Fire-taming child: The power of miracles in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is an anonymous1 biographical work concerning the childhood of Jesus. It is usually dated to some time in the 2nd century. Much like the Elijah-Elisha cycle or the Johannine Sign Source, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a collection of discrete miracle folktales interwoven with controversy stories in which the prophet outwits his opponents. The work is thus a somewhat early account of the mighty words and deeds of the young Jesus.

Popular tales of the Christ child

Despite its relative obscurity today, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas enjoyed widespread and long-lasting popularity among Christians in the Classical and Medieval worlds. While the educated classes tended to dismiss the work as spurious and heretical (e.g. Eusebius of Caesarea & Pope Gelasius I), many manuscripts survive today in various far-flung languages (e.g. Greek, Syriac, Latin, Old Georgian, Arabic, Armenian, Old Irish, etc.).2 These often-irregular manuscripts reveal that communities added their own traditional tales about the Christ child to this growing collection. More intriguing still, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was sometimes bound together with canonical Gospels and other New Testament writings as in the 14th century German codex Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk where the tales are decorated with ink drawings.

Of course, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was disseminated for obvious reasons. Besides filling in gaps in Christ’s childhood left behind by the fourfold Gospel tradition, this Infancy Gospel offered entertaining stories of Jesus as a precocious and special boy. Jesus breathes life into clay sparrows,3 curses lads who oppose him, resurrects his playmates, instructs his teachers, multiplies grain into a feast, cures his brother’s snake bite, and stretches a beam of wood for his father’s business. The villagers are repeatedly amazed and exasperated: “Where was this boy born that his word becomes a deed?” (3:1).4 One schoolmaster returns Jesus to his father in awestruck despair: “Take this boy away from me, brother. This boy simply is not of this Earth; he can even tame fire. Perhaps this boy existed before the flood of Noah. What kind of womb bore him? What kind of mother reared him? I do not know. Woe is me, brother! He stupefies me!” (6:2).

There can be no doubt. This boy is a god.

Supplementary gospel

Herein lies the likely intentions of the compiler. As with other ancient child-hero biographies, the young Jesus of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is meant to anticipate and recapitulate the adult Jesus of the canonical Gospels.5 Both as a boy and as a man, Jesus performs startling deeds of power, disputes with Jews concerning Sabbath observance, and silences his foolish foes. Both as a man and as a boy, Jesus is a θεῖος ἀνήρ, a divine man. This child gospel thus supplements those adult gospels.

Other features of the work suggest its author intended these stories as an authentic addition to the canonical material. The narrative begins, for instance, by presenting Jesus as a creator reminiscent of Genesis 1. By the “character of his word alone” Jesus takes rushing water and separates it into “excellent” pools (1:1). He then fashions twelve sparrows out of the wet earth and commands them into motion: “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones” (1:4). When another child proceeds to destroy Jesus’ pools on account of their origin on the Sabbath day, Jesus curses the boy to death: “Your fruit (shall be) without root and your shoot shall be dried up like a branch scorched by a strong wind” (2:2, cf. Psalm 1:3). Thus Jesus, like God, defends his good creation from disturbance and “upholds all things by the power of his word” (Hebrews 1:3, cf. John 1:1-3). This Jesus is a perfectly orthodox Jesus, a faithful son who does what he sees his father—the God of Israel—doing (John 5:19-20).

More decisive still, at the end of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas the redactor appropriates the solitary childhood pericope contained in the New Testament Gospels, the story of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2:41-53). As in the previous tales that had demonstrated Jesus’ overpowering rhetoric, the scribes and the Pharisees at the Temple praise the child’s wisdom before his mother: “Blessed are you, because the Lord God has blessed the fruit of your womb. For such present wisdom and glory of virtue we have never seen nor heard” (15:4). Having thus witnessed the mighty words and deeds of the child Jesus, the reader of the childhood Gospel is now invited to continue on to the accounts of Christ’s later works, the canonical Gospels, perhaps picking up where Luke left off.6

Vengeful prophet

But not all readers are impressed. Despite its basically orthodox intentions and character, modern Christians are often disturbed by the depiction of Jesus contained in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This Jesus sometimes uses his power in order to punish others for what seem like small offenses. This Jesus strikes down a boy who runs into him, blinds those who accuse him of profaning the Sabbath, and smites a teacher who strikes him. Over time the townsfolk come to recognize and appreciate that Jesus is more than a child, he is the Son of God and must be treated as such.7 But surely this violent and self-assured boy cannot be the Jesus of orthodox Christian faith.

