2015-04-06

Jesus, Enfant Terrible in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

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by Neil Godfrey

Not all early Christian gospels made it into our Bibles. One non-canonical second century gospel is known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [IGT] and it presents a terrifying image of Jesus as a boy.

The child Jesus strikes another boy dead for merely bumping into him by accident.

IV. 1 After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course (lit. go all thy way). And immediately he fell down and died. But certain when they saw what was done said: Whence was this young child born, for that every word of his is an accomplished work? And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Thou that hast such a child canst not dwell with us in the village: or do thou teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slayeth our children.

V. 1 And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Wherefore doest thou such things, that these suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these thy words are not thine: nevertheless for thy sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway they that accused him were smitten with blindness. 2 And they that saw it were sore afraid and perplexed, and said concerning him that every word which he spake whether it were good or bad, was a deed, and became a marvel.

When a teacher punishes Jesus for insolence he strikes him dead, too. Another time Jesus is playing idly on the sabbath with pools of water (we was making clay sparrows) and when an older child attempted to stop him Jesus caused him immediately to wither away like a desiccated stick. Not that he was all bad. When Jesus is blamed for pushing a child to his death from a roof Jesus resurrects the boy in order to have him testify to his innocence: readers swinging in the mood of the gospel are left to assume he was then dropped back down dead.

Why?

But if the storyteller(s) of IGT wanted to illustrate Jesus’ divine identity, why would they portray him as a (sometimes) arbitrary, mischievous problem child? This would seem to be a “very naive or crude” and “unsophisticated” way to portray Jesus’ divinity, in the words of Larry Hurtado. 

Or in the words of John Meier

The portrait of this sinister superboy belongs more in a horror movie than a gospel.  

That we find the IGT’s portrayal of Jesus so shocking serves as a warning to how far removed we are from understanding the world that gave us the stories of Jesus — indeed, that gave us the very concept of the Biblical God.

M. David Litwa researches several specific ways in which early Christians depicted Jesus as a Mediterranean god in Iesus Deus. He devotes one chapter to the IGT.

One of Litwa’s striking interpretations is that the Jesus in the IGT is more comparable to the Jesus in the Gospel of John than the Jesus in any of the Synoptic Gospels. The point he is making is that the signs Jesus performs (in both the IGT and Gospel of John) are performed as signs to demonstrate that Jesus really is a divinity.

But this Jesus did do some good for others, too. (Isn’t that the way of the evil personas in horror movies?)

XIII. 1 Now his father was a carpenter and made at that time ploughs and yokes. And there was required of him a bed by a certain rich man, that he should make it for him. And whereas one beam, that which is called the shifting one was too short and Joseph knew not what to do, the young child Jesus said to his father Joseph: Lay down the two pieces of wood and make them even at the end next unto thee (MSS. at the middle part). And Joseph did as the young child said unto him. And Jesus stood at the other end and took hold upon the shorter beam and stretched it and made it equal with the other. And his father Joseph saw it and marvelled: and he embraced the young child and kissed him, saying: Happy am I for that God hath given me this young child.

Yet the horror movie image is still with us, is it not?

The ferocity and ambiguity of Jesus’ character are not compensated by his acts of benevolence. One must face head-on the disturbing character of Jesus in this gospel. Attempts to tame the wild child remain unsatisfying. 

M. David Litwa compares like with like. How are other child divinities depicted at this time? How is it that anyone — apart from a horror movie script writer — imagine a god to be so malevolent? Why would anyone compose a story of Jesus like this? 

Jesus and Heracles/Hercules

Just as Jesus was to do, Hercules (Latin for the Greek Heracles) killed his teacher for chastising him.

But Heracles was no natural on the lyre, and he needed discipline. As was the custom in ancient education, Linus strikes the young Heracles  for messing up his notes. In response, the son of Zeus is instantly enraged; he grabs his lyre and cracks it over Linus’s head, killing him instantly.  

Why does the young child Hercules act this way?

As a god — in this case, a divine child — Heracles has simply defended his honor. 

Jesus and Hermes/Mercury

Mercury (the Latin name for Hermes) is born as the wiliest of thieves and tricksters. His first act once released from the womb is to steal Apollo’s cattle. So crafty is he that he wraps his feet in leaves and drags the cattle by their tales backwards. Despite his cunning he is caught, but no matter, since he lies on oath to both Apollo and even the great Zeus of his innocence. Zeus does not punish him, however. Rather, he roars with laughter.

