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Q. It always bothered me that there isn't more writing about the youth of Jesus and his own study. There are many that speculate that he studied with the Buddha. Many of his teachings are very similar. Of course, many religious teachings are similar at the root. (JG from Houston).
Thanks for your question, JG. Many have wondered about the early years of Yeshua and the possibility of his learning under noted teachers in India or China. Many are frustrated that there isn't more information concerning these "lost" years.
Your question actually addresses how the early church formed the canon of Scripture - which books were accepted into the New Testament and why. The usual objections and arguments come from those who believe that Gnostic literature is valid and presents good information regarding early Christianity.
Let's look at an unusual timeline. You might find it helpful to get a sense of when the usual suspect, "Gnostic literature," was actually written. Consider this hypothetical timeline:
If Jesus had been born in 1900:
- His Crucifixion&Resurrection would have occurred in 1930.
- 1940-1945 - Earliest New Testament writings produced, concurrent with those still living who knew Jesus.
- In 1970 Romans would have demolished Jerusalem and destroyed the temple (70 A.D.).
- In 1990 the apostle John would have written the last New Testament gospel.
- By 2030 (about 18 years from 2012 today) the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas would be written.
- In 2050 the Gnostic Gospel of Mary would be written.
- In 2170 the Gnostic Gospel of Philip would be written (around 165 years from now).
Does that help to give you some perspective on when these "lost books" were actually written?
To look at this from another perspective, what if I were to write a book in 2008 that tells you new information about Benjamin Franklin? What if I were to say that Franklin, who lived 200 years ago in America, traveled to India and studied with masters of the universe? What if I were to say that he fathered half Indian children who later became great religious teachers?
Would you believe me?
No, of course not. Biographies of Franklin were already written by contemporaries who knew him. New information from my book would be unsubstantiated by previous accounts. My book would be the fanciful rewriting of history to a ridiculous degree. No scholar would take me seriously. In the same way, Jesus' disciples who personally knew Him wrote about Him while there were still people around who could refute the accounts if they were untrue.
Back to the Future
Now, let's travel back in time again to the early days of Christianity. Notice that there was a continual timeline of writings from the apostles who knew Jesus personally, through the early church Fathers, even to the present day.
John's Writings vs. Nag Hammadi Library
For example, the Apostle John wrote his accounts in about 90 A.D. This would include the gospel of John, 1, 2,&3 John, and the book of Revelation. It is clear from John's writings and 1& 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, and perhaps 1 Corinthians, that John was addressing an incipient form of Gnostic heresies - that Jesus was just a "spirit" who wasn't human.
However, fully developed Gnostic literature was not written until the late second and third centuries. The most complete library of Gnostic literature was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. This literature is late dated and cannot contribute to early church history. It may be a popular fad to read these stories today, but it is cultic and embellished literature (similar to my silly mythical accounts about Benjamin Franklin 200 years after his death).
- Clement of Rome, an early church Father, quoted from New Testament writings about 100 A.D.
- Then, Ignatius quoted the New Testament around 107 A.D.
- Papias authored writings and quoted from others before him around 162 A.D.
- Polycarp followed suit around 154 A.D.
- Justin Martyr wrote his treatises around 164 A.D.
- Irenaeus wrote his books before 201 A.D.
These were all students of students of students who were in turn students of the famous apostles who knew Jesus personally. It was an unbroken line of credible authors and their writings.
And on and on…
Complete N.T. from Church Fathers
In fact, these early church Fathers quoted so much from the early church writings before them that we could assemble almost the entire New Testament (minus a few verses) from their writings alone. Had the earliest among them misquoted or fabricated stories, they would have been confronted by those who actually knew Jesus and the apostle John (just as I would be confronted about writing silly stories about Benjamin Franklin).
Finally, Irenaeus wrote "Against Heresies" and warned others of the newly emerging Gnostic writings in his day. This makes sense because Gnostic literature was just beginning to gain hold during his lifetime.
Ready Writers - Ancient Shorthand
Another thing we don't think about is that there was a group of skilled people called "ready writers" as early as 285 B.C. They are mentioned in many ancient documents. "My tongue is the pen of a ready writer" (Psalm 45:1, NKJV).
Ready Writers actually took shorthand! They were able to transcribe information word-for-word, a valuable skill for historians and government officials in ancient times. (Today we have computers to keep records).
In the New Testament they were called an "Amanuensis." 1 Peter 5:12, Romans 16:22, and Acts 13:5 refer to some of these skilled, speed-writers.
New Ancient Dating Technique
In 1994 new dating instruments found that a fragment from the gospel of Matthew was actually dated within the timeframe of those who were contemporaries of Christ ("The Times," London, Dec. 24, 1994).
Because Matthew was an official tax collector, he, too, knew shorthand. Therefore, he was able to take down the Sermon on the Mount word-for-word! Verbatim… In other words, we may possess a small piece of Matthew's original writing!
This sheds new light on the accuracy of transmission of the New Testament.
Other Facts Unwritten
So had there been pertinent, useful information about Jesus' youth and his studies with teachers such as Buddha, it probably would have been included within the New Testament writings. We do know that there were a lot of things Jesus did that were not written down. At the end of the Apostle John's account we read:
"Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25, NLT).
We know that Jesus grew up in a good, Jewish family. A detailed list of his ancestors is written in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. He was King David's true descendent - the Messiah who was promised to the Jews. Mary and Joseph brought him to the Temple as an infant as noted in Luke 2:21. Jesus was visited by the magi from eastern lands, mentioned in Matthew 2.
We know from Luke 2 that Jesus "continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom - and the grace of God was upon Him" (Luke 2:40, NASB). When Jesus was 12 he engaged the religious teachers at the temple with questions and was carefully listening to their answers. This is mentioned in Luke 2:46. It is clear that he astounded everyone who heard him with his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:47).
America's Child-Centered Culture
As a good detective, consider that we, as early twenty-first century American citizens, live in a child-centered, youth-obsessed culture. Life wasn't like this in early first-century Jerusalem. Family and children were important. But, life centered around a Roman-infested area where Jewish parents tried to raise their children with Jewish customs and literature. Outside influences were resisted.
In fact, the early church had a difficult task getting Jews to part with their religious and dietary laws at all. Jews felt that anyone outside the faith was unclean and contaminated. Therefore, I doubt that Mary and Joseph would have encouraged the young Jesus to study with anyone outside of the respected, Jewish temple teachers. Furthermore, it is natural that Jesus' older years would take on more importance than His formative years in Jewish culture.
Ultimate "Cloning" Experience
You are right to mention that many religious teachings are similar. These are universal truths which were handed down since the earliest times through oral and written traditions. But, that is a subject for another article. Just remember that the difference between Christianity and other faiths is that Yeshua is the only religious authority who presents us with real, fact-based hope for life after death - the ultimate "cloning" type experience cemented with eternal life.
Christianity claims that the tomb of Jesus is empty. There are lots of historical and legal proofs for the resurrection. Someday you may want to consider them. Simon Greenleaf, C.S. Lewis, and other intelligent scholars like them did - and it changed their lives forever.
Lightfoot, Neil R. 1963. How We Got the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. A good overview of scribal duties and those who used shorthand methods of writing.
Muncaster, Ralph Muncaster. 2005. One-Minute Answers: The Evidence for Christianity. Eugene, OR: Harvest House. This booklet presents a unique chart illustrating the overlapping timeline of the early church Fathers (89).
Strobel, Lee. 1998. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Author Valorie Mays Emilio received her MA in History from UCLA specializing in Christian origins. She also holds a Certificate in Persecuted Church Ministries from Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
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