Unknown Years Of Jesus

The unknown years of Jesus (also called his silent yearslost years, or missing years) generally refers to the period of Jesus’s life between his childhood and the beginning of his ministry, a period not described in the New Testament.

The “lost years of Jesus” concept is usually encountered in esoteric literature (where it at times also refers to his possible post-crucifixion activities) but is not commonly used in scholarly literature since it is assumed that Jesus was probably working as a carpenter in Galilee, at least some of the time with Joseph, from the age of 12 to 29, so the years were not “lost years”, and that he died on Calvary.

In the late medieval period, there appeared Arthurian legends that the young Jesus had been in Britain. In the 19th and 20th centuries theories began to emerge that between the ages of 12 and 29 Jesus had visited Kashmir, or had studied with the Essenes in the Judea desert. Modern mainstream Christian scholarship has generally rejected these theories and holds that nothing is known about this time period in the life of Jesus.

The use of the “lost years” in the “swoon hypothesis”, suggests that Jesus survived his crucifixion and continued his life, instead of what was stated in the New Testament that he ascended into Heaven with two angels.This, and the related view that he avoided crucifixion altogether, has given rise to several speculations about what happened to him in the supposed remaining years of his life, but these are not accepted by mainstream scholars either.

The boy Jesus represented as the Good Shepherd; image above the North door of the Church of the Good Shepherd (Rosemont, Pennsylvania)

The boy Jesus represented as the Good Shepherd; image above the North door of the Church of the Good Shepherd (Rosemont, Pennsylvania)

The 18 Unknown Years

New Testament gap

Following the accounts of Jesus’ young life, there is a gap of about 18 years in his story in the New Testament. Other than the statement that after he was 12 years old (Luke 2:42) Jesus “advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2:52), the New Testament has no other details regarding the gap. While Christian tradition suggests that Jesus simply lived in Galilee during that period, modern scholarship holds that there is little historical information to determine what happened during those years.

James Tissot's depiction of a young Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:46), c. 1890 Brooklyn Museum

James Tissot’s depiction of a young Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:46), c. 1890 Brooklyn Museum

The ages of 12 and 29, the approximate ages at either end of the unknown years, have some significance in Judaism of the Second Temple period: 13 is the age of the bar mitzvah, the age of secular maturity, and 30 the age of readiness for the priesthood, although Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi.

Christians have generally taken the statement in Mark 6:3 referring to Jesus as “Is not this the carpenter…?” as an indication that before the age of 30 Jesus had been working as a carpenter. The tone of the passage leading to the question “Is not this the carpenter?” suggests familiarity with Jesus in the area, reinforcing that he had been generally seen as a carpenter in the gospel account before the start of his ministry. Matthew 13:55 poses the question as “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” suggesting that the profession tektōn had been a family business and Jesus was engaged in it before starting his preaching and ministry in the gospel accounts.

Background of Galilee and Judea

See also: Cultural and historical background of Jesus

The historical record of the large number of workmen employed in the rebuilding of Sepphoris has led Batey (1984) and others to suggest that when Jesus was in his teens and twenties carpenters would have found more employment at Sepphoris rather than at the small town of Nazareth.

Aside from secular employment some attempts have been made to reconstruct the theological and rabbinical circumstances of the “unknown years”, e.g., soon after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls novelist Edmund Wilson (1955) suggested Jesus may have studied with the Essenes, followed by the Unitarian Charles F. Potter (1958) and others. Other writers have taken the view that the predominance of Pharisees in Judea during that period, and Jesus’ own later recorded interaction with the Pharisees, makes a Pharisee background more likely, as in the recorded case of another Galilean, Josephus studied with all three groups: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.

Other sources

See also:  Infancy gospels and Pseudepigrapha

The New Testament Apocrypha and early Christian pseudepigrapha preserve various pious legends filling the “gaps” in Christ’s youth. Charlesworth (2008) explains this as due to the canonical Gospels having left “a narrative vacuum” that many have attempted to fill.

Claims of young Jesus in Britain

Jesus Discourse with His Disciples, James Tissot, c. 1890

Jesus Discourse with His Disciples, James Tissot, c. 1890

The story of Jesus visiting Britain as a boy is a late medieval development based on legends connected with Joseph of Arimathea. During the late 12th century, Joseph of Arimathea became connected with the Arthurian cycle, appearing in them as the first keeper of the Holy Grail. This idea first appears in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain. This theme is elaborated upon in Boron’s sequels and in subsequent Arthurian works penned by others.

Some Arthurian legends hold that Jesus travelled to Britain as a boy, lived at Priddy in the Mendips, and built the first wattle cabin at Glastonbury. William Blake’s early 19th-century poem And did those feet in ancient time was inspired by the story of Jesus travelling to Britain. In some versions, Joseph was supposedly a tin merchant and took Jesus under his care when his mother Mary was widowed. Gordon Strachan wrote Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and the Dawn of Christianity (1998), which was the basis of the documentary titled And Did Those Feet (2009). Strachan believed Jesus may have travelled to Britain to study with the Druids.

