphal collections which are equally dubious as sources. But truth, half-truth, or gossip, in comparative terms these are the years we have the most knowledge of what Jesus might have been up to. Assuming there was a Jesus.
Although the canonical accounts suggest that Jesus hung around for a few weeks after his burial, then disappeared off to Heaven, various non-mainstream sects have alternative, more colourful stories about what he did after faking his own death, being resurrected, or returning as some kind of zombie.
Ahmadiyya, a syncretic religion based on Islam (although many Muslims will tell you otherwise), suggests that Jesus survived the crucifixion after a little swoon, then went to the Indian subcontinent, dying in Kashmir aged 120 while searching for the lost tribes of Israel. Mainstream Islamic doctrine is that Jesus was snatched up to Heaven before the crucifixion, never to be seen again on Earth.
Meher Baba, an Indian guru, also believed Jesus survived and headed east, visiting Rangoon (now in Myanmar), before settling in Kashmir. German writer Holger Kersten was another proposer of the "Jesus in India" meme.
After cheating the cross, Jesus traveled across Asia, ultimately settling in the town of Shingo in northeastern Japan. Considering the religious makeup of that country today, his continuing ministry there was wildly unsuccessful. If Christ's grave leaves you unconvinced, the attached museum has "evidence" of these entirely reasonable claims available for a small fee.
- See the Wikipedia article on Nativity of Jesus.
- See the Wikipedia article on Unknown years of Jesus.
- See the Wikipedia article on Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
- The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. newadvent.org
- Was Baby Jesus a Holy Terror?, Daily Beast
- Jesus 'may have visited England', says Scottish academic, BBC, 26 Nov 2009
- See the Wikipedia article on Buddhist influences on Christianity.
- See the Wikipedia article on Ahmadiyya.
- The Little-Known Legend of Jesus in Japan, Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2013