The Jesus Youth: the revolutionary significance of young people in the gospels

14 Jun

Jesus prophesies a dire warning of the Third Reich.

Paintings from the Renaissance and Middle Ages periods often depict the twelve apostles as middle aged men gathering around the comparatively youthful thirty year old Jesus. This depiction has stood for many years as the dominant narrative, while the marginalised narrative of youth gathers little interest. The essay seeks not only to re-examine the age identities of these disciples, but also to uncover the revolutionary youth ministry which is central to the teachings of the gospel Jesus and the early church. To investigate these claims, I will be examining the attitudes of first century Jews toward children and young men’s legal and hierarchical status in relation to their seniors as expressed in the Old Testament and by social anthropologists. This study will provide a foundation for the second part of my study which will focus on the revolutionary teachings of Jesus in relation to children and young people in contrast to traditional Hebrew and Roman values.

While determining a reliable age for Jesus the start of his ministry is problematic at best, there are at least a few signposts in the gospels (Luke 2:1-7; 3:1), tradition places his age at 30 at the beginning of his ministry based on a passage in Numbers (4:3), and at this stage I see no need to dispute this claim as it is only related to the age of the apostles relatively. Nobody knows for certain how old the apostles were as the Bible doesn’t give an exact age (Camille, 2006, p. 40; Lacobucci, 2001, p. 125). The traditionally older age of the disciples does significantly influence the reading of the gospels which can make some of the events described confusing. I propose that an age of between thirteen and twenty is more likely and also more congruous with the text.


Jesus lead a youth revival.

Jesus uses traditional rabbinic language when calling his disciples. In the first century rabbinic tradition, Jewish boys at the age of fourteen who wanted to become rabbis would approach the rabbi they wanted to follow, after looking over their records he would then either tell them to take up his yoke (that rabbi’s particular teaching, philosophy, and interpretation of scripture) and follow him, or to return to their family and take up their father’s trade and have children because they wouldn’t be becoming a rabbi (Wilson, 2007). Since Peter and Andrew are fishing when Jesus encounters them (Matthew 4:18) they have both failed to find a rabbi who would take them on and have returned to their father’s profession, and in Peter’s case, married (Matthew 8:14). If the role which Jesus is taking is that of a Jewish rabbi (John 1:49; 3:2; 6:25), and they are his students, the disciples would need to be of a younger generation to Jesus, as “younger” and “older” have clear authoritive implications in the Hebrew language (Barclay, 2007, p. 225). This generational division is confirmed in Josephus, who says that the young should respect everybody who is older (Barclay, 2007, p. 232). This doesn’t confirm them as teenage, but does require them to be “youths” in relation to Jesus.


Jesus causes spider webs to fire from his hands before stunned fishermen.

Looking now to Jesus’ inner circle of James, John and Peter; In Matthew 20:20-21 the mother of John and James comes to Jesus to beg him to give them positions of honour in his kingdom. Considering that (based on archaeological data) the average life expectancy of a wealthy person in first century Jerusalem is 25 years (Barclay, 2007, p. 228), half of all children born die before the age of five and one in eight pregnancies result in the mother’s death (Spalding, 2008, p. 29); the likelihood of the mother of two brothers over the age of 40, who are not among the wealthy classes (Mark 1:16-20), being physically able, let alone permitted to fall to her knees and beg on their behalf is extremely slim. In fact, there were only generally two generations alive at a time, so men living to 40 at all would have been in the minority (Barclay, 2007, p. 225), let alone having their mother present. If, on the other hand, the oldest of the brothers were around the age of 14, and had been born shortly after their mother’s bat mitzvah at age twelve, that could potentially place their mother’s age in her late twenties; which is a somewhat more appropriate age for falling to one’s knees and begging on behalf of one’s sons, though no less mortifying for the sons.

