WTF is with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?!? A deep dive into satire, philosophy, and more

A few weeks ago, you may have seen sensationalist headlines like “A New Discovery Could Offer Some Clues About Jesus’ Childhood”, discussing a find of a 4th-5th century manuscript fragment of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a strange apocryphal text that we’ve already had copies of for years. The discovery told us a little more about the development of the text, but certainly didn’t promise any new revelations or insights as these headlines claimed. But it might be worth taking the opportunity of this news cycle to take a closer look at the text, as I think it hides a few surprises that have escaped most analyses to date.

Introduction

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was the first apocrypha I ever read.

I went to a private school that was religiously affiliated, though much more concerned with getting its students into an Ivy League than into Heaven. And so while we needed to study religion in the course of our education, it wasn’t done as a typical Sunday school indoctrination, but as classes under teachers with either an MA or PhD in Biblical Studies that focused on things like textual criticism, source analysis, sociology, etc.

These were a lot of fun, even for (or maybe especially for) a budding rationalist who was born and raised into an Agnostic household. For example, the course where we read the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—assigned to showcase the weirdest of the weird from the halls of heretical texts—was a semester focused on cults with half the class dedicated to analysis of the first few centuries of Christianity through the lens of a budding cult.

The field of Biblical Studies has very little in the way of testable predictions and empirical evidence for most of what’s discussed. Insights and perspectives largely come down to rational arguments given available information. On top of this, there’s a massive survivorship bias regarding both the texts and attitudes regarding them, compounded by the anchoring biases typical of academia and rampant in lieu of testable assertions.

In short, it’s a ton of fun to take some time and look at, particularly if you don’t have a significant inherent bias regarding the subject matter. And something you’ll quickly find is that good analyses frequently come down to understanding everything you can about the context of what you are analyzing.

The context for The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Most scholarship regarding Infancy Gospel of Thomas considers it to have been composed in the second century.[1]

A tradition of division

When thinking about the first two centuries of Christianity, probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that the earliest primary source documents are letters from someone who had been persecuting its followers, writing to areas he had no authority to persecute, telling them to ignore certain authorities or versions of Jesus in favor of the version he offered up instead.

This was a very divisive tradition. The church liked to try to play it up as a cohesive movement with minor disagreements, but if you dive into the details of the already extremely biased surviving sets of texts and sources, they are indicative of schisms over pretty much everything one might associate with Christian theology, outside perhaps a shared attribution to a ‘Jesus’. Even the idea of ‘Christ’ or a messiah isn’t shared, so we couldn’t even say they all attribute themselves to a “Jesus Christ.”

Rejection of physical resurrection

One of the early disagreements was over the idea of physical resurrection. While we take it for a given that ‘Christianity’ is associated with bodies rising from the dead, there were divisions over everything from the ritual of taking part in the physical resurrection via the Eucharist (Ignatius mentions a group using “evil herbage” in their ritual and in the 4th century Pope Julius I condemned a variant Eucharist of milk instead of wine) to the idea of physical resurrection itself.

Paul, in around 54 CE, writes to the community in Corinth complaining of their very different set of beliefs than what we see today. They had wildly divergent attitudes, such as “everything is permissible”—something one might more associate with the Maxim in Assassin’s Creed than a teaching attributed to Jesus. In his followup letter, he bemoans that they had accepted a “different version of Jesus” from some unnamed ‘superapostles.’

And one of those disagreements in 1 Cor 15, is about the rejection of the belief in physical resurrection. Corinth don’t seem to just be disagreeing with the idea of dead bodies coming back to life—the discussion ends up focusing on other concepts too, like a first and last Adam and the transformation of a physical body into a non-physical body.

An Apostle named Thomas

All of these topics show up in a text and tradition that by around the second century seems to be associated with someone named ‘Thomas’, meaning ‘twin’. The Gospel of Thomas and the group following it in the 3rd century, the Naassenes, discussed these same ideas of a first Adam, a first and last, spiritual vs physical bodies and especially the uselessness of the latter—the text refers to a physical body as the ‘poverty’ that the mind/​spirit dwells in.

