When the first widespread attempts were made to define the Catholic biblical canon in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the compilers had many texts to choose from, and had to be selective in confirming which were included. Many stories of the life of Jesus were ultimately classed as non-canon, for a variety of reasons. But perhaps none were as strange as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
In its most simple terms, this gospel is a collection of Jesus’s childhood stories, filling a useful gap within the canonical gospels. It might seem therefore to be a useful addition to the existing canon.
Within the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke contains the only significant information on the childhood Jesus, which featured 12-year old Jesus and his parents. It is mentioned in Luke 2:41-52.
So, why was it excluded?
Supernatural, Precocious and Vengeful
The text within these stories intends to tell the story of Jesus from the ages of 5 to 12. The stories have fanciful and supernatural events, which at once prove the divinity of Christ and display bizarre behaviors in comparison to the canonical Gospels. In the stories, Jesus is showcased as a precocious child who was pursuing his education early.
The story also covers how Jesus as a child matured, and learned how to use his powers for good. There are instances mentioned within the Gospel that stated how people around him first feared and rejected him, but later showed admiration.
One of the earliest stories tells of a child who spills water collected by the infant Jesus. Rather than showing the compassion and mercy so familiar in canonical scripture, Jesus strikes the child down, killing him with his supernatural powers. He later kills another child in the same way, simply because he bumped into him.
Following that, one of the episodes or stories had Jesus making birds out of clay, trying to blow life into them. This act appears elsewhere in other holy texts, most notably in the Quran (5:110).
Many of the stories show extreme manifestations of the divine powers attributed to Jesus. There are stories of how Jesus helped resurrect a friend from the dead who fell off the roof, and helped his friend who cut off his foot while using an axe. Another story recounts how Jesus healed his brother of a venomous snake bite.
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After various supernatural demonstrations, new teachers came in and tried to teach Jesus about how to control and use them. But Jesus began to teach them the law instead! A parallel to this story interestingly also appears in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus is shown teaching in a temple at age 12.
These stories clearly paint a different, and far more human character than the canonical New Testament of the Bible. Jesus is portrayed as struggling with his powers, trying to match his development as a human child with his manifest divinity.
Putting aside the interesting portrait this creates, there are obvious problems for this narrative compared to the accepted religious dogma where Jesus is God, and God is infallible. The Catholic Church leaders could not allow a portrayal of Jesus, from whom they derived their authority, as child-like, human, and weak.
In point of fact, it is this humanity which was most troublesome. Jesus was neither a good nor a bad child in this Gospel, merely a growing infant learning about right and wrong. He certainly had a mischievous side, but his actions do not directly show malice.
One moment he breathes life into clay birds, the next he kills a fellow child and turns his parents blind. The Gospel here is not trying to suggest Jesus is evil, but rather that he is only a child and has yet to learn the impact his powers can have.
This is a surprisingly sophisticated and human portrayal. And by offering a more domestic narrative about the struggles of a human family raising the Son of God, there are even touches of wry humor.
Joseph is portrayed as tired of Jesus’s bad behavior, snapping at him, and Jesus is contrasted with his wholly human brother, James. Jesus is only found teaching at the temple after Joseph loses sight of him in the crowd, just another child separated from his parents.
The Scholars’ Verdict
Most scholars reject the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, considering it as sensational and crude. They also consider it “late” in the formation of narratives about the life of Christ, believing it to have been composed in Greek in the late 2nd or 3rd century.
This obviously raises problems as to the authenticity of any part of the Gospel regarding the upbringing of Jesus. When combined with the fantastic deeds performed by the infant Christ, the modern lay reader is similarly inclined to dismiss the text as a later fiction, a curiosity but nothing more.
The text was certainly popular in early Christian communities, translated into diverse languages, including Arabic, Syriac, Slavonic, Irish, and Ethiopic. given copyist errors and other variations in the manuscripts there has been difficulty determining their original form.
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This has also led to a lack of clarity regarding the true origin of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Ron Cameron in his book The Other Gospels suggests that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas might have been written in Eastern Syria, a location associated with traditions found in the text.
But Cameron also states that the authorial attribution towards Thomas seems like it is a secondary and late development. This was a common feature of such writings, which were taken more seriously if they had an early Christian leader as their author. Like almost all of the New Testament writings apart from the letters of Paul, the true author is unknown.
There are also parallels between the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and early Christian Gnostic teachings, later denounced as heresy. The Gospel of Thomas, the other apocryphal text associated with Thomas, was certainly Gnostic, and the Gnostics might have also included the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in pursuit of their quest for “gnosis” or divine knowledge.
But, for its crude composition, late authorship and strange narrative, the Infancy Gospel is largely dismissed by the mainstream.
All of the accusations levelled by modern scholars at the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are true. But it is perhaps superficial to assume the text has little worth because of these flaws, and scholars may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
In its domesticity and its struggles in raising a child, the text reaches out over the millennia and offers a connection between parents of any era. How many mothers have faced the challenge of trying to teach a child right and wrong, and find a fair way to punish them for something they did not realize was bad?
How many fathers have known the panic of losing a child in a public place, or had to learn at first hand how to leave a child to play with other children without interfering? Yes, Mary and Joseph had it harder than most, but in their struggles parents of any age will recognize an echo of their own.
At the end of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus’s mother asked him why he behaves as he does, expressing her sadness and anxiety. He offers no reply in the text, as baffled at his own choices as any child.
But her reward is not corporeal. Scribes and Pharisees approach Mary and ask her if she was the mother of this child. When she said yes, she is told “Blessed are you because the Lord God has blessed the fruit of your womb. For such present wisdom and glory of virtue, we have never seen nor heard.”
Top Image: The infant Jesus. Source: Unknown Author / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri