January 7-8: Luke 2:49

This coming Sunday (the first Sunday after Epiphany), is traditionally the date commemorating the Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), although more recently churches have celebrated it on the Sunday after Christmas. The episode—usually considered part of the Lukan Infancy Narrative (1:5-2:52)—is the only narrative in the New Testament depicting the boyhood of Jesus. Very soon many more stories would surface, with increasingly spectacular and (no doubt) fictional details, such as can be found in the surviving extra-canonical “Infancy Gospels”—the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, and so forth. The narratives in these Gospels have perhaps more in common with Saints’ Lives from the early Medieval period than with the ancient Jesus traditions. Although the boy Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is depicted as a most precocious child, he is far from the wonder-working prodigy of later tales (see for example the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, c. 2, and throughout).

In fact, there is very little in the Lukan Infancy Narratives which would suggest that Jesus experienced anything other than normal growth and development (in his human nature)—cf. Luke 2:40 and the parallel/doublet of 2:52. Whether, or to what extent, Jesus actively possessed (and exercised) the Divine Attributes (such as omniscience, et al.) as a child is probably an unsolvable Christological question. One is reminded of the Kenosis/Krypsis debate among Lutheran theologians—whether the incarnate Christ ’emptied’ himself (kenosis) of the divine attributes, or ‘hid’ (krypsis) their use through most of his life. It is a fascinating, but highly speculative area of study, and should be approached with caution.

With regard to this particular narrative, it is best to pay attention to what Luke records Jesus himself as saying about his identity. When his parents (and relatives) left Jerusalem to return home from the feast, Jesus remained behind, somehow without his parents knowing it. When they do find him at last, in the Temple, Mary says to him:

te/knon, ti/ e)poi/hsa$ h(mi=n ou%tw$; i)dou o( path/r sou k)agw o)dunw/menoi e)zhtou=me/n se.
“Child, what [i.e. why] have you done thus to us? See, your father and I, being in pain, search [for] you”

This passage raises all sorts of questions for modern readers—logistical (‘how could Mary and Joseph set off on such a long journey not knowing Jesus was missing?’), psychological (‘how did Mary and Joseph feel when their son was missing?’), and ethical (‘how could Jesus let his parents worry about him that way?’)—which are far removed from Luke’s purpose: he says nothing at all about such matters. The entire story, as Luke tells it, leads up to a profound revelatory moment—Jesus’ pronouncement in response to his mother’s question:

ti/ o%ti e)zhtei=te me; ou)k h&|deite o%ti e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou dei= ei@nai/ me;
“(For) what (is it) that [i.e. why do] you search [for] me? Did you not know that it is necessary for me to be e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$?”

The precise meaning of the portion I have left untranslated is still disputed. Literally, it reads: “in [i.e. among] the [ones/things] of my father”. There are three main possibilities for interpretation (see J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke V1 [Anchor Bible 28], pp. 443-444, for a more detailed summary):

  1. “among the people of [i.e., belonging to] my father”—presumably referring to the teachers of the law, temple personnel, or perhaps more generally to those studying and expounding the Scriptures. This would seem to be the most literal rendering, and is certainly possible, though, I think, unlikely.
  2. “in the affairs of my father”—that is, the things in an abstract sense, again referring, one would assume, to the teaching of the Torah and temple activity. Sometimes cited supporting this basic meaning is Luke 20:25, but better Mark 8:33/Matthew 16:23. Again, this is possible, but I would prefer a more concrete sense of the expression (see below).
  3. “in the house(-hold) of my father”—the expression e)n toi=$ tou= {person} (“in/among the things/people of {so-and-so}”) can have the wider sense of “in/among the possessions of …”, translated conventionally as “in the house(-hold) of…”. Such a basic meaning is attested in the Greek version of the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 41:51), and elsewhere in Greek texts of the period; a close parallel is found in Josephus (Against Apion I.118: e)n toi=$ tou= Dio$ “in the house-(hold) [i.e. temple] of Zeus”).

This last meaning is certainly close to the mark; however, I would say that the standard translation “in my Father’s house”, is still somewhat inappropriate. If Luke (or Jesus as the speaker) had wanted to emphasize the Temple building as God’s house, he could have used oi@ko$, where the Temple is commonly referred to as God’s house (oi@ko$ qeou). I rather prefer a more general (literal) translation: “in/among the things of my Father”; this, for two reasons:

1) the translation emphasizes “my Father” rather than “house” (the Temple), which better preserves the (intentional) juxtaposition between Joseph and God as Jesus’ “father”. In her address to Jesus, Mary specifically states “your father and I…search for you”, to which Jesus responds “it is necessary for me… things of my father“. Interestingly, in the manuscript tradition, a number of scribes modified “your father” to read “Joseph” or “your relatives”, presumably in an effort to safeguard the idea of the Virgin Birth (on this, see the earlier article on textual variants in the Infancy narratives); however, this is a prime example of misguided orthodoxy at work, for the change completely ruins the parallel (and the actual Christological point!).

2) I think it possible that here with e)n toi=$ tou=… there may be a reference relevant to the historical context, which Luke preserves. Travel in the Ancient Near East, such as from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, would have involved a caravan (sunodi/a, “[those] together [on the] way”)—groups of persons, often relatives, travelling together (for safety and protection), along with any necessary possessions for the journey, pack/travel animals, and the like. It is not straying too far from Luke’s narrative context to imagine, in his parents “anxious searching” (to which Mary refers), they would first begin searching among the people and possessions in the caravan train. In essence, Jesus might be saying—by an expanded paraphrase—”why were you searching for me [among the things in the caravan], didn’t you know you would find me among my Father’s things?”

In any event, the comparison between the possessions of his (legal human) father Joseph, and those of his (Divine heavenly) Father God, would seem to be at the center of the Christological message, which is the point of the story. At the same time, the Temple setting, the teachers of the Law/Scripture (didaskaloi), the Passover feast, all retain the Old Testament connection so prominent to the setting of the Lukan Infancy Narrative. The central (self-)revelation of the Incarnate Christ as being the Son of God (even as a youth) takes place right in the middle of (e)n me/sw|) the history and religion of Israel, symbolized appropriately by the Temple (and the teaching therein) as e)n toi=$ tou= qeou=.

The traditional image of the Boy Jesus teaching the Scribes, so familiar from Christian art and commentary, is a pious interpretation (or exaggeration), influenced in part, it would seem, from the extra-canonical legends mentioned above (see the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [chap. 19] for an amplified version of the same narrative).  Luke, however (2:46-47), describes nothing of of the sort: it is merely stated that Jesus was in the temple e)n me/sw| tw=n didaska/lwn (“in the middle of the teachers”) and a)kou/onta au)tw=n kai e)perwtw=nta au)tou/$ (“he gave ear [i.e. listened] to them and inquired after them”), much as would any young pupil to a Rabbi. The teachers were “astonished” (e)ci/stanto) by young Jesus’ understanding (su/nesi$) and responses (a)po/krisi$); but nowhere is it stated, or even really suggested, that Jesus acted as their teacher.

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