A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

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

Child Jesus in the Temple — Jan Steen

In the previous post, we discussed McGrath’s assertion that the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple was learning from the teachers of the law. According to the esteemed doctor, Jesus was just a really good pupil. In rebuttal, I provided some reasons to think that Luke wanted us to believe Jesus “astonished” his interlocutors with his insightful questions and answers. Joel Green, the author of one of the better commentaries on Luke, says Jesus was at least on equal footing with men who had devoted their entire lives to studying the law.

Not a Pupil, Not a Fan

As I mentioned last time, Green cited a paper by Dennis Sylva that lists a few reasons why he thinks Luke had no intention of portraying Jesus as a student. In “The Cryptic Clause,” he writes:

Luke did not present Jesus as a pupil of the Jewish teachers, as scholars often suppose. . . . The fact that Jesus is said to have questioned the teachers and answered questions does not necessarily mean that Jesus is presented as a student of the Jewish teachers. Luke often presents the adult Jesus as asking questions and answering them without portraying him as a student. . . . (Sylva 1987, pp. 136-137)

Exactly so. As we noted earlier, Jesus’ teaching method often involved both asking and answering questions. He continues:

Further, Luke writes that the child Jesus was kathezomenon en mesō tōn didaskalōn (Lk 246a). By way of contrast, Luke writes about how Paul “was taught at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Still further, the fact that in subsequent chapters in the Lukan narrative Jesus is presented as condemning many views of the Jewish teachers makes it highly unlikely that Luke would present Jesus as a student of the Jewish teachers in Luke 24 1:51. (Sylva 1987, p.137, formatting altered slightly)

We picture Jesus sitting (καθεζόμενον) in the middle of the teachers, not learning at their feet. That’s a powerful image. Consider the social implications of a boy looking eye-to-eye at the most learned people in all of Judea. And recall that he’s been at this, allegedly, for three days.

Moreover, Sylva is absolutely correct about Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities, especially the doctors of the law. Does McGrath propose that he learned from them and then learned more later from some other source, thereby changing his outlook? Perhaps. We know he believes Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist. And we’ve already noted that he thinks Jesus had some education previous to the encounter in the Temple.

The depiction of Jesus on the cusp of adolescence in the Gospel of Luke already suggests a certain level of prior education. (McGrath 2021, p. 25)

Memory, Essence, and Gist

Now the mythical tale of the boy in the Temple can serve a dual purpose: It foreshadows Jesus’ career as a teacher and it magically reveals the gist of his actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness historical education.

Regardless of McGrath’s intentions here, the reader will easily infer that the historical Jesus “must have” acquired some education in his youth. We’ve seen this sleight-of-hand maneuver in NT Studies many times before.

We are invited to assume that Luke “received the account from the tradition.” The story “must have” been “remembered” by the people who knew the historical Jesus, or at least it “contains the gist” of the person they remembered. By a chain of must-haves, gist-memories, and a liberal dose of scholarly assumptions, we can “know” that Jesus had an education. Presto! — the narrative Jesus defines specific aspects of the historical Jesus.

At one time, some scholars who attempted to separate fact from fiction in the gospels by shaving away the supernatural would admit that without the mythical motivations, stories often evaporate. David Friedrich Strauss noted that without the actual event of the transfiguration, the mountain-climbing excursion leading up to it has no purpose. However, modern, intelligent scholars have found a way to recycle the dross. They’re uncovering the gist or, perhaps, the source of the memory . . .  behind the essence of the gist . . . of the story.

McGrath again:

[Stories about Jesus] often preserve the essence and gist of what Jesus said and did. Occasionally they do more than that. (McGrath 2021, p. 220)

One can hardly overestimate the power of this trump card. Now the mythical tale of the boy in the Temple can serve a dual purpose: It foreshadows Jesus’ career as a teacher and it magically reveals the gist of his actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness historical education. All you have to do is combine the story-Jesus and the historical Jesus into a remembered-essence, must-have-been, plausible, pseudo-scholarly stew. And if skeptics should raise objections, all you have to do is accuse them of trying to erase history.

