The Youth Jesus left at Jerusalem – A Bible Study in Luke 2
We who are parents as a rule take great care when it comes to the whereabouts of our children. This is especially the case for young children. I remember one time when I took my sister’s children to Disneyland in California and my nephew (who could not have been more than about seven at the time) and I got separated in a video game arcade. What a nightmare. Rushing around looking for the lost child, seeking out the authorities, retracing your steps, looking, and finally, thank God, finding the lost little one. With my own daughter, whenever we go to a mall or a public area, I pay extra close attention to where she is at all times. Today, we just can’t be too careful.
“The child was growing, and was becoming strong in spirit, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast, and when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. Joseph and his mother didn't know it, but supposing him to be in the company, they went a day's journey, and they looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they didn't find him, they returned to Jerusalem, looking for him. It happened after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you." He said to them, "Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house?" They didn't understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth. He was subject to them, and his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”
Now, on the surface, when we read this passage, there seems to be (from our modern perspectives) a certain level of irresponsibility of the parents of our Lord. Why didn’t they pay closer attention to the location of their son? How could they have left him in Jerusalem alone? Now I think it is safe to say we can make some speculation here to fill in the gaps of this story.
First, it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. Jesus was twelve at this time. If we take the example of the family of Moses who was three years younger than his brother Aaron (Note: Early Jewish women often nursed their children some 24 months or longer and this helped to hinder women from getting pregnant again until the children were aged three and were weaned.) that the Biblical ideal for spacing children is three years, by this time, Joseph and Mary may have had as many as four other children (more children than my suggestion are physically possible), with a new born among them. So, it is easy to see that this family would have been busy taking care of their younger children.
We can also note that maturity took place at an earlier age in ancient times, with young men of 13 taking on some of the responsibilities of early man hood. However, to be sure, 13 year olds were still under the total responsibility of their parents. Our text in Luke 2 even indicates this. The text shows that his parents exhibited a great deal of concern for our Lord and returned immediately to Jerusalem to find him. So how do we understand what really took place in this story of Luke 2.
Understanding this idea is enhanced by taking into consideration the cultural environment at that time concerning the procedure for taking longer trips. We have to understand that when we read this passage our approach to travel is quite different than what those people in those days undertook when they traveled. I think that those who are older would even say that our modern approach to even the simplest of trips is something completely foreign to the way that they took trips when they were young. Over the years, things have changed a lot. I have spoken to some older people who have told me that they used to go “to town” once a week. Today, we just hop in the car and go wherever we want whenever we want to. The situation in the past though was quite different. Herein is the key to the proper understanding of this passage: understanding the cultural environment of the times in which the narrative is taking place. To quote one of the preeminent Biblical historians concerning the importance of placing the Biblical narratives in their proper cultural environment, Dr. John J. Pilch of Georgetown University, who said: “If we have not been reading the Bible as a Middle Eastern document, the likelihood is that we have been misreading and misinterpreting it.”
This brings up an important point that we always have to keep in mind when it comes to the Bible. We Bible students today have to remove our biases and assumptions about what we might think the Bible means based upon our own perspectives. Look at the issue of censuses for example. My father (Dr. Ernest L. Martin) pointed this out in his work dealing with the number of Israelites at the Exodus.[3a] When the issue of censuses is under discussion and Moses comes up with these huge numbers which lead us to think that the population of Israel may have been 2.5 million people, we need to remember that Moses counted the living and the dead, or the pedigrees of the people (see Numbers 1) at that time, and he included those pedigrees in his count and that gives us the larger figure. To us today, when we think of a census, we think of counting only living people, but to Moses it meant something else. As Biblical students it is our jobs to get rid of our own biases and get back to what the actual facts were at that time. This can be ascertained often by a close examination of all the relevant texts, but can also be understood by studying other books or looking at the cultural context of how people live in the East, particularly before the advent of modern conveniences. To be sure, 200 years ago, the people who traveled in the East traveled in a similar fashion to how they traveled in ancient times. Herein lies a clue of how we might better understand how Jesus could have been separated from his parents at this time when they were returning to the Galilee from Jerusalem.
The first thing to understand is that people in those days traveled in groups to attend these feasts. These groups traveled from the Galilee in the north and went south to Jerusalem. Upon completion of the feast, groups then formed for the return trip. Now, let us note some comments of scholars and individuals who have made pilgrimages to the Near East within the last two hundreds years and they have mentioned some peculiarities concerning the habits of travelers in the Near East which might help to better understand this passage.
