We unfortunately do not have many stories about Jesus’ childhood in the Christian Gospels. Only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke’s, mention anything about Jesus’ birth. What they do mention turns our expectations about God upside-down: Jesus the God Child is born not to a royal family, not into a family of wealth, and not even in the luxury of a home; rather, Jesus is born into a poor, unknown family of no status and in a stable. And from the moment of his birth, King Herod is out to kill him, despite him being a defenseless infant with no supernatural power or mighty army.
Between Matthew and Luke, only Luke features a story of Jesus in his later childhood—when he, as a twelve-year-old, studied at the temple. In Luke 2:41-52, we read the following:
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. When Jesus was twelve years old, they went to the festival as usual. When the festival was over, they went home, but Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. His parents did not know about it. They traveled for a whole day thinking that Jesus was with them in the group. They began looking for him among their family and close friends, but they did not find him. So they went back to Jerusalem to look for him there. After three days they found him. Jesus was sitting in the Temple area with the religious teachers, listening and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and wise answers. When his parents saw him, they wondered how this was possible. And his mother said, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you. We have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why did you have to look for me? You should have known that I must be where my Father’s work is.” But they did not understand the meaning of what he said to them. Jesus went with them to Nazareth and obeyed them. His mother was still thinking about all these things. As Jesus grew taller, he continued to grow in wisdom. God was pleased with him and so were the people who knew him.
When I read this story about Jesus in the temple, I cannot help but feel that Jesus as a kid was a bit sassy! Here Jesus’ parents are, worried sick about some disaster or crime befalling Jesus, and Jesus’ first response when he sees them after being missing for three days is, “Geesh, parents, you should have known better!” That is not exactly the response that conservative Christian child training experts would call “respectful.” In fact, Kristin Johnston Largen describes Jesus’ response as womanish. Womanish is a word coined by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. The word is an adjective used to describe African-American girls who are engaged in “willful behavior”—which is the very sort of behavior many conservative Christian child training experts believe is sinful. Such experts would say a child who behaves like Jesus here behaved needs to have his will broken.
Largen writes, “[Womanish] seems a fitting descriptor of Jesus’ behavior in this account. Although still a boy, he is confident enough to stay behind, all by himself, in the big city of Jerusalem; not only that, he has the courage and the confidence to debate with the rabbis as their equal.”[i] It is remarkable, indeed, that Jesus has these abilities. This passage hints at the fact that Jesus is not merely human; he also is fully God. So as he grows, as his brain and body develop, he has an increasingly powerful grasp on spiritual matters. He also has the confidence to break away from his parents and strike out on his own, even though he is but a child. It is clear that, even though he later agrees to be obedient to his parents, he is making a concession to them—he is doing it to be nice, not because it is necessary.
Even more remarkable is that Luke emphasizes in this passage that Jesus “grew in wisdom.” While this would be normal for the human side of Jesus, it is abnormal for the divine side. Jesus, while fully God, still has to grow in wisdom. He is not born with full wisdom. Like any other child, he has to learn about the world. He has to learn right from wrong, how to self-regulate, and how to express himself using words and ideas. Largen says that, “The statement that Jesus ‘increased in wisdom’ suggests that Jesus’ infancy and boyhood are not simply God play-acting; they are not a diversion or a ruse used to disguise God’s true nature until the right time. Instead, they reveal a God who is coming to know the world in a new way.”[ii]
While the story of Jesus in the temple is fascinating, apart from it and the two stories of Jesus’ birth, we know next to nothing about what it was like for him to be a child who was both fully human and fully God. At the same time, there are apocryphal gospels—that is, gospels that are not officially considered part of the Bible—that contain stories of Jesus’ early and later childhood. Two gospels in particular, the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, focus on such stories. While the Infancy Gospel of James mainly looks at Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas features a plethora of stories about Jesus when he was between the ages of five and twelve. This gospel, written by Thomas the Israelite for the purpose of “mak[ing] known the extraordinary childhood deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ,”[iii] is “one of the earliest pieces of Christian writing outside of the New Testament.”[iv]
