The Thomas of “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas”

Posted: May 13, 2013 in General

caravaggioDThomasThe Infancy Gospel of Thomas (InfGosTh) is an apocryphal work that is commonly considered as a late second century composition (cf. Charlesworth, 1995: 377; Bauckham, 1992: 290). This work is filled with representative stories of miracles performed by the child Jesus up to his twelfth year. Mirecki (1992: 540; cf. Gero, 1971: 46-80) is of the view that “InfGosTh represents the textualization of a cycle of orally transmitted folklore which was continually expanded by the still circulating oral tradition”. From Mirecki’s statement one can infer that the traditions inscribed in the InfGosTh are not merely imaginative stories intended to fill up the gap of Jesus’ life-history. Hippolytus and Origen refer to a Gospel of Thomas, but it is unclear whether they knew the InfGosTh or the sayings Gospel of Thomas (cf. Cameron, 1982: 122-30). But there is an earlier reference from Irenaeus, as Cameron (1982: 122-30) notes, “In his citation Irenaeus first quotes a non-canonical story that circulated about the childhood of Jesus and then goes directly on to quote a passage from the infancy narratives of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:49). Since the Infancy Gospel of Thomas records both of these stories, in relative close proximity to one another, it is possible that the apocryphal writing cited by Irenaeus is, in fact, what is now known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Because of the complexities of the manuscript tradition, however, there is no certainty as to when the stories of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas began to be written down”. If the note of Cameron is believable, then it is evident that the stories of the childhood/boyhood of Jesus were available in the oral form (or written) for the early church fathers and they even quoted those traditions for their apologetical needs.

The text is available in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Irish, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Georgian forms. Gero (1971: 51, 55; cf. Wright, 1865; Mirecki, 1992: 540-41) considers the InfGosTh in its Estrangela script of Syriac (= BM Syr) is the earliest known form. Mirecki (1992: 542; cf. Cameron, 1982: 122-30) adds further, “Although nothing definite can be said about the place of composition, the high value ascribed to the early Syriac manuscripts, the traditional association with the Syrian Thomas tradition, and the possibility of shared traditions with the Gospel of Thomas (cf. InfGosTh 10:2 and GTh logion 77) all suggest Syria as the place of composition”. There are possibilities for the composition of the text outside of the Jewish geographical boundary. In the introductory section it is clearly mentioned that, “I, Thomas the Israelite, am reporting to you, all my non-Jewish brothers and sisters, to make known the extraordinary childhood deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ—what he did after his birth in my region”. From this first section four things are made obvious: first, the reporter of the entire work is ‘Thomas the Israelite’; second, the receivers of the report are ‘all my [i.e., Thomas’] non-Jewish brothers and sisters’; third, the message is ‘the extraordinary childhood deeds of Lord Jesus Christ’; and fourth, Jesus was born in Thomas’ region. Charlesworth (1995: 377) states, “In this work the apostle Thomas is the one who speaks in the very first line…. Thomas is thus the one who reveals knowledge to all regarding Jesus’ childhood”. In the work Jesus’ story unfolds one after another as Thomas stands as the observer of the events.

The above description is important to outline the following facts. The literature of the Bible, or at least large portions of it, came gradually into existence through a process in which oral or written materials were passed down from one generation to another (cf. Knight, 1992: 633-8; Robbins, 1992: 841). Especially it is true with the Gospel traditions (cf. Henshaw, 1952: 49; Redlich, 1939: 11). The writings of Dibelius, Bultmann, and Vincent Taylor make this point compelling. On the one hand, many oral traditions were written down at an early stage itself, and on the other, many others didn’t capture their written format even in the second, third, and fourth centuries. Traditions were written down mainly on the basis of the needs of the early Christianity. Moreover, the theology of the early church was mainly formed around Jesus’ virgin birth, his public ministry, the passion, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. This would have been one of the primary reasons for the lack of attention toward the boyhood history that was still orally prevalent. Luke’s inclusion of a boyhood story of Jesus (which is not included in Matthew, Mark, and John) can be considered as an indication toward the existence of boyhood related stories in the First Century itself. It also contends what Luke states at the beginning of his gospel, “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1:2). Can somebody come up as a public figure without having a boyhood history? How could Jesus who was miraculously born and had a fulfilling public ministry remain silent and homely during a long span of his life? Without adequately addressing these prevalent questions, many scholars adopted a negative attitude toward the InfGosTh. While Witherington (1992: 73) belittles the InfGosTh as a document of “little or no historical worth”, Barton (1992: 101) weighs down it as a production “for the purpose of satisfying curiosity and defending christological dogma”. Blomberg (1992: 293) considers the InfGosTh (along with other Apocryphal Gospels) as “clearly legendary attempts to fill in the ‘gaps’ in the Gospel record”. Bruce (1992: 98), similarly, does not see in it anything more than “portraying him [Jesus] as a juvenile prodigy”. But, a reader who is inquisitive about the role of Thomas in early Christianity and about the significance of the oral traditions in the First Century ANE context may come up with certain contextually-inclined responses.

Thomas’ involvement within the story of the InfGosTh can be understood only by means of the implicit narratives. According to the documentation, Jesus’ story sprouts through the ages of five, six, eight, and twelve years. The events are blooming through the eye view of Thomas the Israelite. First of all it is affirmed that Thomas was from the region of Jesus (1). That makes the reader assured that Thomas heard the voice of Jesus, saw his deeds (2.1-7), and recognized him as a sabbath breaker even from the childhood (2.4-7). As a witness, Thomas reports the activities of five years old Jesus: “collecting the flowing water into ponds and made the water instantly pure” (2.2), “…made soft clay and shaped it into twelve sparrows… on the sabbath day” (2.3), and the sparrows that are made of soft clay flew off (2.6). Every word Jesus uttered and every deed he performed are known to Thomas. InfGosTh testifies that Thomas knew Joseph the father of Jesus (2.4-6; 3.4; 4.4; 5.1-6; 6.1-22; 12.1-13.4), his mother (11.1-4), his brother James (16.1-2), and the way he helped his parents in farming and carpentry (12.1-13.4). The gospel reports about how Jesus behaved within the family set up and, in return, how Joseph reacted to him (6:1-22). It also narrates the mannerisms of boy Jesus in the playground and in the work places. It arrays the way people approached Joseph the Father with complaints on several occasions (3.4; 4.4). It also records the top secrets of Jesus’ family (i.e., what Joseph and his mother discussed about Jesus [14.5] as concerned parents). The book details that Thomas knew who were the teachers of Jesus (by name, 6.1-8.4), how many teachers he had, how Jesus behaved in the class, and even the minute details of the conversations between Jesus and his teachers (6.1-8.4; 14.1-5; 15.1-7). To Zacchaeus, the first teacher, he said, “…I existed when you were born” (6.6) and “…when the world was created, I existed along with the one who sent me to you” (6.10). InfGosTh mentions that Thomas even knew the identity of Jesus’ playmates (3.1; 9.4). His boyhood mannerisms and his power to heal people (cf. Blomberg, 1992: 304-5) are drawn to the attention of the readers. The above details are enough to prove that Jesus and Thomas were known each other intimately from their childhood.

