For Christians, the key symbol of the Christmas holiday is the nativity. That iconic scene of animals, angels, Joseph, Mary, and the Wise Men silently adoring the infant Christ in his bed has captured the imagination of believers for nearly eight centuries. But according to some ancient Christian lore, the babe of Bethlehem didn't stay "tender and mild" for long. Apparently, young Christ could be a real terror.
The Bible is notoriously scant on details of Jesus's life between his circumcision at eight days old, flight to Egypt, brief tenure impressing folks at the temple in Jerusalem at age 12, and baptism at 30. Even these events are handled in just a few lines. Early Christian and classical rhetoric scholar Mike Whitenton of Baylor University points out that early Christians were likely underwhelmed by this lack of detail in Jesus's origin story. And that makes sense. This was an era when Greco-Roman biographies of legendary men took great care to outline their heroes' childhoods, foreshadowing their future power.
"[Early Christians] wanted more information about Jesus that [the core biblical] gospels did not provide," adds York University professor of early Christianity Tony Burke, "such as: Why was Mary chosen to be the mother of Jesus? What was he like as a child?"
To address this, early Christians, already busy creating other non-canonical biblical books—think the gnostic gospels and various other apocrypha—recorded or invented a host of stories about Jesus's childhood. Some of the most famous are in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which pops up in the 2nd century AD. Whitenton thinks, based on the language used, that it may have been a direct attempt to continue the stories of baby Jesus found in the canonical Gospel of Luke. Elements of this work were incorporated into other works, like the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, along with additional tales of young Christ. Translations or adaptations of these texts picked up new elements and stories, and even more tales circulated in independent folk traditions.
In some of these tales, young Jesus is a real mensch. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas shows him, between the ages of five and 12, miraculously saving his brother James from a poisonous snake bite, stretching a beam to help his father with some carpentry work, and resurrecting a dead construction worker, among other feats.
But almost as often, Jesus comes off as a dangerous wanker. When the son of a local scribe gets on kid Christ's nerves, Jesus declares that the child should "be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit." So, the kid shrivels up and dies. On another occasion, Jesus curses a child to death after he bumps into him on the street. Rightfully pissed off, the whole community calls upon Joseph to reign Jesus in or get out of town. When Joseph tries to talk with Lil' Jesus about his bad behavior, Jesus tells his father he knows the townspeople are causing him trouble, so he blinds them all. Jesus also gives a number of teachers absolute hell, resurrects a child named Zeno just so Zeno can tell his parents that Jesus didn't kill him, and only revokes some of his curses once a teacher complements him on how smart he is compared to the other students.
At one point, Joseph laments of kid Christ that "all they die that provoke him to wrath."
And that's just one text. In others, Jesus withers the hand of a woman who questions his miracle birth—just after he's been born; climbs a sunbeam, coaxing other children to follow him up, then lets them tumble to their deaths; and turns kids into pigs when their parents hide them from his wrath.
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Clearly, these gospels and other folk stories did not make it into the bible when it was codified in the 4th and 5th centuries by consolidating churches that became state faiths. But according to Burke, this wasn't because stories of Christ's childhood clashed with his reputation.
"The problem for the Infancy [Gospel of] Thomas when it comes to doctrine is that it challenges the Gospel of John's statement that the miracle of the wine at the wedding in Cana was Jesus's first miracle," he says.
Yet while some non-canonical texts fell out of circulation or favor over time, these stories of a sometimes miraculously kind, sometimes dreadful young Jesus hung around for centuries. Burke notes that infancy gospels showed up in dozens upon dozens of manuscripts. And according to the writings of Mary Dzon, a medieval literature expert at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville, many clerics even in that era may not have taught these stories, but permitted them to flourish as useful devotional fictions. As a result, medieval art is rife with references to the miracles performed by kid Christ. Depictions of the good ones are legion, but Dzon notes many instances of his malevolent acts appearing in sacred manuscripts and well-executed art pieces, too.
No one's entirely sure why the ancient Christians developed this Christ to fill the gaps of the core gospels, or why centuries of Christians far and wide perpetuated this image rather than significantly tweaking or abandoning it. Burke suggests these stories were meant to show Jesus's divinity through displays of blessing and curses common in ancient literature—think God in the Old Testament. Brandon Hawk, a medieval literature expert at Rhode Island College working on a translation of one of the infancy gospels, notes that medieval people might not even have seen these acts as vengeful curses, but responses to what might be seen as legitimate insults against God. Hawk adds that the people Jesus cursed and berated are clearly meant to be doubting Jews.
"The unwillingness of the Jewish characters to recognize Jesus as Christ, or to understand his miracles," says Hawk, "is thus meant to defame them."
Others go in the opposite direction, suggesting this image of Christ was initially uncomfortable for many—and that it may have been written by opponents seeking to undermine the young faith, but was reinterpreted and absorbed by the movement, putting a positive spin on common tales.
Dzon suggests that medieval folk especially may have seen a reflection in these stories of their own view of children: as irascible not-quite-adults. In this reading, Jesus is humanized by the stories—transformed into a growing being learning to control his powers and his human self.
"I've argued that the strange behavior... is attributable to what we might think of as 'growing pains,'" adds Whitenton, suggesting the narratives show his moral development into a man.
Some or all or none of this might be true. It's likely that the appeal and meaning of the stories shifted from their original rhetorical intent with age and distance, varying by time and place. But regardless of the context, as Hawk points out, "these stories probably captivated medieval people for the same reasons they captivate us today: They're entertaining." Modern readers rarely get to engage with these entertaining stories, though, in no small part because of Martin Luther and company.
"Infancy gospels began to lose interest [to] Western Europe during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation," says Hawk. "Protestants began to reject it for its non-canonical status, and especially for its associations with the veneration of Mary [and] Catholics wishing to implement their own reforms also called for a return to the Bible... Apocrypha were left behind in these debates about the Bible, doctrine, and [other] theological points."
The tales lived on in some cultures—apparently some Coptic Christians still tell variations of these stories today—just not in the West. Elements of other apocryphal stories thrive among European Christians and their New World spawn, but Burke points out that often what survived was already part of established festivals or similar institutions. Without that, the stories in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and many narratives parallel to it slowly withered away by institutional marginalization.
That doesn't mean modern Americans don't have the same impulses that created this impulsive, violent young Jesus. Our culture still loves apocryphal views of Christ, take Martin Scorsese's 1998 The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ. We still want to know what young Christ might have been up to, as seen in this year's bible drama The Young Messiah. And we still love to humanize and reinterpret Christ in ways that range from the thoughtful to the absurd.
While modern man has brought the world tales of Jesus as bizarre and violent as 2001's Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (watch at your peril), not even this irreverent and experimental age has come up with stories quite as theologically dense, narratively amusing, and morally disconcerting as the early Christians' views of the young Jesus, asleep in his crib, but ready to unleash his blessings and wrath on the world as soon as he wakes up.
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