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Parents Just Don't Understand: Ambiguity in Stories about the Childhood of Jesus*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 January 2016

Christopher A. Frilingos*
Michigan State University


The childhood and teenage years, which we think of as crucial to the formation of the adult personality, go all but unnoticed in the canonical accounts of the life of Jesus. Only the Gospel of Luke includes a story about a twelve-year-old Jesus debating with religious experts in the Jerusalem temple and arguing with his parents. Synopses and commentaries sometimes refer to the episode as the “Finding of Jesus in the Temple” (Luke 2:41–52 NRSV), because it begins when his parents lose track of him. Mary and Joseph, having taken Jesus with them on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, begin to make the journey back home to Nazareth. Jesus remains in Jerusalem, without his parents’ permission: “but his parents did not know it” (καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν οἱ γονες [Luke 2:43]). Mary and Joseph search for and find their son “after three days” (2:46), safe and sound, in the great temple of Jerusalem. The boy sits among the elders, asking questions and amazing all with his “understanding” (σύνεσις [2:47]). “Child, why have you done this to us?” Mary reproaches Jesus, “See, your father and I have been worried [ὀδυνώμενοι] looking for you!” (2:48). “Why were you looking for me?” Jesus replies, “Did you not know [οὐκ ᾔδειτε] that I must concern myself with the things of my father?” (2:49). The back and forth confuses the parents: “But they did not understand what he said to them” (καὶ αὐτοὶ οὐ συνκαν τὸ ῥμα ὃ ἐλάλησεν αὐτος [Luke 2:50]).

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2016 

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I want to thank Andrew Jacobs, Laura Nasrallah, and Benjamin Pollock for their helpful comments on multiple drafts of this article. I also want to thank the anonymous readers for HTR. An early version was presented to audiences at Central Michigan University and the 2013 SBL International Meeting.


1 On the lack of interest in childhood in ancient biography, see Pelling, Christopher, “Childhood and Personality in Greek Biography,” in Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature (ed. idem; Oxford: Clarendon, 1990) 213–44Google Scholar. Similarly, Tony Burke contends that “idealized portrayals of children” in ancient art and literature show “what adults and parents wanted their children to be like” (De infantia Iesu euangelium Thomae graece [Corpus Christianorum: Series Apocryphorum 17; Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010] 223–89, at 289). See too idem, “Depictions of Children in the Apocryphal Gospels,” SR 41 (2012) 388–400.

2 Or, in the Catholic tradition, it is the “Loss in the Temple,” one of the “Sorrows of Mary” (J. C. Gorman et al., “Sorrows of Mary,” NCE 13:327–28). Scriptural citations follow the NRSV unless otherwise noted.

3 René Laurentin's view of a foreshadowing of the passion and resurrection (“after three days”) has won few adherents (Jésus au temple. Mystère de Pâques et foi de Marie en Luc 2, 48–50 [Paris: J. Gabalda et Cie, 1966] 101–2). Cf. Elliott, J. K., “Does Luke 2:41–52 Anticipate the Resurrection?,” Expository Times 58 (1971–1972) 8789Google Scholar.

4 Translation of 2:48–49 taken from De Jonge, Henk J., “Sonship, Wisdom, Infancy: Luke 2:41–51a,” NTS 24 (1978) 317–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 336. See too Dennis D. Sylva's proposal, “my father's words” (“The Cryptic Clause ‘en tois tou patros mou dei einai me’ in Luke 2:49,” ZNW 78 [1987] 132–40).

5 Some classic discussions are noted throughout the article. For a more recent study (with up-to-date bibliography), see Bradley S. Billings, “ ‘At the Age of 12’: The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52), the Emperor Augustus, and the Social Setting of the Third Gospel,” JTS 60 (2009) 70–89.

6 It is tempting to hear disappointment. Raymond Brown remarks, “The tone of his question is more one of grief that his parents have known him so poorly” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke [ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1968; 1993] 490). Page numbers taken from updated edition (1993).

