Shuck and Jive

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

The new book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan,
The First Christmas, is a helpful one for understanding the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke.

Borg and Crossan refer to them as parables about Jesus.
Jesus told parables. We know that when we read or hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, that the point is not whether or not there was a Samaritan who actually helped some guy in a ditch.

We know it is a story and to debate its historicity would miss the point. Instead we focus on what the story means.
Borg and Crossan suggest that the infancy narratives ought to be treated in the same way. They are parables about Jesus, not accounts of his actual birth. We miss the point by debating their historicity. The important question is "What do these parables of his birth mean?" "What do they say about Jesus and the world in which he participated?"

Fundamentalists get hung up that somehow the gospels would not be credible if these stories were not true historically. I have heard again and again even preachers say: "If Jesus wasn't born of a Virgin, then why be a Christian?" Often this odd way of thinking is put more forcefully:

"Unless you believe in the Virgin Birth, you are not a Christian!"

To that I say, "Please."

Frankly, I really don't care what people think. If it is important to you to think that nary a sperm fertilized Mary's egg, then go ahead.
I cannot insist that the infancy narratives are legends beyond all possible doubt. Of course, they could be true.

I often find my ministry to those people who have been brought up thinking that you have to believe that legends are history in order to be Christian. They think that way because they have been told that ad nauseum by fundamentalist preachers.
They are so relieved to know that there is another way.

But then they have to deal with their literalist friends and family members. Here is an argument put forth by those who think we should credulously assent to every legend in the Gospels:

Couldn't God do it if God wanted to do so? Could not God make Mary pregnant? Could not God cause a star to hover over a house? Who are you Mr. Smarty Pants Child of the Enlightenment to doubt the wonder-working power of God?

What do you say to that? I just nod and smile.

I have been tempted to suggest that there are more stories that we need to believe, such as the
Infancy Gospel of Thomas. These are stories regarding the childhood of Jesus. Jesus was handy to have around:

(1) Since his father was a carpenter, he was making plows and yokes in that season.

(2) An order for a bed was given to him from a rich man, but one of the boards, the one called the crossbeam, was shorter than the other. And since Joseph had no idea what to do, the child Jesus said to his father Joseph, "Put the two pieces of wood down and line up the ends."

(3) And Joseph did just as the child told him. Then, Jesus stood at the other end and grasped the shorter piece of wood and stretching it, he made it equal with the other.

(4) And his father Joseph saw and was amazed and, taking the child, he kissed him, saying, "I am blessed because God gave me this child."

Is that a legend or is it historically accurate? One could say: If Jesus didn't stretch this board then why be a Christian!?

Or one could say: Jesus could have done that, right? He was the Son of God. He turned water into wine. He could make a board longer. Who are you to doubt the wonder-working power of our child lord?

It is the same argument that kids who are struggling with Santa offer to their deconstructionist friends.

Nasty Deconstructionist: How can you believe that Santa goes to every house in one night and eats all of those cookies? There are six billion people in the world. There isn't enough time in one night!

Sweet Confused Child: Santa is magic. He can do it if he wants.

Of course we side with the Sweet Confused Child against the Nasty Deconstructionist. But in the end, the Nasty Deconstructionist is correct. We grow up. We realize that the reality of Santa is within and we become Santa for our children and hope they hold on to the magic of giving and joy as long as they can.

But there is something disturbing about the child who will not grow up, who holds on to Santa in a literal way a little too long. Likewise, there is something disturbing about those Christians who hold on to outdated, incredible creeds. You just want to say, "It is time to grow up, now."

This growing up means that the story comes alive within us. We no longer need to believe it externally, but we need to incorporate it into our lives.

We become Santa.

We allow the Christ to be born within us.


  1. I don't feel that the central issue here is really the manner of Christ's birth. (Although, I think the virgin birth is one witness to the uniqueness of Jesus.) Certainly, someone can be a Christian and not interpret the virgin birth in a literal way.

    But, I think the center of our faith lies in the reality of the incarnation, the unique divinity of Jesus Christ. I don't feel it's possible for someone to be a Christian believer, and reject the divinity of Christ.

