Friday, April 12, 2013

Jesus: Late Bloomer? (Luke 3:23)

How old was Jesus when he began His public ministry? Thirty years old (Luke 3:23)

Though the first four books of the New Testament are devoted to his biography, Jesus’ age is seldom mentioned in Scripture. With the gospel’s customary interest in chronology (Luke 1:5, 2:1-2, 3:1-2), Luke alone specifies Jesus’ age (Luke 2:42, 3:23). In a preface to Jesus’ genealogy, Luke records that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry (Luke 3:23).

When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli, (Luke 3:23 NASB)
This passage marks one of only two gospel allusions to Jesus’ age as an adult (Luke 3:23; John 8:57). Harold W. Hoehner (1935-2009) compares:
In John 8:57 the Jews said to Jesus, “You are not yet fifty years old.” Irenaeus [130-202] held that Jesus was in His forties, for if Jesus were in His thirties they would have said, “You are not yet forty years old.” George Ogg [b. 1890] takes this chronological note in John 8:57 and doubts that Luke 3:23 can serve any chronological purpose. But certainly the opposite is more likely. Luke 3:23 indicates a precise statement whereas John 8:57 indicates that the Jews were emphasizing Jesus’ youth in contrast to His claim that He existed before Abraham. Therefore, John 8:57 is not helpful in trying to establish the commencement of Christ’s ministry. (Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 43)
The last time that Luke mentions Jesus’ age, he is twelve years old consulting with teachers in the temple (Luke 2:42). Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) notes:
Since we were told Jesus’ age when we last heard about him (twelve years old), we now find out how much time has passed. Jesus is a thirty-year-old man, more or less at mid-life, given the life expectancy of that place and time. (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 56)
Like a movie that moves from depicting a child to the same adult years later, Luke leaves eighteen “missing” years in Jesus’ life. Not surprisingly this gap has generated curiosity. (How many wish that their awkward teen years went undocumented?) It has been assumed that these years are relatively uneventful.

Beth Moore (b. 1957) observes:

Luke 2:42 tells us Jesus was twelve at the recorded visit to the temple. Luke 3:23 says He was thirty at the beginning of His ministry. The Gospel writer supplies only two verses spanning the eighteen years in between. During these years, Christ Jesus went from boy to mature man. Luke 2:52 appears brief and to the point but actually broadens dramatically our concept of Christ. It tells us our Lord “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Moore, Jesus, the One and Only, 51)
Little can be said with any certainty regarding Jesus’ formative years. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) imagines:
For thirty years the Son had lived in humble circumstances in the seclusion of Nazareth...For thirty years his inner devotional life transcended the understanding and imagination of men...During these silent years the shaping of the second Adam was accomplished. (Hughes, Luke, Volume One: That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 127)
Though the gospel writers evidently knew nothing worth documenting from these years in Jesus’ life, they were formative and presumably laid the foundation for his later ministry.

Luke is clear that his calculation is an approximation (Luke 3:23). All modern translations include that Jesus is “about” (Greek: hōseí) thirty (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). He may have been several years younger or older (e.g., The Testament of Levi 2:2, 12:5).

Approximation is customary in Luke. Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) recognizes:

Luke often cites numbers less precisely, with an approximating modifier: Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his public ministry (Luke 3:23); there were “about five thousand men” present at the feeding in the desert near Bethsaida (Luke 9:14); the number present at the election of Matthias to the circle of Twelve was “about one hundred twenty persons” (Acts 1:15); the number of converts baptized on the day of Pentecost was “about three thousand” (Acts 2:41); the number of John’s disciples encountered by Paul in Acts “altogether...were about twelve” (Acts 19:7). (Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, 90)
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) explains:
Like a good Greek historian, Luke says “about thirty” (Luke 3:23 rather than stating an estimate as a definite number, as was more common in traditional Jewish historiography. (Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 197-98)
Many have used this time stamp to construct a chronology of Jesus. Robert H. Stein (b. 1935) determines:
If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5; Matthew 2:1-19) who died in 4 B.C., and if Jesus was born ca. 6 B.C. and began his ministry ca. 28...Jesus would indeed have been in his early thirties...Luke may simply not have been able to be more specific about Jesus’ age. (Stein, Luke (The New American Commentary), 142)
Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) cautions:
The use of the adverb hōsei indicates that the figure is to be taken as a round number; in the context of chapter 3 it means that Jesus’ thirtieth birthday was not far removed from Tiberius’ fifteen regnal year [Luke 3:1]. But despite Luke’s desire to anchor “events” by reference to Roman and Palestinian history, this indication of Jesus’ age should not be pressed too much in conjunction with Luke 1:5, 2:2 or 3:1, since it is clearly an approximation. Dionysius Exiguus [470-544] pressed it and miscalculated the beginning of the Christian era and we have had to live with it ever since. (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (The Anchor Bible), 499)
John Nolland (b. 1947) concurs:
Luke uses the language of approximation for Jesus’ age. The most that can be suggested is that such an age denotes an adequate measure of maturity (cf. Numbers 4:3). Since we do not know at what stage of John’s ministry Jesus was baptized and began his own independent career, and because the information itself here is imprecise, no firm birth year can be established for Jesus by the juxtaposition of Luke 3:23 and Luke 3:1. (Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 (Word Biblical Commentary), 171)
Much has been made of Jesus inaugurating his public ministry at the age of thirty. Perhaps not coincidentally, thirty was as the age which priests and Levites began their service (Numbers 4:3, 35, 39, 43, 47; I Chronicles 23:3).

Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952) suggests:

Such a detail is not added without meaning, and, when reviewing the Mosaic Law, it is discovered that the male child who would enter the priesthood was not eligible to so until he was thirty years of age (cf. Numbers 4:3), and from the added fact that there was no other public ministry to be entered which prescribed its age limits it is reasonable to conclude that the baptism of Christ had to do with His consecration to the priestly office. (Chafer, Systematic Theology: Vols. 5 & 6, 62)
Jesus begins his public ministry at an age that would have been deemed seemly. Mark L. Strauss (b. 1959) surveys:
Thirty was viewed in both Jewish and Greco-Roman society as an appropriate age to enter public service. At thirty priests began their duties (Numbers 4:3), Joseph entered Pharaoh’s service (Genesis 41:26), and Ezekiel was called to his prophetic ministry (Ezekiel 1:1). Most significantly, David’s reign as king began at the age of thirty (II Samuel 5:4). Jesus, the Davidic Messiah, follows in the steps of his father David. (Strauss, Luke (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 42)
As Strauss alludes, many prominent biblical figures also experience milestones at the age of thirty. David E. Garland (b. 1947) interprets:
Thirty years old marks a “threshold age” in the ancient sources. Joseph was thirty when he entered the service of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46), and David was thirty years old when he began to reign (II Samuel 5:4). The age signals to the reader that Jesus is now a mature, responsible man ready for his public career. After the extraordinary events surrounding his conception and birth, Jesus had apparently lived for thirty years as an ordinary, anonymous man. Luke has no interest in fantasies of Jesus’ youth that appear in some apocryphal gospels. (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 170)
The recurrence of the age of thirty is also prevalent at Qumran. Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) documents:
According to one of the sectarian scrolls from Qumran, when a man “is thirty years old, he may begin to take part in legal disputes” (1QSa 1:13). According to another Scroll, those who may hold the responsibility of preparing the provisions for war “shall be from twenty-five to thirty years old,” in contrast to youths and women, who are not permitted to “enter their encampments” (1QM 7:3). But Qumran’s strictures hardly go beyond the principles of the law itself (cf. Numbers 4:3: “from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, who all enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting”). Luke’s reference to age may therefore mean no more than that Jesus began his age as a mature adult, ready to assume important social and religious responsibilities. (Evans, Matthew-Luke (Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 45)
David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) adds:
That Jesus was thirty years old at the time of his baptism is not without a natural significance since it is the normative Mediterranean age of majority. (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 61)
I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) finds it fitting that Jesus begins his public ministry at the age of thirty:
When he began his ministry Jesus was the ‘right’ age for his work, just as he could lay claim to the ‘right’ descent...The age of thirty...corresponds with that of David when he began to reign (II Samuel 5:4; cf. Joseph, Genesis 41:46; the sons of Kohath, Numbers 4:3; Ezekiel, Ezekiel 1:1), and hence may suggest that David is here seen as a type of Jesus...Rabbinic tradition gave Jesus an age of 33-34 years (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 106b). (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 162)
William Barclay (1907-1978) identifies three practical advantages to Jesus delaying his public ministry:
(1) It was essential that Jesus should carry out with the utmost fidelity the more limited tasks of family duty before he could take up the universal task of saving the world...(2) It gave him the opportunity to live out his own teaching...(3) If Jesus was to help people he had to know how they lived. (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (New Daily Study Bible), 47-48)
In addition to Jesus acquiring the requisite life experience to be the Messiah, Jesus is at a respectable age of maturity when he begins his ministry. He is in the prime of his life. Thirty is an optimum age to begin an important task.

Why does Jesus wait until he is thirty to begin his public ministry? Why now; why is the timing right? Should contemporary pastors wait until the age of thirty to begin their ministries? (John the Baptist evidently begins his ministry at an earlier age.) When do you feel that a person reaches maturity? At what age did you start your career? How do you think Jesus occupied his first thirty years? Is Jesus’ public ministry more important than these “missing” years?

John W. Miller (b. 1926) summarizes:

At the beginning of the fourth decade of his life (Luke 3:23), soon after his baptism and temptations, the Gospels tell us, he became a prophet-evangelist with an intense concern for the welfare of a certain group of people: “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” as they are referred to in Matthew 10:6 and Matthew 15:24. It was at this time, in the midst of this specific evangelistic mission, that he “came into his own,” so to speak. (Miller, Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait, 78)
In an age where adults transition frequently, get later starts and struggle to “find themselves”, it is worth remembering that this is another way in which Jesus can relate (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus too might have been considered a “late bloomer”.

What were you doing at age 30? If you have not yet reached this milestone, what do you hope to be doing? Would Jesus’ friends have perceived him as having a mid-life crisis when his public ministry began? (Mid-life Christ-is?) Is it fair to call Jesus a late bloomer? Is it ever too late to begin anew?

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” - attributed to George Eliot (1819-1880)