After the sobering topic covered in my previous post, this will be a short and hopefully light-hearted post covering what some early Christians supposed that the child Jesus was like. Having recently gone to Christmas Eve Mass this year, where parishioners fawned over their children dressed as donkeys and angels and gazed devotionally at the porcelain baby Jesus in his crib, I too have reflected on the baby Jesus… and how he blessed a palm tree branch so it could enter Paradise!1 As most people know, there is a noticeable gap in the Canonical Gospels between the baby Jesus and the adult Jesus ready to be baptised by John.2 The non-canonical Infancy Gospels (IGs) filled in the gap for early Christians and they are entertaining reading!

1. The Infancy Gospels (IGs)

The first Christians were normal people who had the same desire to be entertained as we do today, just in the days before the Wii, Netflix and iTunes. Storytelling was possibly the top ancient pastime, particularly because it was free; anyone could have a go at it. Many other ancient religions contained brilliant stories of what their gods and demi-gods did before they attained adulthood,3 so early converts to Christianity came up with miracles that they imagined their god-man, Jesus, would have performed in his infancy. Fortunately, these stories were written down and many of them are entertaining.

The major ones are:

(IGJ) Infancy Gospel (a.k.a. Protoevangelium) of James [c. 145 CE]4 – Seemingly the earliest source for the Catholic and Orthodox dogma of the ‘Perpetual Virginity of Mary’ (PVM), i.e. the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin not only before the birth of Jesus but afterwards as well. Its earliest manuscript is from the 3rd century CE, though the majority of them come after the 10th century CE.

(IGT) Infancy Gospel of Thomas [c. 155 CE] – Gives many miraculous stories of Jesus’s childhood, portraying him much like the ‘trickster god-child’ type in Greek myths. It clearly borrows from the Synoptic Gospels, e.g. the account of the boy Jesus in the Temple presented in Luke’s Gospel (2:41-52). Its earliest manuscript is an abbreviated 6th-century Syriac version, while the later ones come after the 13th century CE.

(AIG) Arabic (a.k.a. Syriac) Infancy Gospel [5th or 6th century CE]5 – An amalgamation of the IGs of “James” and “Thomas” plus some local tales concerning the Flight to Egypt.

(HJC) History of Joseph the Carpenter [c. 550-650 CE]6 – Over half of this text is devoted to an exceedingly long Hollywood-esque death scene for Joseph; it also asserts that he died at 111 years, bested only by Bilbo Baggins and a host of (mainly Antediluvian) folk. Plus, we are informed that he had six children by a former wife in order to justify Mary’s virginity both before and after Jesus’s birth (i.e. the PVM), in spite of the fact that Jesus had brothers in the canonical gospels.

(GPM) Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (a.k.a. Infancy Gospel of Matthew) [c. 600-625 CE]7 – As with the AIG, Pseudo-Matthew draws on the IGs of “James” and “Thomas”. It also features the first known reference to an ox and a donkey at the birth of Jesus.

2. Some Fun Stories from the IGs

Mary’s Virginity and Salome’s Withered Hand

As mentioned above, the IGJ is our earliest source for the doctrine of the PVM, held by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.8 The clearest concern of the document is to proclaim Mary‘s virginity; we are told that Mary was a consecrated temple virgin.9 Furthermore, the author even has us believe that the High Priest accused Joseph of impregnating her before they were married. Accordingly, the High Priest then forced Mary to undergo the bitter ‘drink of the water of the conviction of the Lord’ in order to prove her sin (16:1-8; c.f. Numbers 5:11-31).

Even more bizarrely, Salome, one of the women present at the Crucifixion according to Mark, actually tests Mary’s virginity with her own finger!10 Because of her scepticism of Mary’s virginity, her hand starts to burn and wither, yet luckily for Salome, one touch of the infant Jesus is enough to restore the hand.11

Another reasonable inference one could make from the IGJ is that Mary’s mother, Anne, conceived miraculously. It does not state that she was a virgin, but that Joachim, Anne’s husband, ‘did not appear to his wife’ during the ‘forty days and forty nights’ that he fasted in the desert to ask God for a child.12 While the Catholic Church does not claim that St. Anne was a virgin, it does assert as unquestionable dogma that:13

The Blessed Virgin Mary [was]… from the first instant of her conception… in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.

Thus we find a first taste of the increasing veneration of Mary and also an implied anti-sex attitude, which foreshadows later doctrinal development. If anyone’s interested, the IGJ is also the origin of the claim that Mary was sixteen years old whilst Joseph was around 30 when they got engaged.14

The Palm Tree Branch that Entered the Kingdom of God

While Jesus cursed a fig tree in the Synoptic Gospels, he blessed a palm tree according to the GPM.15 This narrative says that, during the Flight to Egypt, Mary became hungry and fancied a fruit from a palm tree which was out of her reach. The infant Jesus then ordered the tree to bend down to give its fruit and it did so, leading Jesus to bless the tree and assure it that one of its branches will be taken to paradise.