    In a deeper sense, we are no longer speaking of the same Jesus, or can be in agreement concerning the gospel.

    I maybe be mistaken, and am defintely willing to stand corrected. But, I think that Crossan as well as Borg feel that the historical Jesus was a mere man, a Jewish cynic, and mystic, who was spirit-filled, a kind of shaman, as well as a social revolutionary. And, in this sense revealed something of God.

    While, there maybe some truth in this, their opinion still falls pretty short of the witness of the Christian church. I'm seeing that the difficulty goes much deeper than dispute concerning the manner of Christ's birth.

  2. Borg and Crossan don't tell you that you have to agree with them in order to be a Christian. On the contrary, they say quite clearly--believe what you want about the literal truth of those mythological birth narratives.

    I highly recommend, for anyone who is interested in what Borg and Crossan have to say, to check out their interview on this week's "Here on Earth" program. The audio archives can be found here.

  3. ...and there are reasons the Infancy Gospel of Thomas didn't make it into the canon.

    I do like that scene of Jesus as a child making birds out of clay and then turning them into real birds. :) But not everything beautiful is historical.

    I actually think that the historical weight of Christ's miracles, along with the spiritual and theological meaning, is what goes into making Christianity something different from (and better than) Santa-worship.

    As Grace says--are we speaking of the same Jesus here? History is an irreducible part of the answer to that question.

    Also I highly recommend Mystical Seeker's blog for anyone wanting to learn more about Borg and Crossan.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Heather.

    Allow me to say that I am certain that Noe Valley Ministry will most certainly miss your contributions when you leave town.

  5. I, too, recommend Seeker's blog. And I recommend Heather's blog. Good stuff!


    "You wrote not everything beautiful is historical."

    I agree with you. That is why I like the infancy stories in Luke and Mark. Not only are they beautiful but they speak, IMO, through parable about the reality of the world in which we live. In the midst of Herods and Caesars there is one who truly embodies the Divine Spirit.


    For what it is worth, I too, trust that Jesus Christ is God-revealed, but not because he was born of a virgin or because the tales of his birth are historical.

    Mary Krismus to all!

  6. oops...I meant infancy stories in Luke and Matthew...

  7. I guess I should add before folks get all freaked out, that I also find a qualitative between the infancy narratives of the gospels and the Santa myth and the infancy gospel of Thomas.

    So what is that qualitative difference?

    Let's play with Infancy Thomas vs. Luke.


    1) One is historical the other is not. One happened, the other didn't. Nope. Both are legends.

    2) One is older than the other. Infancy Thomas is late 2nd early 3rd century, I think. Luke is late 1st early 2nd. Again, that would make Luke's story have more value, I think.

    3) One made it into the canon and one did not. Hard to criticize a winner. But not all the winners are "good" and not all the losers are "bad." Much literature left out of the canon is quite interesting.

    4) One is better written than the other. Luke's story is part of a larger narrative and as such participates in the larger theological/political narrative. Infancy Thomas appears to be told for delight and to fill in the gaps of the childhood of Jesus with very little theological/political value.

    Those are some differences. You can probably come up with others. But the reason that is most often trotted out as the difference between them (that Luke is historical and Infancy Thomas is legend) is actually the wrong reason.

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  9. OK, you know I can't stand what the Fundamentalists do to the Gospel anymore than you can, but there is an ethic to tackling sacred literature that is Two Thousand Years old.

    One rule I think is that after you get done de-constructing a text like the Nativity story, you have to put it back together again. Otherwise, what are you left with? At the end of the day you have to find a way to leave it the way you found it.

    It's a sign of respect and recognition that here is something far greater than you or I, and it will still be here after we are long gone and forgotten.

    It's a camping in the woods sort of thing.

  10. **Frankly, I really don't care what people think. **

    Hear, hear. It doesn't matter what you think, it matters what you do, and why you do it. That's why I think that some atheists can be just as much of God-followers as those who profess a belief in God. In fact, they can be just as much Christian, if taking the literal meaning: "Anointed-one-like."

