When Jesus was five he killed a boy, or so reports the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. A little boy had run into Jesus by accident, bumping him on the shoulder, and Jesus took offense: "Jesus was angry and said to him, 'You shall go no further on your way,' and instantly the boy fell down and died." A second story recounts how Jesus transformed mud into living birds, while yet another has Joseph telling Mary to keep Jesus in the house so that no one else gets hurt. What was life really like in the household of Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus? The canon of the New Testament provides few details, but ancient Christians, wanting to know more, would turn to the texts we know as the "Infancy Gospels."
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a collection of stories from the mid-second century C.E. describing events in the life of Jesus between the ages of five and twelve. The Proto-gospel of James, also dating from the second century, focuses on Mary and likewise includes episodes from her childhood. These gospels are often cast aside as marginal character sketches, designed to assure the faithful that signs of divine grace cropped up in the early years of both Mary and Jesus. Christopher A. Frilingos contends instead that the accounts are best viewed as meditations on family. Both gospels offer rich portrayals of household relationships at a time when ancient Christians were locked in a fierce debate about family—not only on the question of what a Christian family ought to look like but also on whether Christians should pursue family life at all.
Describing the conflicts of family life, the gospels present Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in moments of weakness and strength, reminding early Christians of the canyon separating human ignorance and divine knowledge. According to Frilingos, the depicted acts of love and courage performed in the face of great uncertainty taught early Christian readers the worth of human relationships.
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Isn't home the place where we truly know others and where, in turn, others know us? No, is the surprising answer in a pair of unusual early Christian gospels. The extracanonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protogospel of James depict the home life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a scene of misunderstanding and confusion. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas recounts the unruly childhood of Jesus. The Protogospel of James revolves around Mary—her birth and youth, how she met Joseph, and how the pair coped with an unexpected pregnancy.
Since the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protogospel of James are not included in the Christian New Testament, they remain unknown to most modern readers. Even so, readers today may recognize something familiar in stories about the early family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Consider the frontispiece of the 1926 painting of Max Ernst, "The Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses." A glance and the floodgates open: Was Jesus ever naughty? Did Mary spank him? What was it like to parent such an extraordinary child? Like the witnesses peering through the window, we want to know more. The same was true for ancient Christians. They asked the same questions and wondered about the same things. The family gospels allow us to peek inside the early Christian imagination.
The second-century authors of the Infancy Gospel and the Protogospel of James pushed into spaces left open by the first-century gospels of the New Testament. While the New Testament does not describe the childhood education of Jesus, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas does. In its pages, Joseph tries to find a suitable tutor, only to look on in despair as Jesus humiliates one teacher and harms another. And while the New Testament does not reveal how Mary met Joseph, the Protogospel of James does. Chosen by lot, an elderly, reluctant Joseph weds (or perhaps does not wed) a twelve-year-old virgin.
As these examples indicate, there is much more to the family gospels than additional stories about Jesus and Mary. When taken as simple expansions of earlier accounts, the family aspect of the family gospels is lost. For example, my favorite story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas concerns not only Jesus but also his parents, Mary and Joseph, as they struggle to deal with their precocious offspring. Joseph, determined to educate the boy, hands Jesus over to a teacher. Jesus sasses off, putting in motion a series of events: the teacher strikes Jesus, Jesus curses the teacher, and the teacher falls to the ground, unconscious. Afterward, Joseph takes extreme measures: "And Joseph called his mother and commanded her not to let him out of the house so that those who make him angry may not die." Joseph has had enough, and Mary may feel the same way. Most studies of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas have focused on the behavior of the child Jesus. But I think that the angst of the parents is equally important. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not a one-person play. It, like the Protgospel of James, is a family drama—an important difference.
Amid a surge of interest in so-called apocryphal gospels, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protogospel of James remain mere curiosities. Like all apocryphal gospels, biblical writings that never reached full "biblical-hood," they represent paths not taken by the religion. Today, more and more readers are heading down some of these paths. Since at least the 1940s and the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, a majority of scholars of early Christianity have come to recognize, even delight in, the vitality and diversity of the religion. For all of this excitement, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protogospel of James have yet to amass a sizable readership among members of the public. On its own, the failure to thrive does not count for much. In the case of these so-called infancy gospels, however, the lack of interest in the public arena can be explained, at least in part, by the persistent disregard of these accounts in the field of early Christianity. This does not mean that they lack for serious attention among a subfield of dedicated specialists. Rather, it is that this attention has failed to capture the imagination—not only of the public but also of scholars across the discipline. When the history and literature of the New Testament and early Christianity are presented on the scholarly stage, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-gospel of James are rarely cast in a supporting role.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph attaches the family gospels to major arteries in the field of early Christianity. The galvanizing work of Peter Brown in Body and Society (1988), Averil Cameron in Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire (1991), Judith Perkins in The Suffering Self (1995), and Kate Cooper in The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (1996) illustrated the importance of images of family life in early Christian storytelling. Some accounts feature apostles preaching sexual renunciation to upper-class families. Others describe the choice of martyrs to reject their biological families, to stand instead with their religious brothers and sisters. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protogospel of James, like early Christian accounts of apostles and martyrs, are part of a debate over the meaning of family, society, and truth that set fire to the ancient Mediterranean world for centuries. What matters most is what hits close to home.
Table of Contents
A Note on Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Family Matters
Chapter 2. Made You Look
Chapter 3. Wanting What's Best
Chapter 4. Carnal Ignorance
Chapter 5. Parents Just Don't Understand
Afterword. Together Again