2021-06-20

A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

James F. McGrath

[More stuff from James McGrath’s What Jesus Learned from Women.]

To establish a convincing case that the historical Jesus learned from women, McGrath could have simply started from the inarguable fact that all humans learn — i.e., “Jesus was a man; All men learn; Therefore Jesus learned” — and built from there. However, McGrath knows that a good portion of his audience will be committed Christians, and they might have an issue with the concept of a member of the trinity needing to learn anything.

 

The fact that a significant number of people feel discomfort with the idea of Jesus learning really ought to surprise and shock us. It is an axiom of the historic Christian faith that Jesus was fully human—a complete human being, with a human soul (or what many today might prefer to call a human mind and personality). (McGrath 2021, p. 7)

Surprise, Shock, and Astonishment

Why should it “surprise and shock” us that people “feel discomfort” with the notion that the object of their worship, a pre-existent divine being, needed to learn anything? After all, besides the article of faith (i.e., Christ’s fully human nature asserted in the Nicene Creed) alluded to above, Christians also recite this line: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.

So I’m not surprised at all. I can understand completely someone being troubled and confused by the idea that an omniscient being might need to learn something, but McGrath is quite sure of himself. The discomforted Christian reader is terribly mistaken.

Consequently, the dear doctor of religion believes he must proceed beyond simple logic and find a convincing biblical proof text. He thinks he has found it in the Gospel of Luke, in which the evangelist tells us Jesus “grew in wisdom.” Remember the story where Jesus stays behind in the Temple and his parents don’t realize they left him there (Hieron Alone)? Many of us learned this story in Sunday School. They told us Mary and Joseph found Jesus among them, teaching the teachers. His would-be teachers were gobsmacked.

McGrath says that’s all wrong.

The story that Luke tells . . . about Jesus in the temple as a young man, is sometimes depicted in movies with Jesus teaching his elders. However, what Luke actually says is that Jesus was listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:47). Jesus is not depicted as something other than human, nor even as a supernaturally knowledgeable wonder child who has no need to learn. He is depicted in this story, rather, as an ideal student. It is his listening and asking questions that lead to his growth in wisdom, to his learning. (McGrath 2021, p. 7, italics original, bold text mine)

We should afford the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University all due deference. So we will forgive him for citing the wrong verse. He meant, of course, to cite verse 46, not 47.

Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46, NASB)

McGrath would have us believe that the boy Jesus was not behaving in an extraordinary, let alone supernatural, manner. He was just an above-average pupil. And yet, the next verse might cause us to doubt McGrath’s analysis.

And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. (Luke 2:47, NASB)

Is Luke’s language here consistent with a group of contented Temple teachers patting a good student on the head? The Greek word that English translations render as amazed, astounded, or astonished is ἐξίσταντο (imperfect indicative middle, third-person plural form). Knowing its etymology might give us some clues to its history and usage. It comes from ek + histēmi — literally, “to put out of place.” In English, we might say they were “bowled over,” “beside oneself,” or “blown away.” In common ancient Greek and Koine usage, it has a range of meanings: astonished, bewitched, insane, out of one’s wits, etc.

Usage in Luke-Acts

You might well ask, “Sure, but is that how Luke uses it?” Good question. Let’s take a look.

  1. Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. His parents are amazed (ἐξέστησαν).  (Luke 8:56)
  2. Two disciples meet an incognito Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They tell him the story of the resurrection. The women who went to the tomb came back with a story that amazed (ἐξέστησαν) them. They met some angels who told them that Jesus was alive. (Luke 24:22)
  3. The miracle at Pentecost occurs, with everyone hearing “in his own tongue.” Those hearing it are amazed (ἐξίσταντο). “Aren’t these guys from Galilee?” (Acts 2:12)
  4. Many people were “bewitched” (ἐξιστάνων) by Simon the Sorcerer. (Acts 8:9) They paid attention to him because they were amazed (ἐξεστακέναι) by his magic. (Acts 8:11)
  5. But Philip came along and performed greater signs and miracles. Simon the Sorcerer was so amazed (ἐξίστατο) that he believed and was baptized. (Acts 8:13)
  6. Saul (Paul) has a miraculous conversion and starts proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues. The people are amazed (ἐξίσταντο). (Acts 9:21)
  7. While Peter is preaching the new doctrine about Gentile equality, the Holy Spirit falls upon the uncircumcised. The circumcised see it happen and are utterly amazed (ἐξέστησαν) to see these Gentiles speaking in tongues. (Acts 10:45)
  8. God miraculously breaks Peter out of prison. He (Peter) knocks on the gate of the house where John Mark’s mother lives. When the people in the house open the gate, they’re amazed (ἐξέστησαν) to see Peter standing there. (Acts 12:16)

In every case, something fantastic and/or supernatural has occurred that knocks people for a loop. Note that in the gospel itself, he uses it only three times: (1) the raising of Jairus’s daughter, (2) the reaction to the women bearing news of Jesus’ resurrection, and (3) the boy Jesus’ performance in the Temple.  Now that we know how Luke uses it, let’s go back to the scene in the Temple.