Claims of Jesus Christ in India and/or Tibet before crucifixion

Louis Jacolliot, 1869

The idea of Indian influences on Jesus (and Christianity) has been suggested in Louis Jacolliot’s book La Bible dans l’Inde, Vie de Iezeus Christna (1869) (The Bible in India, or the Life of Jezeus Christna), although Jacolliot does not claim travels by Jesus to India.

Jacolliot compared the accounts of the life of Bhagavan Krishna with that of Jesus Christ in the gospels and concluded that it could not have been a coincidence that the two stories have so many similarities in many of the finer details. He concluded that the account in the gospels is a myth based on the mythology of ancient India. However, Jacolliot was comparing two different periods of history (or mythology) and did not claim that Jesus was in India. Jacolliot used the spelling “Christna” instead of “Krishna” and claimed that Krishna’s disciples gave him the name “Jezeus,” a name supposed to mean “pure essence” in Sanskrit. However, according to Max Müller, that is not a Sanskrit term at all and “it was simply invented” by Jacolliot.

Nicolas Notovich, 1887

In 1887, a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, claimed that while at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, he had learned of the document “Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men” – Isa being the Arabic name of Jesus in Islam. Notovitch’s story, with a translated text of the “Life of Saint Issa,” was published in French in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ (Unknown Life of Jesus Christ).

According to the scrolls, Jesus abandoned Jerusalem at the age of 13 and set out towards Sind, “intending to improve and perfect himself in the divine understanding and to studying the laws of the great Buddha”. He crossed Punjab and reached Puri Jagannath where he studied the Vedas under Brahmin priests. He spent six years in Puri and Rajgirh, near Nalanda, the ancient seat of Hindu learning. Then he went to the Himalayas, and spent time in Tibetan monasteries, studying Buddhism, and through Persia, returned to Jerusalem at the age of 29.

Notovitch’s writings were immediately controversial and Max Müller stated that either the monks at the monastery had deceived Notovitch (or played a joke on him), or he had fabricated the evidence. Müller then wrote to the monastery at Hemis and the head lama replied that there had been no Western visitor at the monastery in the past fifteen years and there were no documents related to Notovitch’s story. J. Archibald Douglas then visited Hemis monastery and interviewed the head lama who stated that Notovitch had never been there. Indologist Leopold von Schroeder called Notovitch’s story a “big fat lie”. Wilhelm Schneemelcher states that Notovich’s accounts were soon exposed as fabrications, and that to date no one has even had a glimpse at the manuscripts Notovitch claims to have had.

Notovich responded to claims to defend himself. But once his story had been re-examined by historians – some even questioning his existence – it is claimed that Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence. Bart D. Ehrmanstates that “Today there is not a single recognized scholar on the planet who has any doubts about the matter. The entire story was invented by Notovitch, who earned a good deal of money and a substantial amount of notoriety for his hoax”. However, others deny that Notovich ever accepted the accusations against him – that his account was a forgery, etc. Although he was not impressed with his story, Sir Francis Younghusband recalls his meeting with Nicolas Notovitch near Skardu, not long before Notovitch had visited Hemis monastery.

Swami Abhedananda, 1922

In 1922 Swami Abhedananda, the founder of Vedanta Society of New York 1897 and the author of several books, went to Himalayas on foot and reached Tibet, where he studied Buddhistic philosophy and Lamaism. He was one of the skeptics who tried to debunk Nicholas Notovitch and disprove the existence of the manuscript about Jesus in India. However, when he reached Hemis monastery he found the manuscript which was a Tibetan translation of the original scrolls written in Pali. The lama said that it was a copy and the original was in a monastery at Marbour near Lhasa. After Abhedananda’s death in 1939, one of his disciples inquired about the documents at the Hemis monastery, but was told they disappeared.

Levi H. Dowling, 1908

In 1908, Levi H. Dowling published the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ which he claimed was channeled to him from the “Akashic Records” as the true story of the life of Jesus, including “the ‘lost’ eighteen years silent in the New Testament.” The narrative follows the young Jesus across India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece and Egypt. Dowling’s work was later used by Holger Kersten who combined it with elements derived from other sources such as the Ahmadiyya beliefs.

Rejection by modern mainstream New Testament scholarship

Modern mainstream Christian scholarship has generally rejected any travels by Jesus to India, Tibet or surrounding areas as without historical basis:

  • Robert Van Voorst states that modern scholarship has “almost unanimously agreed” that claims of the travels of Jesus to Tibet, Kashmir or rest of India contain “nothing of value”.
  • Marcus Borg states that the suggestions that an adult Jesus traveled to Egypt or India and came into contact with Buddhism are “without historical foundation”.
  • John Dominic Crossan states that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus to fill the gap between his early life and the start of his ministry have been supported by modern scholarship.
  • Leslie Houlden states that although modern parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Buddha have been drawn, these comparisons emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century and there is no historically reliable evidence of contacts between Buddhism and Jesus.
  • Paula Fredriksen states that no serious scholarly work places Jesus outside the backdrop of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

Claims of life after surviving crucifixion

Further information: Swoon hypothesis and Islamic view of Jesus’ death

The swoon hypothesis in critical western literature concerns later years of Jesus after the crucifixion, with a range of hypotheses that suggest later death in Kashmir, Rome or during the Siege of Masada in Judea.

