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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.


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L. Jesus' Childhood.


In the apocryphal gospels events relating to the time of Jesus' ministry are virtually ignored; that period is well covered in the canonical gospels. Gaps in the story of his career were perceived to be located in his parents' background, his birth, and his early years. Several apocryphal gospels relate incidents about Jesus as an infant and a young boy. The biblical precedent for such stories is likely to be the account in Luke's gospel of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12. That story is to be found in a modified form in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—a second-century composition, which, together with the Protevangelium of James, seems to have had an enormous influence on Christian tradition thanks partly to their having been re-edited in other, later books such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.


In Infancy Thomas the story of Jesus at the age of 12 is as follows:

And when he was twelve years old his parents went according to the custom to Jerusalem to the feast of the passover with their companions and after the feast of the passover they returned to their house. And while they were returning, the child Jesus went back to Jerusalem. But his parents supposed that he was in the company. And when they had gone a day's journey, they sought him among their kinsfolk, and when they did not find him, they were troubled, and returned again to the city seeking him. And after the third day they found him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening and asking them questions. And all paid attention to him and marvelled how he, a child, put to silence the elders and teachers of the people, elucidating the chapters of the law and the parables of the prophets. And his mother Mary came near and said to him, ‘Why have you done this to us, child? Behold, we have sought you sorrowing.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do you seek me? Do you not know that I must be about my father's affairs?’ But the scribes and Pharisees said. ‘Are you the mother of this child?’ And she said, ‘I am.’ And they said to her. ‘Blessed are you among women, because God has blessed the fruit of your womb. For such glory and such excellence and wisdom we have never seen nor heard.’ And Jesus arose and followed his mother and was subject to his parents; but his mother stored up all that had taken place. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and grace. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Some synopses such as Aland (1985) and Greeven (Huck 1981) print that story alongside the Lukan version. The relation between the two seems to show the secondary nature of the account in Infancy Thomas (e.g. in the elaboration of the references to Mary), but we need not see this as the result of direct copying by the author of Infancy Thomas. That author was a creative writer and not a scribe of Luke's gospel. Thus the version here is not a MS witness to the Gospel of Luke at this point. Possibly the author of Infancy Thomas knew Luke's story from the oral retelling of it in his own Christian community. Possibly he had read Luke. Either way his own retelling is a fresh, independent, albeit secondary account.


Except for the episode of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 in Lk 2:41–50 , the NT writings leave a tantalizing gap in the life of Jesus between his birth and his baptism at the beginning of the public ministry. Inevitably, the developing literary tradition, taking its cue from the childhood story in Luke, created a series of incidents that tell of events in Jesus' boyhood. Their main theme is to show Jesus' precocious awareness of his supernatural origin and his power over life, death, and nature.


The belief in Jesus' divinity is clearly orthodox in Christian doctrine, but the often sensational manifestations of his supernatural abilities displayed in the numerous childhood stories in apocryphal gospels tend to distort that belief. Extracts below from the second–third-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas have the effect of portraying the child Jesus as an enfant terrible. Modern readers are struck less by the piety underlying the stories than by the destructiveness of many of Jesus' actions. Such a negative theme may be paralleled in the NT story of Jesus' blasting the fig-tree (Mk 11:12–14, 20–4 ), but the recurrence of this theme makes it the dominant feature of Infancy Thomas, and other apocryphal texts, such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.


Two of the stories in Infancy Thomas are:

After this he again went through the village, and a child ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, ‘You shall not go further on your way’, and immediately he fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said, ‘From where was this child born, since his every word is an accomplished deed?’ And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is killing our children.’ (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 4)

Now a certain teacher, Zacchaeus by name, who was standing in a certain place, heard Jesus saying these things to his father, and marvelled greatly that, being a child, he voiced such things. And after a few days he came near to Joseph and said to him, ‘You have a clever child, and he has understanding. Come, hand him over to me that he may learn letters, and I will teach him with the letters all knowledge, and how to address all the older people and to honour them as forefathers and fathers, and to love those of his own age.’ And he told him all the letters from Alpha to Omega distinctly, and with much questioning. But he looked at Zacchaeus the teacher and said to him. ‘How do you, who do not know the Alpha according to its nature, teach others the Beta? Hypocrite, first if you know it, teach the Alpha, and then we shall believe you concerning the Beta.’ Then he began to question the teacher about the first letter, and he was unable to answer him. And in the hearing of many the child said to Zacchaeus, ‘Hear, teacher, the arrangement of the first letter, and pay heed to this, how it has lines and a middle stroke which goes through the pair of lines which you see, (how these lines) converge, rise, turn in the dance, three signs of the same kind, subject to and supporting one another, of equal proportions; here you have the lines of the Alpha.’ (ibid. 6)


The episode of the schoolteacher was a particularly popular theme that recurs in different places. It would seem that the childhood story in Luke, where the 12-year-old Jesus confounds the teachers of the Jewish law, was the inspiration behind the apocryphal versions. However, the mystical interpretation of the shape of the letters in the Greek alphabet is obscure in the account in Infancy Thomas and obviously does not derive from Luke's story. Clearly, for believers in earlier centuries, these stories struck a favourable chord and were not seen as alien to their Christological teachings.


The Arabic Infancy Gospel tells stories of the baby Jesus performing miracles during the Holy Family's exile in Egypt. The extract following contains the robbers who thirty years later are to be crucified alongside Jesus. These characters reappear, differently named, in other apocryphal texts.

And departing from this place, they came to a desert; and hearing that it was infested by robbers, Joseph and the Lady Mary decided to cross this region by night. But on their way, behold, they saw two robbers lying in wait on the road, and with them a great number of robbers, who were their associates, sleeping. Now those two robbers into whose hands they had fallen were Titus and Dumachus. Titus then said to Dumachus, ‘I beseech you to let these persons go free, so that our comrades do not see them.’ And as Dumachus refused, Titus said to him again, ‘Take forty drachmas from me, and have them as a pledge.’ At the same time he held out to him the belt which he had had about his waist, that he should not open his mouth or speak. And the Lady Mary seeing that the robber had done them a kindness, said to him, ‘The Lord God will sustain you with his right hand, and will grant you remission of your sins.’ And the Lord Jesus answered, and said to his mother, ‘Thirty years hence, O my mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem, and these two robbers will be raised upon the cross along with me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left; and after that day Titus shall go before me into Paradise.’ And she said, ‘God keep this from you, my son.’ And they went from there towards a city of idols, which, as they came near it was transformed into sand-hills. (Arabic Infancy Gospel, 23)

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