Those of us who call ourselves Christian, or at least have respect and reverence for the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, generally know this man from a very serious, upstanding and ethical perspective. Jesus the man is usually characterized as kind, compassionate, gentle, wise, courageous, obedient to God, a healer, a teacher, and an innocent victim of state-sponsored execution.
There is another side to Jesus, however – a portrait found primarily through some of the early Christian literature written well after Jesus’ death. These stories have very little basis in fact; while it is sometimes difficult to discern the meaning of some of them, since they portray Jesus in a negative light, the majority served the purpose of demonstrating Jesus’ miraculous powers and to make converts. The tales offer us windows into the interests of early Christians as well as startling, sometimes amusing and quite human looks at a normally serious, remarkable figure that many consider their Lord.
Two of the main sources for these stories are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (also called Infancy of the Lord Jesus; Account of the Infancy of the Lord by Thomas, the philosopher of Israel; or Book of the holy apostle Thomas concerning the life of the Lord in his infancy, depending on the manuscript), dating to the end of the second century CE (Cullmann, 390), and the Arabic Infancy Gospel, written probably in the sixth century. Part of the “staying power” of these stories is evident by both the survival of the manuscripts that preserved them and paintings and drawings depicting them in art dating well into the Middle Ages.
Jesus and the sparrows. When this boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the crossing of a stream, and he gathered together into pools the running water, and instantly made it clean, and gave his command with a single word. Having made soft clay he moulded from it twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things. And there were also many other children playing with him. When a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing while playing on the Sabbath, he at once went and told his father Joseph, “See, your child is at the stream, and he took clay and moulded twelve birds and has profaned the Sabbath.” And when Joseph came to the place and looked, he cried out to him, saying, “Why do you do on the Sabbath things which it is not lawful to do?” But Jesus clapped his hands and cried out to the sparrows and said to them, “Be gone!” And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping. The Jews were amazed when they saw this, and went away and told their leaders what they had seen Jesus do. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2 (Cartlidge and Elliott, 107)
Jesus and the boy in the upper story. Now after some days Jesus was playing in the upper story of a house, and one of the children who were playing with him fell down from the house and died. And when the other children saw it, they fled, and Jesus remained alone. And the parents of him that was dead came and accused him of having thrown him down. And Jesus replied: “I did not throw him down.” But they continued to revile him. Then Jesus leaped down from the roof and stood by the body of the child, and cried with a loud voice: “Zenon” – for that was his name – “arise and tell me, did I throw you down?” And he arose at once and said: “No, Lord, you did not throw me down, but raised me up.” And when they saw it they were amazed. And the parents of the child glorified God for the miracle that had happened and worshipped Jesus. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 9 (Higgins, 392-93)
Jesus and the water. When he was six years old, his mother gave him a pitcher and sent him to draw water and bring it into the house. But in the crowd he stumbled, and the pitcher was broken. But Jesus spread out the garment he was wearing, filled it with water and brought it to his mother. And when his mother saw the miracle, she kissed him, and kept within herself the mysteries which she had seen him do. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 11 (Higgins, 396)
Jesus and the dyer. One day, when Jesus was running about and playing with some children, he passed by the workshop of a dyer called Salem. They had in the workshop many cloths which he had to dye. The Lord Jesus went into the dyer’s workshop, took all the pieces of cloth and put them into a tub full of indigo. When Salem came and saw that the cloths were spoiled, he began to cry aloud and asked the Lord Jesus, saying, “What have you done to me, son of Mary? You have ruined my reputation in the eyes of all the people of the city; for everyone orders a colour to suit himself, but you have come and spoiled everything.” And the Lord Jesus replied, “I will change for you the colour of any cloth which you wish to be changed,” and he immediately began to take the cloths out of the tub, each of them dyed in the colour the dyer wished, until he had taken them all out. When the Jews saw this miracle and wonder, they praised God. Arabic Infancy Gospel 37 (Cartlidge and Elliott, 112)
Jesus and the boys in the furnace. On another day the Lord Jesus went out into the road, and seeing some boys who had met to play, he followed them; but the boys hid themselves from him. The Lord Jesus, therefore, having come to the door of a certain house, and seen some women standing there, asked them where the boys had gone; and when they answered that there was no one there, he said again, “Who are these whom you see in the furnace?” They replied that they were young goats of three years old. And the Lord Jesus cried out, and said, “Come out, O goats, to your Shepherd.” Then the boys, in the form of goats, came out, and began to skip round him; and the women, seeing this, were very much astonished, and were seized with trembling, and speedily supplicated the Lord Jesus, saying, “O our Lord Jesus, son of Mary, you are truly that good Shepherd of Israel; have mercy on your handmaidens who stand before you, and who have never doubted: for you have come, O our Lord, to heal, and not to destroy.” And when the Lord Jesus answered that the sons of Israel were like the Ethiopians among the nations, the women said, “You, O Lord, know all things, nor is anything hid from you; now, indeed, we beseech you, and ask you of your mercy to restore these boys, your servants to their former condition.” The Lord Jesus therefore said, “Come, boys, let us go and play.” And immediately, while these women were standing by, the [goats] were changed into boys. Arabic Infancy Gospel 40 (Cartlidge and Elliott, 113)
Jesus and the plank. His father was a carpenter and made at that time ploughs and yokes. And he received an order from a rich man to make a bed for him. But when one beam was shorter than its corresponding one and 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 from the middle to one end.” And Joseph did as the child told him. And Jesus stood at the other end and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretching it made it equal with the other. And his father Joseph saw it and was amazed, and he embraced the child and kissed him, saying: “Happy am I that God has given me this child.” Infancy Gospel of Thomas 13 (Higgins, 396-97)
Jesus and the boy bitten by a snake. Joseph sent James to tie up some wood and carry it back to the house, and the child Jesus followed. While James was gathering the firewood, a viper bit his hand. And as he lay sprawled out on the ground, dying, Jesus came and blew on the bite. Immediately the pain stopped, the animal burst apart, and James got better on the spot. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 16 (Attridge and Hock)
Jesus and the boy who died. [This is perhaps the most disturbing of the stories and comes at the beginning of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The story starts in section 4 but does not really end until section 8, where we finally hear the efficacious message. Here we will quote portions; the entire text can be found in Attridge and Hock.] 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.” And all of a sudden, he fell down and died. Some people saw what had happened and said, “Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!” 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!” So Joseph summoned his child and admonished him in private, saying, “Why are you doing all this? These people are suffering and so they hate and harass us.” Jesus said, “I know that these are not your words, still, I’ll keep quiet for your sake. But those people must take their punishment.” There and then his accusers became blind. Those who saw this became very fearful and at a loss. All they could say was, “Every word he says, whether good or bad, has become a deed – a miracle even!” When Joseph saw that Jesus had done such a thing, he got angry and grabbed his ear and pulled very hard. The boy became infuriated with him and replied, “It’s one thing for you to seek and not find; it’s quite another for you to act this unwisely. Don’t you know that I don’t really belong to you? Don’t make me upset.”
