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A Different Interpretation of the Mischievous Boy, Jesus

I have decided that I can’t simply post yesterday’s blast from the past about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and leave it at that, since the way we today tend to read the account (where Jesus seems, to our eyes, to be a Super-Brat) may not be the way it was read in antiquity (believe it or not!).  So here is the post that I wrote to explain that, when I first dealt with the matter three years ago.


I had a great time giving my lectures at the Smithsonian yesterday. Terrific crowd, very attentive, highly intelligent, great questions. And a completely exhausting day. Four lectures back to back is tough. So I came back to my room and did football, pizza, and beer all night, which was just what the doctor ordered. (I am a Dr., after all)

The first lecture, as I indicated in my previous post, was on the Infancy Gospels, or at least on two of them, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James (Protevangelium Jacobi). I have already summarized some of the stories of the Infancy Gospel, and have pointed out the obvious, that on a casual reading Jesus certainly seems to be a bit of a brat. Or at least a miracle-working son of God who as an immature boy does not seem to have his powers under control and behaves with a real mischievous streak.

But I also indicated that there are scholars who call that understanding of the text into question. I’m not sure that includes the majority of scholars, but I do (personally) think it includes the most thoughtful ones. I myself used to think that this was the Gospel of Jesus the Superbrat; but now I don’t think so. Frankly, even though the stories seem very amusing and entertaining to us, I now don’t think ancient Christian readers (most of whom were not known for their sense of humor) would have seen them in this way. My bet now is that the earliest readers of these accounts took them very seriously. And what they saw was that they bespoke important things about Jesus.

A bit of background. The genre “biography” was alive and well in Greek and Roman antiquity (biographies were called “bioi,” literally meaning “Lives”). We have a bunch from Plutarch, for example, and Suetonius and … others. They are instructive reading. I should stress as strongly as I can – emphatically (just to be redundant) – that ancient biographies were NOT like modern ones in numerous ways, and for lots of reasons. One of the most obvious is that ancient biographers simply didn’t have access to the sorts of resources and data on their subjects that modern writers do, and so simply could not provide the kinds of in-depth and reliable analysis that is possible today.

One less obvious reason is that ancient biographers didn’t have the psychological insights that modern authors do, especially in our post-Freudian age. Ancient people understood the human character differently from us, and among other things they did not believe in such things as character development in quite the same way as we do. Ancient biographers were not much interested in “formative influences” on a person’s character. Instead, they tended to think that a person’s character was given at birth, and the events that happened early in a person’s life, rather than being challenges and experiences and influences that could shape their personalities were *instead* opportunities for a person to “manifest” his/her personality. And so when ancient biographers told stories about a person’s youth, it was normally in order to show the person’s character already at this early point in his/her life.

One less obvious reason is that…

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  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 10, 2016

    I don’t entirely disagree with the ancients–much of our character is shaped by inherent traits we are born with. Personality is not just something that gets programmed into us as we mature. Nature plays as least as important a role as nurture.

    Anyway, Christianity was and is an evangelistic religion. It is a Christian belief that becoming a Christian makes you a better person–that it develops your character in a positive way. Paul went from being a persecutor of Christians to one of the two or three most important Christian evangelists. How many saints, we are told, began as terrible sinners–Augustine, most famously, but so many others, like Francis of Assisi.

    This is not really something you see much of before this general time period. Buddhists also believed that embracing certain beliefs and practices could lead to an improvement of the person. But for most ancients, your religion is something you’re born with, and take more or less for granted.

    So Christians began to believe in nurture, as well as nature–and they believed that important changes in a person could happen well into adulthood, basically that for as long as a person lived, it wasn’t too late to change. They began to believe character was something improvable, if not necessarily perfectible. This may have been one of their most profound influences on world culture. The notion that you could have a second birth, renounce your past, start afresh with new beliefs and behaviors. Repent your past life, and start a new one.

    When people talk today about ‘reinventing’ themselves–how much of that might have come from the revolution in the understanding of selfhood that began, in part, with Christianity?

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  December 10, 2016

    “He was coming back from heaven, this time very angry indeed, and in his wrath he would destroy all who were opposed to him.”