7 For Brown, Mary's silent pondering (Luke 2:19, 51) is the key: she may have not understood Jesus, “but she is not unresponsive to the mystery that surrounds him” (Birth of the Messiah, 494). Joseph A. Fitzmyer observes: “This is Luke's way of getting across to his readers the difficulty of understanding who Jesus is or was” (Gospel according to Luke I–IX [AB 28; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981] 439). See too François Bovon's salient remarks about the difference between Luke 2:19 and 2:50 (Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50 [trans. Christine M. Thomas; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002] 115).

8 Nils Krückemeier, inferring intention from the genre of ancient biography, argues that the point of Luke 2:41–52 is to declare “die außerordentliche Bedeutung” of Jesus (“Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel [Lk 2.40–52] und die biografische Literatur der hellenistischen Antike,” NTS 50 [2004] 307–19, at 316). If this is Luke's purpose, why depict Mary and Joseph as being unable to recognize his “extraordinary significance”?

9 Sternberg, Meir, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)Google Scholar. Sternberg offers a few remarks on the difference between the narrative of the Tanakh, which presumes a low “threshold of intelligibility,” and the canonical Gospels, which elevate mystery and secrecy and thus create an exclusive class of “insiders” (48–49). This view, as Sternberg admits, is wedded to Frank Kermode's brilliant but narrow and somewhat unfinished analysis of the Gospel of Mark (The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979]). For a critical assessment, see Ann, MaryTolbert and Justus George Lawler, review of Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, RelSRev 8 (1982) 110Google Scholar.

10 Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 199–222, 235–37.

11 A critical overview of recent scholarship on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas may be found in Burke, “Depictions of Children,” 388–400. See too the studies of Sever J. Voiçu, e.g., “Notes sur l'histoire du texte de l’Histoire de l'enfance de Jésus,” Apocrypha 2 (1991) 119–32; and idem, “Ways to Survival for the Infancy Apocrypha,” in Infancy Gospels: Stories and Identities (ed. Claire Clivaz et al.; WUNT 281; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 401–17. Other relevant studies are noted and engaged with throughout the remainder of this article.

12 See Burke, Tony, “Completing the Gospel: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a Supplement to the Gospel of Luke,” in The Reception and Interpretation of the Bible in Late Antiquity. Proceedings of the Montréal Colloquium in Honour of Charles Kannengieser, 11–13 October 2006 (ed. Lorenzo, DiTommaso and Lucian, Turcescu; Bible in Ancient Christianity 6; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 101–19Google Scholar, at 113–17.

13 On a positive message about Mary and Joseph, see Aasgaard, Reidar, The Childhood of Jesus: Decoding the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Eugene: Cascade, 2009) 4647Google Scholar, 116–17. On “justifiable responses,” see Upson-Saia, Kristi, “Holy Child or Holy Terror? Understanding Jesus’ Anger in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” CH 82 (2013) 139Google Scholar, quotation at 36. I hasten to add that Upson-Saia outlines a compelling scenario of the appropriation of non-Christian polemic about Jesus and “domestication” by Christian redactors. “Hints” of the hostile source material, she contends, linger in the final form of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. I hold to the consensus view that the childhood stories originated in Christian circles.

14 Note the contrast to the theme that François Bovon has described: “In this Christian paradigm, children—despite their weakness—finally know better than adults, and receive confidence and authority, whereas the adults remain insecure and anxious” (“The Child and the Beast: Fighting Violence in Ancient Christianity,” in idem, New Testament and Christian Apocrypha: Collected Studies II [ed. Glenn E. Snyder; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009] 223–44, at 244.)

15 I follow the text, divisions, and translation of “Recension S” in Burke, De infantia, 302–37. See too the text and translation of Reidar Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 219–42, which incorporates a number of variant readings.

16 Upson-Saia, “Holy Child or Holy Terror,” 1.

17 Elliott, J. K., The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993) 6869CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 See Burke, De infantia, 127–71.

19 The theological payoff, according to Brown, is to show that “the appreciation of Jesus’ divine sonship was post-resurrectional” (Birth of the Messiah, 492). See too David P. Moessner on the limited knowledge of characters in Luke (“The Ironic Fulfillment of Israel's Glory,” in Luke-Acts and the Jewish People: Eight Critical Perspectives [ed. Joseph B. Tyson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1998] 35–50).