Before we go further, I sense a “seems-to-think” pseudo-argument brewing. For the record, I do not think the historical Jesus, the story Jesus, the Christ of faith, or the Jesus McGrath follows should have or must have acted in any certain way. In fact, I conclude that the story is fiction, most probably invented by the evangelist himself in order to prove Jesus’ messiahship. We are not dealing with a historical event, so how historical people would likely behave or react in this situation is beside the point. Moreover, none of that matters when asking the questions, “What is the function of the story?” and “What ideas did Luke intend to convey in the story?

Pedagogy in Palestine

Jesus’ understanding and his answers astonish — a word Luke generally reserved for a reaction to a miracle.

McGrath insists that Luke’s description of the scene indicates that Jesus was just a good pupil. And from this determination, McGrath (once again, confusing the story Jesus with the historical Jesus) concludes Jesus must have had some early education. He writes:

The depiction of Jesus on the cusp of adolescence in the Gospel of Luke already suggests a certain level of prior education. Luke tells us that Jesus listened to teachers and asked them good questions. (McGrath 2021, p. 25)

Is this the message Luke is trying to convey? Remember, the evangelist says his parents found him in the Temple sitting in the middle of a group of teachers, both asking and answering questions. Their reaction is the central point of the pericope.

All who were listening were astonished at his insight and his answers. (Luke 2:47, my translation)

Jesus’ understanding and his answers astonish — a word Luke generally reserved for a reaction to a miracle. Further, we should not assume that Jesus was merely asking “good questions.” Recall that the Christ portrayed in all four canonical gospels frequently taught by means of pointed questions. Sometimes his audience knows the answer, and once he brings it to their attention, they are enlightened. At other times, the question reveals a paradox that he will solve with further teaching.

  • And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Luke 5:34, ESV)
  • But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish; but your inside is full of greed and wickedness. You foolish ones, did He who made the outside not make the inside also?” (Luke 11:39-40)
  • For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)
  • And which of you by worrying can add a day to his life’s span? Therefore if you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about the other things? (Luke 12:25-26)

We’ve only scratched the surface, but we can clearly see Luke depicted Jesus as a wise teacher who used incisive questions to help his audience understand the truth. More broadly, good teachers — both ancient and modern — frequently use questions to prod their students toward deeper understanding. Teachers offer questions and answers, as the situation requires.

In any case, contrary to McGrath, the wording of verse 47 does not describe the teachers in the Temple giving the boy a gold star for listening well and for posing good questions. Quite the opposite: It says the teachers were listening to him, and that they were thunderstruck by Jesus’ understanding and answers.

Pupil, Equal, or Teacher of Teachers?

In his commentary on Luke, Joel Green insists that Luke presents Jesus and the teachers as being “on equal footing,” adding in a footnote:

Nothing in this text serves to portray Jesus as a pupilcontra most commen­tators (e.g., C. F. Evans, 225 ; Fitzmyer, 1 :442. See Sylva, “Cryptic Clause,” 36-37n. 1 5). (Green 1997, p. 155)

So Green is in the minority when he says Jesus was not a pupil. And I must be in an even smaller minority when I argue that Jesus is presented as something more than an equal. However, I was glad to see the reference to Sylva’s “Cryptic Clause,” a paper that presents several interesting and important questions having to do with Jesus, his teaching, and his relationship to the Temple. I’m saving these discussions for the next post, but let me whet your appetite with a question (that may eventually increase our understanding): “If the very first sentence Jesus utters in the Gospel of Luke appears at the end of this pericope, wouldn’t it almost certainly foreshadow what’s to come?


Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1997.

McGrath, James F. What Jesus Learned from Women, Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2021.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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15 thoughts on “A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 1)”

  1. Stepping back a tad further, one might ask why Jesus had to experience ca. 30 years living as a human being before the start of his mission. Yahweh had a track record of being able to create full adult human beings, so why make Jesus go through all of that diaper soiling and other humiliations children go through? What was there for him to learn that couldn’t have been transmitted otherwise.

    In other words: why have Jesus put in the position to have to learn anything. He could have been formed, fully adult, walking toward the shore where he picked up his disciples, none of whom knew him ahead of time.

    Apparently, all of this came about because some Yahoo wanted Jesus to have a virgin birth. A consequence of which was that he also had to have a perfectly meaningless childhood, one that delayed his very import mission for 30 years for no good reason.