A teacher by the name of Zacchaeus was listening to everything Jesus was saying to Joseph, and was astonished, saying to himself, “He is just a child, and saying this!” And so he summoned Joseph and said to him, “You have a bright child, and he has a good mind. Hand him over to me so he can learn his letters. I’ll teach him everything he needs to know so as not to be unruly.” Joseph replied, “No one is able to rule this child except God alone. Don’t consider him to be a small cross, brother.” When Jesus heard Joseph saying this he laughed and said to Zacchaeus, “Believe me, teacher, what my father told you is true. … If you wish to be a perfect teacher, listen to me and I’ll teach you a wisdom that no one else knows except for me and the one who sent me to you. It’s you who happens to be my student, and I know how old you are and how long you have to live. When you see the cross that my father mentioned, then you’ll believe that everything I’ve told you is true.”
The Jews who were standing by and heard Jesus marveled and said, “How strange and paradoxical! This child is barely five years old and yet he says such things. In fact, we’ve never heard anyone say the kind of thing this child does.” Jesus said to them in reply, “Are you really so amazed? Rather, consider what I’ve said to you. The truth is that I also know when you were born, and your parents, and I announce this paradox to you: when the world was created, I existed along with the one who sent me to you.” The Jews, once they heard that the child was speaking like this, became angry but were unable to say anything in reply. But the child skipped forward and said to them, “I’ve made fun of you because I know that your tiny minds marvel at trifles.” When, therefore, they thought that they were being comforted by the child’s exhortation, the teacher said to Joseph, “Bring him to the classroom and I’ll teach him the alphabet.”
Joseph took him by the hand and led him to the classroom. The teacher wrote the alphabet for him and began the instruction by repeating the letter alpha many times. But the child was quiet and did not answer him for a long time. No wonder, then, that the teacher got angry and struck him on the head. The child took the blow calmly and replied to him, “I’m teaching you rather than you’re teaching me, and your condemnation is great….” When he got over being angry he recited the letters from alpha to omega very quickly…. He began to quiz the teacher about the first letter, but he was unable to say anything. Then while many were listening, he said to Zacchaeus, “Listen, teacher, and observe the arrangement of the first letter…”
After Zacchaeus the teacher had heard the child expressing such intricate allegories regarding the first letter, he despaired of defending his teaching. He spoke to those who were present: “Poor me, I’m utterly bewildered, wretch that I am. I’ve heaped shame on myself because I took on this child. So take him away, I beg you, brother Joseph. I can’t endure the severity of his look or his lucid speech. This child is no ordinary mortal; he can even tame fire! Perhaps he was born before the creation of the world…. Poor me, friend, I’ve lost my mind. I’ve decided myself, I who am wholly wretched. I strove to get a student, and I’ve been found to have a teacher. Friends, I think of the shame, because, although I’m an old man, I’ve been defeated by a mere child…. When everybody says that I’ve been defeated by a small child, what can I say? … I just don’t know, friends. For I don’t know its beginning or its end. Therefore, I ask you, brother Joseph, take him back to your house. What great thing he is – god or angel or whatever else I might call him – I don’t know.”
While the Jews were advising Zacchaeus, the child laughed loudly and said, “Now let the infertile bear fruit and the blind see and the deaf in the understanding of their heart hear: I’ve come from above so that I might save those who are below and summon them to higher things, just as the one who sent me to you commanded me.” When the child stopped speaking, all those who had fallen under the curse were instantly saved. And from then on no one dared to anger him for fear of being cursed and maimed for life. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 4-8 (Attridge and Hock)
Attridge, Harold and Ronald F. Hock. The Complete Gospels. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancythomas-hock.html]
Cartlidge, David R. and J. Keith Elliott. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, especially pages 21-46.
Cullmann, Oscar, “Infancy Gospels,” in Hennecke, Edgar and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. One, 388-92, 404-08. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963. Original German edition, 1959.
Higgins, A.J.B., translator. “The Infancy Story of Thomas,” in Hennecke, Edgar and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. One, 392-401. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963. Original German edition, 1959.
Higgins, A.J.B., translator. “Later Infancy Gospels,” in Hennecke, Edgar and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. One, 408-17. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963. Original German edition, 1959.
Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.