The canonical gospels give us indications about Thomas’ being with Jesus during his childhood. The call narratives of the four gospels have to be briefly analyzed here for our understanding (cf. Weder, 1992: 2: 207-10). In the Gospel of Matthew, there are five specific callings mentioned (i.e., of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew; cf. 4:18-22; 9:9). In Mark, similarly, five people receive specific calling (i.e., Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Levi son of Alphaeus; cf. 1:16-20; 2:13-14) from Jesus. In Luke, only four people receive specific calling (i.e., Simon, James, John, and Levi the tax collector; 5:1-11, 27-30) from the teacher. Moreover, in all the synoptics, the names of the Twelve are mentioned (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16). In John, different from the Synoptics, while three people are added to the list of the called ones (i.e., an unnamed disciple, Philip, and Nathanael), two are sustained from the list of the synoptics (Andrew and Simon Peter; cf. 1:35-51). In John, the most difficult task is suggesting the name of the unnamed disciples in chapters one (vv. 37, 39, 40) and twenty-one (v. 2). As per the gospel traditions, only eight people had received specific calling from Jesus (i.e., Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew [Levi], Philip, Nathanael [if he is Bartholomew], and an unnamed one). That further means, there is no record of the call of Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus (Judas son of James), Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot (cf. Wilkins, 1992: 179-81). But, out of the five, Thomas is linked to Jesus from his boyhood days according to the InGosTh. The above analysis provides convincing details to prove that Thomas was not added to the Jesus circle when he started his public ministry. They were together from childhood and known to each other even before others come in contact with Jesus. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul were added to the Jesus circle after he started his public ministry, then who knew earthly Jesus better? This information calls the attention of the reader toward the Twin brother motif of the Syrian traditions.

John is, again, a challenging work and a mining field for the understanding of new insights about Didymos Judas Thomas. While chapter one mentions one unidentified disciple (1:37, 39, 40), chapter twenty-one mentions two unidentified disciples (21:2). If someone argues that the one in chapter one would have been Thomas, then there is no evidence that supports Thomas’ former discipleship to John the Baptist. Moreover, in John’s picturization, Thomas was counted as one of the key figures in the Jesus community. Among the named characters in chapter 21, Peter and Nathanael are mentioned as the “called” disciples according to the Johannine tradition (cf. 1:42 and 45-51). Similarly, the sons of Zebedee are also reckoned as the “called” ones according to the Synoptic tradition (Matt. 4:21-22; Mark 1:19-20; Luke 5:9). About Thomas’ call, though he was a key figure in John’s story and even at the climax (11:16; 14:5; 20:24-29; 21:2), there is no mention all through the canonical gospel traditions. Why Thomas’ name is not attached to the call stories? This gives us a clue about his being with Jesus from the childhood. The InfGosTh supports this view affirmatively.

For Further Reference:

Barton, S. C., 1992. “Child, Children”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 100-4.

Bauckham, R. J., 1992. “Gospels (Apocryphal)”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 286-91.

Blomberg, C. L., 1992. “Gospels (Historical Reliability)”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 291-97.

Blomberg, C. L., 1992. “Healing”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 299-307.

Bruce, F. F., 1992. “Canon”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 93-100.

Cameron, R., ed., 1982. The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts. Philadelphia, PA.: The Westminster Press: 122-30.

Charlesworth, J. H., 1995. The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International.

Charlesworth, J. H., and Mueller, J. R., 1987. The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: A Guide to Publications (ATLA Bibliography Series 17; Metuchen, NJ, and London: American Theological Library Association and Scarecrow Press.

Gero, S., 1971. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems. NovT 13: 46-80.

Henshaw, T., 1939. New Testament Literature: In the Light of Modern Scholarship. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Knight, D. A., 1992. “Tradition History”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York: Doubleday: 633-38.

Mirecki, P. A., 1992. “Thomas, The Infancy Gospel of”. ABD. Vol. 6. New York: Doubleday: 540-44.

Redlich, E. B., 1939. Form Criticism: Its Value and Limitations. London: Duckworth.

Robbins, V. K., 1992. “Form Criticism (New Testament)”. ABD. Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday: 841-44.

Weder, H., 1992. “Disciple, Discipleship”. ABD. Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday: 207-10.

Wilkins, M. J., 1992. “Disciples”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 176-82.

Witherington III, B., 1992. “Birth of Jesus”. DJG. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press: 60-74.

Wright, W., 1865. Contributions to the Apocryphal Literature of the New Testament. London.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

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  1. […] The Thomas of “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” […]

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