It is understandable that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not considered part of the official Christian canon because of how it portrays the child Jesus. In this gospel, “Far from being the ‘obedient’ son of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is defiant and haughty towards everyone with whom he comes in contact, including his parents.”[v] Jesus repeatedly throws tempter tantrums that result in numerous people being injured and killed (though he later heals them all). At the same time, there are some beautiful, poetic passages that hint at what it might have looked like for young Jesus to grow in wisdom and power. For example, in Chapter Two of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the following story is recounted:
When this child Jesus was five years old, he was playing by the ford of a stream; and he gathered the flowing waters into pools and made them immediately pure. These things he ordered simply by speaking a word. He then made some soft mud and fashioned twelve sparrows from it. It was the Sabbath when he did this. A number of other children were also playing with him. But when a certain Jew saw what Jesus had done while playing on the Sabbath, he left right away and reported to his father, Joseph, “Look, your child at the stream has taken mud and formed twelve sparrows. He has profaned the Sabbath!” When Joseph came to the place and saw what had happened, he cried out to him, “Why are you doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath?” But Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows, “Be gone!” And the sparrows took flight and went off, chirping. When the Jews saw this they were amazed; and they went away and reported to their leaders what they had seen Jesus do.[vi]
Between apocryphal stories like this and the few canonical texts we do have (Jesus being chased down by Herod, people like Simeon and Anna giving surprise proclamations about Jesus, and Jesus giving his parents a fright by staying back at the temple), I think it is fair to say that, “Both Joseph and Mary had their hands full as Jesus was growing up.”[vii] While we do not have much to go off of, what we do know is that Jesus was fully human. This means that, as an infant and child, he did everything every other infant and child did. That means he nursed, he peed and pooped, he screamed, he spit up milk on Mary, and all the other things normal human babies do—“ none of which are ‘god-like’ activities.”[viii] And all those things human children do during their two’s and three’s? Yeah, he did those things, too. Temper tantrums, included! As the early church father Irenaeus once wrote, “It was not enough simply that the Word should become a human being: it was necessary that he should pass through every age of life, from infancy to mature years.”[ix]
In contrast to the divine or enlightened children we see in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the Child God we see in the Christian Gospels takes a remarkable and rather unique incarnational form: not simply a human child, not simply a child deity, and certainly not a child born into power and privilege—but a powerless, fully human god-child born into a violently anti-child world. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Whereas God becoming a fully human person comes with its inherent risks — disease, the exigencies of mundane life, hunger, the inglorious normalcy of bodily functions like urination and defecation, and so forth — God becoming a fully human child comes with an abundance of additional risk. God entered the world through a human womb, where birth fatalities in the ancient Middle East ran high.[xii] Luke’s “And she gave birth”[xiii] indicates that God emerged through the grueling, exhausting process of a real, human birth.[xiv] God entered life during the time of the Massacre of the Innocents, where children were violently slaughtered by the government.[xv] God grew up as an infant in a place where “high infant and child mortality rates rocked the world of God’s people, where only one in two children lived into adulthood.”[xvi] Surviving childhood during biblical times “was a major feat.”[xvii]
Furthermore, by becoming a child, God accepted the possibility of child abuse. We know from stories in the Tanakh that child abuse occurred in ancient Hebrew society. The stories of Lot’s daughters, Dinah, and Tamar indicate sexual abuse of children. The stories of Abel, Joseph, and Rehoboam indicate physical abuse of children. Indeed, in the Tanakh alone, there are almost 200 texts about violence against children.[xviii]
This is the world into which that the God of Christianity actively entered in the most vulnerable form: a defenseless, utterly dependent infant. In fact, the Gospel writers go out of their way to emphasize Jesus’ vulnerability. “The dark specter of danger and peril hovers menacingly over the whole of his early life.”[xix] In the Gospel of Matthew, we are repeatedly told stories indicating that Jesus almost did not make it. In the very beginning of his story, Jesus and his mother Mary are almost abandoned by Joseph. It is only the intervention of an angel that keeps Joseph involved in the family. It is only a few days after Jesus’ birth that Herod first tries to find Jesus in order to kill him. A few days later, Herod decrees that all infant boys are to be slaughtered. Again, it is only the intervention of an angel that saves Jesus. The angel comes to Joseph, again, and tells Joseph to take his family to Egypt to ensure Jesus remains safe. Then in the only story we have of Jesus’ adolescence in the Gospel of Luke, his parents accidentally abandon him for three days. All sorts of things could have gone wrong!
