The birth and childhood of Jesus
For this article I am going to look at what the four gospels have to say about the birth and childhood of Christ. I also allude to the Apocryphal Gospels which also have lots of stories.
The Apocryphal Gospels
People have often said that it was an accident that the Apocryphal Gospels were not included in the New Testament. However Montague Rhodes James in his book “the Apocryphal New Testament” illustrates that they do not convey true history - as religious books they were meant to reinforce the existing collection of Christian beliefs either by revealing new doctrines, usually differing from those which held the field, or by interpreting old ones or by enforcing belief in certain doctrines or events such as the Virgin birth. In order to enlist respect, Apocryphal books were issued under well-known and respected names such as Moses, Adam etc. It soon came to light that these books were not written by the people they were attributed to. However Montague Rhodes goes on to say that as folk lore and romance they are precious; and he acknowledges that they have been a great influence and held great fascination for many people.
The Canonical Gospels
The Gospel of Mark does not refer to Jesus’ birth and childhood. Matthew and Mark talk about the events around Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke agree on the following facts: Mary and Joseph are an engaged couple and also the parents. Jesus was conceived while Mary was still a Virgin. An angel announces the coming birth and names the child in advance. The birth takes place in Bethlehem and the family eventually settle in Nazareth. In every other respect Luke and Matthew differ.
Matthew emphasises the point that Joseph received news of what was going to happen before anyone else. Some scholars think that this may reflect Matthew’s intention to include Joseph’s righteousness. Betrothal was a binding contract but the marriage was not consummated until after the wedding, often a year or more later. Young Jewish women often married in their early teens to men several years older. It is Matthew that tells us the story of Magi - he never says that they were Kings or that there were three of them (though they do bring three gifts that were fit for royalty). Magi were astrologers, probably from Persia. Matthew suggests that the Magi may have arrived as late as two years after Jesus’ birth. This gospel stresses the theological significance of Jesus from the beginning. He is the Jewish Messiah, the Christ and descendant of King David and also Abraham (one of Matthew’s characteristics being to link the New and Old Testaments together, showing how events in the New are fulfilling prophecies in the Old). Matthew’s main messages are that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. Through Jesus blessings will be extended to Gentiles and others who are currently ostracised; moreover Jesus is the legitimate King and ruler, not Herod, the priests or any earthly authorities.
In Luke, there is an emphasis on female characters. In the birth narratives it is Mary and Elizabeth who are told about the pending births rather than the males. Luke structures his birth narratives to provide an overview of God’s plan of salvation and to highlight the similarities and differences between John the Baptist and Jesus. The birth of John is foretold to Elizabeth and then the birth of Jesus by an angel to Mary. We then have the birth and growth of John followed by the birth and growth of Jesus, consistently emphasising the point that Jesus is the greater. For instance the miracle of virginal conception is greater than the opening of a once barren womb.
The manger was a food trough and the delivery took place amongst animals. The word “Kataluma” translated in Luke as ‘Inn’ means guest room elsewhere in the New Testament. Joseph and Mary would most probably have arranged to stay with friends. In a small Palestinian house with one or two rooms, the milking cow and perhaps a few other animals would stay in the comer on the ground level separated from the raised portion of the rest of the house by the feeding trough. The announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds emphasises even more the humbleness of his birth, as shepherds were often despised for their nomadic lifestyle and reputation for being thieves. It was to such lowly people and not the King that God sent his angels to proclaim the message of good tidings (as we have already seen this is also stressed in Matthew). Luke also tells about the childhood of Jesus. He is brought up as a Law-abiding Jewish boy, in the Temple amazing the authorities with his wisdom.
In summary, Luke’s opening chapter presents many of the same themes as Mathew. But he makes an almost entirely different selection of stories. He shows Jesus as the Davidic Messiah who is also the light to lighten the gentiles - the Saviour of all. In particular Luke has stories emphasising Jesus’ special compassion for women, the poor and other social outcasts. Luke’s greatest interests involve universal Gentile themes.
John’s Gospel addresses a diverse audience and uses language well known in a variety of religious contexts. John proclaims that Jesus (the Word) was pre-existent with God from before creation. He was God - not identical to God the Father but fully sharing in his divinity. Jesus (the Word) has revealed himself as the ultimate disclosure of the invisible God. John starts from Jesus’ deity and moves to his humanity.
The non-canonical writings
Finally I want to touch on a group of Infancy Gospels and stories of the birth of Mary. Two of the so-called Apocryphal Gospels, the Book of James (or Protevangelium) and the Gospel of Thomas, are second century works. The Book of James refers to infancy narratives whereas Thomas talks about stories of Jesus at five, six and eight years old. In the birth narratives there are a lot of similarities with what we know from Matthew and Luke. The Book of James does have a story of Mary when she was twelve at the temple. The Angel of the Lord appeared and said all men were to be assembled and whoever was shown a sign would become Mary’s husband. A dove flew onto Joseph’s head showing he should be the one. At first he disagreed because he was a lot older and already had sons; but the priest told him he must fear the Lord and do these things. Subsequently, Joseph had to go away to do some building, having assured Mary that God would watch over her while he was away. On his return he found Mary to be six months pregnant. She insisted she had not been with any men; and an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him not to fear. Mary would bear Jesus who would save men from their sins. They then had to travel to Bethlehem because of the decree. Mary knew she was near to giving birth and so Joseph helped her into a cave and went to find a midwife. As Joseph went out the whole earth had become motionless and then all of a sudden everything began moving as normal. He met a couple of midwives, Zeiomi & Salome, who came back to the cave. They marvelled at the baby. Salome had a withered hand which was healed by touching the swaddling cloth. They remained at the cave for three days and then went to a stable and put the baby in a manger and the Ox and ass adored him. On the sixth day they went to Bethlehem, kept the Sabbath and circumcised the baby.
The Gospel of Thomas contains many stories of Jesus as a child. One tells of Jesus playing at a brook. Some other children were there watching. He turned some clay into sparrows. It was the Sabbath, and another child said Jesus had been playing on the Sabbath. Joseph came and asked Jesus why he wasn’t keeping the law. Jesus clapped his hands and immediately the sparrows flew away chirping. There was another story in which Jesus was playing in the upstairs of a house with another child who fell through the roof and died. Jesus was accused of pushing him. Jesus then went to the body and told the child to rise, and he did. In another story, Jesus went to sow wheat with his father. He produced so much that he was able to give enough wheat to all the poor people in the village.
There are also stories of Jesus doing carpentry work with Joseph. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to various teachers who wouldn’t teach him because of his knowledge. However, one teacher did agree to teach him, and Jesus found a book on the reading desk. He didn’t read what was in it but rather spoke by the Holy Spirit and taught the law to those that stood by.
The above is only a small selection from the translations of the Apocryphal New Testament. This was the first time I had read extracts. The birth stories had strong similarities with those found in Matthew and Luke but I have to say that when I read the other stories from Thomas I felt very uncomfortable and instantly recognised a very different “unspiritual” style. The stories seemed quite vindictive in places. I got the strong feeling that people, wanting to know more about what happened to Jesus as a child, very clumsily wrote some stories which don’t come from any historical and theological background.