20 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 480. As a comparison, consider the story of Hannah and her son Samuel, the likely source of the “imitative historiography” of Luke 1–2. Hannah, like Mary, receives news of her imminent pregnancy from an angel. In return, Hannah pledges Samuel to priestly service. The child is born and several years pass. Samuel goes to work under Eli, as expected. To appreciate the intensity of the Lukan incongruity, we must imagine Hannah reproaching her son: “Child, why have you done this to us?” On Lukan “imitative historiography,” see Fitzmyer, Joseph A., Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teaching (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1989) 65Google Scholar.

21 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 480–81, following Bastiaan Martinus Franciscus van Iersel, “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Some Observations on the Original Form of Luke 2, 41–51a,” NovT 4 (1960) 161–73.

22 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 481.

23 Ibid. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 493, and Bovon, Luke 1, 115. See too Horn, Cornelia B. and Martens, John W., “Let the Little Children Come to Me”: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2009) 79Google Scholar.

24 Like other so-called gnostic Christians, the Marcosians could find support for their views in the gospels that proto-orthodox Christians tended to favor. Irenaeus contends that the Marcosians “falsely fit to that standard some of the things put in the Gospel” (Haer. 1.20.2). (For the text see Irénée de Lyon: Contre les hérésies. Livre I, tome II: Texte et traduction [ed. and trans. Adelin Rousseau and Louis Doutreleau; SC 264; Paris: Cerf, 1979] 290; for the English translation see St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies [trans. Dominic J. Unger; ACW 55; Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 1991] 76.) On the thorny problem of identifying “Gnosticism,” see Brakke, David, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010) 128Google Scholar.

25 Haer. 1.20.1 (SC 264:288; trans. Unger, ACW 55:76).

26 Haer. 1.20.1 (SC 264:289; trans. Unger, ACW 55:76).

27 See Inf. Gos. Thom. 6:1–8:2, 13:1–3, and 14:1–4. Not only the Marcosians appreciated this story. The contemporaneous Epistula apostolorum 4 includes a report of the same story in its opening summary of Jesus's activities (Burke, De infantia, 29).

28 Haer. 1.20.2 (SC 264:290; trans. Unger [modified], ACW 55:76).

29 Haer. 1.20.3 (SC 264:294; trans. Unger, ACW 55:77).

30 On the slippery notion of gospel in Irenaeus, see Reed, Annette Yoshiko, “Εὐαγγέλιον: Orality, Textuality, and the Christian Truth in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses,” VC 56 (2002) 1146Google Scholar, at 45. Cf. Kelhoffer, James A., “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited: Εὐαγγέλιον as a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century,” ZNW 95 (2004) 134CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 See Piper, Ronald A., “The One, the Four, and the Many,” in The Written Gospel (ed. Markus, Bockmuehl and Donald A., Hagner; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 254–73Google Scholar, at 269.

32 An incisive analysis of John Chrysostom's references to children across his oeuvre may be found in Leyerle, Blake, “Appealing to Children,” JECS 5 (1997) 243–70Google Scholar.

33 See Burke, De infantia, 6.

34 John Chrysostom, Hom. Jo. 17.3 (PG 59:110). The translation, slightly modified here, appears in Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, Homilies 1–47 (trans. Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin; FC 33; New York: Fathers of the Church, 1957) 167.

35 Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 178.

36 At the same time, “orthodox” interpreters, such as Epiphanius, could enlist extracanonical childhood stories to combat so-called “adoptionist” interpretations. Jesus “ought to have childhood miracles too, in order to deprive the other sects of an excuse for saying that it is from the time of the Jordan that ‘the Christ,’ meaning the dove, came to him” (Panarion 51.20.2–3). The English translation is taken from Frank Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius (NHS 36; 2nd edition; Leiden: Brill, 2009) 45.

37 The quotations in this paragraph and the next are from John Chrysostom, Hom. Jo. 21.2 (PG 59:130; trans. Goggin, FC 33:205–6). I have modified the translation slightly.

