Today in my class “Heresy” (about extracanonical early Christian literature) we looked at the infancy Gospels of James and Thomas. The former had stories nad traditions that were familiar to several students. The latter was, as always, a surprise and a bit of a puzzle for them. But how can one not find fascinating a story in which one readsthings like the following?
The teacher became exasperated and hit him on the head. Jesus got angry and cursed him, and the teacher immediately lost consciousness and fell facedown on the ground (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 14:4).
I sometimes wonder whether the author intended his or her work to be taken completely seriously. But the work does relate to serious questions for Christians who claim that Jesus was God incarnate, and particular for those who claim the incarnation happened when Jesus was conceived rather than at some later point such as his baptism.
What does it mean to say a five year old child is God incarnate? If one imagines Jesus as a child being perfectly behaved, doesn’t that involve denying his genuine humanity? If one maintains the Chalcedonian definition, does one end up having to say bizarre things like “God had a dirty diaper”?
Gospels like these don’t merely fill in the gaps left by New Testament Gospels. They continue the same process of exploring the idea that if someone was special as an adult, they must have been special in the same sort of way as a child.
The story in the Protoevangelium of James (as it is also known) likewise provides a great opportunity to explore the Euthyphro dilemma (whether whatever God defines as good is good, or whether goodness is extrinsic to God), and the idea that it is OK for God to kill whoever angers him – a view that makes most modern people uncomfortable but seems to be taken for granted in this story.
We also talked about other topics, like whether the author and readers/enjoyers of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are likely to have been women.
This is such a fun class to teach!