In a future blog, I intend to discuss the unique opportunities and challenges encountered during adolescence. I’ve taught on this twice in the last six months, but my thinking is not quite finished. In my research, I’ve come across a number of blog posts and resources on the ages of the disciples. The best one in terms of original sources is probably Ray Vander Laan.[i] Generally, these sources argue that 11 of Jesus’ disciples were teenagers (the exception being Peter). Here’s the evidence;
- Temple Tax. In Matthew 17, Jesus and Peter were asked to pay the Temple tax. According to Jewish regulations, men 20 and older were required to pay the Temple tax. Apparently, the other disciples were exempt, suggesting that they were not yet 20.
- These little ones. In Matthew 10, Jesus says “…if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (NIV) The word for “little ones” essentially means “kids.” Why would he call his disciples kids unless they were young?
- The Bachelors. When a boy reached 18, they generally got married. Peter had a mother-in-law (Matthew 8). No other wives are mentioned, so the disciples may have been under 18.
- Rabbinical Education.[ii] In Jewish culture of the first century, formal schooling ended at about age 15. Some boys would be apprenticed to a trade or would be selected by a Rabbi at about age 15 to formally disciple them. Jesus’ disciples appeared to have been engaged in their various trades (rejected from “Rabbi University?”) when Jesus called them. This puts their ages at roughly 15-17.
According to this circumstantial argument, other than Peter (married, 20 or more years old), all of Jesus 12 disciples may have been teenagers. Obviously discipleship can happen at any age, and the ages of Jesus’ disciples are not critical to any systematic theology. However, this does raise interesting implications for the church. Even if you accept that adolescence now stretches into the mid-20’s (“adultlescence”), these years would appear to be the most natural and appropriate for discipleship. What is typical in the American church is to cram all the youth into a rumpus room with pizza to entertain and distract them, combined with fun activities and short teachings. When they leave for college, most churches just release them all with no plan. After all, their addresses are going to change every 3 months and they don’t have any money, so ministry to college-aged people is not a priority. Jesus appears to have had a very different approach, strategically enrolling teens in a very intense and serious discipleship relationship.
[ii] See also https://kbonikowsky.wordpress.com/2008/08/20/jesusdisciplesateenageposse/