The Function of the Story

I have no desire to erase history, but I certainly have no interest in fabricating history based on the secondary implications of a gospel legend. It bears repeating: The full history of the origins of Christianity is much larger and at least as interesting as the history of its founder. Unfortunately, too often the historical, literary, social, and theological implications of Christian writings take a back seat to the “Jesus Quest.” And in the case of scholars like McGrath, the vision of this must-have-been historical Jesus drives them to harmonize the canonical gospels, Paul’s writings, the apocryphal gospels, and other assorted traditions. Anything that can be employed in the service of plausibility is fair game, even accounts we know to be pious fiction.

Returning to the work of competent scholars, Sylva points to an oddity in Luke 2:49. Our English translations hide the fact that a noun has been omitted. Specifically, we don’t know exactly what Jesus must attend to. Traditional English translations in the KJV lineage (probably copying Tyndale) choose to assume he meant “business,” while more modern translations, including the ESV, NASB, and NIV, have decided on the more tangible, concrete, (and mundane) “house.”

And he sayde vnto the: how is it yt ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must goo aboute my fathers busines? (Tyndale 1526)

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (NIV)

The Greek text contains neither. All we have is the definite article and an implied noun.

καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς· Τί ὅτι ἐζητεῖτέ με; οὐκ ᾔδειτε ὅτι ἐν τοῖς ___ τοῦ πατρός μου δεῖ εἶναί με; (SBL 2010, formatting mine)

Literally, “I must be about the ___ of my father.” Normally, we might expect to translate the implied noun as “things,” since the article is plural and the occurrence of the implied thing or things is not unknown in Indo-European languages. I recall that in Russian the word for “things” or “stuff” — вещи — often drops out of normal speech. In fact, saying the word in some contexts sounds odd to a native speaker.

On the other hand, in Ancient and Koine Greek, the implied noun has a broader range of meanings. It can mean more than just stuff.

On grammatical and contextual grounds most scholars have argued for one of three translations of the phrase en tois tou patros mou: 1) “in my father’s house,” 2) “about my father’s affairs,” 3) “with those belonging to my father.” (Sylva 1987, pp. 133-134)

What Jesus Must Do

Sylva argues that the word δεῖ (expressing necessity) in this context will help us understand what exactly Luke wants Jesus to say. He cites other examples of such “necessity” in Luke:


saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.” Luke 9:22

“But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.” Luke 17:25

Suffering, Death, and Resurrection

saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” 24:7

Suffering and Glorification

“Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” 24:26

Preaching the Kingdom of God

But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” 4:43

Visiting Zacchaeus

And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 19:5

Fulfilling Scripture

“For I tell you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” 22:37

[All of the preceding verses come from the NASB 1995.]

Sylva writes:

In the light of the fact that Luke used dei throughout his gospel to refer to different aspects of Jesus’ ministry, the question of which facet of Jesus’ ministry Luke 2:49 refers to, as well as why this is linked to the temple, must be asked. . . . It is my thesis that tois in Luke 2:49b is a double entendre and that Luke 2:49b means “did you not know that I must be concerned with my father’s words in the temple?” It refers to the necessity of Jesus’ teaching ministry in the temple. (Sylva 1987, p. 134, verse formatting and bold text mine)

By the way, in a footnote, Sylva points out that Luke uses the elliptical article in verse 20:25, in which the spies of the scribes and chief priests try to catch Jesus with a trick question. But he sets them straight:

And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

So it would seem to this amateur linguist that “affairs” would be the most straightforward translation of tois in 2:49. But many professionals insist that it has to mean “house,” citing some esoteric arguments concerning points in time vs. points in space or nouns of locale vs. nouns of activity. His parents were searching for the place where Jesus was, they argue, which means his answer would have focused on the place — i.e., the Temple.

A Double Entendre?

Surveying the arguments for “my father’s affairs” or “my father’s house,” Sylva finds reasons to accept either as fitting and correct, concluding that both meanings are correct. Luke means to indicate what Jesus is doing and where he’s doing it.

