Jesus said: Let the children. . . get lost? (NT Apocrypha 11)

Several early gospels portray a Jesus who has a positive view of children and who even uses the analogy of the child to explain what qualities are necessary to enter God’s kingdom:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:13-16 [NIV]; compare Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17; Gospel of Thomas 22).

Quite different is the apocryphal Acts of Thomas‘ take on what Jesus might say about having children at all (available online here). Many of the second and third century Acts, which relate stories about the disciples of Jesus, emphasize the need to maintain an ascetic lifestyle in order to follow Jesus in an ideal way. This includes the need to avoid bodily things, especially sex, whether in marriage or not. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus’ supposed twin brother, Thomas, makes his journey to India in order to preach the gospel of continence, and he happens to attend a wedding of the local king’s daughter. Following the wedding, the new husband enters into the bridal-chamber to consummate the marriage only to find what appears to be Thomas, but is really his twin brother, Jesus (down from heaven), lecturing the man’s new wife. Both then listen as Jesus teaches them about sex and children:

“Remember. . . what my brother [Thomas] said to you. . . that if you abandon this filthy intercourse you become holy temples, pure and free from afflictions and pains both manifest and hidden, and you will not be weighed down by cares for life and for children, the end of which is destruction” (12; trans. from Schneemelcher with adaptations).

Is it be like children or have no children?

UPDATE: Now see the interesting debates that are going on in the comments section of this post. Also, Tyler Williams has a fun response to my rhetorical question in jest: “Since I have three kids (and I enjoyed the process of contributing to their conception), I guess I’ll stick with the biblical Jesus!” Now I know what the font with the delete line through it is for;)

One thought on “Jesus said: Let the children. . . get lost? (NT Apocrypha 11)

  1. Phil Harland Post author

    8 Comments

    Carole said…

    reoWhy is it that it is always the woman that gets lectured on the virtues of celibacy? As for your question, are we not to read these various writings metaphorically? When we are “like a little child” we have no cares and worries. We look at the world with wonder and amazement. Weren’t the writings tailored to communities with specific goals in mind? Therefore, interpretation is dependent on which community you belonged to? On another topic, I need a crash course on how to use word as an editor for blog comments. I’ve downloaded the program but can’t manage to make it work.

    9:12 AM
    Julia said…

    I agree with Carole, I think that children are a metaphor for purity. Of course different texts won’t always have the same theological perspective, so that could explain the discrepancy. However, it is consistant if you think in terms of Jesus wanting people to be LIKE children. This is consistent with not having children: kids don’t (can’t) have kids, or sex, or husbands/wives, etc. What I find interesting is that this love of children seems to have continued into present-day Christianity (I remember a picture-book when I was a kid depicting “Jesus shares his lunch with a young boy.” Jesus was giving the kid half a peanut-butter sandwich. . .) without the apocalyptic expectation inherent in the directive to not have kids. Celibacy has been replaced by “family values”. Quite a shift.

    5:39 PM
    Sacha M. said…

    To briefly respond to Carole’s initial question (why women get lectured concerning their sexuality?). This is because the view of (almost all) ancient societies (I’m not saying they are right or wrong) considered women weak in particular respect to their sexuality. Women did not have the mental power and discipline to control their ‘urges’.

    7:27 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Glad to see some interesting discussions going on here. Absolutely, the use of children in the earlier passages are using this metaphorically (but they also imply a positive view of actual children on Jesus’ part, I would say–something not indicated in the Acts of Thomas episode). My final question in the entry was a rhetorical question in jest;)

    12:36 AM
    Angela said…

    I think that we need to consider whether or not early Christians were in fact encouraged to remain celibate. Though it appears as if lectures on celibacy denigrated women, we should also consider the benefits or advantages that women received from remaining celibate as opposed to maintaining the traditional family values from antiquity. As Sacha said, women were considered to lack sexual control, but by maintaining an ascetic or celibate lifestyle, they too could “maximize” their opportunities for salvation (by becoming more “male”) or focusing on the important aspects of their communities. Furthermore, by “renouncing” sex, women could participate in roles that were previously limited to the male realm.

    1:01 PM
    glaserildiko said…

    I have one dumb stupid question. When people realized that the end of the world won’t happen tomorrow, then why still the celibacy (especially in marriage)? Wouldn’t they want children to, uh, propagate their lineage, create more Christians? Wouldn’t their worldview change. (I know that it did, but it seems to me that it took a couple of centuries before it happened)

    10:16 PM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Ildiko asks a very good question here about the apocalyptic nature of earliest Christianity and the subsequent softening of apocalyptic expectation in many forms of Christianity as you move into the second century. In Paul’s case, clearly there is a link between expectation of Christ’s imminent coming and his agreeing with the Corinthians that thought it was “good not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1ff).

    There is a sense in which cultural practices have a life of their own largely apart from any rational, concrete application to the current situation. So my quick answer is that you are right that there’s a tension between the tendency to idealize celibacy/asceticism and the idea that the church will be continuing for some time, but we should expect such tensions. The reality on the ground among average Christians would be that they were having children anyways. The ideal of celibacy was for the spiritually advanced/elites in at least some (many) circles of early Christianity.

    10:11 AM
    Julia said…

    A question regarding celibacy and Apocalypticism- how related are the two? I know they often went together, but it seems that in the ancient world celibacy and control of the body/passions was seen as a virtue whether or not the world was about to end.

    8:02 PM

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