Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2

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by Neil Godfrey

The previous post on this topic ended with the following:

The first genuinely biographical detail of Jesus arrives when Jesus is twelve years old facing the wise men in the Temple. We learn about the parents’ very natural and everyday concerns and the “adolescent arrogance” of Jesus, his separation from this world, his first signs of superior wisdom, and his return to “the expected filial obedience”.

This is the kind of characterizing anecdote that every biographer wishes for, a child demonstrating extraordinary gifts and a behaviour that anticipates his grown-up persona. It is, however, the only one told about the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. (p. 171)

It’s not much, only two childhood episodes to occupy thirty years. But that’s the start.

Hägg turns to examine how two “apocryphal” gospels picked up on Luke’s beginning. . . .

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) then relates an observation that is worth pausing over:

All four evangelists proceed in continuous narrative from baptism to death and resurrection, each giving his own picture of Jesus’ public life within a common framework . . . . Paradoxically, their alternative accounts of Jesus, composed within the short span of some thirty years, thus came to be offered between the same covers, probably a unique biographical situation. (p. 172, my bolding in all quotations)

It seems we really do need to keep in mind that the gospels really are not like other biographies, that there is indeed something, or a number of things, “unique” about them.

If I can interject with an observation of my own for a moment here: the canonical gospels are widely said to have been produced between around 70 and 100 CE, yet the apocryphal gospels are said to appear as late as forty to seventy years, 140 to 170 CE, one to two generations, after the last canonical gospel was completed. Would not such a situation likewise be “probably unique” in literature? How likely is it that we have a gap of as much as seventy to a hundred years from the first gospel containing a brief outline of a life with only the slightest hints of Jesus’ background and family before we see the first serious attempts to fill in that curiosity gap?

It appears to me that we have two different dating methods in use: look at internal evidence in the Gospel of Mark to arrive at a date as close as possible to the events of Jesus’ life; look at external evidence of knowledge and use of apocryphal gospels to assess when the appear to first enter public awareness.

I suspect if we are consistent with our dating methods and apply the second (more normative) method of dating to the canonical gospels we find serious indications that they, too, first appear in the historical record in the early second century. (But I grant that this is a much larger question than can be adequately treated in a side-box and there are also other questions that need to be addressed for a full discussion.)

But the “apocryphal” or “hidden” years of Jesus whetted a curiosity that began to be satisfied with “apocryphal” gospels of those years of Jesus before his public life, and two of the earliest are the Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James) and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The Infancy Gospel of James

The Infancy Gospel of James is based on the nativity scenes in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Spare details about the birth of Jesus are filled out but something odd happens. The author (posing as Jesus’ much older step-brother James) goes back to the parents and birth of Jesus’ mother, Mary, and elaborates the circumstances of her giving some sort of strange miraculous birth (everything, time included, stands still and a great light appears, then as soon as the universe resumes its normal movements and the light is withdrawn, lo and behold, baby Jesus is lying there at Mary’s breast and Mary is proven by the midwives to still have an intact hymen.

In brief, the story begins with Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, in very advanced years; Joachim is turned away from attempting to make an offering (not just an ordinary offering, but a “double offering”) at the temple because he is the only one in Israel who has not produced “any seed” for Israel. He sulks off into the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days while Anna stays at home and also goes into lamentations. Duly satisfied with their self-pity God sends an angel to tell them they will have a child at last if they hurry up and copulate once more.

In deep gratitude the parents decide to give the child away to become a ward of the temple, but not before it reached that terrible age of the traumatic threes. When Mary was only six months old Anna placed her feet first on the ground and Mary immediately walked seven steps towards her. Thrilled at her precocious development the mother resolved not to let her feet touch the ground again until she was given to the temple; once there, two years and six months after her previous demonstration of walking, her feet on the ground starting dancing. So Mary grew up to be a most delightful and charming child.

When she reached the age of twelve, however, the priests got very nervous about her having her first period and so defiling the sanctity of the temple. They resolved to listen to an angel to told them to enforce an old man who had outlived his wife to adopt the young girl. Joseph was chosen because he had a magic rod from which a dove flew out and landed on his head. Joseph tried to object, the high priest put the fear of God into him by reminding him of how God had a history of swallowing up rebels in giant earthquakes.

