It’s Christmas, a time to spread love, cheer, and gifts you didn’t like from last year. Christians around the country will be building crèches and parents will be enthusiastically attending Nativity Plays. At least those parents whose kids landed the plum roles will be. But for all the focus on the infant-shaped pink plastic toys, we don’t learn a lot about the Christ child Himself.
Did he sleep through the night right away? Walk at three months? Will Himself to potty train by the time he was a year old? The possibilities seem endless: Who needs a trip to the liquor store when the toddler can turn water into wine, amirite?
What was Jesus like after the Magi packed up their camels and the shepherds went back to their flock? The Bible doesn’t tell us. After the Christmas season, the next time Jesus crops up on the church calendar is at his baptism, 29 years later. There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus absconds off to the Temple and starts to teach people about the law around the age of 12. But other than this one moment, it’s a complete mystery.
It was a mystery to devout Christians in the early Church, too. They wondered about the temperament of K-12 Jesus and wrote a number of apocryphal stories about his childhood years. If you assumed Jesus was the kind of prodigious angel to turn you green with envy, you’d be wrong. Baby Jesus might be cute, but trust me: you wouldn’t like Him when he’s angry.
A second-century text, known today as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and in the ancient world as the Paidika or “Childhood Deeds,” describes these years in detail. Like most small children, he was a bit of a handful.
To be sure, Jesus is a real help around the house: He produces a whole feast from a single grain, saves his brother James from snake poison and resurrects a construction worker when he dies. On one occasion when his father Joseph is constructing a bed, Jesus stretches the beam of wood so that it fits. How great would he be after a trip to IKEA?
But he’s a bit tough to teach: impossible, in fact. Every attempt to teach Jesus fails, and Jesus ends up sassing his instructors. Admittedly, the incarnate word of God and author of creation probably doesn’t need a lot of formal schooling, but talk about a disruption in class.
And that’s on his good days. On his bad days he’s a preschooler with supernatural powers prone to throwing murderous tantrums in public. On one occasion, another child, the son of a priest, disturbs a miraculous pool of water Jesus was playing with. Jesus does the natural thing and causes the child to “whither up wholly.” No one likes it when their sandcastle is knocked over, but his reaction is a bit, err, extreme.
In another incident, a more innocent playmate accidentally runs into five-year-old Jesus’s shoulder. Jesus takes this a touch personally and utters a curse that kills him. Lovely. When Joseph reprimands Jesus for drawing negative attention to them, Jesus responds by blinding his critics. In an act of corporal punishment that we at the Daily Beast do not condone, Joseph grabbed Him by the ear and “pulled hard.” Apparently entering his petulant teenage years prematurely, Jesus told Joseph to stop giving Him grief. After all, the other kid started it. What can you do? Saviors will be saviors.
Of course, none of these stories are actually in the Bible and they don’t tell us anything about Jesus’s actual childhood. Which in some ways makes them more interesting: Why did pious Christians living in the century that followed the death of Jesus like to imagine their Lord and Savior as only slightly better than Damien from the Omen movies?
Scholars differ in their explanations. At least one, Kristi Upson-Saia, has argued that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas started out as anti-Christian polemic before being incorporated into traditions about Jesus. Others think that Jesus’s outbursts emphasize his humanity by demonstrating that he was just a regular kid. At least some medieval readers were made uncomfortable by the stories and changed the details in the manuscripts in order to justify and soften Jesus’s behavior.
What’s clear is that Christians thought deeply about the significance of these stories and used them to make sense of their own world. Stories about the Christ child circulated widely, with one story about Jesus bringing sparrows to life making it into the Koran.
Even if they’re not historical, these stories might still come as a comfort to parents of badly behaved children everywhere. Shucks, if baby Jesus can go from sadistic child killer to Son of God, there’s hope for everyone. Next time someone criticizes your parenting, remember: Your kid may not be angelic, but he’s still Christlike.