The song has been running through my mind, both because it is a cool song, at least for those of us who came of age in the 70s, and because it does remind me of the "young dudes" who did carry the news, the good news (with a little bit of the end of the world thrown in there, but more on that some other time), with more than a little hope. There is a tendency to see the Apostles of Jesus today as wizened and grizzled old men, which some of them did become, but I am convinced that they were young men, mostly in their late teens, when Jesus called them to follow him.
There are a few reasons for thinking so. One is that Jesus himself was only about 30 when he called disciples (Luke 3:23) and the model of a teacher-disciple relationship in the ancient world was definitely that of students younger than their teachers, as it is even today for the most part. In the rabbinic model, students tended to be in their teenage years, at least as they began their studies. Two is that when Jesus calls the Apostles, however staged the scenes in the Gospels are, the Apostles James and John go when called, leaving behind their father (Matthew 4:21-22). They do not speak of wives or children. It is only Peter, however, who leaves behind a wife, as we learn of his Mother-In-Law in Mark 1:29-30, and some of the Apostles, such as James and John, travel alongside their mothers (Matthew 20:20; see Matthew 27:56), which indicates their youth and the fact they are not married. If there were wives, we would be told, and Jewish men of the first century tended to marry in their late teens (though it could be earlier according to some talmudic accounts - see Let the Little Children Come to Me, chapter 4).
Three, the ability to leave all behind and travel was far easier without family commitments and the sort of energy and enthusiasm necessary to do so is what we find generally among young men rather than middle-aged or older men. Four, it is obvious that Jesus did not choose men who had been formed religiously and academically in the schools of other teachers or rabbis, but that he was looking for people he could form, apart from the regular school system. This would rule out older men who had already been taught in the schools of others and it certainly ruled out professionals, scribes, Pharisees, and Priests. Five, the call of the Apostles probably took place around the year 26-27 A.D. It is unlikely that Peter, who as a married man was probably the oldest of them all, could have lived until the mid-60s A.D. if he had been much over 20 years old when called by Jesus. This would put his age in 65 A.D., when it is supposed he was martyred, at about 59 years old. It is not that people did not live to old age in the ancient world, they did, but only 7% of the population lived beyond the age of 59 years old ( Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within, 28).
When the Apostles James and John and James and Joseph were called by Jesus, they were called by him from their fathers. Christian Laes, in his wonderful book, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within, has a simulated demographic table in which he outlines the percentage of people who would have a father living at various ages (29). At the age of 15, 62% of children would have a father living; at the age of 20, 49% of children would have a father living; and at the age of 25, only 37% of children would have a father living. This makes it far more likely that the first Apostles were teenagers than older men, by which I mean over 25 years old. Finally, though not directly related to the call of the 12 Apostles, Paul, at the time of Stephen's stoning, is described as a neanias, which I would place as a young man in his late teens (see Let the Little Children Come to Me, chapter 1 for terminology for age ranges).
What does all of this mean? As someone who teaches students around the ages of 18-22 on a regular basis, it is important to remember that when Jesus called his Apostles he called young men, with energy, enthusiasm, passion and courage. He did not call older men, though old men can have a little passion, enthusiasm, energy and courage, nor, I suppose most significantly, did he call biblical scholars. I am not exactly certain all of what it should mean to us, but it definitely ought to mean that we listen to the call and the voices of young people. Jesus thought they were capable to carry out a mission of the greatest importance and they did.
John W. Martens
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