How parenthood has changed the way I read ancient stories of Joseph and Mary's relationship with Jesus

Hanging church courtyard tile mural depicting the traveling of the Holy Family. Daniel Mayer (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
As Christmas approaches, many Christians will think about the birth of Christ or the birth of Jesus. The Christian Bible contains two different stories about the birth of Jesus, which can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. But there are few details about the rest of his childhood in the New Testament.
Some Christians today may be wondering what happened next.
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The childhood gospel of Thomas
I write about this question in my book Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Problems in the Gospels of Childhood. The childhood gospel of Thomas, an important source for my book, describes the childhood of Jesus. It is "extra-canonical," which means that it is not found in copies of the Bible that are among the main branches of Christianity.
It is not a source for the historical Jesus. What it reveals instead is the early Christian imagination. It was widely read by ancient Christians who copied the stories and translated them into different languages: Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, to name a few.
The childhood gospel of Thomas contains stories about the baby Jesus between the ages of five and twelve years. The content of this gospel could worry many modern Christians, who, from childhood, imagine Jesus as a perfect being.
While the child Jesus is blessing, for example healing his brother James from a snakebite, he also gets into trouble. Jesus curses and hurts other children. He has a bad reputation. When a playmate named Zeno falls off a roof and dies, his parents accuse Jesus of knocking Zeno off the roof. But Jesus brings the dead boy back to life. Zeno's parents praise God and the young Savior.
Jesus, 12 years
If readers are confused by the behavior of Baby Jesus in Thomas' childhood gospel, they are in the same position as his parents. Mary and Joseph don't understand him.
The final installment of Thomas' childhood gospel echoes the only childhood story about Jesus in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, the holy family almost separates. Jesus, then 12 years old, goes to Jerusalem with his parents to celebrate the Passover. After that, Mary and Joseph return home. But not Jesus.
The Savior's discovery in the temple. William Holman Hunt via Wikimedia Commons.
He stays in Jerusalem without permission. As Mary and Joseph travel home, they suddenly find that Jesus is missing. Three days after the search, they find the child in the temple in Jerusalem and teach the adults. Mary scolds Jesus because he upset her.
“Child, why did you treat us like that? Look, your father and I looked for you with great concern. "
Jesus answers:
“Why did you look for me? Didn't you know that I have to be in my father's house? "
Jesus shakes off Mary's concern and almost ignores Joseph by speaking in place of his divine Father. His words leave Mary and Joseph perplexed because they do not understand what he said to them.
Far from the tree
Jordaens' "Return of the Holy Family from Egypt". Jacques Jordaens via Wikimedia Commons.
I suspect that the failure of Mary and Joseph to understand Jesus is the element that is most resonated with modern readers. It reminds me of Andrew Solomon's powerful book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which describes parents and children who seem to be separated by profound differences.
In one chapter, Solomon describes the experiences of parents of deaf children. In another, he describes the challenges families with children with Down syndrome face. What Solomon reveals through these case studies is "the profound ignorance of even the most intimate human relationship".
Yet, as Solomon notes, differences can strengthen bonds rather than weaken them. Differences that push us to the limit of understanding can nonetheless teach us how to love.
Solomon's chapter on Down syndrome appears near home. I am the father of two children, one with Down syndrome and one without an extra chromosome. On rare days, the stars align and I know exactly what to say or do as a parent. Most of the time I'm unsure. Sometimes I am deeply confused. But like Andrew Solomon, I think love is built out of all of these moments.
Perhaps there is a similar message in the story of the 12 year old Jesus. Is it "far from the tree"? Unsure after the scene in Jerusalem, Mary, Joseph and Jesus return home together. Family is not a well-defined structure in history: it is not biologically based or reflects a “norm”. Instead, it is a choice to hold together whatever comes.
This Christmas, stories about the Baby Jesus will get the most attention. But save yourself a thought for the interim Jesus and his confused parents. You don't always understand him.
You still love him.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
Continue reading:
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Why a 2,500 year old Hebrew poem is still important
Christopher A. Frilingos does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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