The high god thunders with laughter, the deed is disclosed, and the divine half-brothers are reconciled by a mutual exchange of honors. Hermes, like Jesus, shows his divine character even as a child. His aim is to receive honor from the gods and worship from human beings — the same worship that Apollo receives. 

M. David Litwa’s point is that a basic characteristic of “virtually all Greco-Roman deities” is their “zeal for divine honor (τιμη)”

M. David Litwa explains further:

When the gods do not receive the honor that is their due — even from those who are innocent of moral wrongdoing — they lash out in rage. That rage can touch not just one offender, but a group of people connected with the offender. Often the anger seems arbitrary, because at times the offender appears to dishonor the god purely by accident. Those who threaten divine honor are punished — often in extreme ways. 

Like other pagan gods Jesus will favour those who are close to him as we saw in the above quotation where he helps his father’s business by miraculously extending a piece of timber to its required length. Others, however, are subject to punishment, even death.

There is another quite different version of the above Mercury story, however. The Roman poet, Ovid, has Mercury test an innocent bystander to his theft. Mercury returns to test this bystander’s promise and oath not to tell a soul what he had witnessed, but his test is to offer twice the bribe for telling the truth. The poor gullible witness succumbs and is turned instantly into a stone.

Yes, the Greek philosophers like Plato deplored such arbitrary and immoral nonsense. But the Greek philosophers like Plato did not write about the popular theology of their day.

Pagan gods stood above the mundane and humanoid world of concepts like justice and injustice. These gods were more like a “force of nature”. The gods were not interested in enforcing justice on earth. Rather, they were “programmed” to defend their own honour.

Jesus and Dionysus

The Greek playwright Euripides presented the tale of the god Dionysus who returned to his “own people” (compare the Jesus of the Gospel of John). The Dionysus of this play mercilessly strikes with tormented deaths those who fail to respect his divine honour.

But gods, in whatever garb and in whatever circumstances they appear. demand honor above all else.

Dionysus is no Lydian dandy, and Jesus is more than a kid with chutzpah. They are gods. Those who dishonor them learn the hard way.

So where does this leave the author and readers of the IGT?

IGT gives a glimpse of how a variety of Christians (not just the uneducated majority) thought about divinity in the period of Christianity’s own infancy. It indicates that some Christians and their non-Christian neighbors may not have had radically different conceptions of what a god was. . . . [Y]oung gods in early Christianity and Greco-Roman folklore possess a similar zeal for honor. Sometimes, as we have seen, this zeal can kill. 

Is Jesus considered a divine person in ancient times?  If Jesus were divine according to only a narrow ancient philosophical concept of the divine (and one that handily corresponds to modern sensibilities) then Jesus was then and remains divine.

What the ancient writers were doing was portraying their Jesus as nothing more or less than a typical Mediterranean god of the day. Jesus was a god who would, yes, do good to those who honoured him, but also curse others. As M. David Litwa concludes his chapter:

In the second century, and far into late antiquity, the old gods of Greece and Rome had not died. Their love of honor and violent attempt to defend it had been reborn in the child of Bethlehem. 

 

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Jesus, Enfant Terrible in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?”

  1. Be sure to read Bulfinch’s ending to Hercules. Where this son of the great god, by a mortal woman, suffering pain on his skin, goes voluntarily to his likely death. Only to have his mortal “flesh” burned away. Leaving his immortal self, among the gods. Becoming more clearly a god. Son of the great god.

  2. …their “zeal for divine honor (τιμη)” (from above) is the elephant in the room.
    The honor of god [the basis for legal codes, customs and ways of life] continues to trickle down, ‘lo these many years, into what many consider proper mass, individual and family behavior.
    To some, having a different conscience dishonors the divine.

    1. Interesting. Got more on this?

      Sounds like one of many likely rationalizations that pious revisors of the Bible used. To justify to themselves, changing sacred writings.

  3. IGT is rejected for portraying Jesus as homicidal loony and the OT embraced for portraying his dad Yahweh as… a homicidal loony. These peoples brains have dribbled out their ears.

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