A Christmas question: Did the baby Jesus cry?

MARY (an appropriate name for this particular question) ASKS:

Did the infant Jesus cry?


Good one. A beloved Christmas carol says “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” which would have been a tiny miracle.

But the New Testament, which has the only early accounts of Jesus’ Nativity, tells us nothing about his infancy, or even his youth except for teaching in the Jerusalem Temple at age 12.

If pondered in terms of what Christianity has always thought there’d be every reason to assume the Babe of Bethlehem cried just like all other infants do, for the same physiological and emotional reasons. That’s a solid inference from the faith’s central and mysterious belief that Jesus was God incarnate and at the same time fully a human being (“yet without sin”). The New Testament reports that just like everyone else the adult Jesus could be tired, hungry, sorrowful and perturbed, and that he experienced pain and death.

In other words, truly human, not inhuman.

New Testament writings from the 1st Century began the process of defining Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. For instance: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

The Nicene Creed of A.D. 381, recited by multitudes each Sunday to this day, states that Jesus was “true God of true God” who “for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Many favorite Christmas carols say the same.

You get the impression that early Christianity had more trouble convincing people that Jesus was fully human than that he was fully divine. This is evident in the “pseudepigrapha” that some liberal scholars emphasize instead of focusing just on the four New Testament Gospels that the early church judged to be authentic and worthy of scriptural status. For one thing, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John originated much earlier than those non-biblical writings.

One major heresy that developed in the 2nd Century was Docetism, whose various versions essentially denied the reality of Christ’s incarnation, making him into a divinity who only appeared to be human. Many Docetists and Gnostics felt the world and the flesh were too corrupt to be fit vessels for divinity, and abhorred the thought that the Son of God could suffer and die.

Another attitude is found in the fraudulent “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (not to be confused with the earlier “Gospel of Thomas,” which some experts think could contain authentic verses). The oldest surviving manuscript of the “Infancy Gospel” dates from the 6th Century A.D. but its existence was noted by a historian around A.D. 185. Its Jesus is more or less human but exercises superhuman powers at a remarkably early age. As a mere tot (not age 12) he supposedly taught his elders, and miraculously removed pollution from pools of water, performed healings, and raised the dead. But he’s also a creepy fellow who’s said to petulantly curse a boy who then “withered up” and order death for another lad who accidently bumped into him. He also afflicts neighbors with blindness for no good reason! On the benign side, the 5-year-old Jesus of the ”Infancy Gospel” magically turns clay into living birds.

Islam’s Quran, which rejects Jesus’ divinity, repeated this account centuries later (in 3:49). The Quran also says God gave Jesus the power to speak oracles when an infant: “He shall speak to people from the cradle” (3:46).

Back to “no crying he makes.” Christian belief is better expressed by Cecil Alexander, who specifies crying in the verse below from “Once in Royal David’s City.” This charming children’s carol always begins the august “festival of lessons and carols” at Britain’s Cambridge University, broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve (and well worth a listen on U.S. public radio stations at 10 a.m. Eastern time):

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew.
He was little, weak, and helpless;
Tears and smiles, like us, he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Darren Blair

    I’ll have to go back and find the verse, but in the Bible it’s noted that Jesus grew, like all children grow, in learning along with age.

    As a kid, he likely skinned his knees.

    As a carpenter, he probably smashed his fingers a few times.

    He knew hunger (hence Satan’s tempting him with bread), exhaustion (he was asleep when the tempest came up), personal sorrow (he is recorded as weeping at the news of Lazarus’ death), and a whole host of other issues that humans have to deal with.

    In other words, he knows what it’s like to be human because he was one at one point.

    • helen

      “In other words, he knows what it’s like to be human because he was one at one point.”
      At one point, He lived on earth. Jesus Christ is still human-and-God now. That is the meaning of the resurrection, for Him and for us.

  • Carlh

    Thanks so much for this post. When I first saw the headline, I thought “Oh, brother!” But the discussion was interesting–and I particularly appreciate the verse from “Once in David’s Royal City,” which is a carol I’m familiar with but for which I’ve never seen that particular verse.

  • Kevin Spencer

    To answer the question at a later time in the Gospel is the shortest verse (and hopefully, the best translated one) in the New Testament, as Jesus made his way to the tomb of Lazarus: “Jesus wept.”

    • tmatt

      Not quite the same question, but nice twist.

  • Julie Gould

    He misses the point. Away in the Manger is a song for children. Children want to know that their beloved Jesus is not a gross, screaming, stinky intruder like their little brother or sister. He was perfect, so of course he didn’t cry. He was beautiful like a little doll, adorable, and therefore easy to adore. We suffer now from too much worldly realism. Go back and learn truth from the old paintings and poetry.

  • FW Ken

    Here’s my question: in what sense is material from the Gospel of Thomas “authentic”? What makes the canonical scriptures authentic? How are they recognized as authentic? If authentic means “Jesus said it”, then what is the value of verses that didn’t make it into the canonical bible?