What Are the Infancy Gospels?
The infancy gospels are a genre of Christian and Pseudo-Christian literature which purported to tell the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood. They became popular in the latter half of the second century, and although these works are valuable artifacts of the development of Christian thought, their contents hold no historical merit and belong to the category of Christian folklore.
Many of the infancy gospels suffered from a very loose transmission process – meaning their text differs from manuscript to manuscript. Some are paraphrased, abbreviated, or elongated. For instance, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas) has three different Greek recensions, and other language versions do not all agree with any one of them. Indeed, the first chapter of this Gospel, from which we derive its current name, is known to have been a late addition. The gospel itself was most likely written anonymously and later was given an author to grant it some authority. But even Thomas was not universally chosen, as some manuscripts give other names, including James.
Why Were the Infancy Gospels Written
There are a number of reasons the infancy gospels were written. Perhaps the primary reason was to satisfy a literary convention which the canonical gospels blatantly refused to address. It was a virtually universal principal that biographical works from this period (late antiquity) should include stories of any great figure’s youth. The reason being it was supposed that a person’s greatness was presaged by their actions and words during childhood. Although Matthew and Luke do give an account of Jesus’ birth, and Luke permits one story of Jesus when he was twelve years old, they offer nothing more, and Jesus’ life is left a mystery up to the start of his ministry. Tales were imagined to fill this gap, and eventually these became the sources of infancy gospels.
It appears there was a theological dimension to fabricating these works as well. Many of the infancy gospels contain elements of gnostic and docetic theology, and some are believed to have originated in unorthodox communities to provide accounts of Jesus’ life supportive of their respective doctrines. This is difficult to verify, however, as the earliest infancy gospels (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James) have only hints of such doctrines, and if they were originally overtly unorthodox, they were tempered by later copyists.
Finally, it has been suggested that there was an apologetic reason for some of these works – in particular, the Protevangelium of James (ProtEv). ProtEv is less an account of Jesus life as it is a story of his mother Mary’s. Indeed, the earliest manuscript of this work (P.Bodmer V – fourth century) titles it, “The Birth of Mary.” All through the account of Mary’s youth, her conception, to immediately after the birth, ProtEv repeatedly works to affirm and reaffirm her virginity to the point of crudity. It is a work dedicated to the praise of Mary at a time when some Pagan orators were vehemently attacking the notion that she could have been a virgin1.
How Many Infancy Gospels Are There?
There were undoubtedly many infancy gospels, though only a handful have survived and been cataloged. The most important infancy gospels, which are also the earliest extant (late 2nd century, early 3rd), are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James. Both were incredibly popular works and survived (albeit in varying recensions) in numerous Greek manuscripts and other language versions. The Protevangelium of James, for instance, is preserved in around 140 Greek manuscripts alone.
Both of these works lent their material to late Infancy Gospels, which expanded their reach and influence. The Protevangelium of James is the basis for Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Infancy Gospel. It also informed the Latin Infancy Gospel. Portions of the Gospel of Thomas are also expanded upon in the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Additionally, from the end of the fourth century, other Infancy Gospels focusing on figures such as Joseph and John the Baptist appear.
Why Are the Infancy Gospels Important?
The popularity and reach of the Infancy Gospels caused them to exert an astonishing influence in the progression of Christian, Pseudo-Christian, and even non-Christian thought. The Protevangelium of James, for instance, with its unprecedented praise of Mary found its way into the west via Pseudo-Matthew and then into early medieval works which lent a deep-tradition to the ever-expanding Mariology of the Roman church.
An Arabic language version of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, together with the Arabic Infancy Gospel circulated through Christian and Pseudo-Christian communities in the Arabian Peninsula and thus influence Mohammed’s teachings concerning Jesus, the son of Mary. Indeed, two accounts from these respective Infancy Gospels can be found in the Quran2. Even Pseudo-Matthew has exerted its influence over the Quran’s history of Mary and Jesus3.
For the modern student of history, these works also provide crucial evidence for the developmental history of Christian thought. For instance, in the ProtEv, Mary is a righteous virgin, in the Arabic Infancy Gospel (developed c. 6th century), she is the new Eve4. The general growth of pious literature in the third and fourth century allow us insight into the church’s progressive march toward veneration of a special saint-class, and the impact of second and third century traditions on the medieval Roman, Eastern, and Coptic Churches.
Sources and Footnotes
The bulk of information in this article is owed to the diligent efforts of Hans-Joseph Klauck, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago, as presented in his excellent book: “Apocryphal Gospels: an Introduction.”
1. C.f. Celsus in Origin’s “Contra Celsus”
2. surahs 5:110 and 19:22-34, corresponding to chapter 2 in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (chapter 1 of the Arabic version, also see Arabic Infancy Gospel, chapter 36) and chapter 5 of the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
3. Compare Surah 19:23-25 to chapter 20 of Pseudo Matthew
4. Arabic Infancy Gospel, chapter 3: [Mary’s midwife says to her] “You are not at all like the daughters of Eve.” The Lady Mary answered, “As my son has no equal among children, so his mother has no equal among women.”
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 01, 2019:
Hello, BA Johnson, good story indeed to the glory of God. All these infancy gospels are important because they serve to tell the heathen world that Jesus is a real person. It is a pity that they did not believe the gospel, but take solace in the infancy gospels. What a pity! Thank for sharing, and good day.