I’ve been doing a little bit of study on infancy gospels recently. They are early Christian writings about the life of Jesus before his public ministry. Works such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both (we think) second century texts. These got me thinking again about the NT, however, and an interesting thesis that I think has some merit. I’d like to share it.
First, some background on Christology. The various writers of the NT texts had different ideas about what it meant to be the Christ (which is just the greek word for Messiah), and the way in which Jesus fulfilled that label. One variation that is often cited is time. A very simplified version goes like this:
Paul – (the author of the earliest NT texts, around 60AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ through his death and resurrection.
Mark – (the earliest gospel, around 70AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ at his baptism.
Luke and Matthew – (the next tranche of gospel writing, around 80AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from conception.
John – (the last gospel, from after 90AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from before creation.
So during the first century, Christology got pushed back through the life of Jesus and out the other side.
The first and most significant push-back gives motivation for the gospels. Paul isn’t interested in Jesus’s life. The man Jesus isn’t as important as the Christ he becomes. It takes a theological shift, putting the Christ-event at the baptism, to give Mark the reason to write his life of Jesus. Now Jesus the man is important because he is the Christ on earth. Then another key change is that between Mark and Luke. At this point the Christ-event gets pushed back beyond the unknown.
[Can I stress again that this is over-simplified, the gospels and Paul are more nuanced and there is Christological variation on other axes than time!]
So the unknown is intriguing, and potentially juicy. If the boy Jesus was the Christ, he must have had his divine powers then, surely? If so how did he use them? Was he born with the mind of an adult? Or was he a petulant youth with the power of the creator of the cosmos at his fingertips? This is the speculation that gives rise to the rather comical tales in some of the infancy gospels (including Jesus cursing another boy he’d fallen out with: the boy dies and his parents are struck blind). By the second century this speculation had got really far fetched. But it was pretty modest in the first century when the gospels were being written.
I think (and this isn’t a majority position, as far as I can tell) that there are two such stories surviving in the NT. They are evidence of the emerging tradition that started out of that theological innovation: to push back the Christ-event to before Jesus’s baptism.
The first story is pretty clearly in this category (though some scholars don’t share my view that it predated the gospel that contains it). It is the story at the end of Luke 2 where a 12 year old Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus’s parents have set off for home after the passover and they find Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him teaching in the temple – amazing the priests and scribes with his knowledge. The text even comments that his parents share their amazement.
The second is more controversial. It is the story of the family wedding in Cana (start of John 2), where Jesus turns water into wine. This story could be read as having taken place during Jesus’s public ministry (John places it after the baptism and calling of the first disciples), but the details don’t quite work in that context. It makes more sense to read it earlier.
Both these stories work on their own. They have no significant context or relationship to surrounding material. Luke 2, coming at the end of the birth narratives seems to contain yet another revelation to his astonished parents that Jesus is the Christ, even though Luke has already given us two (possibly independent) accounts before. The wedding story doesn’t make theological sense in terms of Jesus’s ministry – turning water into wine is domestic, hedonistic, it is out of kilter with the more obvious theological points of John’s other miracle stories. John’s setting is odd – it takes place out of the area that John (and the synoptics) want to portray Jesus’s ministry. Both stories use an ‘three days’ mnemonic (Jesus is lost for three days in Luke, and the wedding happens ‘on the third day’ in John), which is characteristic of Christological concerns, and suggests the stories are self-consciously written to that end. Both have linguistic characteristics that could suggest they are independent from the surrounding text.
I support the idea that both are pre-existing stories (not necessarily written sources) that Luke and John use and wind into their narrative. None of these bits of evidence is a slam-dunk, all can be contested. But there are answers to these objections (we can go over them in the comments if anyone wants to), and I am drawn by the balance of evidence.
I think many such stories circulated in the early church. Their number and impressiveness increased as the early church developed its theology and ‘realized’ that Jesus was the Christ from the beginning. These tales spread and these two early tales were successful enough to gain literary attention from the gospel writers, who found use for them and worked them into their texts. This same process continued over the next 300 years, and gradually taller and taller tales were spun, turning the pre-baptismal Jesus from an unremarkable tekton (skilled laborer), into a magician of the ages.