In summary, tois in Luke 2:49b refers both to the temple as God’s house and to God’s affairs. The questions which remain are: to what affairs is Luke referring and why does he link these affairs to the temple in Luke 2:49b? (Sylva 1987, p. 136)

Hence, the story of Jesus teaching in the Temple as a wunderkind presages the later stories of Jesus teaching in the period leading up to his execution and resurrection.

It is my thesis that en tois tou patros mou dei einai me prefigures Jesus’ teaching ministry in the temple during his final days in Jerusalem, as is recorded in Luke 19:45-21:38. [The text of Luke] 2:49b should be translated as “do you not know that I must be concerned with my father’s words in the temple?” (Sylva 1987, p. 136, bold emphasis mine)

In a footnote (p. 137, n. 17) Sylva hits upon a crucial point. These words of Jesus represent the first utterance of Christ in Luke’s gospel. He suggests that, as in Mark’s gospel, this first pronouncement (1:15) may have a “programmatic quality.”

(14) Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, (15) and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (NASB 1995)

If true, then the boy Jesus is predicting his last days, teaching in the temple, thus emphasizing the importance of what he will teach and what he will do. Sylva offers the following reasons he believes this is the case:

  1. Jesus discusses the law with teachers (διδασκάλων [didaskalōn]). Luke uses some form of the word διδάσκαλος 17 times in his gospel. Twelve of those times, it’s in the vocative case, where a person addresses Jesus. Normally, Luke calls them scribes or lawyers. Sylva says it “highlights the element of concern for God’s word.” (p. 137)
  2. The narrative flow of journeying to Jerusalem for cultic reasons, staying for a time, centering his concern on discussing scripture in the Temple follows the same pattern in 2:41-51 and 9:51-21:38.
  3. When Luke’s Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he teaches only in the Temple. In Mark, Jesus teaches in various places around Jerusalem. Mark’s Jesus performs miracles in Jerusalem; Luke’s does nothing but teach. Luke has carefully rearranged and rewritten the Markan account, putting all emphasis on Jesus teaching daily in the Temple.

In Luke 2:49 Luke writes about the necessity of an action of Jesus which occurs while he is in the temple. This action is interrupted by his parents. The next time Jesus is in the temple in the Lukan account, he is executing a planned, protracted teaching ministry, which is limited to the temple. This type of ministry reflects and explains the necessity (dei: Luke 2:49) of Jesus’ being en tois tou patros mou (Luke 2:49). (Sylva 1987, p. 139, bold emphasis mine)


Sylva correctly notes the pattern and program of Luke’s teacher Jesus, who must be about his father’s business in the Temple. Sylva declines to say explicitly the obvious inference. I will go a step further. The editing of the Passion week is clearly the work of the evangelist, which indicates that the story of the wunderkind in the Temple is also myth-making in service of theology. In other words, it’s fiction.

However, a fair characterization cannot leave it at that. Luke is writing fiction with a purpose. We must recognize it as the outgrowth of narrative and theological purpose, not historical or even “gist-of-memory” purpose. McGrath, hence, is wasting much time and effort looking for ways in which memories of the historical Jesus “leaked through” the story. There is nothing historical beneath or behind this text, other than the intents and beliefs of the author and his community.

We will continue to look at McGrath’s book in future posts. But bear with me if I need to take a break from this painful task.

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.

Sylva, DennisThe Cryptic Clause en tois tou patros mou dei einai me in Lk 2:49b,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche; Jan 1, 1987; 78, 1; Periodicals Archive Online p. 132

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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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2 thoughts on “A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 2)”

  1. Re “Regardless of McGrath’s intentions here, the reader will easily infer that the historical Jesus ‘must have’ acquired some education in his youth.” Christians believe that Jesus was either God or the Son of God, with powers commensurate. So, why would their god need to be educated? Is he not all-knowing? If not, when did he become all-knowing?

    This tory as more holes in it than a wheel of Swiss cheese. One wag summarized Christianity as a god “sacrificing himself, to himself, to save humanity from himself.” It makes no real sense macroscopically, yet we examine it microscopically looking for clues as to what they really meant.

    I do it for recreation, but I suspect that many do not.

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