Thanks to Sunday school felt boards and popular renditions of Jesus with His disciples, for most of my life, I’ve envisioned the disciples as a group of old dads and grandpas. Da Vinci’s Last Supper shows four of them with white beards and three that are balding. Even the artwork and movies that depict them younger make them seem like they’re middle aged men. However, I believe there’s a lot of evidence that hints at them being much younger. Follow with me on this little journey…
Primary School (Bet Sefer = House of the Book)
Back in Jesus’ day, Jewish kids went to primary school when they were about 5 years old at their local synagogue. They didn’t have Bible apps on their phones or even their own Bibles, each village had one copy of the Scriptures. That made memorization vital! From the age of 5, Jewish boys and girls began memorizing the first 5 books of the Bible (Torah). The goal was to have it completely memorized by age 12.
Secondary School (Bet Midrash = House of Learning)
At age 12, girls would go home to continue learning how to be housewives and to prepare for marriage. Many boys would go work with their dads, learning the family trade. Only the best male students would go on to secondary school where they’d be intensely focused on the remaining books of Old Testament Scriptures.
The best of the best students would memorize the rest of the Old Testament, then set out to find a Rabbi they could follow and study under. Most were denied, but the best of the best would hear the words every Jewish boy longed to hear, “Follow me.” That meant the Rabbi thought the student had the ability and commitment to become like him. For the next few years, the now disciple (“talmid”) would follow the Rabbi, learning to be just like him.
Studying under a Rabbi was the goal, but most didn’t make the cut. Most boys entered the full-time workforce by their mid-teens. Typically, they apprenticed under their fathers and worked for the prosperity of the family (such as James and John in the boat with their father, Zebedee – Mark 1).
A teenager would have the mindset of continuing his education, so they’d be quick to jump at an opportunity. A 40- or 50-year old man leaving his trade to follow a Rabbi was unheard of. Most Rabbis were typically followed by 15-16 year old boys.
Conclusion: Since each of the disciples (as far as we know) were already working at their trades when Jesus called them to follow Him, they must have either never made it to secondary school or were rejected for formal education by other Rabbis. The disciples that Jesus called in the boats were probably freshmen fishermen (except for maybe Simon)!
In Jesus’ day, Jewish marriages were arranged by the parents. Most girls were married off by around 14 or 15 and boys by around 18. Being a bachelor was frowned upon.
According to Scripture, Simon was the only disciple that we know of who was married (Mark 1 – Jesus heals his wife’s mother).
Conclusion: Either Jesus had 1 married man and 11 middle-aged bachelors with Him, or Simon was the only one old enough to be married!
In Matthew 17, Jesus and the disciples journey to the Temple. The context makes it clear that they were all together for the trip, which would make sense since a disciple would be by the side of the Rabbi at all times. Although Jesus could have gotten away with not paying the Temple tax (He is God after all!), so as not to offend, He provided enough money to cover the tax for Himself and Peter.
Why is that important? Exodus 30:14-15 states that only males 20 years and older had to pay. We know Jesus was at least 30, and Peter must have been over 20.
Conclusion: The other 11 disciples were either in their teens (too young for the tax), Jesus contradicted Himself and waived their taxes, or they ran to Seven-Eleven for a Slurpee and missed out on the Temple field trip.
In both Matthew 11:25 and Luke 10:21, Jesus thanks the Father for revealing truth to “babes.” The word “babes” means “infant” or “little child.” That probably would have been insulting to a bunch of older, married men.
In John 13:33, Jesus calls His disciples “little children.” That could be a term of endearment, but it could also be a reference to their youth.
Viewing the disciples as freshmen in high school makes their behavior a lot easier to understand…
Like when James and John’s mother asked Jesus for a favor for them (Matthew 20:20-21), or when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56). When Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, and the disciples immediately argue about who will be the greatest (Matthew 20:17-28). If they were 50-year old trained fishermen, why did they panic during storms on the Sea (Mark 4:35-41)? Or what about when they continually fall asleep when Jesus tells them to be praying (Mark 14:32-42)?
In addition to all the cultural, logical, and Scriptural evidence, God using young people is a theme throughout Scripture. Jeremiah was a “youth.” Samuel was about 12 years old when God spoke to him. Josiah was 8 when he took the throne and brought revival and reform. Timothy was so discouraged by his young age that Paul wrote to remind him not to let people look down on his youth (1 Timothy 4:12). David was so young that when Samuel showed up to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king, Jesse didn’t even think to call David in from the field!
Church history says that John was the only disciple to die from old age (Judas hanged himself and the other 10 were martyred). He was alive at least long enough to write Revelation, which was written around 96AD. If he was 50 years old when Jesus called him to be a disciple, John would have lived to be at least 116 years old! It’s much more likely that he was only about 15 when he began to follow Christ, meaning he died closer to the age of 75 or 80.
Jesus went out of His way to meet up with the underperforming outcasts who made Cs and Ds in school. He sought them, called them, equipped them, and built the Church on their faith and example. If Jesus can use a bunch of high school freshmen, I believe there’s hope for us (young and old!)!
You can also listen to or watch a message I taught on this topic from Mark 1 in our series, The Servant Savior.