38 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 480–81. Cf. Meir Sternberg's observation that “geneticists [i.e., source critics] are apt to explain away discontinuity in terms of misadventure in transmission, especially when assuming the writer's lack of interest in psychology or his general incompetence” (Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 237).

39 John Chrysostom, Hom. Jo. 21.2.

40 John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 10.3 (PG 57:186; trans. mine).

41 John Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 10.3 (PG 57:186; trans. mine). The clause “things that the Jews had never seen nor heard” presents a striking parallel to language in Inf. Gos. Thom. 17:3. Günther Schmahl suggests that this notion is already incipient in the Lukan story (“Lk 2,41–52 und die Kindheitserzählung des Thomas 19, 1–5. Ein Vergleich,” Bibel und Leben 15 [1974] 249–58, at 252).

42 On the “ordeal of interpretation” shared by readers and characters, see Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 48.

43 See Kazen, Thomas, “Sectarian Gospels for Some Christians? Intention and Mirror Reading in the Light of Extra-Canonical Texts,” NTS 51 (2005) 561–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Mitchell, Margaret M., “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels Were Written for All Christians,’ ” NTS 51 (2005) 3679CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 On the generative power of biblical ambiguity, see Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 186–229.

45 For a discussion of lexical and thematic affinities between the Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Luke, see De Jonge, “Sonship, Wisdom, Infancy,” 347–48; and Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 115–18. Cf. Schmahl's argument that the “Finding of Jesus” is smoothly integrated into the narrative of Luke but not into that of the Infancy Gospel (“Lk 2,41–52 und die Kindheitserzählung,” 256).

46 Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 481.

47 Παίζω (to play): a hapax legomenon of the New Testament (see 1 Cor 10:7, citing Exod 32:6).

48 See classic discussions in John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) 134–59; and Fredriksen, Paula, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (2nd ed.; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000)Google Scholar esp. 18–52.

49 Boyarin, Daniel, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 For Boyarin, the “first accent” is halakhic debate and the “second accent” is the aggadah about gigantic rabbis: “It is that incongruity that renders the text so very Menippean, that which asserts while denying but also denies while asserting the value of an intellectual practice, neither the assertion nor the denial being allowed to win the day” (Boyarin, Fat Rabbis, 235). On Menippean satire generally, see Relihan, Joel C., Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)Google Scholar. See too Halliwell, Stephen, “The Uses of Laughter in Greek Culture,” CQ 41 (1991) 279–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 See Boyarin, Fat Rabbis, 342. As Boyarin notes, the notions of “seriocomic” and “Menippean satire” recall the poetics of Mikhail Bakhtin (Fat Rabbis, 1-32, esp. 14-15).

52 See Burke on cursing (De infantia, 276–81). On the “comedy” of curses in Acts, see Harrill, J. Albert, “Divine Judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11): A Stock Scene of Perjury and Death,” JBL 130 (2011) 351–69Google Scholar.

53 As Sternberg suggests, the format of questions and answers in narrative almost always heightens awareness of ambiguity (Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 241).

54 See Inf. Gos. Thom. 17:3.

55 Burke, De infantia, 305 n. 8.

56 On different kinds of conversion in Luke-Acts, see Balch, David L., “ΜΕΤΑΒΟΛΗ ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΩΝ: Jesus as Founder of the Church in Luke-Acts: Form and Function,” in Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse (ed. Penner, Todd C. and Stichele, Caroline Vander; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 139–88Google Scholar.

57 See Minear, Paul S., “Luke's Use of the Birth Stories,” in Studies in Luke-Acts (ed. Keck, Leander E. and Martyr, J. Louis; Nashville: Abingdon, 1966) 111–31Google Scholar, at 117.

58 See Frilingos, Christopher A., “No Child Left Behind: Knowledge and Violence in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” JECS 17 (2009) 2754Google Scholar, esp. 46–53. On the coherence of the three scenes, see Paulissen, Lucie, “Jésus à l’école. L'enseignement dans l’évangile de l'enfance selon Thomas,” Apocrypha 14 (2003) 153–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 For a list of epistemological terms in the Infancy Gospel, see Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 123.

