Next to her son, Mary is the most touching figure in the narrative: rearing him through all the painful joys of motherhood, proud of his youthful learning, wondering later at his doctrine and his claims, wishing to withdraw him from the exciting throng of his followers and bring him back to the healing quiet of his home (“thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing”), helplessly witnessing his crucifixion, and receiving his body into her arms; if this is not history it is supreme literature, for the relations of parents and children hold deeper dramas than those of sexual love. The tales later circulated, by Celsus and others, about Mary and a Roman soldier are by critical consent “clumsy fabrications.” Not so awkward are the stories, chiefly contained in the apocryphal or uncanonical gospels, about the birth of Christ in a cave or stable, the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt; the mature mind will not resent this popular poetry. The virgin birth is not mentioned by Paul or John; and Matthew and Luke, who tell of it, trace Jesus back to David through Joseph, by conflicting genealogies; apparently the belief in the virgin birth rose later than that in the Davidic descent.
The evangelists tell us little of Christ’s youth. When he was eight days old he was circumcized. Joseph was a carpenter, and the occupational heredity usual in that age suggests that Jesus followed that pleasant trade for a time. He knew the craftsmen of his village, and the landlords, stewards, tenants, and slaves of his rural surroundings; his speech is studded with them. He was sensitive to the natural beauties of the countryside, to the grace and color of flowers, and the silent fruitfulness of trees. The story of his questioning the scholars in the temple is not incredible; he had an alert and curious mind, and in the Near East a boy of twelve already touches maturity. But he had no formal education. “How is it,” his neighbors asked, “that this man can read when he has never gone to school?” He attended the synagogue, and heard the Scriptures with evident delight; the Prophets and the Psalms above all sank deep into his memory, and helped to mold him. Perhaps he read also the books of Daniel and Enoch, for his later teaching was shot through with their visions of the Messiah, the Last Judgment, and the coming Kingdom of God.
The air he breathed was tense with religious excitement. Thousands of Jews awaited anxiously the Redeemer of Israel. Magic and witchcraft, demons and angels, “possession” and exorcism, miracles and prophecies, divination and astrology were taken for granted everywhere; probably the story of the Magi was a necessary concession to the astrological convictions of the age. Thaumaturgists- wonder-workers- toured the towns. On the annual journeys that all good Palestinian Jews made to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Jesus must have learned something of the Essenes, and their half-monastic, almost Buddhistic, life; possibly he heard also of a sect called “Nazarenes,” who dwelt beyond the Jordan in Peraea, rejected Temple worship, and denied the binding character of the Law. But the experience that aroused him to religious fervor was the preaching of John, the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Josephus tells John’s story in some detail. We tend to picture the Baptist as an old man; on the contrary, he was apparently of the same age as Jesus. Mark and Matthew describe him as garbed in haircloth, living on dried locusts and honey, standing beside the Jordan, and calling people to repentance. He shared the asceticism of the Essenes, but differed from them in holding one baptism to be enough; his name “the Baptist” may be a Greek equivalent of “Essene” (bather). To his rite of symbolic purification John added a menacing condemnation of hypocrisy and loose living, warned sinners to prepare themselves for the Last Judgment, and proclaimed the early coming of the Kingdom of God. If all Judea should repent and be cleansed of sin, said John, the Messiah and the Kingdom would come at once.