In previous posts I discussed stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, including the story of little Jesus zapping his less-than-brilliant teacher dead in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (go here). This was, in a sense, an expansion and embellishment of Luke’s story of the wise young (12 year-old) Jesus amazing even the teachers of the law in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:39-51). In each case, the childhood brilliance is a sign of things to come in the figure’s adulthood.
Christian authors were not alone in relating stories of the childhood feats and miraculous doings of important persons, including stories of the child’s education. Philostratus wrote a biography of the first-century Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, in about 220 CE. Included is the following story, reminiscent of Jesus’ school-days mentioned above:
“On reaching the age when children are taught their letters, he showed great strength of memory and power of application. . . [Apollonius had some good teachers who recognized his abilities.] However, his teacher of the Pythagorean system was not a very serious person, nor one who practised in his conduct the philosophy he taught. For he was the slave of his belly and appetites, and modelled himself upon Epicurus. And this man was Euxenus from the town of Heraclea in Pontus, and he knew the principles of Pythagoras just as birds know what they learn from men. For the birds will wish you ‘farewell,’ and say “hello” or “Zeus help you,” and such like, without understanding what they say and without any real sympathy for humankind, merely because they have been trained to move their tongue in a certain manner. Apollonius, however, was like the young eagles who, as long as they are not fully fledged, fly alongside of their parents and are trained by them in flight, but who, as soon as they are able to rise in the air, outsoar the parent birds” (1.7; trans. by F.C. Conybeare in Loeb Classical Library, with adaptations). Apollonius nonetheless is nice to this poor, ineffective teacher, says Philostratus.
This is not the sort of reputation a teacher wants, but it’s better than being zapped dead.
(The bird in the story reminds me of when I was twelve, in Indonesia for a year or so. No, I wasn’t brilliantly out-smarting any teachers. But I did like to stop by a local pet cockatoo on my way home from school who was known to say “Satu, dua, tiga, that’s ok, that’s ok.” Beats “hello”. I’ll let you figure out what satu, dua, tiga is, or go here).