    1. That yahoo Yahweh is far too needy. I’d rather have a toilet god like the Baal of Pe’or who is content upon receiving fecal offerings from both men and women [considering he was to have keeled over in the shadow of Mount Peor maybe one of Mose’s last actions was to take a big dump there]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilet_god & http://web.archive.org/web/20170121220635/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal-Peor [some prude got this deleted recently]

      “If Pe‘or is connected to the Hebrew stem p‘r ‘open’, used both of mouth and bowels, it might mean ‘opening’ and so Ba‘al Pe‘or could mean ‘Lord of the Opening’. This apparent meaning is probably the source of Talmudic traditions associating Ba‘al Pe‘or with exposure and excrement. The tractate Sanhedrin 64a attributes to Rab through Rabbi Judah the story of a sick Gentile woman who vowed to worship every idol in the world if she recovered. Upon recovery she set out to fulfill her vow, but drew back at Pe‘or as the rites disgusted her: eating beets, drinking strong drink, and then uncovering oneself.”

      “A story follows about a Jew who showed his contempt for the god by wiping his behind on its nose after defecating in the temple and who was praised for his piety by the acolytes of the god who said: no man has ever before served this idol thus. Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah 3 states in the Gemara that the area before the idol Pe‘or was used as a latrine and that the worship of the idol consisted of defecating before it. Rashi comments on Numbers 25.3 that Pe‘or was so called because they would uncover before it the end of the rectum and bring forth excrement; this is its worship.”

  2. I ignored most of McGrath’s posts about What Jesus Learned from Women because the whole idea struck me as ridiculous. I think I made the correct choice.

    Of course, nothing in historical Jesus studies is too speculative. Conservative scholars may disagree with a liberal like McGrath’s take on such a subject, but they are never going to criticize him for thinking that the evidence is sufficient to ask and answer such questions.

    1. You did make the correct choice. I would have ignored it too, but it turns out examining his bizarre logic and unfounded conclusions is useful for other reasons. McGrath represents the state of the art, Vinny. Watch and weep.

        1. I’d love to have a record of that to add to my references demonstrating the faith-thrust of biblical studies — along with prayers opening an “academic” conference. Link?

            1. I’m suprised he doesn’t offer it as a discussion theme in the next international Ancient History/Classics Conference since he has made it clear he believes Biblical Scholars of the Historical Jesus/Christian origins are so far in the vanguard of methods that they have something to contribute to those more general historians. I’m also “surprised” to see him telling the less affluent to buy his book on Kindle. Elsewhere he talks about “sharing” a lot and has savaged mythicists for simply writing books to make money — I would have expected him to make his valuable contribution to historians and pastors alike freely available to all via an open-source PDF. Some researchers in the sciences have thought their work so important they have paid their publishers to make their books free.

              1. “I could see it being helpful, and can even imagine preachers reading the short fiction to their congregations in that context.”

                Not a historian.

                “If you’re a minister still trying to figure out what to preach this Sunday, I commend it to you.”

                “Commend”…most people would use the word “recommend”. “Commend” definition “praise formally or officially”.

                Blatant self promotion!

                $29 for a paperback, $43 for hardcover. Outrageous prices.

  3. Here’s my speculation on how James made this mistake: James’ belief about Jesus being a good student is essentially just a toned down hypothetical version of events stripped of the incredible elements to sound more historically plausible. This is basically what all nt scholars do with the life of Jesus, and that something is amiss with this reasoning is obvious. We have no basis for a belief that Jesus was a good pupil outside the text of Luke, but Luke’s text is obviously a legendary wunderkind story thereby undercutting the credibility of the pericope and leaving us with no evidential support for the belief Jesus was a good pupil.

  4. The less the Bible has to say about something the easier it is for one to read into it whatever they need: — here’s another work showing how “human” the clearly non-human figure of Jesus was, Jesus the Man Who Loved Women. But I suspect American led conservative scholarship (albeit claiming to be liberal vis a vis the literalists) is in a class of its own.

  5. Leaving aside McGrath’s argument, the temple scene in gLuke seems — in light of Mason’s and other arguments for Luke’s knowledge of Josephus — to have a plausible literary relationship to section 2 of Josephus’ Vita (c. 95 CE):

    “Now, my father Matthias was not only eminent on account of is nobility, but had a higher commendation on account of his righteousness, and was in great reputation in Jerusalem, the greatest city we have. I was myself brought up with my brother, whose name was Matthias, for he was my own brother, by both father and mother; and I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law.” (trans. Whiston)

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0150%3Awhiston+section%3D2

    Maren Niehoff makes the connection in a recent article on temple and torah in Philo of Alexandria:

    “The image of Jesus raising questions – the classical term of Greek scholarship ἐπερωτάω is used here – evokes an intrinsic association of the Temple with Torah study. Similarly, Josephus’s self-portrait suggests a strong connection between Temple and Torah in the first century CE. He nostalgically recalls: “while still a mere boy, approximately fourteen years old, I was applauded by everybody for my love of letters. The chief priests and the leading men of the city always came to me to learn some more precise information about our laws.” To be sure, the priests are said to come to Josephus – and not vice versa, Josephus to the Temple – but this scene undoubtedly connects Torah study with the priests and by implication with the Temple.” (175)

    Niehoff, “Constructing Temple and Torah in Philo of Alexandria” in Witte et al., eds., Torah, Temple, Land. Mohr Siebeck: 2021.

