In a number of places, we hear about the myth of the teenager: secular articles, interviews, and articles from a Christian world view. You can even find a few books on the subject if you are so inclined.
When I taught freshman college English, I had the opportunity to compare papers written by first-year students in a variety of ages: some still seventeen, some as old as twenty-five. I was intrigued by the difference in quality of writing between an eighteen-year old and a twenty-one year old. It’s not that what the older students wrote about was any better. Bright students of all ages come up with skillful and creative ways of expressing themselves. Some students were clearly better prepared than others in their high school education. What I noticed was a difference in their ability to reason through novel problems (repeating arguments against evolution or abortion doesn’t count). The older students reasoned better, their arguments matched their theses better, and their ability to comprehend their sources was better.
Of course, greater experience or time in the “adult world” surely could account for some of this difference. But then, I also consider the difference between an eighteen year old in a militantly secular humanities college course, and a twenty-five year old in the same course. I’m relatively young, but I have seen a difference between how just a few years makes a significant difference in the response to philosophy and values that undermine one’s faith. I’ve shared my concerns with parents, and I’ve had many respond with assurances that they teach their high school students to confront the error they will receive in a secular college. They graduate from high school armed with knowledge of rhetoric and logic, steeled with all the nuances of creationism their parents could dig up, and a fair knowledge of the Bible, too (sometimes gained simply by years of Bible Quiz team competitions, but others genuinely gained through a personal relationship with Christ). In spite of all these advantages, I’ve seen brilliant students harmed, not because they didn’t have the right knowledge, but because they were not able to meet the cognitive maturity of a teacher who knew all their arguments and could wield them with much more skill. The problem, from my perspective, was not a lack of knowledge, but an immaturity of reasoning that seems wholly separate from the method of instruction in high school.
At the same time, I’ve heard well-meaning Bible teachers and parents (those whom I respect greatly) say something like “There is no such thing as a teenager.” I think they’re saying that the word is made up, that those in the 13-20 age group are capable of great and mature acts, and that a period of rebellion is not inevitable calamity in every godly household. I agree with all of these things, but I am concerned that in addressing errors, we have overstated our case. We have dissolved youth groups and even some children’s ministry on this premise. We have advocated that humans between the age of 13 and 20 be treated the same as an adult (sometimes. but at other times we take it back).
All that is background. I’ve been considering biblical support about the nature of childhood and adulthood. I’ve heard a lot of unsubstantiated, uncited evidence about these ages and stages. I’ve heard that a Jewish boy at age 13 was considered a man with all the rights and responsibilities thereunto. We hear about Jesus asking and answering questions in the synagogue at age twelve. And other variants of these ideas show up from time to time. On the other hand, I have heard a number of times that Jewish 13 year olds were not allowed to read Song of Solomon until they were in their twenties. That seems to contradict the idea that from bar mitzvah the “boy” has become a “man.” Obviously our definitions need sharpening.
But as I read through the first five books of the law, I’m again intrigued by all the references to age, which would seem to contradict the “13 is an adult” idea. Here are two passages that I read today.
And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,
2Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;
3From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
Here’s another one:
And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
27How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me.
28Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the LORD, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you:
29Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me.
30Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.
31But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.
32But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness.
Everyone included among those who are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the Lord. Exodus 30:14