60 See Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 85–93, 97.

61 Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 264. For a recent Sternbergian approach to suspense in biblical narrative, see Schellenberg, Ryan S., “Suspense, Simultaneity, and Divine Providence in the Book of Tobit,” JBL 130 (2011) 313–27Google Scholar.

62 Others may say that the text clearly shows that Jesus did not push Zeno down, that instead Zeno just fell. I respectfully disagree; the text says nothing about what precipitated the fall, whether it was an accident, a misstep, or a deliberate shove. The subsequent resuscitation and testimony of Zeno, as I indicate, remains playfully ambiguous.

63 Burke refers to the story of Eutychus (De infantia, 323 n. 8).

64 In Burke's edition, Jesus commands the resuscitated Zeno once again to “fall asleep” (De infantia, 324–25). But the reading, as Burke notes, is not well supported in the manuscripts. On the manipulation of bodies, see Gleason, Maud W., “Truth Contests and Talking Corpses,” in Constructions of the Classical Body (ed. Porter, James I.; The Body, in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism; ECCA 11; Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999) 287313Google Scholar.

65 In addition to Burke and Aasgaard, see Upson-Saia, “Holy Child or Holy Terror,” 31–33.

66 Cf. Luke 4:16–30, the so-called “Rejection in Nazareth.”

67 Burke, “Completing the Gospel,” 108–9.

68 Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 47.

69 Burke wonders whether this added term betrays the influence of the Western text of Luke (De infantia, 184, 336 n. 4).

70 Yet, what follows in the Infancy Gospel suggests more ambiguity, as the text lifts the canonical benediction of Elizabeth (Luke 1:42) and puts it into the mouths of scribes and Pharisees at the temple: “Blessed are you, because the Lord God has blessed the fruit of your womb,” adding, “For such wisdom of praise and glory of virtue we have never seen nor heard” (οὐδὲ εἴδαμεν οὔτε ἠκούσαμέν ποτε [Inf. Gos. Thom. 17:4]). This is, I suspect, a kind of feint. The perception of the learned figures is cast in playfully negative terms: the experts were ignorant before—“we have never seen nor heard”—and so they prove themselves again when they conspire to destroy the adult Jesus in the Lukan Passion Narrative. Still, whether one reads it as straightforward or ironic, the praise of the temple experts does not tell the reader anything about the parents.

71 Aasgaard, Childhood of Jesus, 117.

72 Bovon, Luke 1, 113 [italics in original].

73 Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 36–38.

74 Two complementary articles describe canon and the possibilities for resistance in fourth-century Christian circles: see Brakke, David, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter,” HTR 87 (1994) 395419CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Jacobs, Andrew S., “The Disorder of Books: Priscillian's Canonical Defense of Apocrypha,” HTR 93 (2000) 135–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Athanasius, Ep. Fest. 39. Translation in Brakke, David, Athanasius and Asceticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) 326–32Google Scholar, at 329–30.

76 See the important proposals of David Brakke, “Scriptural Practices in Early Christianity: Towards a New History of the New Testament Canon,” in Invention, Rewritings, Usurpation: Discursive Fights over Religious Traditions in Antiquity (ed. Jörg Ulrich, Anders-Christian Jacobsen, and David Brakke; Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2012) 263–80; and Bovon, François, “Beyond the Canonical and the Apocryphal Books, the Presence of a Third Category: The Books Useful for the Soul,” HTR 105 (2012) 125–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the late ancient debate over pious elaboration, see Andrew Jacobs's helpful discussion of resistance to “Christian midrash” in Philoxenus, who may have been reacting against later infancy gospels (Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference [Divinations; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012] 135–41).

77 I concede that the formulation of “Greeks and Jews” is an oversimplification and in need of refinement. See Nasrallah, Laura, Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture: The Second-Century Church Amid the Spaces of Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press) 2150Google Scholar.

78 On Celsus, see Wilken, Robert L., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (2nd ed.; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003) 94125Google Scholar. See too the analysis of James A. Francis, which shows that Celsus viewed Christian claims and practices as “incomprehensible” against the received wisdom of traditional religion (Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995] 131–79, at 146).

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