Jesus Kills Two Children (And Blinds His Accusers!)

The IGT reads much like a collection of ‘trickster god-child’ Greek myths. The book’s third and fourth chapters are bizarre to any modern reader:

Chapter III
(1) The son of Annas the scholar, standing there with Jesus, took a willow branch and drained the water Jesus had collected. (2) Jesus, however, saw what had happened and became angry, saying to him, “Damn you, you irreverent fool! What harm did the ponds of water do to you? From this moment you, too, will dry up like a tree, and you’ll never produce leaves or root or bear fruit.” (3) In an instant the boy had completely withered away. Then Jesus departed and left for the house of Joseph. (4) The parents of the boy who had withered away picked him up and were carrying him out, sad because he was so young. And they came to Joseph and accused him: “It’s your fault – your boy did this.”

Chapter IV
(1) Later he was going through the village again when a boy ran and bumped him on the shoulder. Jesus got angry and said to him, “You won’t continue your journey.” (2) And all of a sudden, he fell down and died. (3) Some people saw what had happened and said, “Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!” (4)The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him saying, “Because you have such a boy, you can’t live with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!

After this, just for good measure, Jesus cursed his accusers, causing them to become blind (5:2). Thankfully, Jesus had a change of heart later on:

(3) When the child stopped speaking, all those who had fallen under the curse were instantly saved. (4) And from then on no one dared to anger him for fear of being cursed and maimed for life.

I would like to say that Jesus learnt his lesson, but Jesus still went and knocked his schoolteacher out later on in the book, causing Joseph to instruct Mary: “Don’t let him go outside, because those who annoy him end up dead.” (14:4-5) So much for the ‘meek and mild’ child!

See: ‘Whoever Speaks Evil of Father or Mother Must Surely Die’, Right? (Mark 7:10)

3. If They Are Non-Canonical, Why Does This Matter?

Firstly, whilst one should not exaggerate the influence these documents had over the early Christian communities, it is dishonest to deny them any influence in the history of the Church, as is frequently done by hand-waving apologists and evangelists. Most notably, these texts are the primary basis for one of Roman Catholicism’s most highly prized dogmas – the PVM.16

As time goes on, the story of Jesus’s infancy gets more miraculous. We hear nothing of the birth or childhood of Jesus in Mark. It is only in the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke that we get details, e.g. the Lukan account of the boy Jesus in the Temple (2:41-52). This alone should cause any critically minded person to question these accounts beyond their face value.

See: A Short Intro to Why the Bible Cannot be Taken at Face Value

Is Mary adoring her newborn baby here, or is she listening intently to the infant as he proclaims his theological mission? Both the Quran (19:28-36) and the Arabic Infancy Gospel (1:2) say the latter!

Secondly, despite being heavily denied by some Islamic “scholars”, numerous IGs also demonstrably serve as an influence on the Qur’an.17 The IGT (2:3-6) opens with a brief story of how Jesus makes 12 clay sparrows on the Sabbath and then, being accused of breaking the Sabbath, he gets himself out of trouble by clapping his hands and turning the clay birds into real ones. A variant of this appears in the Qur’an (5:110). Another parallel, this time between the Qur’an (19:28-36) and the Arabic IG (1:2), is where the baby Jesus gives a highly theological discourse from his cradle in the presence of Mary about his mission from God. In the AIG, Jesus proclaims: “I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.” Obviously, the Qur’an could never admit such a bold claim, and instead has Jesus declare: “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.” (I can’t help but read both these lines with the voice of Stewie from Family Guy!)

To add even further weight to my case, the Quranic verses (19:22-26) immediately prior to this story feature a variant of the “Blessed Palm Tree” tale in the GPM.18 To have one near-identical story from one earlier text may be simply coincidence, but to have many stories from many prior documents shows nothing other than literary (or perhaps oral) dependence.

Finally, these texts give weight to the serious doubt which has been placed upon the authenticity of authorship claims in the Bible. For instance, Pseudo-Matthew is prefaced by a pseudonymous (‘falsely named’) exchange of letters between Jerome and two early church bishops, which was used as the justification for the document’s apostolic authenticity.19 The earliest IGs explicitly claim to be written by James and Thomas.20 Most knowledgeable evangelicals will happily acknowledge that the early Christian communities were awash with forgery.21 Nevertheless, few (if any) are willing to admit that pseudonymous writings made it into the New Testament, despite much evidence to the contrary.

In a future post, I shall reveal the extent of forgery in early Christian communities using never-seen-before self-collected data. Pivot tables and charts! “Oh my golly gosh!”, I hear you say. Stay tuned!

