How old were the disciples? In their teens? Old men with grey beards and walking staffs?
The theory of a young age of the disciples
I first heard the theory from Ray Vander Laan, one of my favorite Bible History teachers; that the twelve disciples were all under the age of 20 with the exception of Peter. Honestly, I felt a huge burden lift from my brain. I can’t tell you how often I’ve struggled with how stupid and immature I’ve believed those incorrigible twelve to be! To age them in adolescence increases their reputation, at least in my book, by leaps and bounds.
So, right off the bat, I like the idea. But, is it biblical?
The pros for a young age
I’ve listed some of the arguments Ray Vander Laan makes to support his theory as detailed on the discussion board (updated 2018. A new page on his site on the rabbi and talmid.) on his website, Follow the Rabbi.
The temple tax
In Exodus 30:14-15, Jewish law states that every male over the age of 20 is to pay a half-shekel as census offering when they visit the temple of God. In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus instructs Peter to “fish up” this tax. Peter finds a shekel in the mouth of the fish he catches; enough to pay the tax for two men, himself and Jesus. You could conclude that the others were underage and did not need to pay.
The use of the term “little ones”
In Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21, and John 13:33, Jesus calls his disciples little children; a bit insulting if they were adults.
They were unmarried
We learn that Peter had a wife when Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). In those ancient times, a Jewish man receives a wife after the age of 18. Again, no other disciples’ wives are mentioned. You could deduce then, that they were unmarried, hence under the age of 18.
The education system of Israel at the time of Jesus
In Avot 5 (from the Mishnah: rabbinical commentary that was added to the Old Testament), we learn of the ancient Jewish education traditions: scripture study begins at age 5; Mishnah study at 10; Torah obligations at 13; continued rabbinical study at 15 if chosen to be tutored by a formal teacher or apprenticed to a trade; marriage at 18; formal teaching at 30.
Jewish children began intensive study at young ages, but education for most concluded by age 15. For those bright (or wealthy) enough, higher education consisted of studying under a local rabbi, and if they were distinguished, they could begin teaching at the age of 30. If they didn’t find a rabbi that accepted them as a student (much like a college entrance application), then they entered the workforce by their mid teens. The disciples, already working at their trades, must have been rejected for formal education by other rabbis when Jesus hand-picked them for further education as his disciples. In light of this, a younger age is more probable than older. A youth would be in the mindset of continuing his education. A man over 30 leaving his trade to follow a rabbi would be counter-cultural; not impossible (Jesus was definitely counter-cultural), but more likely they were younger than older.
The zeal and folly of youth
The behavior of the disciples, as detailed in the gospels, fits well with the zealous nature and foolishness of adolescence. Doesn’t it make more sense that teenagers were arguing over who would be greatest in Jesus’ reign than grown men? Picture a gang of teens instead of work-hardened men in the boat when the storm hit, fear-stricken and waking up Jesus for help. The forgetful and distracted nature of youth helps me understand how they could hear Jesus say he would die and come back to life, yet act as they did when these things happened. They were kids! They hadn’t been paying attention in class. Yet, they were quick to admit their failures, and showed they had limitlessness amount of energy in storming the country with the good news of Messiah. When I age them under twenty, I better understand Jesus’ patience with them, his low expectations of their behavior, and his teaching style. To me, who has struggled to not judge the stupidity of the actions of the “grown men” disciples, it just makes sense.
The cons for a young age
As with any teacher or author who goes on record, there are critics. Chuck May details his objections to Vander Laan’s Jewish premises in his paper, How Jewish do you have to be to understand the Bible? I don’t agree with his objections, but I thought his points against the young age of the disciples worthy of consideration.
Matthew was a tax collector.
The Bible doesn’t say Matthew was apprenticed to be a tax collector, or that his father was a tax collector, but that Matthew himself was a Roman appointed tax agent. Would the Romans have trusted a teenager with this job? I frankly don’t know, so I can’t say either way. But it may be a valid point.
Jesus gave his mother to John.
At the cross, Jesus gives the care of his mother to John. At this point, if you take the young age view, John could have been as young as 13. Would Jesus have trusted a little boy to this task? You could argue, Jesus knew John would outlive all the others so he was the most reliable! Jesus was also close to John and may have recognized he could handle this solemn responsibility. I think of the young pioneers in the early settling of the west who were entrusted to care for the family at very young ages. Age may not have mattered to Jesus, but its worth considering. (Note: this is assuming you believe the beloved disciple was John. See this post: Unsolved Mystery.)
Does it really matter?
Nah. Its impossible to say one way or the other, and since the Bible doesn’t make a big deal of it, neither will I. I like the idea of a younger age for the disciples, because it appeals to my common sense. But, it doesn’t harm the gospel at all to age them traditionally in their twenties and thirties. So take your pick!