    This certainly isn’t unique to Jesus. This is precisely what most apocalyptic Jews believed the Messiah would do. (John the Baptist’s metaphor of a tree with an axe at its base, ready to be felled and tossed in the fire, represents this belief.) The fact that Jesus didn’t do this the first time around is why the vast majority of Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah, and why Jews continue to reject Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    screwtape  December 10, 2016

    Is there a book in the Old Testament where Yahweh isn’t either killing someone or talking about doing it? So in the infancy narrative wouldn’t it also be a case of like father, like son?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2016

      Ha! Well, lots of books. But yes, I see what you mean!

  4. John4
    John4  December 10, 2016

    You wrote, Bart, the following:
    “Ancient biographers were not much interested in “formative influences” on a person’s character. Instead, they tended to think that a person’s character was given at birth, and the events that happened early in a person’s life, rather than being challenges and experiences and influences that could shape their personalities were *instead* opportunities for a person to “manifest” his/her personality. And so when ancient biographers told stories about a person’s youth, it was normally in order to show the person’s character already at this early point in his/her life.”

    Reading this made me think that perhaps Parson Weems was so thoroughly steeped in ancient biography that its influence prompted his alleged invention of the famous tale of George Washington and the cherry tree.

    Many thanks, Bart! 🙂


    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2016

      Right! I use the Parson Weems cherry tree story to explain to students that a story can be “true” (in the eyes of teller and hearer) even if it didn’t happen.

  5. Avatar
    tennis4all  December 10, 2016

    Was Yeshua fully human from birth to death? Who gave him his mindset and motivation while living on this earth? D

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2016

      Are you asking my theological opinion? Yes, Jesus was human. That too is the view of the writers of the New Testament, even among those who thought he was also divine.

  6. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  December 11, 2016

    Dr Ehrman


    my question is, who said it first? different rabbis have sayings attributed to them, but jesus has all of them attributed to him in the NT

    my question about the teachings of the pharisees: would the talmud be more reliable than the NT?

    mishna, gemera and talmud…..are the copies of these writings as late as nt manuscripts? for example, you said that between marks original and first available copy there is a gap of 300 years. is this the similar problem with jewish INTERPRETATIONS of the torah?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 11, 2016

    Actually, when I was reading the previous blog, I was wondering how ancient readers would have viewed such an infancy Gospel and you have given a good answer. Thanks!

  8. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 11, 2016

    My reaction to the stories is that it shows an immature version of Jesus the adult. Jesus had these powers as a child but needed parenting/guidance/education/discipline/time/just growing up in order to control and use them properly. Without ignoring his threats to those who would not repent and follow God’s law (of love), certainly there are differences and change and development between Jesus the child and as he is portrayed in the canonical gospels.

    But maybe the above is more of a modern-day interpretation. As you say, the child Jesus does not seem very receptive to discipline and education. But I still don’t understand the point of the brattiness except as immaturity. Are you maybe suggesting that people at the time may have understood the child Jesus as being more or less completely in the right in doing these things rather than as being immature as we might?

    • Avatar
      clipper9422@yahoo.com  December 11, 2016

      I reread your post and realized I mostly just repeated what you’d already said. (At least it shows I read it.)

      Though probably present as a theme in all the early versions of Christianity, was an emphasis on Jesus’s future wrath more characteristic of some versions than others? Are there some early Christian writings (both canonical and non-canonical) that share this emphasis more than others? Or does this emphasis perhaps reflect a certain period in the development of Christianity?

      I’m trying to fit this theme of Jesus’s future wrath, so strongly emphasized in the Infancy Gospel, into a broader context. Right now this Gospel seems to me to just kind of stand there by itself. Even though its theme is present in many other early Christian writings, its one-sided emphasis makes this gospel seem unusual.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 12, 2016

        Yes, some versions of Christianity have absolutely stressed the wrath of God and Jesus more than others.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2016

      Yes, that’s what I”m suggesting.

  9. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 11, 2016

    So true . In nearly all evangelical messages today it’s about how much Jesus loves us. But they never mention Jesus’ clear message about the vengeance and wrath coming on those who do not convert.
    I’m going to start mentioning that to my fundamentalist friends.

  10. Avatar
    esluss  December 12, 2016

    Hi Bart,

    I am not commenting on this post but to your perennial question about how to make more money.

    You could find a partner blogger who writes as well as you do whose speciality is different but still the same general category so that there is a posting every day.

    Another idea is to do more aggregation – have another person scour the internet for news or interesring articles on early Christian or Biblical history and provide links to the articles. Possibly make brief comments on the articles.

    Once again the idea is to have new material everday.

  11. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  December 12, 2016

    I’ve a wonderful 1 panel graphic/cartoon (no naughty words or images) which encapsulates the apocalyptic dies irae, dies illa (comin’ to getcha) ideology (Christian version), per the blog entry, precisely. To my non-surprise, can’t paste it in this field. Oh well.
    Read the text of the requiem, the ‘Sequentia’ specifically, for an understanding of what all sinners are. My favorites:
    Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
    Culpa rubet vultus meus:
    Supplicanti parce, Deus.
    meaning, essentially, I groan so much with guilt, my face is red, spare me, god

    And a bit later on:
    Inter oves locum præsta.
    Et ab hædis me sequestra,
    Statuens in parte dextra.
    Meaning, essentially, herd me with the sheep, not with the goats so I can stay on your right side (i.e., not be sinister) Matthew 25:31

    But what Verdi does this text: HEAVEN!!!

  12. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 12, 2016

    “….most early Christians believed….that Jesus was going to curse/harm/kill people.” that he “was coming back from heaven, this time very angry indeed, and in his wrath he would destroy all who were opposed to him. ”
    Would you please you cite, if you can off the top of your head, some NT verses or chapters which express this anticipation of Jesus’ wrath?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2016

      Read the opening chapter of 2 Thessalonians! (or the book of Revelation)

  13. Avatar
    mwbaugh  December 12, 2016

    I noticed a comment by a Muslim reader on your Facebook page that said something i’ve wondered about before. He said that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is biographically correct because it agrees with the Hadiths. As I understand it, this is a historical tension between Islam and Christianity. Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet but their accounts of his life reflect the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James rather than the canonic Gospels. I’ve never heard why this is. I assume it’s because the Christians in Mecca at the time of Mohammed only knew Thomas and James, but that’s just a guess. Do you know?

    I was also wondering about Thomas and James in a literary sense. They seem less realistic to me than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What I mean by that is that, while all these writings contain miracle stories, Thomas and James seem to emphasize them more. They also seem to me to have fewer touchstones to historical people, places, and events.

    Is this a fair assessment? If so, what does it tell us about communities that preferred these stories?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 13, 2016

      Yes, I agree with your view.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 14, 2016

      The Hadith texts disagree with each other, even as the gospels do, so agreeing with one or several of them proves nothing. Muhammad believed many things that were clearly wrong, just as Jesus did, but the Hadiths aren’t even the word of Muhammad. It’s a tragedy for Islam that these books were written, and then believed in.

  14. TWood
    TWood  December 13, 2016

    Are there any other religious people (who actually existed) who made claims (through their followers) after they died—a claim that radically changed their religion? For example, Muhammad and Joseph Smith, so far as I know, never made any new claims to Ali and Brigham Young about Islam and Mormonism after they died. Yet Jesus is said to have made claims (like his being alive) to his followers pretty much right after he died. So I’m wondering if such a post-death revelation was ever claimed by other groups about their dead leaders… I realize you don’t believe Jesus actually appeared to the disciples and to Paul… but they thought he did… that part is sure it seems to me… and yet multiple people said Jesus himself revealed new truth to them after he died… is this a unique claim among the major religions of history?

  15. Avatar
    Eric  December 14, 2016

    I’ve read synopses of the Infancy Gospel many times (mostly yours). for the first time I get the “foreshadowing” of the vengeance aspect.

    Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw once back in the 70s as a kid:

    “Jesus is coming….and boy is He pissed!”

  16. Avatar
    Steven  December 18, 2016

    The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which partially comprises the Apocrypha has always been a fascinating yarn of fantasy telling to read. Somewhat reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

  17. Avatar
    Smiling_Monk  December 23, 2016

    very interesting! are the videos of these Smithsonian talks available in public domain?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2016

      I’m afraid they never videotape the lectures! They are lost to history….

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