Sun 21 Aug 2005
I have just been speaking about the ancient fascination with “marvels” (in connection with paradoxography), and there are plenty of these in Christian literature as well. One of the struggles faced by a modern reader in approaching ancient literature and religion is the cultural gap that exists between us and the ancients, in many respects. Thus, to modern ears, a cursing Jesus would be a less than favourable Jesus. But the fact is that a cursing Jesus WAS popular, at least in certain circles. It is difficult to know precisely why, however.
I am referring to the very popular Infancy Gospel of Thomas (in the sense of multiple manuscripts and multiple translations from Greek into Syriac, Latin, Georgian, and Slavonic). This story, which fills in the gaps in Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy stories, was most likely written in its original version in the second century CE. It is one among the writings that are called New Testament Apocrypha (or, quite literally, New Testament “Hidden Writings”) by scholars.
In this gospel, Jesus’ adventures from 5 to 12 years are related in an exciting and somewhat over-the-top manner. In essence, in a fashion typical of well-known and miraculous figures in antiquity, Jesus is portrayed in a way that “foreshadows” all that he is to accomplish as an adult (as recorded in the canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, for instance).
But this foreshadowing of power includes the ability to knock you down dead. On several occasions in this gospel, the actions of the wee boy Jesus result in the death (or near death) of other characters in the story. A boy (son of a scribe, by the way) who messes up the pool of water that Jesus miraculously formed literally whithers up as a result and Jesus doesn’t hold back words in calling the boy an “insolent, godless dunderhead” (3:1-3). Those who suffer as a result of the cursing pretty well beg Joseph to teach Jesus to bless rather than to curse after the death of another boy (4:2). When a child runs through town and bumps into the Jesus, Jesus says, “‘You shall not go further on your way’, and the child immediately fell down and died” (trans from Schneelmelcher, ed., 1991-1992, full citation below). Jesus’ first teacher, Zacchaeus, is quite lucky in only being shamed by the high intelligence of the boy. His second teacher is “cursed” after striking the (what we might call) smart alec Jesus (who makes fun of his teacher’s lack of wisdom) and immediately the teacher falls down dead (14.1-2). Death is not the only negative result of Jesus’ curses, as, for example, those who oppose him are struck blind (5:1).
Thankfully (for modern sensibilities, at least) Jesus is also portrayed helping others, as when he raises a little boy from the dead after his fall from the roof while playing (9:1-3). Another young man is saved from bleeding to death after an axe accident by Jesus as well (10:1-2). And at least one of the guys he strikes dead (the teacher) is also raised from the dead when a subsequent teacher (a good friend of Jesus’ father) behaves in a pleasing manner in Jesus’ eyes (15.4). When a little sick child died in the neighbourhood, Jesus responds to the mother’s great mourning by raising him: “I say to you, do not die but live and be with your mother” (17:1). And this is not the only person Jesus raises from the dead (18:1)–premonitions of the Lazarus and resurrection story, so to speak.
For the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (and presumably for his readers and hearers), both what we would call positive (blessing) and what we would call negative (cursing) activities of Jesus are equally indicative of the great powers he possessses and point to the need to worship him (cf. 9:3; 10:2). They are a sign of what is to come in Jesus’ adulthood.
This is the first in what will be numerous posts on the Apocrypha in connection with a graduate course I will be teaching in the Fall. All translations here and in the future, unless otherwise noted, are from: Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed. New Testament Apocrypha. Translated by R.M. Wilson. 2 volumes. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991-92. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas) is also available online in various translations here. (Here I have been using the shorter Greek recension A as a basis for the discussion.)