Monday, April 19, 2010

A People's History of Christianity: The New Testament Apocrypha (Part One)

I'm going to start a new sporadic series called "A People's History of Christianity," which, as I hope you know, is just a cheap ripoff of Howard Zinn's great book. I don't know how often I'll run it, but what I want to do is present some ideas about Christianity not found in the Bible; there are hundreds of early church writings that reveal a great deal about the churches formation and who early Christians were. Often it was with good reason that this stuff wasn't in the Bible, but that doesn't make it any less valuable.

For the next three weeks, I will be writing about the New Testament Apocrypha; I'm not in anyway trying to say the stuff found in these works were true (though some probably were), I'm merely showing what many people believed.

Today's post will be about the infancy Of Christ; next week the Gospels; and finally the third one will be on the apocalypse. If it bores you, then week four I'll post something a little lighter. If you want to read more about any of these writings, I highly recommend checking out "The Other Bible" by Willis Barnstone

The Infancy Of Christ

Looking strictly at the New Testament there is little known about the early life of Christ; it is with good reason that this is so, because it is Christ’s ministry that is the fundamental focus of Christianity, but it is still important to see Christ before his ministry.  One of the earliest doctrinal issues of the early church concerned the divinity of Christ—was he entirely human, entirely divine, or both?  The most Orthodox view throughout the ages has been that he is both; this being so, one can easily begin to see why it is so important to see a human side of Christ.

In the Gospels there are some passages that show Jesus was part human, such as John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” but these passages can be forgotten when the passages that surround it show a Christ who heals the sick, cast out demons, and walks on water; even the parables, so rich in theme and imagery, are too beautifully spoken to come only from any man.  Contrary to these images, the apocryphal Infancy Gospels shows a Jesus that was also human; each richly tells the stories of what happened before the ministry of Christ.

The best way to define a Christ that is both human and divine is to say the divine side comes from God, and the human side would come from Mary.  Going with this view, it is understandable why The Infancy Gospel of James would have been, and still is, important to Christians, because it tells the history of Mary.  Regardless of whether or not it’s true, it shows a question many early Christians would have obviously been asking, “If Jesus was both man and God could he have come from any person or would that person have to be pure—even free, like Christ, of original sin?”

The NT gospels say Mary was a virgin, but the infancy gospels go further than this—they say what kind of person she was.  James, while not directly saying it, could be interpreted as saying Mary’s mother Anna was also a virgin; the infancy gospel also says Mary could walk at a mere six months, and that when she was only three angels tended to her.  All this shows the author’s view that the mother of Jesus would have to be more than the average human.

The introductory notes to The Infancy Gospel Of Pseudo-Matthew explain that the text is a poetic version of the James infancy gospel; this may be so, but a more important similarity to note between the two is that they each draw from the Old Testament. The James account of Mary’s birth seems to be a modern day retelling, or a parallel, of the Genesis account of Sarah and Abraham.  In Pseudo-Matthew the author combines what seems myth with Old Testament prophecy when the author writes:

And behold, suddenly, many dragons came out of the cave.  When the boys saw them in front of them they shouted with great fear.  Then Jesus got down from his mother’s lap, and stood on his feet before the dragons.  They, however, worshipped him, and, while they worshipped, they backed away.  Then what was said through the prophet David was fulfilled: ‘You dragons of the earth, praise the Lord, you dragons and all creatures of the abyss.’

The authors of Pseudo-Matthew and James were likely gentiles not accustomed to Jewish beliefs, but these two infancy gospels show that early Christians were familiar with the Old Testament.

Of all the infancy gospels Thomas best shows the human side of Christ.  Of all the infancy gospels Thomas also is the text most frequently condemned an anti-Christian, and indeed downright nasty.  While perhaps inaccurate, even heretical, Thomas shows its interpretation to an answer of a question church fathers were asking.  James and Pseudo-Matthew both ask how human the mother of Christ has to be—Thomas asks how human Jesus had to be.  If it is to be said Jesus was part, human then the next question is what does that mean?  Does that mean Jesus can sin, make errors, even use his miraculous powers for bad purposes?  Thomas proposes that Jesus could and did do these things as a child, and likely did not become fully perfect until after his baptism.

One of the most amazing features of Thomas is the literary structure that shows fully the character development of the Jesus the author presents.  Jesus, in Thomas, begins as a bratty little kid who abuses his powers.  He does not yet understand who or what he is, and becomes self-centered.  As Jesus matures in the story he begins to build a compassion for others.  By the end of the story, while he still does not seem to know who he is, Jesus is using the powers for others, and not himself.


  1. There's actually a book by Diana Butler Bass called "A People's History of Christianity." I haven't read it, so I don't know if it covers similar topics.

    Anyway, very interesting post. I like the idea of reptiles bowing before the infant Jesus. Whether it really happened or not, I don't know, but I think it's possible.

  2. I went to Amazon before posting this, and saw there were actually two books (but I think one changed it's title?)...but why pay for it there, when you can get it here for free!