Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, holds an out-sized influence in the imagination of the Western World. Aside from the conspiracy theories, it nicely sums up how we understand the disciples: grown men, some of them being old. Now, we know intellectually that Da Vinci had no idea what the disciples looked like and that he painted them to look like people from his time and culture, but the historical imagination is so easily swayed by pictures. When we read the Gospels, we likely picture the disciples as a group of men something like in Da Vinci’s painting: they had full beards, houses, families, etc. Perhaps we imagine them more middle-eastern looking, if we know a little bit about the world. In other words, We see Jesus as a man in his 30’s, and his followers were all basically the same age. But is that really the picture painted in the Gospels?
Disciples as teenagers?
The Gospels give us very few specific details about the demographics of the 12 closest followers of Jesus. We know some things, like where a few of them came from, that Levi was a tax-collector, and so forth. Some of these details obviously put certain ball-park age limits. For instance, the fact that Peter and Andrew and James and John were still working with their living fathers is suggestive that they were probably not old adults. But, that still leaves a pretty wide range of ages. Is there anything more specific?
One odd little story in the Gospel of Matthew gives a suggestive picture that many, or perhaps even most of the 12 closest followers of Jesus were actually teenagers!
Take it from the Fish’s Mouth
The passage of interest is Matthew 17.24-27.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the didrachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a stater. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”ESV, modified
Aside from the general interest of this story in Jesus providing for the tax through a coin in a fish’s mouth, this passage provides a possible window into the lives of Jesus’ closest followers. How so? It all revolves around the temple tax.
Temple tax and coins
The temple tax that the “collectors of the didrachma tax” were asking about has it roots back in Exodus. Exodus 30:13 reads:
Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel (שֶׁקֶל) according to the shekel (שֶׁקֶל) of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD.ESV
The census was taken for those 20 years and older (Ex. 38.25-26). While it is not obvious in Exodus that this was meant to be an on-going tax, it appears that this became the case at some point and continued into Jesus’ day.
A Shekel by any other name…
On a brief side-excursion, this passage in the Septuagint (LXX) is of interest. The LXX presents a different value of the temple-tax than the passage in Matthew, giving us a brief glimpse into the complicated world of ancient coinage. In the LXX Exodus 30.13 reads:
καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν ὃ δώσουσιν ὅσοι ἂν παραπορεύωνται τὴν ἐπίσκεψιν· τὸ ἥμισυ τοῦ διδράχμου, ὅ ἐστιν κατὰ τὸ δίδραχμον τὸ ἅγιον·
And this is what they will give, as many as submit themselves to the process of census-taking: the half-didrachma, which is according to the didrachma of the sanctuary.Author’s translation
A careful reading shows the following. In the LXX passage in Exodus a didrachma = shekel in terms of value. The tax assessed per person is a half-shekel or half-didrachma. In the account in the Gospel of Matthew, a shekel = stater (the tax for two people at 1/2 shekel each = 1 shekel). A stater is a coin worth four drachmas, or, two didrachma coins. If we assume the value of a shekel held relatively stable, given that it was defined as a weight of silver, then we have represented here two systems of Greek currency using the same coin names but with quite different values. The prevailing opinion is that the Torah portion of the LXX was translated in or around Alexandria in Egypt sometime in the 300-200s BC. If this is the case, then the didrachma in use in Alexandria at the time was worth 2x the didrachma in use in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Imagine trying to trade currency in such a system. Helps one to appreciate the real problem that was present which necessitated currency trading for the sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem.
Who pays the tax and why it matters
The final observation to make is to track through the text who the “they” are from the beginning of the passage: “When they came to Capernaum.” As you trace the pronouns back, it finally leads to “the disciples” in Mt. 17.19. In Matthew, “disciples” usually refers to the 12, especially in contexts like this where public ministry is not the issue.
Pulling together these various observations, this passage strongly implies something about Jesus’ closest followers: they were teenagers! The tax collectors only seek a payment of the tax from two people of the group of 13 (Jesus plus the 12): Peter and Jesus. This suggests that they were the only two in the group who were over the age of 20.
Of course, there are other ways to read the evidence. Possibly these accounts are not in chronological order and, historically speaking, there was a change of cast between the different events. Though, the closer one gets to the end of each Gospel account, the more strongly chronological they are. It is also possible that some or all of the other disciples were over 20 and had paid their tax already. Given that the collectors of the tax somehow knew Jesus and Peter had not paid the tax, this is a legitimate possibility. Finally, one of the Church Fathers puts forward the interpretation that the tax under discussion here is actually the redemption of the firstborn, rather than the temple tax. While I find this highly unlikely, it is novel and if you are interested in reading the text in Greek, the reference is below.
Weighing all these considerations, we have to at least take very seriously the possibility that all the disciples, with the exception of Peter who is expected to pay the tax, or at the very least a sizable enough group that Matthew treats them all together, were actually under 20 years old! Jesus’ closest followers may not have been like the burly, bearded fellows so often depicted in art. They may have still been working on their first beards!
Reading from the perspective of trying to understand the Gospels in their social and historical context, this passage serves as an interesting corrective to the general picture of Jesus and his followers present in contemporary Western culture. It is a similar “aha” moment to when a reader realizes that Jesus was not white with long, straight, brown hair, but a Palestinian Jewish man.
Reading from within the community of faith, this has worthwhile implications for pondering on the qualifications for being and living as a faithful disciple of Jesus. Especially when you consider that this group formed the core of the early church that emerged in the wake of Jesus’ ministry. Imagining Peter and John and the others standing before the leading council of the nation as a bunch of youngsters makes you think.
 The ESV uses “two-drachma” where I have inserted the coin name “didrachma,” and “shekel” where I have put the coin name “stater.” The Greek text clearly specifies “didrachma” and “stater” here, both of which are Greek coins. The use of “shekel” here by the ESV makes the Old Testament connection much more obvious, but probably obscures the social and historical picture of paying the temple tax with a Greek coin. It is also possible that the names of coins have been adapted to Greco-Roman coinages which approximate the values being paid, though I find this less likely. Not being an expert in coins used in the time, I’m content to just work with what the text actually says.
 This is from Catenae (NovumTestamentum), Catena in Matthaeum (catenaintegra) (ecod.Paris.Coislin.gr. 23) (4102: 001)
“Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum,vol. 1”, Ed.Cramer,J.A.
Oxford: OxfordUniversityPress, 1840, Repr. 1967.
I don’t know which Father is being quoted at the time. The text of interest begins on page 142.