On Sunday, the 10th of April, 2017, the Jewish people begin celebrating Pesach – Jewish Passover. That is one week earlier than Easter. However, in this blog post we would like to remember the time that Jesus as a twelve-year-old visited the Temple during Passover for the first time in his life.
The Temple in the time of Christ was a magnificent building. From the Temple Court (azarah), 12 steps led up to the Porch that was as high as the Temple itself. In front of the entrance to the Sanctuary, a Golden Vine was attached to four columns.
The central feature of this complex, the Holy of Holies, was located deep inside, at the west end of the Sanctuary. No one could enter this place of utmost sanctity but the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement. A veil separated the Holy of Holies from a place of lesser sanctity, the Holy Place.
The Temple Court lay in front of the Temple and it contained the Altar, the Laver and the Place of Slaughtering (or Shambles). This was the closest court to the Temple and out of bounds to anyone like Jesus who was not a priest.
This Temple Court was separated by the Nicanor Gate from the Court of Women, which lay to the east of the Temple. Buildings, called gates, surrounded this complex. In front of the gates was a terrace (ḥel – pronounced chel with the “ch” sounding guttural as in the Scottish “loch”) of 10 cubits wide, which was reached by a flight of steps of half a cubit high and deep. This terrace bounded the wall of the gate buildings on their southern, western and northern sides.
It is on this ḥel that we get our first glimpse of Jesus after the birth narratives in the Gospels. Scripture is silent about his youth although it is clear from the observations of nature and Biblical history later attributed to him by the Gospel writers that he absorbed every spiritual and historical lesson that was provided by his upbringing in the countryside around Nazareth.
Now he was twelve years of age and his first words are recorded for us (Luke 2. 41-52). Under the law, attendance at the feasts in Jerusalem was obligatory for boys from the age of thirteen, a birthday that was a milestone in the life of a Jewish boy, when they became a Son of the Commandment or Bar Mitzvah. In practice, this legal age was pushed forward by one or two years so that Jesus, after he had passed his twelfth year, came up to Jerusalem for the Passover with his family. Jesus’ first view of the Temple must have filled him with a great sense of the purpose he had been developing during the quiet years in Nazareth. Attendance at the Temple was obligatory only for the first two days of Passover, after which many of the pilgrims would have returned home again. It would appear that Joseph and Mary and their “company” did indeed start to return home and had travelled for a day. When they finally realized that Jesus was missing, it took them three days to find him and when they did, he was “in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions.” The ḥel is the only place in the Temple he could have been.
We learn this from a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b, which tells us:
“It has been taught; R. Jose said; Originally there were not many disputes in Israel, but one Beth din of seventy-one members sat in the Hall of Hewn Stones, and two courts of twenty-three sat, one at the entrance of the Temple Mount and one at the door of the [Temple] Court, and other courts of twenty-three sat in all Jewish cities.” “The Great Sanhedrin] sat from the morning tamid (daily sacrifice) until the evening tamid [in the Hall of Hewn Stones]; on Sabbaths and festivals they sat within the ḥel.”
So, Passover would have been one such festival when members of the Temple Sanhedrin would come out to teach in this area. Ordinary people, who normally had no access to the classrooms where young priests were taught, could come and question them. Jesus must have eagerly made use of this opportunity and never would they have had such a sharp student as him. During this visit to the Temple, he would have seen the preparations for sacrificing the Passover lambs and realized, perhaps for the first time in his young life, that the entire ritual pointed forward to his own sacrifice. He would have been so absorbed by all these experiences that he would not have wanted to leave. He forgot about his natural family, for here he was at home – in his Father’s house.