This question came up based on a post I wrote at the end of last year about St. John. In that post, from St. John’s Day, I suggested that in order for St. John to have seen and done all of the things that the bible and later tradition suggests that he did, John must have been very young during the life of Jesus. Something of a mascot among the disciples.
So, this raised the question, “just how young are we talking?”
Now, lots of folks like to try and back dates and ages and times out of the Biblical narrative by looking for clues as to the writing or publication dates of the various texts. Such folks will point out that if the St. John that wrote either the letters of John or the Revelation to John or both was the same John that wrote the Gospel according to John and was the character in that Gospel called, John, then he would have had to live for nearly 100 years after the events of the Gospel. This would have made this person EPIC old – a fact that would be eased, somewhat the younger he was when he was a character in the story.
Unfortunately, such arguments are fraught with all kinds of errors and depend on estimation after estimation. I prefer to look at things a slightly different way, but tend to arrive at the same point.
Tradition holds that Jesus died when he was between 30 and 35 years old. Though many things are said about whether Jesus died too soon, had life stolen from him or was condemned unjustly, no one ever says that Jesus was “young” when he died. Thus, at the age of 30, Jesus was already very much an adult in the fullness or even past the prime of his life. This would square with what we know about the average life expectancy of of men in the late bronze age.
Now, it would have been uncommon for Jesus’ disciples to be older than he was, given age and wisdom frequently went hand-in-hand in these traditions. Thus, I think it would be safe to say that none of the disciples were any older than 30 during the events of the New testament. More likely they were in their early- to mid-twenties. Thus giving a sufficient age gap for Jesus to be the teacher and the disciples to be, well, the disciples.
If we then turn to some of the other details we know about the disciples and their lives at the time that Jesus called them, I think we can get even closer. Take, for instance, what we read about Simon (Peter) and Andrew and James and John from their call stories. All were fishermen, as we know, but the Gospels also give additional information about their business arrangements. Simon and Andrew worked together in something of a fishing “business.” They were also “partners with” James and John, but also with the father of James and John, Zebedee.
What this suggests to me is that Peter, who was younger than Jesus, was actually a peer of the father of James and John, not with James and John themselves, otherwise, there would have been no reason to mention the business partnership as extending to him, too. Most men in Jesus’ time were known by the identity of their father, but very few were listed as “working for” their dads. Thus, we could imagine that there might be an entire generation of gap between Peter and James and John, although I think it was more likely half-a generation. Maybe 10 years.
So, by this estimation, I arrive at the following estimation of the ages of the disciples during the narrative of the Bible. Jesus, it seems was likely in his 30s, a wise and aging teacher. Simon and Andrew were likely in their 20s being fully independent of their father in their fishing exploits. James and John who were still not fully independent were likely in their teens and depending on how you imagine the transition to adulthood in the time of Jesus may have been as young as 10 or 12. Certainly a far cry from the images of bearded middle-aged men that we frequently see in the iconography.