Most people are familiar with the four canonical Gospels. However, there were other stories about Jesus that circulated in the early church and some that were composed much later. Some of them have only come to light in recent years. These books were not accepted by the early church as inspired Scripture. Some might have been somewhat accurate or helpful, but they were not inspired. Others were neither accurate nor helpful, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas falls into this latter category.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been accepted by the church from the beginning as being accurate retellings of the life and teachings of Jesus written by apostles or by people who had been very close to apostles. Matthew and John were two of the original disciples. Mark is said to have been based on Peter’s preaching. Luke was a ministry partner with Paul, and he also interviewed eyewitnesses to the life of Christ. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas claims to have been written by “Thomas the Israelite,” but the author is not identified further. He is not identified as Thomas the Apostle. He does say that the events that are recorded “happened in my region.”
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a group of stories about the childhood of Jesus. This work should not be confused with the Gospel of Thomas that has become popular in recent years. Early references to the Gospel of Thomas most likely refer to the Infancy Gospel, rather than what is now known as the Gospel of Thomas. Scholars date the composition of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to the second century, which is far later than the first-century dates for the canonical Gospels.
The canonical Gospels do not give us very much information about the childhood of Jesus. Of course, the “Christmas story” of His birth in a stable, the shepherds, and the wise men is found in Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Luke also records Jesus’ dedication in the temple and His encounters with Simeon and Anna. Finally, Luke tells of the incident when Jesus, at age 12, is separated from Joseph and Mary, and they find Him in the temple discussing things with the learned teachers. Luke sums up Jesus’ childhood: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Mark and John say nothing of Jesus’ childhood.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas offers an abundance of fanciful stories about this period of Jesus’ life. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas includes the following miracles that Jesus supposedly performed:
• Bringing dried fish to life (in some later versions)
• Bringing life to clay sparrows that Jesus had crafted on the Sabbath
• Cursing a boy who dies
• Cursing a boy who dies and his parents, who are blinded
• Raising a friend who was killed by falling from a roof (knowing the character of the Jesus presented in this “Gospel,” the parents accuse Jesus of throwing him off the roof.)
• Healing a man who cut off part of his foot while chopping wood
• Carrying water in a cloak after accidentally breaking the water jar
• Sowing one grain and receiving one hundred measures in harvest
• Stretching a piece of wood to help Joseph, the carpenter, make a bed for a rich client
• Healing James from snake bite
• Resurrecting a child who died of illness
• Resurrecting a man who died in an accident
There are also several incidents included in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas of Jesus being shown to be wiser than His years and teaching His teachers. The final incident is parallel to the final incident in Luke 2, of Jesus discussing matters in the temple with the teachers.
In some places, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a violent, petulant child. In one incident, after Jesus blinds the parents of a boy He struck dead, Joseph reprimands Him: “When Joseph saw that Jesus had done such a thing, he got angry and grabbed his ear and pulled very hard. The boy became infuriated with him and replied, ‘It’s one thing for you to seek and not find; it’s quite another for you to act this unwisely. Don’t you know that I don’t really belong to you? Don’t make me upset.” This is not supposed to be Jesus as a teenager or young adult, but as a child of single-digit age.
The portrait of Jesus painted in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is that of an insolent bully who uses His power frivolously. People are impressed with His sheer power and cleverness, but not with His kindness, as they are afraid of Him. After one display of Jesus’ abilities, “no one dared to anger him for fear of being cursed and maimed for life.” The Infancy Gospel of Thomas does not present Jesus as one who honors His parents or who grows in favor with His neighbors and therefore is at odds with what we know of Jesus the man.
Furthermore, it seems that John 2 presents the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine as His first miracle. If this is so, then the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is in conflict with the inspired canonical Gospel of John about when Jesus performed His first miracle. Jesus never performed frivolous miracles, but they were always beneficial to others and signs that pointed to a greater truth. The tone and spirit of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is contrary to everything we find in the canonical Gospels.
Since there are so few details about the period of Jesus’ childhood, people were tempted to fill in details. Some scholars think that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was meant to demonstrate Jesus’ deity through a demonstration of power, but in reality, He appears to be more like a pagan god—capricious and prone to temper tantrums. It is with good reason that modern scholars reject the authenticity of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, as did the early church.