Where in the Temple was Jesus when he was 12 years old?

In his post of Monday, March 11, 2013, Todd Bolen of Bibleplaces, remarks on a statement reportedly made by Dan Bahat in an Italian newspaper:

There’s an article in the Italian press (with a Google translation in English here) in which Dan Bahat allegedly claims that he knows the exact place where Jesus taught the rabbis at the age of 12. He identifies an area on the south side of the Temple Mount where he says that excavations have uncovered the scales on which the teachers stood.

This is the paragraph that was translated by Google:

“The paths of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem could be enriched by a new holy place” the point where Jesus’ amazed the rabbis with his wisdom when he was 12 years old. I think I can show exactly where this and ‘happened.” This is an area in the southern part of the Temple, where excavations have brought to light the scales on which the teachers of the law were standing normally.”

So much for Google translator that wrongly translated “scale” with “scales” instead of “steps”, as mentioned by Ferrell Jenkings in his comment on Todd’s blog. I once saw “out of sight, out of mind” translated as “invisible moron”! So, better get your dictionaries out.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the event described by Luke 2.46 took place:

“After three days they [Mary and Joseph] found him [Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions”.

If Bahat was thinking of the monumental stairway leading up to the Double Gate, that would not be “in the temple”, but outside of it, and therefore can be dismissed. But, who were those “teachers” that Jesus questioned? According to the Talmud (see quote below), they were the members of the Temple Sanhedrin that met in special courts, such as the Chamber of Hewn Stone. Normally, non-members of the Sanhedrin couldn’t enter the premises where these teachers and lawyers met in order to question them, let alone a 12-year old. There were, however, occasions when these teachers came out upon the “Terrace” or “Rampart” (Hebrew: hel) of the Temple. This was a walkway in front of the buildings that stood to the south of the Temple and was located on the top of a flight of 12 steps.

An overall view of the Temple Mount from the southeast. The Eastern wall is in the foreground and the Temple with its buildings stands near the centre. The Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount is visible to the right of the Temple. The arrow points to the location of the 12 steps.

These 12 steps were most likely the “scale” which Bahat referred to. Although the only source that mentions this location is of a later date, it is still our only authority. It is stated in the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 88b:

“… they all proceeded to the Hall of Hewn Stones, where they [i.e., the Great Sanhedrin] sat from the morning tamid  until the evening tamid; on Sabbaths and festivals they [the members of the Temple Sanhedrin] sat within the hel”.

Both terrace and steps are mentioned in Middot 2.3:

“Inside this [soreg] was the Rampart (hel), ten cubits broad. And there were twelve steps there; the height of each step was half a cubit and the tread thereof was half a cubit.”

We have illustrated this location in our book “The Ritual of the Temple in the Time of Christ” and in a corresponding CD.

The 12-year old Jesus on the hel. © Leen Ritmeyer

In the illustration we see  the little figure of Jesus in blue (see arrow) with a few of the teachers (in white) on the hel above the 12 steps during that first visit to the Temple. Jesus was there during the Feast of Passover and it may possibly have been the first time that he would have realized that he was that to be that ultimate Passover sacrifice and that he would have to lay down his life for his friends.

5 thoughts on “Where in the Temple was Jesus when he was 12 years old?”

  1. Is this a given? In addition to the Chamber of the Hewn Stone, there were two chambers of the “smaller Sanhedrin” of 23, one in the eastern wall of the Women’s Court and one in the eastern wall of Temple Mount. Perhaps the full Sanhedrin sat there at times- indeed, they vacated the Chamber of Hewn Stone, according to the Talmud, forty years before the Temple was destroyed, although that was some time after Jesus was a child.

    In addition, I wonder what you mean that non-members couldn’t enter the Chamber of Hewn Stone. Wouldn’t they have to, say to testify or the like?

    Still, your point about sitting on the Hel on holidays is probably correct- unless, for example, the chamber on the Hel (the first mentioned above) is meant.

  2. Nachum,

    I did not have the court sessions in mind, where of course invited witnesses could attend, but the teaching that took place inside the Temple courts. The reference in the Talmud indicates that the members of the Great Sanhedrin vacated the Chamber of Hewn Stone and went to another place, namely the Hel, which therefore could not have been the same place.

  3. I would like to contact Todd Bolen as he is working on translating a book my great grandfather Gustaf Dalman wrote.

    Thank you

  4. I read years ago and I don’t remember where, A boy became a man at age 13 and a illegitimate became a man at age 12. A boy was not allowed in temple worship. It is signicant that Jesus was in the temple at age 12. He was considered by some to be illegitimate.

  5. Walter,
    It would have been an interesting idea, but I have found nothing in the historical sources available to me that would substantiate this. Jesus, of course, was considered illegitimate by the authorities, for they said “we were not born of fornication”.

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