Book Review: The world of early Christians

Drawing on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a scholar offers a different portrait of the young Jesus.

'Jesus found in the Temple’ by James Tissot (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'Jesus found in the Temple’ by James Tissot
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Almost nothing is known about the youth of Joshua, son of Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, whose pupils created Christianity.
We may, however, assume that he was brought up and educated as a good Jew.
In his extensive research Prof. Stephen J.
Davis, master of Pierson College at Yale University and executive director of the Yale Monastic Archeology Project, offers us a completely different portrait of this youth, as it was widely believed by the Christians of the second and third centuries CE.
His view is based on the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or a collection of apocryphal legends about young Joshua, known there as Jesus. These memories were preserved in Greek as Paidika, the “Childhood Deeds” and appeared in Syriac, Slavonic, Georgian and Ethiopic manuscripts.
Their contents varied, sometimes quite significantly, but it was always possible to identify “a core intent” shared by the majority of the texts.
In these legends a five-year-old Jesus purified water on Shabbat and formed clay birds out of the mud found at the bottom of a pool. When accused by the son of the High Priest Annas of violating Shabbat, the young Jesus told him to wither away and die, while the birds flew and Jews were wondering about such miracle. Jesus caused the death of a boy who had run into his shoulder, and had no patience for his teacher Zacchaeus, who tried to instruct him in the Greek alphabet. Young Jesus needed no teacher, he knew everything. He brought clay animals to life, created colors in a dyer’s shop. At eight he stretched wood for a king’s throne in his father’s carpentry shop, brought to life a dead boy, collected water for his mother in his cloak. The list of miracles was impressive.
There was, however, some bewilderment and rejection of Paidika by a number of Christian scholars who realized that Jesus’s portrait in the manuscripts was hardly of a mature sage, but rather of a wild and unruly little boy. However, the texts became widely spread and popular. They found their reflections in the Jewish texts critical of Christianity, like the medieval Toledot Yeshu, and in the Talmud. Jesus’s curse of Annan resonated with Christians familiar with the Septuagint, where Israel is compared to a flowering shoot with roots that bear fruit. Jacob Neusner had proposed that the teacher Zacchaeus in the Paidika may have been loosely compared to Rabbi Johanan Ben-Zakai of the first century CE. Jews, in general, viewed the reported miracles as sorcery. Muslims accepted parts of the Paidika’s text in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy.
The modern scholarly rediscovery of Paidika took place in 1675 by the German historian Peter Lambeck. However, scholars were critical of the text as “barbarous,” “gross” and full of miracle mongering. The child Jesus had been derogated as an “enfant terrible,” a mischief maker who was guilty of ridiculous and menacing pranks. However, lately, a handful of scholars interpret Paidika as a window to the ancient Greco-Roman social setting and the child’s world.
Davis finds Paidika an excellent source for understanding the cultural and literary representation of children as social actors in the ancient Mediterranean world. To him Paidika reflects on the social practices and beliefs of those days, the tensions between Christians, pagans and Jews, the Greco-Roman cultural sites of memory like bird-watching, cursing and learning letters. Readers will find fascinating the author’s analytical and fair description of the Christian-Jewish- Muslim encounters, religious beliefs, polemics and disputes. The author finds it important to discover whether the experiences and memories of children in the Greco-Roman world of antiquity were different from our own. The author studies carefully the portrait of Jesus making the birds live, as it is preserved in St. Martin’s Church in the village of Zillis in Switzerland.
The book contains the entire text of the Greek Paidika, as written by “Thomas, the Israelite who considered it necessary to make known to all the brothers from the Gentiles how many deeds our Lord Jesus Christ did after he was born in our region of Nazareth at the village of Bethlehem [!]”; and also chapters 36-53 of the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. ■