The MOST Theological Collection: Outline of Christology
"XI. The Finding in the Temple at Age 12"
Only males of age 13 and up were required to make the trip. Nazareth is about 60 air miles from Jerusalem, but with the hilly country it would be about 85 miles. On these pilgrimages men and women usually went in separate groups. Children might be with either group. Hence they could travel a day without noticing He was missing.
Teachers usually taught in the courtyard of the Temple. Listeners would sit at their feet, and at times ask questions and give answers. Jesus did that. But His questions and answers showed something very special. We cannot help wondering what He brought out for them. Perhaps He led them to see more in the Messianic prophecies-- although the Targums show they already knew much. The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy has Him explaining medicine - with the deficient ideas of the day - and explaining astronomy, again with the mistaken notions about the spheres.
Jesus replied to His Mother that He needed to be in tois tou patros. The Latin Fathers and many recent commentators take it to mean "about my Father's business." The Greek Fathers and many moderns take it to mean in the house of my Father. The latter seems more likely, for the Greek for being about His Father's business more likely would have been peri tou patros. Fitzmyer (p. 437) thinks these words may have been retrojected - as if Jesus did not know who He was so early.
The fact that Mary and Joseph did not understand need not mean that they did not know who He was - we have seen that she did know for certain, and it is likely Joseph did too, for he could understand the prophecies and the Targums too, even if she had not told him (we recall her silence about the conception of Jesus). He could not miss Isaiah 7. 14 about the virginal conception, which of course he knew. And Hillel in that day taught that that text was Messianic (even though he thought the Messiah was Hezekiah. --Cf. Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context, p. 174). And Joseph could not miss the prophecy of Micah about the birth in Bethlehem. So he must have known Jesus was Messiah, and then so many other prophecies would come into view.
But what Mary and Joseph would not understand was the strange change in His pattern of behavior - normally He had been so docile and compliant. Now He was puzzling.
Why did He act this way to them? Scripture shows us that often God puts people into situations in which they must hold on in faith in the dark, when they cannot see at all. Thus Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac when so young, even though Abraham also had to believe that he would be the Father of a great nation by Isaac. Many think all the Jews had to hold on to a belief that God rewarded and punished justly, even though they may not have known - a debated point - very early that there was retribution in the future life. His Mother had to hold on in the dark at the annunciation, as we have seen, to believe her Son was God in spite of Hebrew insistence on monotheism. His reply to her at Cana is likely another example. His refusal to explain the promise of the Eucharist in John 6, 53, even though the crowds were leaving. There are many other examples, cf. Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan (Trinity Communications, 1988, pp. 129-33). If a person's will must hold fast even when it seems impossible - then faith grows greatly. Even though she was full of grace at the start, yet her capacity, as it were, could grow. To put her in situations that would bring great growth was a sign of great love.
At the end of this episode, Luke reports that Jesus went back to Nazareth and was obedient to them, and that He advanced in wisdom and age before God and men. St. Athanasius was the first to explain that there is a difference between actual growth in wisdom, and growth manifestation of what was always there. (Cf. The Consciousness of Christ, pp. 101-02.