New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Two

This week’s class focused on Infancy Gospels, with particular emphasis on the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the earliest examples of this literature. We began, however, with a discussion of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to spend less time discussing canonical texts in this incarnation of the course, but it helps considerably to have the students be aware of the content of the canonical infancy material. So we read Matthew 1-2 together and noted its similarities and differences with Luke 1-2. The differences are particularly significant as infancy gospels like Infancy James must confront these differences in the process of harmonizing the two accounts. I discussed also the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (and lack of mention of Joseph) in Mark 6:3 and the anti-Christian polemic in Celsus’s True Doctrine, the Talmud, and the Toledot Yeshu (all in anticipation of our examination of Infancy James).

For Infancy James we looked first at a segment from the documentary Banned From the Bible (History Channel, 2003), which helped students recall the contents of the text and opened up conversation on some of the interpretations and implications of the text. Much of our discussion focused on why Mark is so silent on Joseph. There seemed to be a desire on the part of at least a few students to solve this problem, to figure out what happened in history. Personally, I think it impossible to reconstruct the family of the historical Jesus; Mark leaves us with several mysteries that simply cannot be solved. All we can do, at least in this course, is try to understand how authors of texts like Infancy James, confronted with such mysteries, tried to come up with solutions (unsatisfying though they may be).

It’s widely known (I think) that I have a soft-spot for Infancy Thomas—it was the focus of my doctoral dissertation and several additional published works. I’m not alone in my appreciation for this text; many scholars enjoy introducing it to students because it is one of the more outlandish texts of the Christian Apocrypha. As my students said, Jesus is here portrayed as a “brat” and a “murderer.” As I often do with discussions of this text, I tried to convince the students that Infancy Thomas‘s portrayal of Jesus would not be so problematic in antiquity and that late-antique objections to the text were about how it contradicts John’s declaration that Jesus’ first miracle was at Cana, not because its cursing Jesus was offensive and inappropriate. I brought into the discussion the use of the story of Jesus animating the birds (Infancy Thomas 3) in the Qur’an and the Toledot Yeshu (noting that it seems to be a story well-known even to outsiders to and critics of Christianity); we also looked at the story’s use in the 1999 Jesus telefilm starring Jeremy Sisto, the humorous adaption of Infancy Thomas 9 in the “Adventures of Little Jesus” cartoon on Youtube , and Anne Rice’s first Christ the Lord book, which draws heavily on the infancy gospels. Infancy Thomas has made a large impact on popular culture; the students really enjoy being exposed to these creative uses of the text. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to look at the segment on the text from Secret Lives of Jesus (National Geographic 2006; go HERE to see it, start at the 12-minute mark). Visually interesting though it is, the segment makes a lot of mistakes in its description of the gospel. I was planning on having the students point out the errors as a way of encouraging them to watch such documentaries with a critical eye.

We finished up the class with a quick look at later infancy gospels, such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Book of the Birth of the Savior (aka M. R. James’s Latin Infancy Gospel), the Syriac Life of the Virgin (known in Arabic translation as the Arabic Infancy Gospel), and the Armenian Infancy Gospel. I assigned also a summary of the Revelation of the Magi and showed the class a short video of Brent Landau discussing his work on the text. I asked Brent to prepare this for me, and several other colleagues have contributed videos that I will show in subsequent classes. Alas, we did not have time to discuss the text but at least they are aware of it and can follow up on it if they wish. The last text mentioned was On the Priesthood of Jesus, in which Mary’s claims of perpetual virginity are confirmed by midwives (recalling Salome’s gynecological examination of Mary in Infancy James).

Clearly Christian literature is rich with stories of Jesus’ childhood and infancy (and Mary’s too). The lecture could easily have been expanded to two classes (note for next year). Next week we turn to texts focusing on Jesus’ adult career.


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2 Responses to New Testament Apocrypha Course: Reflections on Week Two

  1. Christin Spencer says:

    I agree that we could have used more time for discussion on the infancy gospels, especially the Revelation of the Magi, which I found to be a particularly intriguing read. We outlined some inconsistencies between the Revelation of the Magi with the cannonical gospels of Luke and Matthew, as well as some common conceptions of the Nativity story, such as the presence of three wise men at the manger in which Jesus was born.

    The Revelation of the Magi presents us with a large group of Magi who greet Jesus, Matthew mentions wise men but does not number them, and Luke only mentions shepherds. What I wondered most was how common Christian conceptions of the Nativity survived through tradition in a time when abiding by the cannonical texts was of (sometimes) a life or death situation. How can the location of Jesus’s birth (be it manger, stable, cave, or home etc) be inconsistent between texts, and especially the cannonical gospels of Luke and Matthew? Luke claims that Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for a census, wheras Matthew places the birth in a home, which would either imply Nazareth, or that the family was already living in Bethlehem. Even the actual birthing of Jesus varies from supernatural to human in different accounts of the nativity.

    How can all this be disputed within the Bible – that Christians use as a source of dogma – when such a widespread holiday as Christmas holds the popularized Nativity story near and dear, which appears now to be uncertain. I suppose this is the reason as to why New Testament apocrypha is so fascinating, as it can challenge one’s knowledge of the events and popular beliefs about and around the time of Jesus. I look forward to reading, comparing, and critiquing more NT apocrypha!

  2. barbara Siskos says:

    The Infancy Gospel of ¸Thomas, blew me away! The Jesus that I was raised to believe in, as a Christian, would never commit sins as suggested in the Gospel. I say that , to say this: I am just as convinced that the Apocryphal literature is invalid now, as it was for me the first time I heard of it. Moreover, the revelation of the Magi, also created a proverbial light to ignite for me, as there exist discrepancies as to how many there were. I was raised to believe that there were 3 in total. Continued reading of the various accounts by various writers will certainly continue to create a canvas of inquiry for me.

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