The traditional Islamic view of Jesus’ death does not propose later years of Jesus, since based on the statements in Quran 4:157–158, most Muslims believe Jesus was raised to Heaven without being put on the cross and God transformed another person (at times interpreted as Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene) to appear exactly like Jesus who was crucified instead of Jesus. Some interpretations of Hadith and other traditions have Jesus’ life continuing on earth. Ibn Babawayh (d.991 CE) in Ikhmal ad Din recounts that Jesus went to a far country.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 1899

According to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the further sayings of Muhammad say that Jesus died in Kashmir at the age of one hundred and twenty years. They identify the holy man Yuz Asaf buried at the Roza Bal shrine in Srinagar, India as Jesus on the basis of an account in the History of Kashmir by the Sufi poet Khwaja Muhammad Azam Didamari (1747) that the holy man Yuz Asaf buried there was a prophet and a foreign prince. Paul C. Pappas states that from a historical perspective, the Ahmadi identification of Yuzasaf with Jesus relies on legends and documents which include clear historical errors (e.g., Gondophares’ reign) and that “it is almost impossible to identify Yuz Asaf with Jesus”.

In his 1957 book “The Wisdom of Balahvar,” David Marshall Lang presented evidence of how confusion in diacritical markings in Arabic texts transformed Budhasaf (Buddha-to-be) into Yudasaf, Iodasaph, and then Yuzasaf, and resulted in the Ahmadiyya assertions; also confusing Kashmir and Kushinara, the place of Buddha’s death. The Swedish scholar Per Beskow in Jesus in Kashmir: Historien om en legend (1981) also concluded that Ahmad had misidentified traditions about Gautama Buddha in the Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf legend as being about Jesus. Beskow updated his conclusions in English in 2011.

Meher Baba, 1925

According to Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, when Jesus was crucified, he did not die physically. But, he entered the state of Nirvikalp Samadhi (the I-am-God state without bodily consciousness). On the third day, he again became conscious of his body, and he travelled secretly in disguise eastward with some apostles, most importantly with Bartholomew and Thaddeus, to India. This was called Jesus’ resurrection. After reaching India, Jesus travelled further east to Rangoon, in Burma, where he remained for some time. He then went north to Kashmir, where he settled. After Jesus’s spiritual work was completed, Jesus subsequently dropped his body, and the body was buried by the Two Apostles in Harvan, at Kan Yar, district of Kashmir.

Holger Kersten, 1981

In 1981, Holger Kersten, a German writer on esoteric subjects popularised the subject in his Christ Lived in India. Kersten’s ideas were among various expositions of the theory critiqued by Günter Grönbold in Jesus in Indien. Das Ende einer Legende (Munich, 1985). Wilhelm Schneemelcher states that the work of Kersten (which builds on Ahmad and The Aquarian Gospel) is fantasy and has nothing to do with historical research. Schneemelcher states that Kersten combines elements from various previous authors such as Notovitch, Ahmadiyya beliefs, and Levi Dowling. Gerald O’Collins also states that Kersten’s work is simply the repackaging of a legend for consumption by the general public.

Among texts cited by Kersten, following Andreas Faber-Kaiser, is the third khanda of the Pratisarga Parvan in the Bhavishya Mahapurana which contains discussion of “Isa Masih” and Muhammed. However Indologists such as Grönbold note that this section postdates not just the Quran, but also the Mughals. Hiltebeitel (2009) establishes 1739 as the very earliest possible date for the section.

Other theories

A number of other theories have been proposed, e.g., in 1992, in her book Jesus the Man, Dr. Barbara Thiering suggested that Jesus and Judas Iscariot had been crucified together but Jesus survived, married Mary Magdalene, travelled around the Mediterranean area and then died in Rome.

In 1995, Kenneth Hosking also suggested that Jesus survived crucifixion, but stated that Jesus was the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and decades later (73-74 AD) died as the leader of the Jewish forces which unsuccessfully fought the Romans during the Siege of Masada.

Mormonism and claims of Jesus in the Americas

According to the Book of Mormon, Jesus visited an Israelite people (led to the Americas around 600 BC to avoid the Babylonian conquest) after his resurrection. Evidences of Christ in America are claimed in the legends of Viracocha in South America, and Quetzalcoatl in Central America. While some Mormon scholars have interpreted Quetzalcoatl legends to represent Jesus, other historians and archaeologists believe that the story of Quetzalcoatl dates back at least 900 years before the time of Christ, with some signs pointing to 3000 or even 5,000 BC.

The book of Third Nephi states:

“10. Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world. (…) 12. And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth; for they remembered that it had been prophesied among them that Christ should show himself unto them after his ascension into heaven. (…) 14. Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.”

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia