We should always remember that only one part of Jesus’ calling and training of disciples was unique – the calling. In Judaism of the first century many rabbis or teachers taught students and trained them to be rabbis like themselves. The major difference was that young men wanting to be taught in this way usually sought out a teacher. Jesus, on the other hand, directly called his students himself – something he stressed in his teaching (John 15:16).
But apart from this aspect of “student selection” Jesus’ role as a rabbi or teacher was not unusual for its time and it is worth remembering that most students selected by rabbis were younger – commonly in their later teens. It is perfectly possible, therefore, that a number of Jesus’ disciples were younger than we usually presume and there is some biblical indication that this might have been the case.
The apostle John is known to have lived till very late in the first century, but while we presume he was perhaps younger than the others we should remember that the other disciples seem to have been martyred earlier in the century – very possibly well before they would normally have died.
Also, consider the interesting story regarding the occasion Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum and the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” Jesus then told Peter to catch a fish – which miraculously had a four-drachma coin in its mouth – and to pay the tax for Jesus and for himself (Matthew 17:24-27). It might seem odd that Jesus only provided the tax money for Peter and himself and not for the other disciples – until we realize that the tax only had to be paid by those aged 20 and above.
So it is possible that Peter alone of the disciples was older – a possibility which may throw light on the fact that Peter seems always to be the one who speaks for the other disciples Acts 2:14-36, etc.), why he is the only disciple said to be married at the time of Christs’ ministry (Matthew 8:14-17, etc.) and why he was given such a prominent role in the period of the very early Church (Galatians 2:9).
If many of the disciples were in fact younger than we often think, this would have had no bearing on their ability to act as witnesses of the resurrection. Jewish law accepted the witness of young men down to the age of bar mitzvah which usually was in the early teens.
Ultimately, the age of the disciples does not matter or we would have been told what age they were. On the other hand, recognizing the possibility of the relative youth of most of Jesus’ chosen followers can help us understand some things that might otherwise seem unclear in the New Testament.
But returning to how young Jews became students of a rabbi, it is helpful to remember that young men did not simply turn up at a rabbi’s door and expect to be taught. There were relatively few rabbis and many young men. Those who sought out a rabbi to follow were examined and tested by the older teacher and only a select few were chosen. Being selected to follow a rabbi and to continue his teaching was viewed as an exceptional honor in that society – perhaps indicating why we are told many of the disciples Jesus chose dropped everything they were doing and followed him immediately (Matthew 4:18-22).
Maybe there is a lesson in this for us today. Whatever the age of Jesus’ disciples at their calling, it is certain that the opportunity would have been regarded as a great honor and privilege – to be one of so few selected from so many. Perhaps, in terms of our own lives and calling, that is something we need to remind ourselves of more often.