“The usual rate of traveling in the East is three miles an hour; and the number of hours devoted to traveling rarely exceeds six or eight hours, the distance of an ordinary day’s journey may be considered as twenty or twenty five miles. The first day, however, on starting on an expedition, forms an exception to this rule; on that day it is not customary to go more than six or eight miles, and the tents are pitched for the night’s encampment almost within sight of the place from which the journey commences. The sun was hanging low as I left Cairo on the fifteenth of March, to proceed across the desert to Syria; and after a march of two hours and a half we halted near the obelisk which marks the spot of Heliopolis, the On of Scripture (Genesis 41:45). The only reason that I heard assigned for starting thus late and stopping so early was, that it furnished the opportunity, in anything [or anyone!] should prove to be forgotten, to return to the city and supply the deficiency.”
Note also Henry Maundrell who traveled in the Near East in the late 17th century: “We set out from Aleppo [Syria] at three in the afternoon, intending to make only a short step that evening, in order to prove how well we were provided with necessaries for our journey. Our quarters this first night we took up at a place about one hour and a half west of Aleppo.”
Another author gives a similar account: “The first day’s journey of the pilgrims, he says, as is usual with caravans, was very short. They traveled scarcely an hour and a half, as far as Gerrha, where they encamped near a fountain.’ Hackett continues: “But this practice of restricting the first day’s journey, in whatever way it may have arisen, has existed apparently from the earliest times; for we find the stations marked in the itineraries of the oldest travelers in the East, agreeing very remarkably with those mentioned by later travelers. The permanency, therefore, so characteristic of Asiatic life in general, may be supposed to have maintained itself in this respect as it has done in other things.”
Going directly north about 16 kilometers (about 10 miles), we come to a location just to the east of Ramallah known as Al Bireh.
Al Bireh has an interesting history. Note what Fr. Eugene Hoade has to say about this location:
“It is believed that this [Al Bireh] was the first stopping place for caravans going from Jerusalem to Galilee by way of Samaria, and therefore the place where Mary and Joseph missed the 12-year old Jesus and returned to Jerusalem to find Him in the Temple (Luke 2:41).
The Holy Family ‘having fulfilled the days, i.e. after the Pasch (Passover) celebrations, were returning to Nazareth together with numerous people. After a day’s journey (that is, after the traditional first day’s journey, some 16 kilometers [10 miles or so]), thinking that Jesus was in the company, ‘they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days his parents found him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them and asking them questions.’
It is very probably that in memory of this event there was built by the Franks in 1146 the church with three aisles of which considerable ruins still remain at the top of the village. [this was written by Fr. Hoade in about 1970] But it is not unlikely that the church of the 12th century was erected on the remains of an older church. It is the property of the Greek Orthodox.
El Bireh is commonly identified with Beerot, the most northerly of the Gabaonite tetrapolis (Joshua 9:17). Both in Hebrew and Arabic the name means well (s). The primitive site, on archaeological evidence, would be on Ras et Tahune (Mill Hill), a hill to the north of the village. Given the tribe of Benjamin, it was the home of Banaa and Rechab, who assassinated Ishbosheth, son of Saul, and whom David had hanged at Hebron (II Samuel 4:2) The actual village could represent the Berea of I Maccabees 2:4 and Birra, La Grande Mahomeria of the Crusaders in contrast to the La Petite Mahomeria, which was El Qubeibeh [Emmaus] or Beit Surik. The Templars had a post there in the 13th century and the remains of the Khan beside the spring is part of their castle.”
When we consider how far it is from Jerusalem to Al Bireh and the fact that from ancient times caravans were stopping there because of the spring, this could be a logical place for the first nights stopping on trips between Jerusalem and the Galilee. I myself have walked from Jerusalem about half way to El Bireh and my brother in law and myself made the trip in less than an hour and a half. What the travelling customs of those days in the Near East, which have existed for several thousands of years, show us is that a system was in place to help travelers to assemble themselves at the meeting point after the first days travel. With this understanding, the story of Luke 2 makes much more sense.
 Matthew 13:55,56; Mark 6:3 says that Jesus had “sisters” in the plural and early Christian traditions tell us Jesus had two sisters named Mary and Salome. The family of Jesus was 9 people, maybe more.
 See Mc’lintock and Strongs Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological & Ecclesiastical Literature, vol.II pg. 243, article, ‘child,’ which refers to Genesis 21:8, Exodus 2:7,9; I Samuel 1:22-24; II Chronicles 31:16 and Matthew 21:16.
[3a] 101 Bible Secrets that Christians Do Not Know (ASK Publications, Portland:OR, 1991)
[3a] 101 Bible Secrets that Christians Do Not Know (ASK Publications, Portland:OR, 1991)
 Horatio Hackett, Illustrations of Scripture suggested by a tour through the Holy Land, pg. 15-16; Gould and Lincoln: 1863.
 Henry Maundrell: A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem: 1697, pg. 1
 Helon’s Pilgrimage – Helon’s Wallfahrt nach Jerusalem, vol.I, p.63.
 Horatio Hackett, Illustrations of Scripture pg.18.
 Fr. E. Hoade, Guide to the Holy Land, pgs. 656-7, 7th ed. Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem 1974