    Open access eBook at: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/book/torah-temple-land-9783161598548?no_cache=1

    Do other scholars make this connection?

    1. Yes, the connection is found in some of the commentaries. For three of them in older works see https://biblehub.com/commentaries/luke/2-47.htm

      Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

      (47) At his understanding and answers.—The first word seems to point to the discernment which showed itself in the questions as well as the answers. The egotism of Josephus leads him to speak of himself as having, at the age of fourteen—when he too had become “a child of the Law”—caused a like astonishment by his intelligence; so that the chief priests and principal men of the city used to come and consult him upon difficult questions in the interpretation of the Law (Life, c. 1). The fact is so far interesting as showing that the class of teachers retained the same kind of interest in quick and promising scholars.

      Meyer’s NT Commentary

      Luke 2:47 ff. Ἐπὶ τῇ συνέσει καὶ κ.τ.λ.] over His understanding in general, and especially over His answers.
      ἰδόντες] Joseph and Mary. They were astonished; for they had not expected to find Him either in this place, or so occupied.
      ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ] not merely because maternal feeling is in general more keen, quick, and ready to show itself, nor yet because Joseph had not been equal to this scene (Lange), but rightly in accordance with Luke’s view of the maternal relation of Mary. Bengel: “non loquebatur Josephus; major erat necessitudo matris.”

      Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

      47. were astonished] Similar incidents are narrated of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah; of Rabbi Ashi, the compiler of the Babylonian Talmud; and (by himself) of Josephus (Vit. 2). See Excursus VII.

      And it comes up from time to time in different articles: e.g. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3154865 p. 620

      . . . . and finally the contiguity in Josephus of two or more of the passages, and the explanation the whole matter gives of Luke’s chronological errors, the evidence becomes overwhelming. Dr. Stanton, denying the derivation, says in The Gospels as Historical Documents, II, 267: “The account of Jesus in the temple at the age twelve, given in Luke 2:46, 47, has been held by some to have been taken from a passage in the Autobiography of Josephus about his own boyhood. It cannot however be denied that there is a moderation statement in the Evangelist’s narrative which compares very favorably with the bragging tone and doubtless exaggerated description of Josephus. A writer who followed another in a matter of this kind would usually be disposed to claim for his hero as much as he found claimed for another. Our evangelist, if he had Josephus in view, has at least resisted this temptation. Josephus writes: “When I was about fourteen years old, I was praised by all for my love of learning, and the chief priests and chief men of the city continually came together in order learn from me some more accurate knowledge concerning the things the law.” Luke says simply that Jesus “was found in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and asking them questions; and all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers . . . .

      and https://www.jstor.org/stable/40914830 — an endnote on page 81:

      Some have thought that this claim to precociousness is a commonplace such as we find in Plutarch (Theseus 6.4, Solon 2, Themistocles 2.1, Dion 4.2, Alexander 5.1, Romulus 8. Cicero 2), Quintus Curtius {History of Alexander 1), Philostratus (Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1.7.11). Pseudo-Callisthenes (Alexander Romance), Conon (Narrationes 44, where we find the example of Evangelos of Miletus), Apollodorus (Bibliotheca 1.7 A, where we find the examples of Amphoteos and Akarnan the son of Callirhoe), I Enoch 106. 1 1 (where Noah blesses God while still in the hands of a midwife), Philo (De Vita Mosis 1.5.20-24. 1.6.25-20), and Jubilees (11-12, where Abraham is depicted as a child prodigy). See Charles H. Talbert, “Prophecies of Future Greatness: The Contribution of Greco-Roman Biographies to an Understanding of Luke 1:5-4:15,” in The Divine Helmsman: Studies on God’s Control of Human Events Presented to Lou H. Silberman, ed. James L. Crenshaw and Samuel Sandmel (New York, 1980), 135. Similarly, the Rabbis speak of the precociousness of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samson, Samuel, and Elijah. See Charles Perrot. “Les recits d’enfance dans la Haggada anterieure au He siecle de notre ere,” Recherches de science religieuse 55 (1967): 481-518. Cf. Luke 2:40, 52. where we are told that the child Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him…. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

      The implications …. ? Depends where you are coming from and where you are heading! 😉

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