The most famous canonical appearance of an apostle named Thomas is “doubting Thomas” in John. As Princeton’s Elaine Pagels hypothesized[2], this depiction in the gospel of John may have been a contemporary criticism of the doubting of the physical resurrection by the ‘Thomasine’ sects.

Tales of a miraculous child

The other important bit of context to set the stage for a 2nd century composition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was the development at the end of the 1st century and early 2nd century of the canonical infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew.

Matthew may have been the first to attribute miracles to the baby Jesus, specifically being born to a virgin. Luke 3 seems to be a natural start to the work, and so a common hypothesis is that Luke 1-2 was a later addition. But it’s generally recognized that by the second century there were multiple traditions of Jesus’s impossibly miraculous birth, along with things like angels and prophets foretelling his arrival or recognizing the divinity in the little tyke.

Resurrections ad nauseum

So out of this climate of ‘Thomas’ being associated with denial of physical resurrection in parallel with the authorship of fantastical narratives of a child Jesus, something rather unusual occurs:

Someone writes a fantastical narrative of a child Jesus, attributed to Thomas, with more resurrections per page than probably any other text in history.

This thing is wild. You have a toddler Jesus smiting townspeople left and right and resurrecting them again. It reads almost like the Twilight Zone episode with the creepy kid sending townsfolk to the corn fields.

At one point, his mother says to his father:

Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die.

If Thomas was associated with a denial of dead bodies coming back to life, what the heck is up with this story about a six year old with magic powers killing his teacher and townsfolk, then resurrecting people left and right as if it’s nothing?

Well...it might be satire.[3]

To play up the miracles attributed to a child, and so over the top and in such a critical light as it appears in this text, seems like a strong satirical candidate. And there’s one instance in particular that seems to especially sell satire as being what’s the driving force behind the hyper-resurrection.

A resurrection by any other name

Around halfway through the text is (to me) probably the weirdest part of the story:

And some days after, Jesus was playing in an upper room of a certain house, and one of the children that were playing with Him fell down from the house, and was killed. [..]And Jesus leaped down from the roof, and stood beside the body of the child, and cried with a loud voice, and said: Zeno-for that was his name-stand up, and tell me; did I throw thee down? And he stood up immediately, and said: Certainly not, my lord; thou didst not throw me down, but hast raised me up.

Anyone notice something strange?

How many children in the Jewish town of Nazareth in Galilee do you think were named Zeno, like the Greek philosopher famed for his paradoxes and denials of motion?

The extant text is fully aware of how bizarre the name is, as it straight up addresses it with the “for that was his name” addition.

The child who solely functions in the text to deny motion, rejecting the claim of having been thrown down, shares a Greek name with the philosopher most known for denying motion?

This is a pretty blatant philosophy joke sitting smack dab in the middle of a text with many near farcical supernatural claims.

Is it more probable that an author was genuinely writing about believing a toddler had historically been terrorizing a town and resurrecting people a ton while also happening to fit the text around a joke about esoteric Greek philosophy, or is it perhaps more likely that a learned author satirizing the 2nd century beliefs in a supernaturally gifted toddler was also sneaking in a philosophy joke while doing it?[4]

A common discussion in the scholarship regarding the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is the limited overlap with the beliefs and sayings found in the actual Gospel of Thomas. But this Zeno joke fits with that other text surprisingly well.

In the actual Gospel of Thomas, in saying 13 one of his students is depicted describing Jesus as “You are like a wise philosopher.”

In saying 50, it says that the evidence for what is being discussing is “motion and rest.”

Recently, attention has finally started to be given to the Gospel of Thomas’s incorporation of Platonist ideas[5] and much of my own research into the text over the past five years of it being my main special interest has centered around Epicurean—specifically Lucretius’s—influence on the text and its later tradition.

So we have a core text that depicts Jesus as being confusable as just a wise philosopher, engaged with Greek and Roman philosophical ideas, which is putting on a pedestal the topic of motion and rest. And then an infancy narrative associated with that text’s tradition which includes a joke about the Greek philosopher most associated with the topic of motion.

Maybe these two texts weren’t coming from such different origins after all, and scholars taking the infancy narrative’s embracing of resurrection at face value as justification to deny its connection to a tradition rejecting physical resurrection are jumping the gun?

A neurodivergent Jesus

One of the most interesting parts of this narrative to me is what happens when you strip out all the supernatural stuff.

If you take away the smiting, the resurrecting, the other miracles, the Zeno joke, and all the other unbelievable parts, you are left with something even more extraordinary:

At its core, with all that other stuff removed, is a story about a bright child who has teachers keep trying to teach him to read.

And who keeps failing to learn how to read.

Over and over he just can’t learn his letters. One of the teachers even tries to teach him Greek first, as if it was the language that was the issue. And while the text depicts the child as looking at the letters in a different way from his teachers, discussing the metaphorical relevance of their shapes, and most of the teachers generally continue to regard him as brilliant, three times there’s attempts to teach him to read and by the end of the text he still has never learned.

Basically the text with the magic stripped away is a just story about a very bright dyslexic child.

Which, in my favorite research pattern to stumble across, is really curious for reasons that wouldn’t have been known in antiquity when this was composed.

In the 1980s a theory was put forward regarding dyslexia. That rather than simply being a neurodivergency relating to literacy, it was a disruption of temporal processing. Effectively that as people would be reading letters, that the order at which they read them ended up not being the order at which they were actually being processed, and that this temporal disruption would be more broadly evident outside just reading.

And over the decades since, there’s been a significant body of evidence of temporal processing differences frequently found among dyslexics. In particular, I want to call attention to dyschronia (emphasis added) [6]:

One fairly common feature of cognitive impairments in children with specific learning disorders is a significant and long-lasting tendency to struggle with temporal notions and representations, such as situating themselves in time, in all its dimensions (hours, days, weeks, etc….), and generating an accurate representation of durations and time intervals, a condition sometimes referred to as dyschronia [149]. For example, it is frequently noted (most often by their own parents) that children experience a vague understanding of time passing, or demonstrate serious misinterpretation of an event’s duration, which results in significant limitations in numerous daily activities which require a good perception/​representation of time. Thus, temporal notions, such as time-related vocabulary terms (weeks, months, seasons; yesterday, today, tomorrow…), or the accurate estimation of a time interval (saying how long a movie is, or how long it takes to get dressed in the morning) will be more or less clearly mistaken, as if the child lacked a stable duration referential to rely on. During school activities, this will often have vexing consequences in addition to those specific to the reading or writing difficulties, such as confusion between syntactic forms, especially tenses, or misunderstanding the chronology between, say, Prehistory, Antiquity and the Modern era.

Additionally, dyslexics have been found to often have difficulty with determining temporal order[7]:

Our results indicated that in both tasks dyslexics performed generally worse than normal readers. The results suggest that dyslexics suffer from a more general problem of order discrimination.

Now, it’s not necessarily all a bad thing. In fact, dyslexics have been found to have increased aptitude in some types of thinking[8]:

Areas of enhanced ability that are consistently reported as being typical of people with DD include seeing the big picture, both literally and figuratively (e.g., von Károlyi, 2001; Schneps et al., 2012; Schneps, 2014), which involves a greater ability to reason in multiple dimensions (e.g., West, 1997; Eide and Eide, 2011). Eide and Eide (2011) have highlighted additional strengths related to seeing the bigger picture, such as the ability to detect and reason about complex systems, and to see connections between different perspectives and fields of knowledge, including the identification of patterns and analogies. They also observed that individuals with DD appear to have a heightened ability to simulate and make predictions about the future or about the unwitnessed past (Eide and Eide, 2011).

This is very neat in relation to the topic at hand, because in my opinion one of the most interesting features of the core Gospel of Thomas is the peculiar consideration of time.

The Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas depicts what’s referred to in scholarship as an over-realized eschatology, effectively reversing the order of end times events. In saying 18-19a, it literally reverses the order of beginning and end and the temporal sequence of existence:

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, how will our end come?”

