“Parents Just Don’t Understand: Ambiguity in Stories about the Childhood of Jesus”

Chris Frilingos, Michigan State University


This article is about early Christian accounts of the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Of the canonical gospels, only one, the Gospel of Luke, contains such a story. It depicts a twelve-year-old Jesus debating with religious experts in the Jerusalem Temple and arguing with his parents (Luke 2:41–52). In it, the parents are confused by the behavior of their son. They do not know that he has gone off to the temple by himself. When they find him there, they do not understand what he is doing there, nor do they understand what he says to them.

What did ancient Christians make of this story? The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written some time after the Gospel of Luke, expands the view of the childhood of Jesus. It begins when Jesus is five years old and concludes with its own version of the temple incident when Jesus is twelve. In between, things are mostly a mess. Jesus hurts playmates and treats teachers and other adults, including his parents, with contempt. Mary and Joseph try to control their son, but to no avail. If the Gospel of Luke includes a “snapshot” of family upset, then the Infancy Gospel presents a slideshow of familial dysfunction.

Mary and Joseph could not understand their son because he was hard to understand, or so the Infancy Gospel suggests. Jesus pushed Mary and Joseph to the limits of comprehension, limits that would have been perceived and felt by ancient Christian audiences. For them, tales of the divine boy’s bizarre antics were a reminder of how little human beings know of the ways of God.

The full paper, published in Harvard Theological Review, “Just Don’t Understand: Ambiguity in Stories about the Childhood of Jesus” by Christopher A. Frilingos can be viewed here free of charge until 31st March 2016.

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