Peter, on the other hand, may be over the age of twenty. In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus is in Capernaum with his disciples, when the tax collectors come to ask for a two drachma temple tax. There is obviously a lot of symbolism in this verse but the key point in terms of age is that Jesus provided a four drachma coin, enough to pay for Peter and himself, but not for the rest of the disciples who were with them. This temple tax was an annual payment which had been extended from the onetime payment commanded in Exodus 30:12-16 of a single day’s wages for temple services (Dunnill, 2003, p. 89) which was to be paid by men over the age of 20 (Barclay, 2007, p. 230). This would imply that the other disciples were under the age of twenty because they were not expected to pay the tax.

Obviously these points can be debated for a very long time. My intention here isn’t to prove the young age of the disciples. It is impossible to be certain on this point (Camille, 2006, p. 40; Downing, 2004, p. 97). Rather, one can place confidence in a hypothesis based on the evidence marshalled to support it in relation to the evidence supporting alternative theories (Lacobucci, 2001, p. 125). In regard to the tradition of older disciples, it must be considered that in the culture within which the early church was formed, age and respect were closely linked (Barclay, 2007, p. 232). A youth church might be in line with Jesus’ teaching on the subject of age but would not directly command the respect of the community. As such the tradition of older disciples’ may have developed for political reasons (Ayres, 2007, p. 397). The age of the first church leaders in relation to their followers is therefore interrelated to Jesus’ teaching on the subject of youth and authority. If Jesus teaches respect for elders then the older disciple theory is stronger, but if he teaches a kingdom where youth lead the way it would be necessary for the disciples to be young, at least at the beginning of their ministry.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:13-15 NIV)

This event is one of only two in the gospels where Jesus’ anger is shown; as a literary technique this draws attention to the passage and highlights its importance (Gundry-Volf, 2000). To understand why it is important, one must first understand the cultural discourse on children which was dominant at the time. While it has already been established that a “youth” is considered inferior to the “elder” (Barclay, 2007, p. 226), the youth term is reserved for men over the age of twelve (Moltmann, 2000, p. 599; Barclay, 2007, p. 229). The Greek word for child is “paidion” which comes from the root “pais” which could refer to either a child or a slave, (Strong, 1995) and this gives a good indication of the social status of children at the time as pretty much the bottom rung of the social ladder (Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 472). In fact, even in the early church, to call somebody childish is considered a derogatory statement (Moltmann, 2000, p. 599; 1 Corinthians 14:20; Luke 7:32). Because of their near animal like status, children under the age of twelve were neither obligated nor expected to adhere to Torah (Moltmann, 2000, p. 599; Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 472).

Mark doesn’t specify the reason for the children being turned away (Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 471), but in the social context it is likely that the disciples felt that children were unworthy of approaching their master (Moltmann, 2000, p. 599). If the disciples themselves are only a few years older than the children they are turning away this would make the status struggle all the more relevant, as small people with only a little authority often tend to lord it over those with less. Also, the fact that the disciples block children from approaching but not young men might imply that they did not consider themselves to be of higher status than the young men because they were young men themselves.

Jesus’ response, therefore, is revolutionary (Moltmann, 2000, p. 598). Not only does he allow the children through, but even picks them up and blesses them (Mark 10:16). The care of children was considered a low status activity for women or slaves, the act of a respected rabbi lifting up a child can be seen as a direct rejection of the social hierarchy (Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 475). This isn’t an isolated incident. At another time, Jesus responds to an argument between the disciples about who will be greater in the kingdom by placing a child between them and then, taking the child into his arms tells them that the way to greatness is through lowliness (Mark 9:36). This becomes a central theme of Mark’s gospel, with many healings and exorcisms emphasising their inclusion and honour in the kingdom (Gundry-Volf, 2000, pp. 472; Mark 5:22-23; 35-43; 7:24-30; 9:14-29).


This kind only comes out with prayer and fasting.