Put together, these stories demonstrate just how precarious existence can be for a marginalized young god-child who is fully human. Unlike Buddha, Jesus is not born into a powerful, ruling family who can defend him with royal armies. He is born into a poor family who has to resort to a manger for his birth. Unlike Krishna, Jesus cannot supernaturally wage war against human kings or shape-shifting demons. He must abide by the normal stages of child development. Unlike Muhammad, he is a god who experiences all these human experiences.
While God taking the form of a human child is not unique among world religions, therefore, the form and significance of the Christian incarnational act is truly unique. In no other religion do we see God becoming a marginalized, fully human child who is also fully God. In no other religion do we see God having to grow and learn according to the normal stages of child development. In no other religion do we see God putting Themselves at the same potential risks other children face, like infanticide and poverty and child abuse.
Additionally, in no other religion does the incarnation of God as a marginalized, fully human child mean so much to that religion. I would argue that the incarnation of Jesus is the most essential aspect of Christianity. For it is in the incarnation, decades before the crucifixion or resurrection, where we see clearly the salvation God has brought to us. Jesus is savior from the moment of his birth. [xx]
By becoming a marginalized, fully human child, God ushered in a topsy-turvy Kingdom where the last are first and the first are last and children are at the center of what it means to pursue God. I believe this is full meaning of Christology—that we must center the fact that God became a child and we must lift up the child Jesus as our path to God.
Get a free download of a Christian parenting manifesto that helps us guide children into healthy spirituality + the most helpful parenting resources with progressive values.
[i] Kristin Johnston Largen, Baby Krisnhna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation, Orbis Books, 2011, p. 85.
[ii] Ibid, p. 129.
[iii] Ibid, p. 96.
[iv] Ibid, p.94.
[v] Ibid, p.94.
[vi] Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 58.
[vii] Largen, p. 4.
[viii] Ibid, p. 118.
[ix] Saint Irenaeus, cited in Denis Minns, Irenaeus, Georgetown University Press, 1994, p. 91.
[x] Largen, p. 119: “While the Gospels do not include such details, we can be sure that Jesus cried when he was hungry and got angry at his mother when she did not pick up as quickly as he would have liked. Certainly, he would have been fussy, even irritable, and he probably fought nap time tooth and nail like all children do at one time or another. Imagine him teething, being potty-trained, being spanked. Imagine him learning to speak, learning to walk, learning to read and write. We usually do not consider these things when we think about God, but infancy narratives in scripture encourage us to do so. Jesus’ humanity is not sui generis, it is our humanity.”
[xi] Adam Gopnik, “What Did Jesus Do?” The New Yorker, May 24, 2010, p. 76.
[xii] Tarja S. Philip, Menstruation and Childbirth in the Bible: Fertility and Impurity, Peter Lang, 2006, p. 91.
[xiii] Luke 2:7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
[xiv] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2004, p. 126-7.
[xv] Matthew 2:16: “Herod saw that the wise men had fooled him, and he was very angry. So he gave an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the whole area around Bethlehem. Herod had learned from the wise men the time the baby was born. It was now two years from that time. So he said to kill all the boys who were two years old and younger.”
[xvi] John A. Beck, The Baker Illustrated Guide to Everyday Life in Bible Times, Baker Books, 2013.
[xvii] Terence E. Fretheim, “’God Was with the Boy’ (Genesis 21:20): Children in the Book of Genesis,” The Child in the Bible, ed. by Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2008, p. 6.
[xviii] Andreas Michel, “Sexual Violence against Children in the Bible,” The Structured Betrayal of Trust, ed. R. Ammicht-Quinn, H. Haker, and M. Junker-Kenny, Concilium, 2004, p. 51-71: “…almost 200 texts about violence against children in the Hebrew Old Testament, another fifty from the deutero-canonical writings.”
[xix] Largen, p. 77.
[xx] Ibid, p. 122: “Even as an infant, he was not less than the savior of the world, not less than God’s only begotten son, not less than fully divine, and certainly not less than fully human. He did not ‘become’ the Son of God at some point in his early adulthood, nor did he ‘develop’ his identity as savior, realizing it gradually over the years. Instead, from the moment he was born, he was completely and totally the one whom the disciples proclaimed him to be after the resurrection, the one whom Paul wrote and preached about all through Asia Minor, the one in whom countless Christians have professed their faith for millennia. Thus, we might as well say that at the moment of his incarnation the world was changed forever, and the chasm between the Divine and the human was overcome.”