It is a well-known fact that the Canonical Gospels are largely silent on the years between the infancy of Christ (ca. 4-2 B.C.) and the beginning of His public ministry (ca. 26 A.D.). St. Luke’s is the only exception, and his account skips from infancy to early adolescence, of which a story is told that is as haunting as it is sparse, to wit: His Mother and Yosif had taken the 12-year old Jesus to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, and discovering that He had not gone with them on the trip back to Nazareth, found Him in the Temple after a frantic search. He had been learnedly discussing doctrine with the Temple scholars, and when Miryam reproached Him, Our Lord replied: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Thus they returned to Nazareth, and the Gospels resume their silence.
Various theories have been advanced to fill the gap.
One of the most popular explanations is that Christ had joined and learned from the Essenic sect of deutero-Yahwism/proto-Judaism, pointing to the similarity between the main rituals He prescribed (the Eucharist and Baptism) and the corresponding rites practiced in Essenic monasticism, as well as the apparent identification between Jesus’s messianic role and that of the Essenes’ prophesied “Teacher of Righteousness.”
Another popular (and admittedly more interesting) theory–popularized by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the founder of a millenarian cult in the United States–suggests that Christ went to India to learn under the teachers of Hinduism, where He contended with Brahmin religious authorities just as He later contended with proto-Judaic ecclesiastical leaders. Among other evidence, this theory points to the similarity between elements of Christian and Hindu doctrine, particularly between the Christian Trinity and the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
Considering them in themselves, I think both theories are weakened by the dissimilarity between Jesus’s teachings and practices and those of both Essenic Judaism and Hinduism.
For one, the existence of an account of Christ in India is more plausibly attributed to the influence of Nestorian Christianity, which traveled far to the east as early as the 7th century AD, and whose proselytism led some Hindus to counter-attack by very practically making Jesus part of the Hindu pantheon, either as a minor deity or as an avatar of Vishnu.
More fundamentally, their soteriologies are radically different. Hindu/late-Brahmanist soteriology, at least in the philosophically dominant form of Vedanta, is one of acquired union: through human effort (e.g., meditation and cultic practice), one recovers one’s true selfhood as the Absolute and is freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. In contrast, the doctrine of salvation proposed by Christ was received communion: Divine action leads us to share the life of God in the believing community (koinonia) and to obtain a multi-personal paradise. Its mysticalization of externalist-communalist Hebraic eschatology is diametrically contrary to the interiorist-individualist mysticism of Hinduism, etc., which helps explain Christendom’s (and proto-Judaism’s) eventual rejection of Gnosticism and its discomfort with the Platonizing individualism of even orthodox mystics like St. John of the Cross, to say nothing of Eckhart.
As to the Christian Trinity of Father, Son (identified with Divine Wisdom, or following Jewish Platonist language, the Divine logos/Word), and Holy Spirit, there are a host of other possible sources. In a passage highlighted by Simone Weil, for instance, Aristophanes writes how “by the side of Zeus there stand His Act and His Word”; and the Old Testament already intimates the existence of a personal Wisdom and a holy Spirit (Hebrew ruah, ‘breath’) of God. Indeed, its earliest texts imply a personal and, in particular, a threefold plurality in the otherwise mono-substantial God (hence the plural form of Elohim), which makes a Trimurti derivation unnecessary.
Besides, the theological underpinnings are different. The three Persons of the Christian Trinity are distinct entities in one God, whereas in the Hindu triad–which probably developed to reconcile the emergent Hindu culti of Vishnaism and Sivaism with the earlier Brahmanism–Vishnu and Shiva are but manifestations of Brahma, which, to certain Hindu schools, is the inner identity (or atman) of all beings. The Trimurti is thus closer to the Neo-Platonist triad, where the World-Soul and the Logos are emanations of the One, than it is to the Christian Trinity.
As to the Essenes, any similarity between Essenic Jewish practice and Jesus’ could more easily be explained through their common root in Jewish religious ritual, the Passover liturgy of which provided the foundation for the Christian Eucharist (for instance, circular unleavened bread is used in both), and which recognized washing as a purificatory rite. As a demerit of the theory, in fact, Jesus’ interaction with “sinners” (e.g., prostitutes and tax-collectors) is unthinkable among the austerely fundamentalist Essenes, as is His conception of a personal messianic mission being to constitute in Himself a sacrifice for sins and a mystical bridge between God and sinful humanity.
These reservations aside, either theory is, in abstractu, theoretically possible, though the Essenic theory has stronger logical support. After all, Apostolic Christianity has never been allergic to “baptizing” non-Christian ideas, which, provided they cohere with the Faith “once received”, are considered to be species of general revelation (cf. Romans 1, Acts 17:23,27). However, even without supposing the Essene and Hindu parallels to be preparatio evangelica, an application of Ockham’s razor demands that we take as most probable the simplest explanation that coheres with the data; and the simplest explanation is that Christ lived in Nazareth in Galilee, learned Jewish doctrine in the synagogue schools, and plied His trade as a carpenter until He began his public ministry.
Some textual bases for this are the frequent Biblical description to Jesus as a Nazarene and as a Galilean; the early (probably pejorative) reference to Christians as Nazarenes; and the apparent familiarity of the Nazarenes with Jesus, His family, and His trade, which became the basis, in fact, for the early opposition to His ministry. The counter-proposal that ‘Nazarene’ only means nazirite is based largely on phonetic similarity and weak negative evidence (the absence of 1st-century records of Nazareth), and may be considered implausible. (One is reminded here of an even more dubious New Age theory that Christianity and Hinduism are wings of an original sun-worship that split in the 4th century AD, of which the main “proof” was that Christos and Krishna sound alike. It makes Edgar Cayce’s ramblings sound scholarly by comparison.)
As to His tenets, one might note that Christ’s teachings and practices appear to have basis in first-century Judaism.
- His teachings on the resurrection and the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the train of the Messiah were markedly those of apocalyptic Pharisaism, which dominated the synagogue schools.
- So were the rituals He proposed, notably the purificatory washing of Baptism and the communal/sacrificial meal (later called ‘thanksgiving’, eucharistein, in an attempted translation of the Hebrew word for ‘blessing’) that echoes the Pasch.
- His moral teaching is both a development of Pharisaic doctrine and a reaction to its “liberalism”: the “Golden Rule” echoes the teaching of Hillel, while the idealistic rigorism of His precepts (e.g., “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”), which Solomon Zeitlin deprecatingly but justifiably calls “utopian”, reminds one of Shammai’s doctrine.
- His allusion to forgiveness after death (Mt. 12:32), which Latin Christians later called purgatorium, has strong roots in post-Exilic and especially Diaspora Jewish belief in the refrigerium, whose residue in modern Judaism is the Kaddish.
- Of similar but Sadducean genesis was His ecclesiasticism (Mt 23:2-3), which, we may note, passed to His followers and predisposed them to adopt the organization of the synagogue and the Proto-Judaic Church (e.g., the conciliar-presidential structure of the Bet Din, and the high priest’s role as “vicar of God”).
In short, therefore, the Nazareth solution, besides being simpler, has more plausible textual and historical support.