The lost years of Jesus: The mystery of Christ's missing 18 years

Jesus and the rich young man by Heinrich Hofmann
There are 18 years unaccounted for in the life of Jesus Christ according to the bible. Image: Jesus and the rich young man by Heinrich Hofmann, circa 1890 | Wikipedia | Public Domain

The unaccounted years, also known as the ‘Lost Years’ of Jesus Christ, between the age of 12 and 30 is a biblical conundrum that has baffled scholars and Christians for years. There are no written records where Jesus may have been or travelled to during that period, leaving a religious vacuum that has been filled with theories largely inspired by religious belief, hearsay and folklore, depending on the sources.

Whether readers are believers or not this article looks at the colourful range of stories that have surfaced since the 1900s.

Many attempts have been made to fill in the missing eighteen years when Jesus disappears from the scriptures. This has lead to stories of him having travelled to far-flung places such as India to study with Eastern mystics, Persia and also tales of him having visited North America. Other stories, such as ones revolving around beliefs that Jesus made his way to Britain and even visited Cornwall, have generated colourful narratives linked to King Arthur and the legend of the search for the Holy Grail.

Early theories

So what evidence is there supporting beliefs that Jesus travelled thousands of miles from Judea to other countries? The earliest sources come from the Gospel texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Bethlehem is where Christ is believed to have been born, but the Gospels say his family left soon afterwards and settled in the town of Nazareth, fulfilling what the prophets in the Bible predicted; that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.

Nazareth was a quiet, farming and fishing area where the community lived frugal lives, suggesting that Jesus’ status was ‘blue collar’ as he and his carpenter father Joseph earned their meagre living as craftsmen. With little prospect of work, one theory is that Jesus may have sought some kind of occupation three miles away in the bustling town of Sepphoris in the central Galilee region of today’s Israel, a town known then for its elaborate mosaic artwork created by the Romans. With many opportunities to build houses and walls, this town may have been the first stepping stone to what is later believed to be the starting point for Jesus’ quest for spiritual enlightenment. If as some Christian scholars believe that Jesus spent most of these intervening years working as a carpenter in Galilee, there are few references to this in the Bible. The eighteen-year gap in the scriptures has generated several surprising theories, but so far none corroborated by reliable evidence.

Walkabout

One theory about Jesus and his missing years is that he went on an epic ‘walkabout’ from his home in Nazareth. If this event occurred Jesus would have been little more than a boy of 12, so how emotionally equipped and knowledgeable would such a youth have to be to undertake a huge and possibly dangerous journey? Most likely while living in Sepphoris the young Jesus may have gained his early knowledge of the world through both speaking the Aramaic language and learning to read. The one piece of written scripture suggesting this is found in the Gospel of Luke, which states that Jesus went into the synagogue and read from the scroll of the prophets. During this time as a youth, he would have experienced first-hand the social and economic oppression of the Palestinian-Jewish peasantry of his time, of which he was a part. Such knowledge may have been the inciting factor encouraging Jesus to seek answers in the outside world and may have influenced what would have been a controversial decision to leave his family.

Some scholars believe that Jesus’ father Joseph died when he was about 12 and that this traumatic event could have been the catalyst for him, still as a young boy, to begin a personal quest to attain spiritual enlightenment. This ‘walkabout’ lasting nearly two decades may have started shortly after he was 13-years-old. It is at this vulnerable age that the alleged ‘missing years’ begin and the multiple theories of where Jesus spent his formative years growing into adulthood are open to many interpretations.

Whatever responsibilities a young Jesus may have had towards his mother and extended family in Nazareth, it must have been a controversial decision to leave those close to him at such a young age, as he set out on an epic and dangerous tour by foot. However, some Christians believe the missing years are of little consequence and any revelations about them unlikely to make a difference to the understanding of the Christian faith. In other words, if it was important, it would have been included in the Bible. Other scholars have taken the view that knowing where Jesus was and what he experienced during those undocumented years, could help understand many of the enigmas surrounding Christianity.

The Vatican secrets

There have been rumours for many years that the Vatican holds mysterious truths about the life of Jesus and his lost eighteen years. This information could drastically alter traditional beliefs. To date, nothing has been revealed about the existence of such documents and what Jesus was doing and where he was from the age of 13 to 30. Some researchers believe that he spent these undocumented years visiting Britain with one ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, while others believe he travelled to India and Persia. In the late 19th century a Russian traveller claimed to have discovered genuine texts in a monastery in India that proved that Jesus travelled and taught there and elsewhere in the East

Jesus in Britain

This story is based on a belief that Jesus travelled to Britain with ‘Joseph of Arimathea’, a tin trader who some believe was his uncle, although other ‘canonical gospel’ texts describe him mainly as a rich man and disciple of Jesus. A great degree of literature had been written about this particular tale, taking it into the realms of tradition, so that by the 15th century, Glastonbury in Somerset was touted as the birthplace of British Christianity. Joseph was believed to have erected the first church there to house the Holy Grail. There was also an account that Joseph of Arimathea had earlier visited Glastonbury with Jesus as a child, which inspired artist and poet William Blake to compose a poem that became the words to the English hymn Jerusalem.

‘And did those feet in ancient time/walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the Lamb of God/On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’

Legend of the Holy Grail

The mysterious tale of the Holy Grail and its existence in England may have been embellished by a story circulating by the late 15th century that Joseph of Arimathea had brought two silver flasks containing Christ’s blood to Britain and that these relics were buried in his grave. Despite this story having evolved into shades of King Arthur and his legendary knights on their quest to find the holy relic, there has never been any record of a shrine marking the exact spot of the grave.

Another variation on this theme mentions that Joseph buried the Holy Grail underneath Glastonbury Tor, said to be the entrance to the underworld and where a natural spring, the 'Chalice Well' began flowing. These waters were believed to bring eternal youth to whoever drank from them.

Another legend associated with Joseph of Arimathea describes him bringing the ‘Holy Thorn’ to the Somerset town. The story tells of Joseph planting his wooden staff in the ground where the staff then miraculously flowered into the ‘Glastonbury Thorn’, a variety of the Common Hawthorn which flowers twice annually in Spring and again around Christmas.

Jesus in Cornwall

One of the most intriguing of stories relating to Joseph of Arimathea and one seen as a recent invention is that as he was a tin merchant by trade he brought the young Jesus with him on a trading voyage to south-west Britain and Cornwall where tin was abundant. The story may have originated from the English author Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, who introduced it in his 1899 book of Cornwall.

Twenty-three years later in 1922 the legend of Jesus visiting Britain was added to a pamphlet by one Reverend Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of St John’s church in Glastonbury, Somerset. Lewis was deeply interested in stories about Joseph of Arimathea’s connection with the area and may have appropriated Baring Gould’s ideas about Joseph and Jesus trading for tin in Cornwall and relocating the tale to Glastonbury. By the time it reached its final edition in 1955 the Apostolic Church of Britain had expanded the story to around two hundred pages with a claim that Glastonbury was the burial place of the Virgin Mary.

Jesus in India

In 1894 a controversial book called ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ written by Russian born resident of Paris called Nicolas Notovitch was published. The work made the astonishing claim that during the lost years of Jesus’ life he had visited India and trained as a Buddhist monk. In the book, Notovitch told the story of his visit to India seven years earlier accompanying it with photographs of people and places he’d encountered.

Ancient document

Notovitch gave an account explaining that during the trip he had broken his leg and was forced to convalesce in a remote monastery at Hemis in the highlands of Ladakh, India. While recovering there he was shown an ancient document about which he’d already heard stories. It was written in the language of the Pali (Indo-Aryan language) in two big volumes in cardboard covers with leaves yellowed by the lapse of time. The texts described the travels and studies in India of a man called ‘Issa’ who could have only been the biblical Jesus; Issa being the Arabic name of Jesus in Islam. Indeed the document was entitled Life of Saint Issa: Best of The Sons of Men.

According to the text Jesus left Judea at the age of 13 and set out on an epic journey of self-enlightenment through studying other religions. Notovitch wrote that Jesus...‘Crossed Punjab and reached Puri Jagannath where he studied the Vedas (Indian book of ancient texts) under Brahmin priests. He (Jesus) spent six years in Puri and Rajgir, near Nalanda, the ancient seat of Hindu learning. Then he went to the Himalayas and spent time in Tibetan monasteries studying Buddhism and through Persia returned to Judea at the age of 29’.

Fake or fact?

At the time Notovitch’s book was a global publishing sensation translated into several languages including English and going through eleven French editions in its first year of publication. More than a century and a quarter later however Notovitch’s book is largely forgotten and its contents and claims relegated to the realms of fantasy by his contemporaries. But some supporters of Notovitch believe that documents that prove the author’s claims may be kept in the Vatican. Even at the time of Notovitch’s writings several people were sceptical and found his claims incredulous. German-born philologist Max Muller stated at the time that either the monks at the monastery played a joke on the Russian author, or he had invented the entire story for money and faked the ancient manuscript. One respected Indologist called Notovitch’s claims ‘a big fat lie’.

