Sunday, November 25, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm taking the week off from my current series to spend time with the family over the holidays. Best wishes to all the readers for their holiday season.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Setting Expectations on the Authors' Terms

This continues the review of various documents both inside and outside the Bible in order to look at the author's point of view and message based on their presentation of material. 

To take stock of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, we'll keep to the basic approach of seeing what kinds of things it contains before deciding what it is. Again the reader is invited to look at the whole collection, and the current post will show the first several items as examples:
  • "When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing in a narrow part of a rushing stream."
  • "Next, he was going through the village again and a running child bumped his shoulder." 
  • "A teacher named Zacchaeus overheard everything Jesus said to Joseph and marveled, saying to himself, "As just a child, he utters these things." "
  • "So Joseph took him by the hand and led him into the classroom."
  • "And after a few days passed, Jesus was up on a roof of a house."

Some items in this document blend into each other, and there's room for legitimate debate where certain items end and the next begins. Still, we see that here we have a collection of events with attention to actions, places, people, and time. Keep in mind that I haven't recounted the events themselves so much as given the basic setting to show that we are looking at events. Scanning the full collection, we have a narrative which covers events that are described as occurring from the time that Jesus was five to twelve years old.

One interesting thing comes to light when we focus on the places: excepting the very last event in the document, the remaining places are not put into a larger geographical context. That is, the action may be set in a classroom or on a rooftop or by a stream, but we aren't given the name of the town or village in which these events occurred. If the narrator hadn't introduced himself as "Thomas the Israelite" and mentioned that the events occurred in his own country, we wouldn't be sure in which nation the actions occurred. The exception to this is the last event, which is said to take place in Jerusalem.

Another point of interest comes to light when we focus on the people: Jesus' mother appears in some earlier events as his "mother" without being named. Only in the last event do we have detail added with the more specific designation "his mother Mary". The last event of a narrative is an unusual place to introduce the name of someone who has been mentioned before.

If we were to work on the premise that the more detail and context we have, the more confidence we have in the source information, then there are some things that objectively set apart that last event from the remainder of the narrative. I find it interesting that this last event stands out in measurable ways from other events in the same document, because it is also the only event in the document that is familiar to readers from one of the Biblical narratives of Jesus' life. For the curious reader, the last event the Infancy Gospel of Thomas begins:
When he was twelve years old, his parents went to Jerusalem with a caravan for the festival of Passover, as was their custom.
The narrative continues with the parents beginning to return home and realizing that Jesus was not with the caravan, returning to Jerusalem, and after an extended search finding Jesus in the Temple conversing with the teachers. The narrative ends as the boy Jesus leaves with his parents, and concludes with a doxology:

And Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and age and grace.
To him be the glory forever and ever, amen.

The attentive reader will notice that the last event in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is known to us from the Gospel of Luke. Without going into a comparison of the accounts, we'll just say that the next logical questions are about whether they're truly independent accounts or whether one was the source of the other, a question where we'd weigh the comparative dates of the documents and other measurable differences to inform us on that question.