Then comes “Luke’s” decree from Augustus to have everyone registered at their place of birth. Joseph goes once more into a state of confusion:

And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enrol her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting.

Lost in his imaginative retelling the author loses sight of the gospel place of birth and has Jesus born in a cave and only later (presumably with a clearer recollection) moved to a manger.

Without stressing the point, the Infancy Gospel depicts Mary’s parents and Joseph as very well-to-do folk: Mary’s father is said to be “very rich” and he invites “the priests, scribes, elders and all of Israel” to Mary’s first birthday celebration; Joseph is said to be responsible for “many houses”, so he is more than just your local handyman carpenter.

Mary’s parents are modelled on the stories of the patriarchs and their wives who needed miraculous intervention in their old age to have children, but the Infancy Gospel yields considerably richer dialogue and emotional states than the biblical accounts.

It appears to me, therefore, that the author ran out of imagination when it came to filling in details of Jesus’ early life, being competent only with those details for which he had a biblical model to build on.

Hägg does not see anything overtly polemical in the depiction of Mary’s families as rich:

But these are elements that have no real emphasis in the text; the rich father is a conventional novelistic motif and Joseph building houses is only mentioned in passing. (p. 175)

As for Mary’s “purity and virginity”, these indeed are the dominant theme of the gospel. But once again, Hägg does not like to read too much into this point:

That the story should have been written for the glorification of Mary, as a regular encomium, is again an exaggeration; it is another matter that it happened to become a source for Mariolatry. (p. 175)

The gospel does not appear to have any theological point (unlike, we may say, the canonical gospels).

According to Helmut Koester, ‘the writing reveals no sectarian bias and it cannot be assigned to a particular Christian group or sect of the second century. It is ‘pure hagiography’, he adds. (pp. 172f)

Joseph and Mary are colourful characters, even Mary’s parents take on fleshed-out personalities. Jesus is still just a baby at the end of the narrative, though.

You can read a translation of the Infancy Gospel of James online from the earlychristianwritings page.

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

With the Infancy Gospel of Thomas we at last come to a major attempt to fill out details of Jesus’ childhood. Again, see the earlychristianwritings page to read a translation.

Again, Luke’s account of Jesus as a boy confounding the teachers at the temple is the apparent inspiration for this gospel. A string of similar stories, only with more graphic detail, fill out those first twelve years of Jesus’ life.

Like a number of other ancient biographies (e.g. Lives of Alexander and Aesop) there are multiple versions that vary in the actual stories told. I suppose the nearest analogies with the canonical gospels would be the story of the woman caught in adultery being found in only some of the early manuscripts of the Gospel of John, and some of the editions of the Gospel of Mark acquiring a new ending. Once the canonical gospels took on a canonical status, however, they were presumably safeguarded from any further modifications and variant forms.

The inspiration for the stories of Jesus’ early childhood come from the canonical gospels themselves.

Some anecdotes show Jesus as a youthful miracle worker. For instance, it is told that at the age of five he was playing by a stream, forming twelve sparrows from soft clay (2). But it was the sabbath, and a Jew who saw what he was doing reported it to his father Joseph. Joseph went to tell Jesus not to profane the sabbath (2.4-5): 

But Jesus clapped his hands and commanded the sparrows with a cry in front of all, saying, ‘Go away, take flight like living beings!’ The sparrows took flight and went away chirping. When the Pharisee saw this he marvelled and reported it to all his friends. 

This kind of episode is obviously moulded on what the canonical gospels tell about Jesus as an adult, projected back to his childhood. The Son of God must have had miraculous gifts even as a child; why then have we not been told about what wonders he worked in his earliest years? The kind of miracle, as we can see, is adapted to a young boy’s mentality and range of activities. (p. 176)

If you have read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas you know Jesus is at times depicted as a “holy terror”, a callous, vengeful, deadly child, an enfant terrible from a horror movie.