  11. John, how have you come to some of your views relating to Christian faith? Have your convictions evolved over time?

  12. Jodie, I couldn't have said it more beautifully myself. I'm glad somebody did. With the American World Empire on the horizon, there will be no Fundamentalism or Christ story left in a 1000 years.

    I find it odd that most of the people I know who promote to remove the traditions and stories of old were raised in some kind of Fundamentalist religion themselves. I have never once met a hard-core atheist, who was raised atheist.

  13. Rachael,

    They often become progressive fundamentalists, the flip side of the coin.

    It's definitely not a coincidence. For instance, I think that the radical Episcopal Bishop, Jack Spong who basically rejects every central tenet of the Christian faith comes from a fundamentalist background.

  14. Also, it' been my experience that thinking young people reared in either extreme, often become members of the church's "alumni association," as adults.

  15. It is true that lot of people who were raised fundamentalists later became atheists. But there is a huge difference between being a former fundamentalist who became a resentful atheist who is hostile to religion--and I've encountered plenty of those in life and on the internet, and they are quite annoying--and those who have overcome that resentment to find meaning and purpose within the progressive Christian tradition. And to lump those two opposing strands of thinking together as "fundamentalist" would be just plain wrong; militantly hostile atheists would have absolutely nothing to do with progressive Christians (and the so-called "New Atheists" like Dawkins and Hitchens don't even acknowledge or pay attention to the existence of progressive Christianity.)

    I don't know of anyone in the progressive Christian community who wants to simply throw out the Christian mythologies. If they did, they would not be progressive Christians; it is the fact that they stand within the traditions associated with those mythologies that lies behind their association with the Christian faith.

    Certainly this is the case with Borg or Crossan, who have always said that it doesn't matter whether you take the mythological stories in the Bible literally true or not. They have never said that others have to agree with them on accepting these stories as historically accurate--this is quite different from those Christians who insist that you have to agree with them on on the literal truth of the resurrection.

    I would thus suggest that Borg and Crossan stand completely opposed to the fundamentalist mentality in all senses of the term. They say, "believe what you want" about the literal truth of the virgin birth or the resurrection--but either way, let's look at what these narratives really mean. That is the polar opposite of fundamentalist thinking, which says that you have to believe what they believe--for example, in the literal truth of the resurrection--to be a Christian.

    In fact, if you read Borg and Crossan's books--such as "The First Christmas", or "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time"--you will find a great deal of reverence for the biblical myths. They point out over and over again that they see a deeper truth in the ahistorical narratives that they do not take to be literally true.

    Even Spong, who I agree is rather dogmatic about his views, does not reject the biblical myths per se even though he does spend a lot of his efforts debunking biblical literalism. What he rejects is a naive literal reading of the Bible.

    If you read Borg, see that he distinguishes between three kinds of faith: pre-critical naiveté (which is akin to fundamentalism or a literal reading of the Bible), to critical thinking (which can often lead to atheism, and sometimes a resentful atheism that is hostile to religion), to post critical naiveté (which is progressive faith--one that incorporates the traditional myths as part of a faith but does so with intelligence and reason.)

    Getting beyond that second phase into the third phase can be a difficult step. Some people stay resentful for a long time. I was in that second phase myself during my early adult years, but I eventually grew out of it and found myself drawn back into faith when I moved to the third phase. Of course, some people never come out of the first phase. I think that what people like Borg and Crossan can do is they serve as a counterpoint to those atheists who offer the people in the first, pre-critical phase as a straw man that they can use to knock down religion. But pre-critical naivité is not the same as a Christian faith.

  16. Thanks, Seeker. I was going to respond, but you said it for me. I have some other random thoughts about this on my next post.

  17. ((Mystical)) I love you. What about the folks who start out in phase two or three, like myself, and then move to phase one. God have mercy!! I'm in regression, heading backward. Is there hope? (laughing)

    Who gets to sit up the paradigm??

