Jesus as a Child? The imagination of the first Christians

Before I turn to the diversity of the early Christian world (see: here), I would like to talk about the peculiar imagination of the first Christians related to Jesus’ childhood. As you probably know, the New Testament gospels are silent about his early years. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t even mention his youth. The narrative starts with Jesus’ baptism as an adult. Our last gospel to be written (John’s) also begins with his baptism. We do have a small piece of information from Luke and Matthew. They both contain famous accounts of Jesus’ birth (even though they disagree on the details of that story!) Furthermore, Luke has to story of Jesus preaching in the Temple at the age of 12. And that’s it! I won’t go into the historical analysis and the question of the historical reliability of those stories. My point is simple: New Testament gospels don’t talk a lot about Jesus’ early years. Their main focus is on the preachings of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. That must have been frustrating for his followers. They certainly began to ask a question: What was he like during his childhood? Was he just like other kids on the block or was he somehow special? Did he have his supernatural abilities already as a child? If he did, how did he use them?


Believe it or not, we do have accounts that are topically related to Jesus’ early years. One of these narratives is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It originated at the end of the 2nd century among certain Gnostic communities of “Christians” (more about Gnostics in a later post). We have several medieval manuscripts of this gospel in Greek, Latin, and Syriac.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a biographical gospel that describes the life of the child Jesus from the age of 5 to age 12. We don’t know who wrote it and we are pretty sure that this is a folk narrative – aimed at the entertainment of readers. Hardly anyone thought that the stories about Jesus contained there have any historical accuracy. To put it bluntly, it’s a myth, a short collection of myths about Jesus’ early years. So, what is Jesus like in this infancy gospel? Was he fun to be around? Well, not exactly. He is portrayed as a spoiled child, an uncontrollable, monstrous prodigy. I’ll illustrate this point with several episodes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

  1. The boy Jesus, when he was around five years old, calls a playmate an “insolent godless dunderhead” when the child stirs up some water that Jesus had collected together. The boy shrivels up and dies on the spot at Jesus’ command!
  2. In another episode, a boy accidentally ran into Jesus. Jesus immediately declares: “You shall not go further on your way”, and the child died on the spot!
    1. Afterward, some of the villagers came to Joseph complaining about the problematic behavior (that’s an understatement of the year!) of Jesus asking him to take his family and leave. After all, he is killing other kids just because they annoy him!
    2. Joseph, being the good father, comes to Jesus and rebukes him for doing all of these terrible things. However, little did he know. Little Jesus is not ready to back down! He makes his accusers blind and rebukes Josephy by saying “Do not vex me!”.
  3. Also when Jesus was five he got into the argument with his teacher named Zacchaeus. What was this all about? Well, Zacchaeus was trying to teach young Jesus the Greek alphabet. But Jesus responded to him by saying “Since you do not know the true nature of the Alpha, how can you teach anyone the Beta? You hypocrite! If you know it, first teach the Alpha, and then we will believe you about the Beta.” After that, Jesus started to question his teacher leaving shocked at the knowledge that Jesus expressed.
  4. To be honest, little Jesus did have his good side also. Take for instance the ninth story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. There we are told that boy Jesus resurrected a young boy who fell from the roof and died.

What do we make of these stories? They are entertaining and they can tell us a little bit about the development of legendary tales of Jesus’ early years that circulated at the end of the 2nd century. However, they have nothing to tell us about the real historical Jesus. This gospel is written too late and it clearly shows signs of legendary embellishments as people were telling entertaining stories about Jesus’ childhood. For them, this was only a way to fulfill their imagination. I don’t think that anyone back then truly believed in the historical accuracy of those stories. Actually, we know for a fact that early Church authors considered the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to be a late, forged and historically unreliable narrative. And they were right. Nevertheless, it still is a good story – a story about the little Jesus as a troublemaker, a story that you won’t hear in your local Church. That’s for sure!

P.S. If you want to read all of these stories for yourself, I highly recommend the book by Zlatko Pleše and Bart Ehrman The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.

2 thoughts on “Jesus as a Child? The imagination of the first Christians”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *