Think of the changes in the past two millennia – they are extensive! Our children live lives that would in many regards be unimaginable for the children of Jesus’ time. In this two-part article, Sarah Harris considers a childhood in the Nazareth of Jesus’ day.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small village which was very nationalistic. This meant there was no known gentile influence, no gentile would have lived there, and Jewish purity was a distinguishing feature of the townspeople. No wonder Jesus’ home town tried to have him killed at the beginning of his ministry when he told two stories of God blessing gentile people (Luke 4:16-30, 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 5: 1-14)!
Nazareth is in the Galilee region and the town itself lies in a valley surrounded by hills. Work is currently being done to estimate the population of Nazareth based on recent archaeological developments, but earlier surveys suggest from 480 to 2000 people; the village was not large. We know little directly about Jesus’ childhood, but indirectly through gospel passages and through other ancient texts which talk about children, we can build up a picture of his childhood.
As a child of faithful Jewish parents, Jesus would have been immersed in the liturgical flow of the Jewish calendar. Luke 2: 41-52 describes Jesus at the Passover festival, a seven-day annual family holiday in Jerusalem. Travel to the festival from Nazareth took about three days each way, making this a two-week excursion.
On the journey to Jerusalem there was great national expectation and when the outskirts of the city were reached, the pilgrims sang the songs of ascent (Psalms 120-134) as they climbed up to the city. The stories and songs of Israel were known by heart - educationally we know now that repetition and rhythm aid long- term memory - the Jewish people quite literally walked some of their stories into their memory banks. Coupled with that was the fun of the feast. Households travelled with others and feasted and celebrated together. The slaughtered lamb was largely given back to the people to be cooked up as spit-roast and children had formal parts to play in the religious rites.
Another favourite festival was Booths or Tabernacles which was originally a harvest festival particularly connected with the produce of the threshing floor, the olive, and winepress. This was an eight-day summer festival held in Jerusalem which was filled with joyous dancing, singing, water pouring ceremonies, and torch lighting. Families travelled to Jerusalem and built temporary huts along the roadside where they welcomed friends for meals. This was the original Parachute festival with thousands of tents filling the city. Children were an integral part of Jewish festivals and will have been swept up into the festivities, late night dining and story-telling.
How much fun to be camped out under the stars with mum, dad, and friends for a week!
Valued in the household
Jewish children’s lives were closely tied to their parents and the household. In contrast to the Graeco-Roman world, young Jewish children were highly valued. Jews did not allow abortion, exposure, and infanticide, although this did not mean it never happened to Jewish children. Children were viewed as a blessing from God, and also an economic necessity.
As soon as practical, children were taught household and agricultural tasks, as everyone was needed to carry out the labour intensive work which sustained the ancient world. The produce from olive trees formed a significant part of Israel’s economy (they still do) and the olive harvest was carried out by children alongside their parents and any household slaves. The trees were beaten with twiggy branches and olives collected to go to the olive press where it was milled (with the help of a donkey) and pressed for oil. The finest oil was sent to the temple, and other oil stored for cooking, or made into soap and cosmetics: Nothing was wasted.
A village built a communal olive mill and press (no household could afford their own), and this meant the production process itself was a shared activity. So too, many daily tasks were carried out with neighbours: Life in Nazareth in the first century was never a solitary affair.
Today we talk about ‘slow food’ and celebrate taking food from field to plate: The ancient world knew only slow food. It is believed that the daily production of household bread took three to four hours to produce. Women rose early to begin the milling of the wheat and children were quickly drawn into the process. Spinning, dyeing, and sewing were also shared tasks and mothers taught the girls the processes their mothers had taught them. Men taught the boys about cistern building, agriculture, and their trade. Jesus and his brothers will have learned carpentry (which included stone masonry) from Joseph.
Yet life was less divided along gender lines than we might imagine. Jesus’ life, like most in Nazareth, will have been subsistence living and in such situations it is every hand to the plough when work is at hand (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 12:1, 16:1) - girls worked alongside boys, mums worked alongside dads. Certainly tasks like shepherding were not restricted by gender.
Living, learning, and worshipping with family and community
Houses were typically only a couple of smallish rooms alongside a courtyard used for cooking, socialising, and working. This meant that it was not uncommon for families to sleep communally (Luke 11: 7). Children participated in formal meals and banquets even if sometimes as silent participants (Luke 5: 29, 14: 1-24), so they heard many ideas being discussed and debated (Luke 15 describes some community celebrations).
Children walked with their parent/s or older children to the market or to gather water at the well, and on occasions when an important visitor entered their town, multi-generations came to listen and see the spectacle (Luke 4: 40, 42 and 5: 1).
Early education and religious ritual centred out of the home where multi-generational households learned, taught, and worshipped together (Deuteronomy 4: 9, 6: 7; Proverbs 1: 8, 6: 20-21; 4 Maccabees 18: 10-19; 1 Timothy 1: 5; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 115). Jewish families had a strong tradition of daily prayers and grace after meals which were said in the home and sometimes in the synagogue: When Paul talked of praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he spoke as a faithful Jew.
More formal education took place in the synagogue which was a community venue where schooling, community meetings, and worship gatherings took place.
Children played too! We read of children building dams in the river (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2: 1), no doubt floating sticks down the river as we do, and swimming (B. Qidd. 30b). They played games in the streets (Luke 7: 31; Zechariah 8: 5) and on roof tops (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 9: 1) - the roof tops were flat and an ideal place to play. Nazareth had plenty of trees and hills to climb, small streams to play in, and branches for children to whittle into toys.
Jesus’ childhood days are likely to have been full of family and community activity which was both economically, culturally, and socially motivated. Middle Eastern towns are still some of the most hospitable and friendly places to visit. If you do visit, be prepared to let out the belt on your trousers (there will be vast amounts of food) and don’t expect to get home early: Hospitality and lengthy conversation, then as now, form the bedrock of Middle Eastern daily life.
Story: Dr Sarah Harris
Sarah is a New Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College.
1. Are there aspects of a childhood from Nazareth that could bring a fresh perspective to your family?
2. Are there elements of day-to-day life that could do with an adjustment?
3. If you want to come and see some of the places Sarah Harris talks about, she will be running a tour to Israel in September 2017. See the Carey Baptist College website for more details: www.carey.ac.nz.
Photo Credit: Ryan Klintworth/lightstock.com
This article is from the August 2016 issue of Baptist Magazine.
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