Family & Fantasy: How Early Christians Imagined Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at Home

15736Today, we have a blog post from Christopher A. Frilingos, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Michigan State University and author of the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels. In this new book, Frilingos looks at two non-canonical gospels that are often cast aside as marginal character sketches, but which he contends are best viewed as meditations on family, offering rich portrayals of household relationships at a time when ancient Christians were locked in a fierce debate about questions surrounding what a Christian family ought to look like and even whether Christians should pursue family life at all. Here, he introduces these gospels and summarizes his insights into their importance.

Today’s Christians may not think of the Bible as a family drama, but at least some ancient Christians loved telling and hearing stories about their religion’s first family. The New Testament contains only a handful of chapters about the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Mostly, the spotlight falls on the birth of Jesus. But what happened next? And what, for that matter, happened before?

Two early Christian sources—I call them “family gospels”—both dating to the mid- to late second century of the Common Era (150–200 CE), set out to answer these questions. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains stories about the child Jesus between the ages of five and twelve. The Proto-gospel of James describes how Mary, an adolescent girl, met an elderly Joseph. It goes on to recount Mary’s miraculous pregnancy and the lengths that Joseph is willing to go to protect the young, pregnant Mary. Neither of these family gospels can be found in copies of the Bible belonging to the main branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant). But they are not “secret gospels.” Scholars have long been aware of the books and have studied them for decades. Most scholars agree that neither book can tell us anything about what actually took place. They are not sources, in other words, for the study of the historical Jesus and his parents. What these family gospels offer is a glimpse of the early Christian imagination. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas “fills the gaps” of the New Testament gospels with stories about the childhood of Jesus. The Proto-gospel of James offers a prequel.

The contents of these gospels will surprise or even shock many readers. On the one hand, the child Jesus performs astounding feats of healing, for example, saving his brother, James, from a poisonous snakebite. On the other hand, Jesus does not get along with his neighbors—he curses children and adults, maiming some and killing others. Things get so bad that when a boy named Zeno falls from a roof and dies, Zeno’s parents suspect foul play and point the finger at Jesus. Accused of murder, Jesus resurrects the dead boy, who testifies to his innocence. The parents of Zeno glorify God and worship the young savior.

Miracles and curses, good and bad deeds: the combination leaves many readers dizzy. The confusion of readers runs parallel to that of characters in the stories, none of whom are more unsure than Mary and Joseph. They don’t know what to make of their child. In the final episode of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an echo of the single childhood story about Jesus in the New Testament (Gospel of Luke 2:41–52), the holy family nearly comes apart. Having celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem, the parents head for home. Meanwhile, the twelve-year-old Jesus hangs back without telling Mary and Joseph. The parents are upset when they can’t find Jesus. Their three-day search leads them back to the great temple of Jerusalem, where they find Jesus teaching the elders. Mary reproaches Jesus for causing such distress in herself and Joseph. Jesus answers with a rebuke of his own, asking Mary and Joseph why they don’t understand him: why don’t they know that he must be “in his Father’s house”? How much pain would such a rebuke inflict? Not only does the boy dismiss Mary’s worry, he denies Joseph’s paternity. It leaves Mary and Joseph confused. “But they did not understand what he said to them,” reports the Gospel of Luke.

In the family gospels, the household of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is two things at once. It is extraordinary. Fashioned by angels, it is a place where roles such as “husband” and “wife,” or “father,” “mother,” “son,” are called into question. So too the household is ordinary. Relationships are strained by the uncertainty that bedevils human existence. What Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do not know about one another outweighs what they do know.

The ordinary ignorance and misunderstanding depicted by the family gospels is, I suspect, the element that will resonate most strongly with modern readers. It’s a portrayal that could lead to a despairing outlook, a view that no matter how hard we try, we have no way of ever completely understanding others. But I think there’s something optimistic in these stories about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Awash in confusion after the sharp exchange in the temple, the trio decides to return home together. Family is not a given in the family gospels: it isn’t based on biology or defined according to some other traditional standard. Family is instead a choice, a thing that happens when we muster the courage to cling to one another in the face of everything we do not understand.

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