See: Measuring Forgery in Early Christianity

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  1.  The featured image at the top of the post is the relatively famous Infant Jesus of Prague statue, a 16th Century Roman Catholic icon in Prague, Czech Republic. The statue has inspired many replicas and paintings of itself. Fascination with and devotion toward the ‘Holy Child’ is a very ancient Christian custom, and it continues today, especially in the Roman Catholic community. 
  2. The Baptism of Jesus is an event regarded near-universally as historical by biblical scholars of every persuasion. Firstly, the Gospels of Matthew (3:13-17), Mark (1:9-11) and Luke (3:21-22directly recount the encounter, while John (1:29-34) indirectly does so. Secondly, this is a potentially embarrassing event, since it appears to indicate that Jesus’s ministry span out of John the Baptist‘s. In fact, it is for this reason, some argue, that John’s Gospel does not directly refer to Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist since it is most likely the latest canonical Gospel. There are other arguments in favour of this too, which I won’t list here for brevity’s sake. 
  3. Even mighty Zeus was once a defenceless baby, much like Jesus is pictured every Christmas in his crib. Zeus’s story is primarily known via Hesiod‘s Theogeny (c. 700 BCE). Under threat from Zeus’s father, Cronos, his mother, Rhea, fleas to Crete to give birth. Cronos wished to eat the newborn child after hearing a prophecy that a powerful son of his would overthrow him. Rhea tricks Cronos by swapping the baby Zeus for a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which Cronos then swallowed. (How Cronos could fail to tell the difference between a baby and a stone, especially in his gullet, I have no idea.) Beyond Zeus, we have numerous depictions of the gods DionysusHermesApollo and Asklepios as children in both art and myth. See Beaumont, Lesley (1998). ‘Born Old or Never Young? Femininity, Childhood and the Goddesses of Ancient Greece’ in Blundell, Sue and Williamson, Margaret (eds.). The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge. pp. 71-95. 
  4. The dating of ancient texts is always contentious. The dates given here for the IGs of James and Thomas have an approximate margin of error of 20 years either side. 
  5. Elliott, J. K. (1993). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M. R. James. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 100-101. 
  6. Ehrman, Bart D. and Pleše, Zlatko (2011). The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. New York: Oxford University Press. p 158. 
  7. Gijsel, J. and Beyers, R. (1997). Pseudo-Mattheai Evangelium: Textus et Commentarius. Turnhout: Brepols. pp. 66-67. 
  8. Technically, the Protoevangelium (i.e. IG of James) does not explicitly assert that Mary remained a virgin forever. It is, however, implied from Joseph’s emphatic statement, “I have sons and am old, while she is young. I will not be ridiculed among the children of Israel.” (9:8 following later scholarly editions.) This statement was – and still is – used by apologists and evangelists as a defence of the PVM, because the problem of Jesus’s “brothers” is dealt with. 
  9. Protoevangelium 13:6-7 and 15:10-12
  10. Protoevangelium 19:18-20:2; Salome is first referenced in Mark (15:40; 16:1). In the Protoevangelium passage, Salome is not properly introduced, indicating that the audience would have already known who she was and were likely familiar with the canonical gospels since the document borrows from all three Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke). 
  11. Protoevangelium 20:3-12
  12. Protoevangelium 1:9-11. Naturally-speaking, Anna could easily have conceived prior to Joachim’s fasting, but this is not the natural reading of the text, especially in light of its strong thematic emphasis on virginity and purity. 
  13. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 1854. The term ‘dogma’ here is meant in its technical sense, i.e. an unquestionable truth which one must accept as true to be considered a Roman Catholic. 
  14. Protoevangelium 9:8 and 12:9
  15. As an aside, there is a discrepancy here between the fig tree withering ‘at once’ during the same morning Jesus cursed it (Matthew 21:18-22) and the morning after Jesus cursed it and cleansed the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 11:12-26). Certainly, this hardly constitutes an important theological claim, but it is another potential pin prick for the balloon of ‘biblical inerrancy’. The “Blessed Palm Tree” story occurs in Ch. 20 of Pseudo-Matthew. 
  16. The term ‘dogma’ here is meant in its technical sense, i.e. an unquestionable truth which one must accept as true to be considered a Roman Catholic. 
  17. Trimingham, J. S. (1979). Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times. London: Longman Group. pp. 211 (fn. 5), 266; Bell, Richard (1968). The Origin of the Quran in its Christian Environment. London: Frank Cass & Co. pp. 100, 110. 
  18. The “Blessed Palm Tree” story occurs in Ch. 20 of Pseudo-Matthew. 
  19. St. Jerome (347-420 CE), the son of Eusebius, was a priest, theologian and historian. He is best regarded for translating most of the Bible into Latin (i.e. the Vulgate), though he’s also known for his commentaries on the Gospels. 
  20. Protoevangelium Ch. 25 and Infancy Gospel of Thomas Ch. 1 are both unambiguous claims to apostolic authorship in order to provide authenticity to a forged document espousing a certain theological doctrine which may not otherwise be accepted. 
  21. Pseudepigrapha are what we modern folk would call “forgeries”. The best popular-level book I have read on the topic is Ehrman, Bart D. (2011). Forged – Writing in the Name of God: Why the Bible’s Authors are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: HarperOne. He also wrote an extensive 624-page academic tome on the topic for the more avid reader: Ehrman, Bart D. (2012). Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also, see: Measuring Forgery in Early Christianity