  18. Paul Ricoeur has a similar typology: first naivete, critical thinking, second naivete. Only for Ricoeur, in second naivete, you do hold to the central beliefs of your religion, even if they don't square with rationalism--the unique divinity of Jesus Christ, for example. But you don't get upset or feel like your whole religion is crumbling down around you, should you start questioning more minor things about your religion, or encounter someone who believes differently from you. I think Grace and I might both be there...

  19. Grace,

    I'm in the same boat as you. After taking quantum physics and recently learning about conspiracy theories of American Imperialism and Corporate Elite Control, I now know society and materialism is just a construct as well. What do I have to fall back on?:

    The grace and love of God.

  20. Like any model, Borg's probably doesn't encompass all the possible scenarios out there for people's spiritual evolution. His model does address my own spiritual path very closely, but your mileage may vary, of course. I think what he is really describing is a dialectic that often takes place for people who outgrow conservative religion.

    I think that it is certainly possible to move from being non-religious to being a person of faith, but I am not sure that this necessarily is the same as having changed from critical thinking to being naively pre-critical. Perhaps they were naively pre-critical in different ways. Not all atheists are particularly critical thinkers, in my view. If your "critical thinking" was dogmatic and fundamentalist to begin with, then you are just switching teams back to a different sort of absolutism when you go from dogmatic atheism to dogmatic faith. In a way, those two phases can often be mirror images of one another.

    But I think it would be pretty difficult to move backwards from the third phase that Borg describes. Absolutist thinking tends to be inherently more intellectually and spiritually immature than more progressive modes of thought. Not to get all Hegelian or anything, but I think the key point of the third phase is its dialectical nature--it integrates elements of the two prior phases, which existed in a kind of tension with one another. It incorporates the best of both of the previous phases--certain elements of faithful naiveté of phase 1, and the rationalism of phase 2. To go backwards to a more spiritually immature mode of thinking would be highly impossible.

    One of the interesting things I encounter when I try to discuss religion with former fundamentalists who are now atheists is just how badly stuck they are in their current mindset. They would never move backwards in a million years to their former fundamentalist thinking--they rightly see it as a going back down the intellectual ladder and renouncing what they have learned. The problem is that progressive theology doesn't fit into their paradigm at all--it just goes right over their heads. They lump all of religion into the same category. At some point, if they are lucky, they can progress to Borg's third phase. They key for them is to move forward, not backward.

    Once you've seen the light in a particular phase of your spiritual development, you know you will never go back into the darkness, but sometimes there is another, even brighter light farther up the road.

  21. Mystical,

    These have been some of your best posts.

    All of these posts are good. Seems like we hit some resonance here.

    I've run across a couple of websites of anti Christian atheists and what I notice right away is that they are not so much anti Christian but anti Fundamentalist Christian. Even the mildly anti Christians that I run into seem seem to believe the only version of Christianity there is out there is the Fundamentalist version.

    That in a nutshell is my polemic against Fundamentalism. For every convert they get, they create two anti-converts.

    (OK, then there are those that went to Catholic schools as kids. Catholic schools seem to have the same effect)

    It's a paradox. The anti-converts refuse to believe what the Fundamentalist believe, but accept on faith the Fundamentalist claim that theirs is the only valid manifestation of Christianity.

    Now I believe that you can tell a spirit from its fruits, and this is a pretty rotten fruit. So rotten in fact that personally I reject Fundamentalism as being literally anti-Christian.

    (The "consistory" excommunicated me from their blogs for saying something like that, but there it is - well Toby is still thinking about it)

    But I also think it's a mistake to think that Christianity even lies on the conservative/liberal plane. Aric Clark has contributed some good posts on that topic.

    I think that on the plane of the Kingdom of God, one does not feel the need at all to address the questions of literal historical vs allegorical or mythical interpretations of Scripture.

    As the Heavens are above the Earth, so is the Gospel above the liberal-conservative plane of human thought. If the Nativity Story is a parable about the Kingdom of God, then it is parable in the following sense:

    The Kingdom of God is a place where the Nativity Story is obviously true.