After the miracle of creating living sparrows from clay the son of a scribe took a stick and emptied the pools of water that Jesus had used to make the clay sparrows. Jesus retaliated:

And Jesus, seeing what was done, was angry, and said to him: O wicked, impious, and foolish! what harm did the pools and the waters do to thee? Behold, even now thou shalt be dried up like a tree, and thou shalt not bring forth either leaves, or root, or fruit. And straightway that boy was quite dried up. 

The parents of the withered boy complain to Joseph but apparently without any success in having their son restored to life. The miracle of cursing the boy and having him “withered” is evidently inspired by the canonical narrative of Jesus cursing and withering the fig tree.

A pattern is set in train:

After that He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse: for he is killing our children.

5. And Joseph called the child apart, and admonished Him, saying: Why doest thou such things, and these people suffer, and hate us, and persecute us? And Jesus said: I know that these words of thine are not thine own; nevertheless for thy sake I will be silent; but they shall bear their punishment. And straightway those that accused Him were struck blind.

What are we to make of this characterization of the boy Jesus?

He does not merely show his powers to kill; he also demonstrates his superior (divine) wisdom but always in an (appropriately?) “immature” manner. A teacher, Zacchaeus, attempted to give the divine child some basic education:

Thou hast a sensible child, and he has some mind. Give him to me, then, that he may learn letters; and I shall teach him along with the letters all knowledge, both how to address all the elders, and to honour them as forefathers and fathers, and how to love those of his own age.

And He said to him all the letters from the Alpha even to the Omega, clearly and with great exactness. And He looked upon the teacher Zacchaeus, and said to him: Thou who art ignorant of the nature of the Alpha, how canst thou teach others the Beta? Thou hypocrite! first, if thou knowest, teach the A, and then we shall believe thee about the B. Then He began to question the teacher about the first letter, and he was not able to answer Him. And in the hearing of many, the child says to Zacchaeus: Hear, O teacher, the order of the first letter, and notice here how it has lines, and a middle stroke crossing those which thou seest common; (lines) brought together; the highest part supporting them, and again bringing them under one head; with three points of intersection; of the same kind; principal and subordinate; of equal length. Thou hast the lines of the A.

And when the teacher Zacchaeus heard the child speaking such and so great allegories of the first letter, he was at a great loss about such a narrative, and about His teaching. And He said to those that were present: Alas! I, wretch that I am, am at a loss, bringing shame upon myself by having dragged this child hither. Take him away, then, I beseech thee, brother Joseph. I cannot endure the sternness of his look; I cannot make out his meaning at all. That child does not belong to this earth; he can tame even fire. Assuredly he was born before the creation of the world. What sort of a belly bore him, what sort of a womb nourished him, I do not know. . . . . 

So to repeat the above question: what do we make of his kind of boy Jesus?

Hägg notes that although some scholars have seen a Gnostic origin in the depiction of Jesus beginning with full powers and will wisdom, he is less inclined to think so. After all, the superior wisdom of Jesus was already present in Luke 2 (Jesus impressing the scribes in the temple); further,

the precocious child is a topos in ancient childhood descriptions (compare Life of Alexander, 14-18). (p. 177)

One comparable example from the Alexander “biography” by “pseudo-Callisthenes”:

Alexander grew apace and, when he was twelve years old, he went with his father to the military manoeuvres and armed himself and took part in the actions of the foot-soldiers and the cavalry. Philip, watching him, said: “Son, I love your character, but I hate your appearance, for you are clearly unlike me in looks, but like me in character.” And he saw that Philip was not on good terms with Olympias.

Once when Philip was out of the country, Olympias summoned Nectanebos and said to him: “Find out what Philip is planning about me.” Then he, having produced his tablet, considered the stars and made observations. Alexander, sitting beside him, said: “Father [not literal father, but a term of respect for the older man], do these stars which you read appear in the sky?” He replied: “Indeed they do, young man.” He asked: “And can I see them?” “You can.” “When?” “At night.”

