I used to read aloud from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in one of my classes for shock value. My undergraduate students, new to the critical study of biblical literature and early Christianity, would take their seats. I would tell them that they were about to hear stories that they had never heard before, stories about the childhood of Jesus.
Some students would be fascinated; others would be unsure; still others would be scandalized. Yes, the stories got their attention. But even when things worked to perfection, my part in it felt hollow. It was like an unsatisfying card trick. Look at the deck. Think you know all the cards? Here’s one you’ve never seen before
I like to watch magicians perform. A good show fills the audience with starlit wonder. But my trick? It left everyone feeling, well, tricked. That’s no way to teach.
Even so, my students managed to teach me. Semester after semester they would ask, why? Why does the child Jesus behave badly? This is the same question that Mary and Joseph ask each other and themselves in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It began to dawn on me that this account as well as the Proto-gospel of James, another infancy gospel, portray more than just a single hero or star. They portray an ensemble cast of characters struggling to understand one another.
There can be little doubt that the childhood years of Jesus captured the imagination of early Christians. A number of early Christian writings fall under the category of “infancy gospel,” such as the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-gospel of James are likely the earliest of the bunch. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas includes stories about Jesus between the ages of five and twelve. The Proto-gospel of James begins with the miraculous conception of Mary and goes on to describe how she, at the age of twelve, meets Joseph, an elderly widower. Later, the supernatural birth of Jesus takes place in a cave outside of Bethlehem.
When I began investigating the infancy gospels, my frame of reference was the genre of ancient biography. Plutarch writes about the childhood of Alexander the Great. Suetonius does the same for little Augustus. No wonder ancient Christians had wanted to tell and hear childhood stories about Jesus and Mary. Early Christian infancy gospels scratched a biographical itch, or so I thought.
But my perspective on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-gospel of James gradually changed. One factor was a surge in scholarship on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. A critical edition of the Greek text of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was published in 2010 by Tony Burke, a remarkable achievement that leaves all of us who study the text in his debt. Add to this a raft of new studies that raise and answer many other exciting questions: Did the childhood stories originate in circles hostile to Christian claims about Jesus
Growing interest in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was matched by a wave of publications asking new questions of the Proto-gospel of James. How does the account dramatize notions of ritual and moral purity (Lily C. Vuong)? How does it borrow from and contest classical discourses of virginity. Does it disrupt modern assumptions about virginity Does the Proto-gospel of James invite a specific kind of response from readers
Serious and methodologically innovative, this scholarship not only taught but also inspired me to contribute to the study of these gospels. Good scholarly conversation invites more voices.
As I studied the infancy gospels, I began to wonder if something had been overlooked in the intense scholarly focus on the figures of Jesus and Mary. That something, I concluded, was the depiction of familial relationships.
In my book, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels, I use the term family gospels instead of “infancy gospels.” The new terminology puts a spotlight on the dynamics of household relationships in the accounts. Moved from the periphery of Christian literature, these family gospels reflect broader concerns of second- and third-century Christianity. Images of family life surface in sources ranging from Paul’s letters to early Christian martyr accounts, from the Pastoral epistles to the Apocryphal Acts. Sometimes the context is prescriptive, as in the Pastoral epistles. Elsewhere, as in the Apocryphal Acts, upper-class claims about the purpose of marriage and household are scrutinized through narrative.
Against this background, scenes of domestic life in the family gospels are richly ambiguous. Confusion and misunderstanding swirls around and between the members of the holy family. In the Proto-gospel of James, for example, Joseph’s doubts about the paternity of Mary’s unborn child explode in wild accusations: “Who has done this wicked deed in my home?” Mary, for her part, is equally distressed. Although Gabriel gives Mary the news about her pregnancy, she quickly forgets the information.
In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the deeds of the child Jesus leave Mary and Joseph searching for answers. A version of the Lukan childhood story about the twelve-year-old Jesus forms the conclusion. In it, Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem at the temple. Mary and Joseph, meanwhile, do not know where he is. When they finally find him in the temple, Mary asks Jesus, “Why have you treated us this way?” It mirrors a similar question that Joseph puts to Jesus after he curses and harms several children: “Why do you say such things?” Mary and Joseph have had enough.
The mounting pressure of questions without answers—of not knowing—puts a strain on the family. It chips away at familial roles. Is Jesus the child of Mary and Joseph? At the end of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus seems poised to leave his parents for a different household: “Did you not know,” the twelve-year-old Jesus asks, “that I must be in the place of my Father?” In the Proto-gospel of James, questions about the precise nature of the relationship between Joseph and Mary remain unresolved. A midwife asks Joseph, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” Joseph’s response is a series of half-steps and switchbacks: “My betrothed . . . I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit” Who is Mary? Joseph does not know.
The early Christians who wrote, read, and heard the family gospels wanted more details about Jesus and Mary. But this desire did not express itself in accounts of solitary holy figures. Instead, the family gospels depict Jesus, Mary, and Joseph tangled up in the web of domestic life. The portrayal neither affirms the patriarchal order of the Pastoral epistles nor evokes the harmony of the renunciant household in the Apocryphal Acts. The home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is in constant disarray.
This portrayal of Jesus’s family may be shocking to modern sensibilities accustomed to tranquil Nativity scenes. But I do not think that early Christians read the family gospels for shock value. When we widen our gaze to take in not only the cursing of the child Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas but also the struggle of Mary and Joseph to make sense of the boy’s behavior, we can begin to see why such stories appealed to ancient Christians. Both family gospels depict members of the holy household opting to create and maintain connections amid chaos and ignorance. Family is not a clearly defined institution in the “family” gospels. The cohesive domestic unit is forged through a series of choices made under confusing circumstances. Ancient Christians found in these stories a moving optimism about the persistence of human relationships in the face of uncertainty.
Now when I teach the family gospels, I invite students to imagine themselves as Mary and Joseph and to reflect on the significance of confusion in the portrayals of the holy household. While early Christian sources often project idealized representations, the family gospels dramatize imperfection and render it meaningful. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do not understand one another. They are, nonetheless, some kind of family.