The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Matthew and Luke are the only two canonical gospels that include information about Jesus' birth. Matthew's story ends while Jesus is still a baby. Luke includes one incident occurring when Jesus was twelve, but the gap between babyhood and twelve is glaring. Early Christians (like modern-day Christians!) were naturally interested in knowing more about Jesus' childhood. Hence, we have the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The text itself is devoted to the life of Jesus as a child. The gospel portrays Jesus as already endowed with special powers, but still having the mind of a child – a child who didn't always use those powers wisely. This was often upsetting to the other people described in the gospel story. But also upsetting to church leaders who had a hard time believing Jesus could ever have been capricious or malicious. Though the gospel ends with Jesus' maturation and growth in wisdom, the earlier events were undoubtedly the reason the gospel was determined to be heretical.

Scholars aren't sure of many things regarding this gospel except that its author is not likely to be the same one who wrote the Gospel of Thomas. They are two completely separate writings. This book records some of the earliest events that involved Jesus.

The author of the book identifies himself as "Thomas, the Israelite." At first, scholars thought this might have been Jesus' brother or one of the disciples. They are less likely to argue that position these days, since it seems that the author is not all that familiar with basic Jewish life. One would assume that Jesus' brother would have been well versed in those traditions.

Scholars aren't sure what the original language of the book was – there are fragments in both Greek and Syriac – which makes it difficult to give an accurate estimate of when the gospel was written. Most of the Greek manuscripts cannot be dated prior to the 13th century, though they seem more complete. The Syriac ones might go back to the 6th century. The oldest manuscripts are in Latin (5th century). Needless to say, there are substantial differences among the manuscripts, which suggest this book was quite popular well into the Middle Ages. The story of the sparrows (described below) can also be found in the Koran, though it is attributed to someone else.

Early church father Irenaeus declared it to be heretical in 185 C.E., so scholars know it was in existence by the 2nd century. It is possible that it was written as early as the 80s C.E., which would make it contemporaneous with Luke's gospel. Most think this infancy gospel borrowed the story of Jesus in the temple from Luke; others maintain that there were two independent traditions. Several of the church Fathers (including Hippolytus of Rome and Origen) reference this book. The most likely dating is mid-to-late second century.

Structure and Contents
While the book appears to be a series of anecdotes with little organization, a closer look reveals three miracles occurring before and after each of the two sets of lessons. The story ends with Luke's account of Jesus in the temple. There is no suggestion in this gospel regarding Jesus' true identity as God's son; hence, there are no theological or Christological arguments. On the contrary, he is merely a precocious little boy.

The story begins with an introduction by Thomas, the Israelite, the philosopher. His intent is to make known the works of Jesus during his childhood. It begins at the time Jesus was five years old.

Jesus was playing at the ford of a brook. He gathered the water into little pools and purified it by his commands. He also made soft clay. Out of this, he fashioned twelve sparrows. Unfortunately, it was the Sabbath, and a certain Jew complained to his father, Joseph, that Jesus had polluted the Sabbath by "working." Joseph ran to the spot and admonished Jesus for what he had done. Jesus, however, clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows, "Go!" With that, all the sparrows took flight, chirping away as sparrows do. Many Jews witnessed this.

While most were amazed, the son of a scribe was not. He dispersed the waters that Jesus had gathered. Needless to say, Jesus was not happy. He asked what difference it made that the water was in a pool. Still angry, Jesus said the boy would be "withered like a tree." Immediately, it came to pass – the boy withered up completely. His parents bewailed his condition and took him to Joseph, charging him for what Jesus had done.

Another time, Jesus was walking through the village when a child ran into him. Again, Jesus was very unhappy, and said, "You will not finish your course." The child immediately fell down and died. Again, there were many witnesses. This child's parents went to Joseph and accused Jesus, saying that he either had to leave the village or be taught to be kind – to bless the children, not curse them.

This time, Joseph responded by taking Jesus to task. He asked him why he was doing such things. Jesus, however, did not defend himself. He was not happy that people had approached his father; in fact, he announced that they would suffer punishment. At that moment, those who had accused him were struck blind. Now people were really afraid. It was obvious that Jesus could (and would) do whatever he wanted. Joseph, however, "took hold upon his ear and wrung it sore." Jesus protested and reminded Joseph that he was his son.

A teacher, Zacchaeus, heard this exchange and marveled at Jesus' intelligence, though he was still a young child. Zacchaeus approached Joseph and offered to be Jesus' teacher. He would teach him letters, but also respect for his elders and love for his peers. Arrangements were made. But the instruction wasn't easy.

Jesus questioned everything. When Zacchaeus tried to teach about "Beta," Jesus said he (Zacchaeus) didn't even understand "Alpha." Every step was a challenge. At one point, Jesus "confounded the mouth" of the teacher so he was unable to speak. Eventually, Zacchaeus realized how inadequate he was. He asked Joseph to take Jesus away and said he was not "earthly born." Zacchaeus lamented that he could not keep his senses around Jesus. Despite his learned and advanced years, he was no match for Jesus.

Admitting defeat for Zacchaeus was very shameful. After all, he was "overcome by a little child" and he was no longer able "to look him in the face." He asked Joseph to take him home for "he is somewhat great, whether god or angel….I know not."

While the Jews were encouraging Zacchaeus, Jesus laughed greatly. He then announced that all who had been barren would bear fruit and those who had been blind would see. He admitted that he was "from above." Of course, all those that he had previously cursed were immediately made whole. From then on, people never provoked him because they were afraid of what he might do.

On another day, Jesus and some friends were playing in the upper story of a house. One of the young children fell down from the house and died. All the other children fled in terror, but Jesus remained. The dead child's parents came and, upon seeing Jesus with their little boy, assumed he had "cursed" him. Jesus denied it, but they still accused him. Jesus then commanded, "Zeno, arise and tell them whether I pushed you off the house!" The little boy arose and denied that Jesus had pushed him. Obviously, his parents were elated and glorified God.

Days later, another young man cut one of his feet with an axe, and was near death from loss of blood. Jesus grabbed the foot and healed it. At this point the people began to worship Jesus, realizing that God dwelled within him.

When Jesus was six, his mother sent him to draw water and bring it home. In the process, however, he broke the pitcher. Jesus then spread out his garment and filled it with water, and carried it home. His mother kept "these things in her heart." When he was eight, he planted one grain of wheat in a field that subsequently produced enough wheat to feed all of the poor. On another occasion, he helped his father by elongating a beam to match another.

As the child grew, Joseph again sent him to learn letters. This teacher decided to hold a hard line because Jesus' reputation had preceded him. Jesus, again, taunted him about the Alpha and the Beta. The teacher "smote him on the head" for being insolent. Jesus was crushed and cursed the teacher, who fell to the ground. Jesus returned home where Joseph "grounded" him for a while.

Still another teacher (a friend of the family) offered to teach Jesus. Joseph agreed, but warned him. Jesus went with him, found a book, opened it, and spoke by the Holy Spirit, and ended up teaching the teacher. Many marveled at the beauty of his teaching and his ability to read. Joseph, hearing the commotion, ran to the school, thinking his friend was also dead. This teacher, however, was alive and well, and commended Jesus, telling Joseph to take him home. Jesus was so happy that he healed the previous teacher.

Three more healings followed – the healing of James from the effects of a snakebite, the healing of another dead child, and the healing of a construction worker. By this time, all the people were astonished. They believed Jesus was from heaven and was now saving many souls from death. The gospel ends with the account of Jesus in the temple, which parallels that which is found in Luke 2:41-52. The implication is that, by this time, Jesus understood his gift.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha