Commentary on Luke 2:41-52
We come to the conclusion of Jesus’ birth narrative in the gospel of Luke.
Jesus became strong and filled with heavenly wisdom. The narrative of the boy Jesus visiting the temple at the age of twelve is often interpreted in the light of first-century Jewish context. While we need to take the Jewish context into our consideration, the Gentile context is important, too. The evangelist Luke writes his gospel to the Gentiles living in Asia Minor. Their context influences the narrative of Luke 2:41-52. “Luke seeks to present Jesus as a significant figure in history in accordance with the conventions of contemporary Greco-Roman biography.”1
Luke introduces Jesus as a young scholar engaging in theological discussion with the teachers in the temple. Jesus’ age is very significant in this narrative. The twelve-year old boy impresses skillful teachers with his knowledge; this is a symbolic story of a young prophet and future leader. This story echoes Roman heroic leaders like Augustus. Emperor Julius adopted his nephew Augustus, who received an exceptional education at early age. At the age of 12, Augustus gave the funeral oration for his grandmother Julia Caesaris, the sister of Julius Caesar. 2
Luke demonstrates that Jesus carries the qualities that will make him an extraordinary leader, just as Augustus became an exceptional leader. Luke is interested in introducing Jesus as superior to Augustus. Jesus is the new promised Caesar appointed, not by the Roman Senate, but by God. Luke wants his Gentile audience to believe that Jesus is the true Son of God and successor to Augustus.
Mary and Joseph, as faithful Jews, make sure to fulfill their duties as parents toward their son Jesus. When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph went to the temple to name and to circumcise him. They also offered the Lord the appropriate offering. Now, they need to introduce Jesus to the Passover in Jerusalem. According to the Jewish tradition at that time, Joseph is obligated to teach Jesus the Torah. The rabbis agreed that a boy can start learning the Torah no later than puberty, which is about age twelve.3
Jerusalem was packed with Jewish worshipers from all over the world to celebrate the Passover. Usually this celebration takes about one week. The Jews also traveled in groups to avoid danger on the road, such as thieves. The entire group had to watch over each other — particularly the kids.
Mary and Joseph had relatives and friends in Jerusalem. They might stay with them during the festival week. At the end of the celebration, Mary and Joseph started to return. They went a day’s journey without checking on their son assuming he was in the group of travelers. Were Joseph and Mary irresponsible parents? Was there a reason they could not check on Jesus to make sure he was doing okay? This is weird. However, Luke’s focus is not on Mary and Joseph, but on the boy Jesus Christ who demonstrates intellectual ability.
Finally, they found him in the temple. Mary said to him “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” (verse 48 NRSV). I think that Mary reproached Jesus with an angry voice and face. I do not think that she was talking to him with a calm and soft voice.
Mary and Joseph surprised Jesus with their reproach; Jesus assumed that they knew where to find him. He was, of course, supposed to be in his Father’s house. He was supposed to be busy fulfilling God the Father’s salvation plan. Jesus declares his divinity at the temple by assuring his parents “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (verse 49 NRSV). “My father’s house …” does not only refer to a specific location, but the understanding of “household” in Greco-Roman context means authority.4
Jesus was in the temple and under divine compulsion engaging in teaching. It seems that he was aware of his identity and aligns himself with God’s purpose. So, he could not compromise God’s purpose for the sake of his parents.
Luke concludes this story with the family journey back to Nazareth and Jesus’ obedience to his parents. I think he became obedient after Mary gave him a harsh timeout to discipline him. Jesus grew in wisdom, as well as divine and human favor. Luke ends the infancy narratives with assurance of Jesus’ extraordinary and outstanding character to prepare him to be the expected Savior.
- Bradly S. Billings, “At the Age of 12’: The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52), The Emperor Augustus, and the Social Setting of the Third Gospel,” The Journal of Theological Studies 60, no. 1 (April 2009): 75.
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, revised ed., trans. Robert Graves Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 48.
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 2015), 92.
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1997), 157.