Just before Christmas, Mark Hay published a piece over at Vice about certain accounts of Jesus’ miracles as a child. Specifically, Hay discusses apocryphal (extra-biblical or non-canonical, different terms for these stories that aren’t in the Bible) stories in which (in his words) “Lil’ Jesus used his divine powers to terrorize teachers, kill Jewish children, and be an all-around butthole.” While I disagree with a few points or interpretations of the material, the link-filled article is worth checking out.
In the article, I’m cited and quoted for my thoughts on the popularity of these stories in the medieval period. When he was putting the piece together, Hay emailed me with several questions about these apocryphal accounts, but since he was only able to include a few of my responses, I wanted to share my more general thoughts now that the article is published. Below is an edited version of my full response to his questions, accompanied by images from a manuscript that exemplifies some of my points: the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk (Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 8). This manuscript contains the oldest copy of a German synthesis of biblical and apocryphal stories about Jesus and the apostles, with over 400 drawings to illustrate the text, created in Austria around 1340.
Recently I’ve been working on a new English translation of the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and related, later additions (to be published in the Early Christian Apocrypha Series by Polebridge Press). Pseudo-Matthew is a translation, adaptation, and expansion of the Greek Infancy Gospel of James (also known as the Protevangelium of James), and was likely composed sometime in the seventh century. But in the later Middle Ages (from the twelfth century onward), other pieces kept getting added on to the main narrative. Some of these pieces were various episodes translated into Latin from the Greek Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or taken from lost sources that don’t otherwise survive.
Some authors also translated or adapted Pseudo-Matthew and its additions into other languages and forms (the German Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk is a noteworthy example) like poetry and sermons that people would have heard in church. Sometimes these authors transformed or added to the content in their own innovative ways. These stories also became popular in art like manuscript illuminations, sculptures, stained glass, and wall paintings. So there were a lot of these types of stories about Jesus’ childhood in medieval culture–we might think of apocryphal stories about Jesus as just another part of the multimedia of the Middle Ages.
These stories probably captivated medieval people for the same reasons they captivate us: they’re entertaining. Medieval people were no different from us in the fact that they craved good stories. In a lot of ways, stories about Jesus’ childhood were like the next good Netflix series. People wanted to know more about Jesus, and they found more in apocryphal narratives. All of these stories have layers to the points the authors want to make, and some of these are deep theological ideas; but, on the surface, they’re also compelling stories.
Some of these tales were outrageous, and they raise other types of questions. For instance, in a few episodes from the Infancy Gospel of James, Jesus curses other children or even a rabbi for interfering with him, and they end up dead. Medieval people wouldn’t have necessarily viewed Jesus’ acts as “malevolent” or even as “vengeance” the way we do. In many cases, the stories have something to do with someone insulting or affronting Jesus. Since medieval Christians recognized Jesus as divine, they would have also understood these stories as demonstrating some larger theological point about his holiness.
Similarly, Jesus’ actions would also be understood as mysterious, beyond human understanding in the same ways as God’s unknowability. In one story, a boy destroys a series of pools and trenches that lead the water from the River Jordan; this is described by the author at first as play, but Jesus calls it his work. So when the other child destroys it, it could be seen as symbolic of human disrespect for God’s work. And many of these stories aren’t about Jesus hurting others, but various episodes exhibiting his super-human powers through miracles–often emphasizing Jesus’ actions as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies (see the image to the right). One example is the story of a boy who was pushed off a roof by another child, but Jesus brings him back to life to bear witness to the fact that Jesus didn’t do it.
There is, however, another possible interpretation of some of Jesus’ childhood miracles in the additions to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and other sources: namely, that they point toward anti-Judaism.* In the series of episodes commonly found in later medieval manuscripts of the expanded apocryphal gospel, the stories often draw attention to antagonists as Jewish, hostile to the Holy Family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are confronted by their Jewish neighbors because of Jesus’ miracles; in his education, Jesus challenges the Jewish rabbis who attempt to teach him; some scenes mention the formation of a Jewish mob; and some episodes feature members of the Jewish community going to the Pharisees to report the unlawfulness of Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath.
Much of this attitude toward Jewish characters has to do with the text’s concern with the relationship or disjuncture between the Hebrew Law of the Old Testament and the New Covenant symbolized by Jesus and as discussed in the New Testament. Taken to an extreme, these issues led to negative, anti-Jewish attitudes in medieval texts. Some of this is at work in the details of Jesus’ childhood miracles in apocryphal stories. The unwillingness of the Jewish characters to recognize Jesus as Christ, or to understand his miracles, is thus meant to defame them.
We have to be careful not to view these stories as wholly separate from biblical stories in the medieval period. Medieval circulation, reception, and attitudes toward apocrypha were complex, and often they ran parallel to the circulation, reception, and attitudes toward the Bible. It can be easy to create a false dichotomy, though. Extra-biblical stories about Jesus and his followers were just as popular and prevalent as some of the biblical stories, often included together in the same places: just pages away in a manuscript, or in the same series of stained glass depictions in a church. (Again, the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk serves as one example among many.) Biblical and apocryphal narratives were part of the same overall store of knowledge about “biblical history,” even though the stories ultimately come from different sources.
Generally, infancy gospels began to lose interest in Western Europe during the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is especially true of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and later versions based on it. Protestants began to reject it for its non-canonical status, and especially for its associations with the veneration of Mary (which was a major sticking point for Protestants). A lot of questions arose about evaluating the Bible from original language manuscripts, and this led to new discussions about the canon of the Old and New Testament. While the rejection was mainly pronounced on the Protestant side of these debates, Catholics wishing to implement their own reforms also called for a return to the Bible. Over time and because of many factors, apocrypha were left behind in these debates about the Bible, doctrine, and theological points. Later, of course, scholars of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth century created new interest in them for understanding the history of Christianity in late antiquity and the medieval period.
* Pamela Sheingorn has discussed this issue in relation to illustrations of certain episodes in two manuscripts: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 2688 (made around 1270) and Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, SP II 64 (made around 1400)–in her article “Reshapings of the Childhood Miracles of Jesus,” in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, ed. Theresa M. Kenney and Mary Dzon (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012), 254-92. These issues are clearly present in the textual sources of these illustrations, too.
[Edit 12/29/16: Since posting, I have become aware that my own title might be offensive and off-putting, even though I meant it to be subversive to the title of the original article. Since I want to reach as many people as possible, and don’t really care to be inflammatory, I’ve changed the title of this post.]