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Jesus as a Boy? The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This coming week in my graduate seminar we will be discussing the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Do you know it?  Fantastic book! I often get asked which non-canonical book would I include in the New Testament if I were given the choice.  I sometimes mischievously answer, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

“Mischievously” is an appropriate term.  This is a set of legendary stories about Jesus as a child, starting when he was five and going up to twelve, ending with the story found (only) in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus as a twelve-year old in the Temple discussing the Law with Jewish teachers (the unknown author of Infancy Thomas got the story from Luke).  Many of the stories do seem to portray him in a mischievous light, especially to modern readers.  Is this Jesus the Super Brat?  Many readers (especially the first time through) think so.  Others argue there are more serious things going on.

There were probably a number of reasons for someone to write this book.  In part, of course, it was to satisfy curiosity – If Jesus was the miracle working Son of God as an adult, what was he like as a kid?   Partly possibly it was for Christian entertainment (as we find today: Christian novels, Christian rock, and so on).   But maybe there were other things.  See what you think.

I’ve included only the first bit of the Gospel here to titillate.   As you will see (in case you wondered) this Gospel has no relation to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (the so-called “Gnostic” Gospel discovered near Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945), except that the same person allegedly wrote it, Jesus’ brother Judas Thomas.  It’s hard to know when it was actually produced, but usually it is dated to the mid second century.  You can find a full translation with an introduction in the book I co-produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels.

So, this is how it starts.

 

 

 

Tales of the Israelite Philosopher Thomas, Concerning the Childhood Activities of the Lord

(The Infancy Gospel of Thomas)

 

 

1

I, Thomas the Israelite, make this report to all of you, my brothers among the Gentiles, that you may know the magnificent childhood activities of our Lord Jesus Christ — all that he did after being born in our country.  The beginning is as follows:

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The Earliest Infancy Gospel: Some of the Critical Problems
My Early Christian Apocrypha Seminar

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  September 4, 2020

    John Prine I think had it closest in the “ missing years” song

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Ah, I didn’t get turned on to him tell a couple of years ago. Genius.

  2. Avatar
    Seawife  September 4, 2020

    This is just insane.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  September 5, 2020

    What does “the child became withered” mean in this context? Some kind of crippling? Lame? Dead?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Some kind of crippling apparently, since he seems still to be alive.

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  September 5, 2020

    Is the description of Alpha supposed to be an allegory for the trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      Almost certainly not. In the mid-second century no one had a doctrine of the triniyt yet.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  September 6, 2020

        But there was still some ideas about a trinity around.
        The mystery of the Alpha is divided into three equal parts, each of them fundamental and foundational, of equal length.
        The passage is intentionally difficult to understand. It would be a bit of a coincidence if it was about the trinity.

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  September 5, 2020

    Isn’t the author of this gospel merely using the character of the juvenile (delinquent) Jesus to vent and get off his chest some grievances or irritations (real or imagined) against one or several of his contemporaries? Has scholarship anything to say about this idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      He doesn’t seem to be targeting any group of “heretics” or other “Christain enemies”. But see today’s post for other explanations.

  6. Avatar
    Eskil  September 5, 2020

    Do you think that Judas Thomas as twin brother and Mary of Magdala as partner of Jesus pass the tests for historical authenticity? Both facts fulfil the multiple attestation and embarrassment criterion, right?
    For example,
    Gospel of Philip: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”
    Gospel of Mary: “Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.”
    Why would later Christians or even Gnostics invited such stories if they weren’t facts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      No, I think in fact there were Christian groups (in Syria) who were invested in Jesus haveing a twin brother Thomas; and not even the Gospels of Mary and Philip indicate that Jesus and Mary were lovers. Jesus may have loved Peter more than the other men disciples, but that doesn’t mean they were lovers.

  7. Avatar
    Zak1010  September 5, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    There are other legendary stories describing the opposite. That Jesus was not so special and a fake. However, in reading this non – canonical book, one can not overlook that this author and comments made by others in the second and third person, were monotheists and believed Jesus to have a special status and occupy a higher rank than them.
    examples:
    –And you’ll call his name Jesus, because he’ll save his people from their sins.
    –greet him with a blessing and to glorify the Most High God
    — I was glorifying the Lord God, who gave me the wisdom
    — grace will be with all who fear the Lord.
    — You’ll conceive from God’s word.”

