Dechiphering Christ Child

Featured photo: Norbert Schiller, Copts praying in front of an icon of Christ Child and Virgin Mary.


Author: Shangyun Shen

Stephen Davis’ latest book is a thorough analysis of the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas in terms of its reception and understanding by a wide range of readers from late antiquity to the middle ages.

Davis is a professor of religious studies from Yale University, specializing in the history of ancient and medieval Christianity, with a special focus on theeastern Mediterranean and the Near East. Prior to his coming to Yale, Davis lived in Egypt for four years, where he was a professor and academic dean at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC).

Photo: Popko van Meekeren.

In this book, Davis first addresses the nomenclature of compiled stories about the childhood of Jesus. From Davis’ point of view, the modern title of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas imposed on the collection is an inaccurate rendering of its earlier and more proper title Paidika, i.e. the “childhood deeds” of Jesus in Greek. Davis next introduces his approach of the study. he uses the sociological concept of “social memory” and “cultural memory” as a way to talk about the constructive and creative work performed by late ancient and medieval authors, readers, and communities upon the Paidika in and through “sites of memory” encountered in their respective present-day environment.

In the following part, Davis chooses three specific topics in the Paidika for his examination: the bird watching, the cursing, and the learning letters. In each of these cases, the history behind these scenes are given, illuminating their origins and highlighting their connections with children in the ancient world. Further contemporaneous resources both biblically and extra biblically are also used by Davis to rationalize the Christian interpretation of these scenes. What caught my attention is Davis’ analysis on the cursing episodes in the Paidika, for its resemblance to the stories in the Holy Family Tradition that I currently work on.

Childhood as the “preparatory stage” was always an important part in the tradition of competition of Greco-Roman society.

According to Davis’ research, several things are made clear in regard to these peculiar cursing scenes which exist in the Paidika. From a historical angle, childhood as the “preparatory stage” for human life was always an important part in the tradition of competition of Greco-Roman society. This competition concerned both physical ones and intellectual elements, such as performance, declamation, and debate. Thus the Christ-child in the Paidika is a product of this Greco-Roman social context that also conformed to its social/cultural norms.  To Davis, this explains the Christ-child’s lethal curse when he was challenged by another boy on the street according to the Paidika. Due to the aforesaid duality of the competition, the curse of the Christ-child also acts as a physical triumph as well as a spiritual one because of the word he uttered in the curse: hegemony, which can be translated as “leader” or “guide”. In this sense, young Jesus, who as the Logos,  embodies the endowed ensoulment of a rightly ordered hegemony, conquered over his peer, who was subject on the contrary to a blind hegemony.

All these case studies suggest an attempt by the authors, and the compilers of the Paidika, to evince the divine power of young Jesus who brings life to the inanimate clay birds, causes the immediate death to a boy by uttering a deadly curse, and demonstrates his omniscience by giving his teachers a hard time.

The last part of the book broadens the definition of the readers of Paidika, through taking Jewish, and Muslim perspectives into consideration. One can find similar stories in the Jewish and Islamic literature. For the Jews, the Paidika stories were taken up and reinterpreted in favor of Jewish portrayals of Jesus in a pejorative way. On the other hand, such Jewish polemics spurred the Christian side to take action, which includes transcribal changes of the Paidika, which indicates its role as a shared “site of memories” both for Jews and Christians. Muslims, unlike the Jews, used the Paidika to suit their depiction of Jesus as a godly saint in the frame of Islam, in this part of the study, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, the Arabic version of the Paidika, is highlighted as a specific “site of memories”.

The book also has three rather readable appendices, in which the Greek and the Arabic Paidikas are translated, as well as a detailed report a painting of Christ-child on the ceiling of a medieval church. These appendices serve as an added bonus to the reader by providing other cases of the reception and understanding of the Paidika through western eyes..

Overall, I find Davis’ approach to deciphering the peculiarity of the young Jesus convincing except for the episode of Jesus’ cursing on the pass-by boy. In this episode Davis relies too heavily on the linguistic criticism of the text, due to the simple account of the story. He may have over analyzed it by his lengthy argument. However, at the same time, I have to admit that it is perhaps because of the scarcity of information in this particular story, which makes that scholars like Davis have no other way than to resort to primarily to linguistic analysis. Another merit of the book is its profound notes and references. This opens a window for the reader not only for a closer look at  the charming stories of young Jesus, but also a glimpse of the academic richness of apocryphal studies.

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