Looking more closely at the story of the demon possessed youth (Mark 9:14-29; Matthew 17:14-18; Luke 9:37-43) with a modern understanding of psychology, it is possible to see the son’s muteness, grinding teeth and other mouth related problems as symptomatic of being unable to speak his own thoughts (Capps, 2001, p. 147). Considering that this was a problem which had been affecting the youth since his childhood (Mark 9:21), this could have something to do with the social condition of being able stand up to his father. The aggressive flailing of arms and feet, aggressive behaviour directed toward himself and paralysis would suggest physical anger which could not find expression (Capps, 2001, p. 139) possibly from a combination of abuse, the requirement of unconditional obedience toward his parents, and anxiety over aggressive emotions toward his father (Capps, 2001, pp. 139, 147; Barclay, 2007, p. 232). Both this story and the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 8:40-56) describe similar symptoms which modern medicine would relate to anxiety resulting from their powerless position (Capps, 2001, p. 147). This powerlessness and dependence on the adults and their culture which had both let them down seems to lie at the heart of Jesus’ extension of the reign of God to them (Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 472). Blessed are the meek.

The meaning of Jesus’ command to become like children can be read in numerous ways. It could be that the requirement is to become childlike in status, giving away all one’s possessions and becoming reliant on others for survival (Gundry-Volf, 2000, p. 743), or maybe it is some other childlike quality like faith or humility. One major consideration to be observed in relation to a theological aspect is the child’s spiritual legal status (Moltmann, 2000, p. 599): because children are neither obligated nor expected to comply with the Mosaic Law, they exist in a state of Grace wherein they are not required to live up to any behavioural standard to be accepted by God. The kingdom of God belongs to children – those who can do nothing to deserve it but to receive it (Moltmann, 2000, p. 600). So while Jesus commands the inclusion of children into Judaism as a whole and lays great threats to those who would cause them to so much a stumble, he also makes their humble status the measure by which adults will be judged. This is a revolutionary concept which was not present in either the Jewish culture or the invading Greek and Roman cultures, though it became a defining point of the early church that women and children were involved and participated in every area of worship (Bakke, 2005, p. 539; Moltmann, 2000, p. 598). According to Jesus, the mark of true greatness is in receiving and being hospitable toward children, and all who would be great in the community must serve children (Gundry-Volf, 2000, pp. 476; Matt 18:1-5) because it is the great who are at most in danger of pride, which can most easily be remedied by a few minutes as the student of a six year old.

What does all this mean for the modern Christian? Should churches require that anyone who preaches to the entire congregation teach Sunday school once a month? Maybe. More importantly though, I can see some room for relaxation; A person who follows Jesus’ advice doesn’t need to establish strict rules of behaviour to decide who is in and who is out. Rules requiring people to say a particular prayer or accept a particular doctrine (or “yoke”) are for adults, not children. The reign of God belongs to children. Adults can come along too if they want, but they’ll have to leave those rules at the door.


Ayres, L. (2007). The Question of Orthodoxy. Journal of Early Christian Studies , 14 (4), 395 – 398.

Bakke, O. (2005). When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Barclay, J. (2007). There is Neither Old Nor Young? Early Christian and Ancient Ideologies of Age. Durham, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Camille, A. (2006). Here’s Johnny. U.S. Catholic , 71 (10), 39-41.

Capps, D. (2001). Curing Anxious Adolescents Through Fatherlike Performance. Interpretation , 55 (2), 135 – 147.

Downing, F. (2004). In Quest of First-Century C.E. Galilee. The Catholic Bibile Quarterly , 66 (1), 78 – 97.

Dunnill, J. (2003). Communicative Bodies and Economics of Grace: The Role of Sacrifice in the Christian Understanding of the Body. The Journal of Religion , 83 (1), 79-93.

Gundry-Volf, J. (2000). To Such as These Belongs the Reign of God. Theology Today , 56 (4), 469 – 480.

Lacobucci, D. (2001). Commonalities between research methods for consumer science and biblical scholarship. Marketing Theory , 1 (1), 109 -133.

Moltmann, J. (2000). Child and Childhood as Metaphores of Hope. Theology Today , 56 (4), 592 – 603.

Spalding, J. (2008). Excavating Jesus. The Christian Century , 125 (15), 28.

Strong, J. (1995). The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Neilson Publishers.

Wilson, C. (2007). Discipleship in Jesus’ Day. Retrieved June 12, 2010, from Jewish Roots of Christianity:

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Posted by on June 14, 2010 in Religious


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