QUESTION: About the disciples, the question seems to come up often about how they could have written 30 or more years after the crucifixion of the Christ. However, since men started to work at an age that today would be considered inappropriate perhaps as young as 12 – perhaps approximating their ages would provide an answer. So how old were they? (Not exact ages of course.)
RESPONSE: This question has a surprising answer, as you rightly deduce. The disciples, likely, were very young. The question you seem concerned with is how the disciples could be alive and writing about the events of Jesus as late as 95-100 A.D. (as in the case of John). Even the other authors of the New Testament, like Matthew, Peter and Paul, seem to be (based on common assumptions) too old to be writing when they do, in the mid 60’s and beyond – especially given life spans at the time.
Why do we assume this? Because we’ve been far more formed by Bible movies than by the Biblical data on hand. Watch almost EVERY Jesus movie ever produced and see how they paint the disciples of Jesus as mostly older than Jesus. Jesus, everyone agrees, was about 30 years old during his ministry, based on Luke’s explicit aging in 3:23. But after that, the consistent picture of the disciples is of an older Peter and James with long beards, some gray hair, or balding heads, clearly middle aged, and clearly older than their strapping young Rabbi.
Now, there is no indicator in Scripture of a specific age for any disciple, but the clues from the Gospels and from a little research into 1st century Jewish culture tell us that this idea, depicted over and over in movies and pictures, is almost certainly wrong.
Let’s go to the Mishnah, the oral interpretations of Torah (law) at the time of Jesus. It shows a very regimented educational/life path for young boys in Judaism:
“At five years old [one is fit] for the Scripture, at ten years the Mishnah (oral Torah, interpretations) at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen the Talmud (making Rabbinic interpretations), at eighteen the bride-chamber, at twenty pursuing a vocation, at thirty for authority (able to teach others).”
So, in the time of Jesus, almost all Jewish young men were married, and usually by age 18. But in the Gospels, Peter is the only disciple known to have been married (Matthew 8:14-15). No other disciples’ wives are ever mentioned. So this tells us that the disciples may have all been under 20, with some as young as 15.
What bolsters this case is the educational pathway of that time. Education for the Jewish child concluded at the age of 15. But just as every parent today would be proud to have a son or daughter do much more education to become a high-status medical doctor or professor, Jewish parents would desire their boys to be selected for Rabbinic training.
If you were 15 and done with your basic training in Torah, a boy who was bright enough, (or whose parents were rich enough) would find a rabbi to take them on as a student. You’d have to show proficiency and it’s assumed many students had very large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. Paul’s case may have been like this, where an extremely bright Jewish student from Tarsus, is sent by his rich parents to Jerusalem to study under a great Rabbi (Gameliel).
If your son didn’t merit this honor, they would enter the workforce by their mid-teens, and in almost every case, apprentice under their fathers in the family trade.
So this explains a few things we see in the Gospels.
One, it means that if most of the disciples are apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John working in the family fishing business, they must have been older than 15. But, because they are also unmarried, likely not older than 20. Peter is the exception to this, but because his brother Andrew is not married, and they’re working with James and John (Luke 5:10 – perhaps their two families have a joint business venture), it stands to reason they are roughly the same age. It would be odd to have a brother twice as old as you, for example.
Two, because we find them working in trades at the time Jesus calls them, none of the disciples likely were “star students”. After their formal education was complete, they were not taken for mentorship by any local Rabbi. And so, being passed over as teenagers, they are perhaps shocked to be considered worthy of apprenticeship with a traveling Rabbi who was beginning to gain a reputation at that time.
The great honor of being chosen for Rabbinic training, especially after being passed over, would compel most Jewish boys to jump at the chance to leave blue collar work behind (Luke 5:11). The fact of their being passed over for classic training explains why after the resurrection, the Chief priests note they’re level of education. They clearly hadn’t passed muster for special Rabbinic training, but having been with Jesus for 3 years, and seeing him alive again, gave them special qualifications:
When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and knew that they had been with Jesus. HBActs 4:13
Three, it explains why Peter is painted as the spokesman for the disciples – he’s the only one married, so therefore probably the oldest. But, as I said, we don’t have to infer that he was THAT much older, since his brother Andrew is still unmarried and he works with close friends James and John, also unmarried. So positing an age for Peter of no more than 25 is very plausible, in stark contrast to the 45 – 55 year old Peter in most plays, movies and other depictions.
Four, the Mishnah explains why Jesus didn’t start his ministry until age 30 even though his mission of redemption by death could have been accomplished at any age. Why not go through with it sooner? Well, no Rabbi would take disciples until age 30, and no disciples would seek out a Rabbi younger than that. Additionally Jesus had to take students to steward the Church when he was gone. So really, Jesus begins at the very moment it was possible to begin – when it was culturally appropriate to assume authority and take on disciples.
Now, the only other disciple besides Peter who might have been outside his teens was Matthew, who likely needed to be an established adult to be an independent contractor with the Roman government as a tax collector.
But think of other indicators of the youthfulness of the disciples:
In Matthew 11:25, Mark 10:24, Luke 10:21, and John 13:33, Jesus calls his trainees “little children” or “little ones”. As the Incarnate Word/Son of God, we think Jesus can make a paternal reference to any human and it would be fitting… and yes it would. But let’s not void Jesus human nature and the nature of his patriarchal cultural. Older men, were treated with respect as fathers. Calling his disciples “children” may indicate they were mostly – gasp! – children! Or at least much younger than their Master.
Also, John and James’ mother Salome wanted to arrange where her boys would sit with Jesus at the Kingdom table. Imagine this scene if the brothers were grown men (Matthew 20:20-24)! But if her boys were teenagers when chosen, it would explain her lack of resistance to them leaving the family biz (“finally we’ll have a doctor in the family!”) and her maternal pushiness on their behalf. Remember also that Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” because they were probably either loud or bold, characteristics of youth.
Here’s something else. In Exodus 30:14-15, we read that every male over the age of 20 was to pay a tax to maintain the “Sanctuary” or Temple. In Matthew 17:24-27, we read that when questioned about this tax, Jesus instructs Peter to pay this tax – but only for “me and you”. But all the disciples are present (“they came to Capernaum” vs 24). We might reasonably conclude that the others were under age 20 and did not need to pay.
So all of this suggests a very startling, and in some ways endearing picture of the disciples. They’re boys! Mostly older teenagers, young Jewish bachelors, and not blue-chip Harvard stars either. Nevertheless, they are honored to be taken for apprenticeship by a Rabbi perhaps more than 10 years older than they. Don’t our hearts go out to them more as they struggle to grasp all that Jesus is saying to them? Don’t we cheer for them more as these young 20 year old’s buck a corrupt priestly system and boldly declare a New Kingdom on planet earth? Don’t we have more patience with their blunders and pride? As a father to 2 young men in this age bracket, I tear up with pride thinking about the stands they have made for this same Kingdom, and how Jesus is pleased to choose and use the likes of these (Matt 11:25).
And as to the plausibility of them being young enough to still be around to write about all this in the 60’s – 90’s, there is no problem at all. Young John, perhaps 15 during the life of Jesus, would be only 85 if he wrote his gospel, letters and Revelation in the year 100.