Muller even wrote to the Head Lama at the monastery where Notovitch alleged he stayed after injury and received a reply stating that there had been no western visitors at the monastery in the last fifteen years and that there were no ancient documents like the one described by the author. Shortly afterwards J. Archibald Douglas, Prof of English and History at the Government College in Agra, India, actually visited Hemis monastery and also interviewed the Head Lama who stated definitively that Notovitch had never been there. Both Muller and Douglas wrote articles refuting Notovitch’s claim that Jesus had travelled to India, even allying to write a book together titled ‘Jesus did NOT live in India’, insisting that Notovitch’s writings about Jesus’ ‘lost years’ was a total fabrication.

Lack of evidence

After Notovitch had visited Hemis monastery and claimed to have seen a document proving Jesus had stayed there, no material evidence was found to corroborate his claim, such as a photograph of the mysterious manuscript itself. Notovitch went to some lengths in the preface of his book to explain why none were included.

‘In the course of my travels I took many curious photographs, but when I came to examine the negatives on my return to India, I was dismayed to find that they were absolutely destroyed’.

Further damning evidence against Notovitch was recently discovered in a contemporary report held in archives of the British Library written by a Russian speaking British official, Donald Mackenzie Wallace. The Scottish public servant and foreign correspondent of The Times revealed that after having encountered Notovitch several times in July 1887, he claimed that on one occasion the Russian traveller volunteered his services as a ‘spy’ for the British government in India. Wallace declined the offer describing Notovitch as an ‘unscrupulous adventurer’.

Despite these allegations, Notovitch stood firm with his book’s claims promising to return to the monastery and bring back the original manuscript. Nothing more was heard from him on the subject leaving the writer’s claims of Jesus visiting India little more than a myth with no basis in fact.

Travelling during Roman Times

One angle to scrutinise claims that Jesus as a teenager embarked on an epic journey by foot to other continents is to look at the travelling practicalities of the day and the realities of reaching a country over inhospitable terrain and at times unsurpassable routes. According to The New Testament, the principal locations for the ministry undertaken by Jesus were Galilee and Judea, with activities also taking place in surrounding areas such as Peres and Samaria. Christian texts refer to Jesus walking 3,125 miles during his ministry. Taking into account that a determined person, on a mission, could make the trip from Judea to Galilee (150 – 200 km) on foot in six days, it is possible that an experienced walker with knowledge of the terrain could venture far greater distances.

Distances by foot

Over Jesus’ lifetime, a conservative estimate of the number of miles he may have walked is put at around 21,525 miles, almost the equivalent of walking around the entire world. The standard mode of transport was usually by foot with an estimated mileage of around 20 miles a day, but citizens also rode on oxen, donkeys and camels. It could be the case that during Jesus’ walkabout and journey to far distanced places, such as the Himalayas, that he was able to utilise such transport, with the addition of caravans to carry supplies. Referencing the standard walking habits and abilities of the time, such an epic journey, allegedly undertaken by Jesus alone and over many years could be physically possible. But how credible could this undertaking be for someone so young, no more than a boy to begin without accompaniment, medical knowledge or experienced navigation abilities?

Roman rule and roads

During the time of Jesus’ teachings (AD 27 -29), Judea was under Roman rule and subject to tyranny by its Roman rulers, who were given authority to punish by execution. This was a dangerous time, even within the enclaves of Judea where robbery and murders were not uncommon. Ironically the Romans did more to facilitate travel than any other empire as they constructed major roads and cleared the seas of pirates. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) declared by Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) enabled people like Paul the Baptist to travel relatively safely. Historian Lionel Casson writes:

‘The traveller could make his way from the shores of the Euphrates to the border between England and Scotland without crossing a foreign frontier. He could sail through any waters without fear of pirates, thanks to the emperor’s patrol squadrons’.

The fastest form of long-distance travel was by ship, which was only done between April and October because of the danger in the winter seas.

Paul himself is alleged to have sailed eastwards from Greece to Israel and westwards by land from Israel to Greece. By AD 300 the Romans had built a network of 85,000 km of well-made roads throughout their empire, primarily for military purposes. Taking into account that poor people mainly travelled by foot and wore heavy shoes or sandals while facing changing seasons as well as natural phenomena such as floods and snow, there was also danger from wild animals and ‘bandits’ as Paul himself stated in The New Testament of the Christian Bible 2 Cor 11:26, ‘I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits...in danger in the country’.

Whatever the condition of roads, the terrain in all its diversity, the dangers of wild animals and robbers and the availability of inns and hotels of the time, it appears that a determined adult could cover many thousands of miles by foot, donkey, horse and ship, despite the probability of illness, injury and other misfortunes. Whether Jesus as a young man managed to reach the destinations claimed by some scholars and Christians is still a mystery that continues to generate heated debate ever since Nicolas Notovitch’s controversial claims in his book ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ written over one hundred years ago.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY channel. Represented by WGM Atlantic agency.