March 15, 2019
These days, trying to maintain a youthful outlook as I contemplate my upcoming seventy-sixth birthday, I am gathering information about the Post-Millennials, also called Generation Z or Gen Z. They are the demographic cohort after the Millennials, and the Pew Research Center puts their birth years between 1997 and 2012. They make up about 25% of the current U.S. population. This means they are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.
The Post-Millennials make me optimistic. They have lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the Millennials. I see them as thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young men and women. They really want to create a climate conscious and more humane society.
When I told a friend last week that the Post-Millennials give me hope for the future of Christianity, he replied, with a bit of friendly sarcasm, “I guess they can tweet for Jesus and chat about him on Twitter and Facebook; but Our Blessed Lord at least had the wisdom to pick wise, older men to be his closest disciples.”
I have never doubted Jesus’ wisdom. I suggest however that my friend’s understanding of early Jesus discipleship is too narrow and sexist.
First of all the Scriptures clearly indicate that men AND women were disciples. Jewish women disciples, including Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). The whole point of the account in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary is that Mary indeed is also a disciple and shouldn’t be just relegated to the kitchen, because she is a woman. Even stronger evidence for women disciples comes from the accounts of who first witnessed the empty tomb and testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead. All four gospels report that women were the first disciples to find the tomb of Jesus empty. According to Mark and Luke, the first announcement of Jesus’ being raised from the dead was made to women. According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary the Magdalene.
When we look at the Christian Scriptures about who were considered early Christian apostles, several women are indicated as well as men. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They are mentioned six times as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. Others are Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. There was Phoebe, a leader from the Christian community at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. And of course we have Junia, whom Paul praises as a prominent apostle.
Jesus’ disciples were hardly just a bunch of OLDER men. In fact, contemporary scholarship suggests that Jesus’ disciples may have all been under 20 years old, with some as young as 15. Again, in the days of Jesus a young man, aged 15, was done with his basic training in the Torah. A young fellow who was bright enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, could find a rabbi to take him on as a student. One had to show proficiency. Many advanced young Jewish students, back then, had large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. The Apostle Paul’s case may have been like this: a bright Jewish student from Tarsus, who was sent by his wealthy parents to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.
If a Jewish son was unable or did not want to do this, he would enter the workforce by his mid-teens; and in almost every case, he would apprentice under his father in the family trade. Perhaps many of Jesus’ male disciples were apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John, working in the family fishing business. They must have been at least older than 15 but not yet 20. By age 20 most Jewish males were married and on their own.
The age factors! One very remarkable thing scholars tell us about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she would almost certainly have been 12 to 14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it.
The questions! Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 record the people of Nazareth saying of Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The traditional Catholic interpretation has been that the Scriptures here are talking either about Jesus’ cousins or children of Jesus’ father from a previous marriage. These are creative imaginative interpretations, because official Catholic teaching has maintained that Jesus’ mother was always a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” (Here I suggest some Catholic dogmaticians and hierarchs need remedial biology.)
Back to the Post-Millennials….If they knew what contemporary scholarship says about the early followers of Jesus – his disciples – I think many of our contemporary Post-Millennials would find that exciting and inviting. I mean today’s young people, estranged from religion, but who self-identify as being compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young women and men.
About Mary and about Jesus’ extended family perhaps we should simply say: (1) The New Testament writers really didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus or if they had any details at all. (2) Perhaps all one can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.
PS A man who was a friend and very supportive of me over many years died yesterday: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He was a wonderful man, perhaps not perfect, which he realized. But I must say a very good friend. RIP