So, when evening came, Nectanebos took Alexander out. But although he was an experienced prophet through his art of magic and no mean astrologer, foreseeing the future, he did not then perceive, having fallen into Alexander’s hands, his own fate lying before him. For Nectanebos led Alexander outside the city, and, gazing up to the sky, showed Alexander the stars, teaching him his own art. Alexander then lifted him up on his shoulders and hurled him against a jutting, hard rock. Alexander seized him and took and threw him down into a pit. From the fall, his head was frightfully injured, and he cried: “Alexander, my lad, what do you think you have done?” He said: “Blame yourself, astrologer.” He said: “For what?” And he replied: “Because, not understanding the matters of earth, you seek to know heaven.” He said: “I am dying, Alexander. This fall is fatal. It is not possible for any mortal to conquer his fate. For when I read my future, I found I was destined to be killed by my own son. So I have not escaped my fate, but I have been killed by you.” Alexander then said: “Am I indeed your son?” He said: “Yes, my lad.” He queried: “How did this happen?” Then Nectanebos told him about his flight from Egypt and his approach to Olympias and how he went to her as the god Ammon and embraced her. After telling all this, he died.

How very Christ-like the twelve-year old Alexander was.

Jesus is given to a second teacher who unwisely slaps him on the head for his insolence. It is some consolation that Jesus does later restore everyone he fatally struck down.

Hägg comments:

It is this kind of miracle that a recent commentator calls ‘capricious and even destructive’, causing him to explain: ‘Jesus is an enfant terrible who seldom acts in a Christian way!’ To modern sensibilities, this is no doubt so; no well-intentioned modern biographer would in his proleptic childhood description of Jesus let exactly these character traits dominate. Yet it cannot be denied that the stern, uncompromising, self-confident, hot-tempered Jesus is also part of the canonical gospels’ characterization of the grown-up man . . . Moreover, cursing, sometimes with drastic effects, is in fact a recurring feature in Matthew and Luke as well as Acts. If we combine this with a deliberate effort in the infancy gospel to describe typically childish or adolescent behaviour, we have come some way towards understanding these ‘boyhood’ stories. (p. 178)

Subsequently, Jesus does perform more benign miracles. He kindly extended a length of wood to its proper length for his carpenter father. Anyone familiar with Jesus’ canonical miracles will recognize the recycled motifs in the following:

And His father was a carpenter, and at that time made ploughs and yokes. And a certain rich man ordered him to make him a couch. And one of what is called the cross pieces being too short, they did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to His father Joseph: Put down the two pieces of wood, and make them even in the middle. And Joseph did as the child said to him. And Jesus stood at the other end, and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretched it, and made it equal to the other. And His father Joseph saw it, and wondered, and embraced the child, and blessed Him, saying: Blessed am I, because God has given me this child.

And beyond

The life of Jesus was frozen in the canonical gospels but outside those covers the curiosity-satiating literature only multiplied. As Tomas Hägg notes,

and [it] is still going on, not least in modern media like film and historical fiction. (p. 179)

Dan Brown explored the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The Secret Gospel of Mark, whether it is a forgery or authentic, is a tentative exploration of the sexuality of Jesus. (Clement of Alexandria’s note attempts to deny it is any such thing.) Interestingly, Hägg adds that

Modern scholarly attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus — Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Magician, Jesus the Cynic — may be looked upon as further instances of the same wish to fill up the contours of the Jesus figure that the gospels provide, analogous to the numerous attempts by novelists and filmmakers to construct each his or her Jesus. We have come a long way from the bodiless words of the sayings Jesus. (p. 179)

That reminds me of what social anthropologist, Philippe Wajdenbaum, wrote in Argonauts of the Desert:

. . . I will show how biblical criticism has become a new version of the biblical myth — its continuation, that has allowed it to remain almost untouchable until the present, even though biblical criticism took the form of scientific speech that shattered religious dogmas. ‘Any myth consists of all of its variants’ is a fundamental rule that I apply. (Wajdenbaum, p. 7)


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 2”

  1. “Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning, on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law ……”

    The Life of Flavius Josephus 2:9

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