    So would you not describes these folks as Judeo-Christian? Or later Ebionites?
    The stories in this book are similar to stories in the Quran. Any thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2020

      I’d say the vast majority of Christians have alwasy thought Jesus was a special person, divine in some sense, but claimed there was only one God — not just the Jewish-Christians/Ebionites.

  8. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  September 5, 2020

    It IS a little hard to imagine Jesus as an infant or young boy, on the assumption that he was GOD, as in an equal partner in the Trinity. You’d have to assume that he never, ever, was actually in any way like a normal child, or like a child at all. A tantrum could have destroyed the world. Who would dare to discipline him? He must not have needed discipline. He must not ever have lacked control or understanding of who and what he was. An ordinary child might throw a toy or go through “terrible twos”. An infant with Godly power would be frightening. I’m reminded of a certain classic Twilight Zone episode– I wonder whether theists have thought this through?? Or maybe you’d have to suppose that the powers of God didn’t emerge until Jesus was “mature”. But then you’re simply making things up. Too bizarre.

  9. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  September 5, 2020

    [In the Qur’an] the miracle of creating birds from clay and breathing life into them when a child is mentioned in al-Imran (3) 43, 49 and al-Maida (5) 109–110 … the same narrative is found in at least two pre-Islamic sources: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Jewish Toledot Yeshu, with few variant details between the Quran and these two sources. (Wikipedia)

    This information gives weight to the theory that much Quranic material was gathered from contemporary non-orthodox Christian and Jewish sources and was not, as Muslims have been led to believe, divinely inspired.

  10. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  September 5, 2020

    As an un-scholar in this field,, ,,, I can not see much Gnostic in this gospel. I do not get much out of this, except that this must be some compiled oral?? myths related to this emerging new Christianity at the time.

    This (perhaps) compiled myth story) must be an attempt to fill a gap in this Jesus story, an attempt to empathize the godly powers, of Jesus, perhaps in a more Hellenistic “superhero” tradition.

    I read it a long time ago ,,,,,,,,, and now. It’s at least fun to read 🙂 ,,,,,,,, but other than that,,,,,,,, I’m EMPTY.

  11. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  September 6, 2020

    Isn’t it odd that this gospel has Jesus speaking in great detail especially about the Alpha, and to a lesser degree the omega?

    Would a poor Jewish kid in rural Galilee have this level of knowledge of Greek? Would the people he was speaking to have it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2020

      No, almost certainly not. That’s one reason for thinking the account is legendary (as everyone agrees).

  12. Avatar
    moose  September 7, 2020

    Gospel of Thomas: When this child Jesus was five years old…

    It seems to me that the five-year-old Jesus is a reference to the fifth day of creation.

    Genesis 1:20-23 «And God said, Let the waters bring forth reptiles having life, and winged creatures flying above the earth in the firmament of heaven, and it was so. 21 And God made great whales, and every living reptile, which the waters brought forth according to their kinds, and every creature that flies with wings according to its kind, and God saw that they were good. 22 And God blessed them saying, Increase and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the creatures that fly be multiplied on the earth. 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

    • Avatar
      moose  September 7, 2020

      On the fifth day of creation, the Lord had created a lot of animals that the Jewish law later considered unclean.

      This may have been the theological explanation for the story of the conflict between Jesus and the arch-Jew Annas – in fact, he is the same Annas that we find as high priest in the story of Jesus’ suffering.

    • Avatar
      moose  September 8, 2020

      On the sixth day of creation, the Lord created man in his own image. «God formed the man [of] dust of the earth, and breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul».

      The Gospel of Thomas: And when He was six years old, His mother gave Him a pitcher, and sent Him to draw water, and bring it into the house. But He struck against some one in the crowd, and the pitcher was broken. And Jesus unfolded the cloak which He had on, and filled it with water, and carried it to His mother.

      His own cloak was filled with water when he was six years old. This may be a way of telling that his own image was filled by the Holy Spirit on the sixth day.

  13. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  September 7, 2020

    I suppose there are some resonances with the film The Omen, which had the Antichrist as a young child protected by demonic dogs and clearly more than just an ordinary child. I wonder whether the script writers of that movie had read (or knew of) the Infancy gospel of Thomas?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 9, 2020

      I very much doubt it. But if so, I’d love to know!

      • Avatar
        graceanna  September 11, 2020

        I was forced to think of a prequel to “X-Men” instead of “The Omen.” Superpowers without the control expected later in life and the opportunities to use this strength for good or evil. It seems shocking to think of Jesus this way, but he’s seen as the son of God and God can seem mean and unpredictable then and now. I need to read more!

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