Plague-like behavior among the prophets of God might not have bothered most ancient and Medieval Christians, however. In fact, these destructive displays likely solidified Christ’s reputation as an unmatched divine-man and wonderworker. For sure, the great men of the scriptures were usually beneficent with their God-given powers. Yet this good name did not prevent them from sometimes becoming agents of wrath against evildoers. Elisha had doomed his mockers to be devoured by bears (2 Kings 2:23-25), Peter had called upon God to consume Simon Magus along with his money for an impious request (Acts 8:20-24), and Paul had blinded Elymas for challenging the gospel in the presence of a Roman official (Acts 13:8-11). The great trove of apocryphal literature that emerged in the first few centuries likewise proliferated examples of calamitous prophetic power, showcasing its efficacy in apostles like Peter, Paul, and John. God, so it seemed to most Christians, defended the honor of his prophets, sometimes with divine violence.8 Jesus was no exception (cf. Revelation 2:20-23, 1 Corinthians 11:29-30).

Miracles among the masses

The great mass of Christians throughout time who delighted in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas were probably not skilled in matters of faith. Instead of meditating upon the ethical teachings of Christ or upon the doctrine of atonement, these Christians justified their allegiance to the Church in large part by appealing to the amazing power of the Church’s God, Jesus Christ.9 Since these believers were not particularly sophisticated or introspective, stories of Christ’s mighty deeds would have formed the psychological core of their religious belief. For such people, the theological and moral questions of the faith could be technical and boring. They accepted these on faith. What was most important, rather, was that the God of the Church had proven himself to be the Almighty deity over and against other competing deities. He alone was the rewarder of good, the punisher of evil, and (later on) the heavenly patron of the Christian political order. Indeed, this God-man—the one who publicly healed the sick, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes, raised the dead, and humiliated his most learned countrymen—was the Lord of all. For its part then, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas offered more of this miraculous content that so captivated the Classical and Medieval mind. Even as a little child Jesus burst with power and wisdom.

So while many Christians both ancient and modern have found Thomas’ portrait of Jesus to be morally bankrupt and theologically frivolous, the enduring appeal exerted by the Infancy Gospel of Thomas demonstrates that the Jesus of popular conception could resist the molds into which the Church fit him.

1—The work became associated with one “Thomas the Israelite” at some point in the manuscript tradition.

2—Edgar Hennecke’s New Testament Apocrypha, Volume I, pages 388-389.

3—This story appears also in the Qur’an.

4—Translations from Tony Burke’s The Childhood of the Saviour (Infancy Gospel of Thomas): A New Translation (2009).

5—Thomas is familiar with the canonical Gospels and alludes to them throughout.

6—Some later versions of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas begin with the Matthean flight to Egypt.

7—Some argue that Jesus matures into a more moral person as the story proceeds. This seems unlikely based on the chronology of the pericopes (Jesus kills his teacher toward the end) and upon the dialogues Jesus engages in with others (Jesus never doubts his actions). In all likelihood morality is irrelevant within the bounds of the story: Jesus is a dangerous being and should be respected as such.

8—In the logic of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, as in the canonical Gospels, Jesus’ miraculous abilities, whether for good or for harm, indicate that God is with the child: “the parents of the child [Jesus raised] praised God for these wonders” (8:3, cf. 11:2, 15:5, Luke 7:16).

9—This was, after all, how Christianity first overcame the pagan cults of the Mediterranean world: God revealed his overwhelming power through miracles performed by his apostles and saints.

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