Jesus said, “Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.

Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.”

Jesus said, “Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being.

In saying 51 his students ask when the rest for the dead and new world will come, and the response is this has already happened but they don’t realize it.

In saying 91, he points to the difference in how his students are perceiving time in comparison to how he sees it, criticizing them by saying “you do not know how to examine the present moment.”

There’s a number of other places as well which would require a more detailed explanation than warranted here, but hopefully the unusual quality of the work’s temporal perspectives is evident.

This motif of nonlinear time and future events having already come to pass even comes up in the canonical Epistles—specifically in what they are opposing as heresy. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 it warns against believing any letters or words that claim a certain future event has already happened. In 2 Timothy 2:17-18 it warns:

Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying resurrection has already occurred. They are upsetting the faith of some.

So we have this infancy narrative which depicts a child who keeps not learning his letters despite multiple attempts to be taught, as part of the tradition associated with an adult version of that child who has atypical views of time and temporal order.

And then something we know now, but would have been unknown to the author of the narrative in antiquity, is that there’s a strong correlation between difficulty in learning to read as a child and atypical views of time and temporal order. So given that likely ignorance, this is a notable connection between the two Thomas texts that would be extremely unlikely to have been intentionally fabricated.

“The only way to tell the truth is through fiction”

In some ways, the overall situation reminds me of one of my favorite unconventional DEFCON talks (ironically by an ex-priest).

What seems to be the earliest layer of the text is a biographical narrative about a child struggling to learn to read but being recognized as bright nonetheless. This core kernel of a story is what Irenaeus is citing[1] at the end of the 2nd century—the scene where Jesus is describing the shape of letters to a teacher and the part where a twelve year old is teaching in the temple (as is also found in Luke). He makes no mention, critical or otherwise, regarding any stories about smiting townsfolk when he’s criticizing these other parts.

Given the ridicule from Irenaeus at this content, and the way Luke has the favorable scene of the child teaching in the temple but none of the parts about struggling to read, it’s likely that if the story remained as just this early biographical kernel it would have been edited out of history by way of dogmatic omission, like countless other lost texts.

But instead, at some point this core biographical layer was embellished with what appears to have been a satirical lampooning of contemporary orthodox supernatural glow-ups on the infancy of Jesus, taking this approach to an unsettling and ‘weird’ extreme.

And in the great irony of dogmatic blindness, the group being lampooned seem to have just found the text ‘odd’ but ended up deciding to preserve it because at face value it agreed and attested to their beliefs. In fact, the fragment discovered appears to be a clerical exercise at copying a text, meaning what may well be satire was being used as a church homework assignment. And as a result we have many surviving copies of this work in some form from across the centuries.

Meanwhile, the actual Gospel of Thomas ended up becoming so dangerous to possess that even owning it would be a death sentence, and our only surviving copies are one set of Greek fragments and a single complete copy found buried in a jar.

But because of this comedy of errors, an alleged detail of Jesus’s childhood survived the church’s great filter that in the light of modern knowledge lends plausibility to the authenticity of traditions and ideas the early church was actively working to suppress, eventually even on penalty of death.

There’s something very satisfying in the idea of an author from antiquity accidentally preserving details that would help support their tradition millennia later when they were whimsically composing satire in opposition to the tradition working to stamp it out.

  1. ^

    A unique element is quoted in part by Irenaeus around 180 CE in Against Heresies (Book I, Chapter 20)

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    For an independent academic perspective of this text as satire, see James Waddell, “I Have Been Born Among You”: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century (2018) - it takes a fairly different path to arrive at a similar place of seeing it as satire lampooning the development of the canonical infancy narratives.

  4. ^

    It’s possible that they were from two different authors, but given Zeno is resurrected, and the unlikeliness of a philosophy joke being added in once it was already being curated by the church, I think it’s most likely that both this and the hyper-ressurections are from the same author prior to church curation.

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    Jaśkowski & Rusiak, Temporal order judgment in dyslexia (2008)

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