Can We Trust the Apocryphal Stories of Jesus’ Early Life?

Early Christian interest in the birth, infancy, and childhood of Jesus Christ was surprisingly only a peripheral concern for the writers of the New Testament. Only Matthew and Luke record any of the details of Jesus’ birth, whereas Mark, John, Paul, and others pass over that period in Jesus’ life with absolute silence.

One of the key features of the earliest accounts is that the events they record are bound directly to the eyewitness tradition; therefore, the events that were witnessed by the disciples or others are the ones reported by the evangelists. In a limited number of instances, the Gospels’ interest in other events appear to have developed only in the second century, attested in part by the fact that early Christians celebrated the date of Jesus Christ’s baptism (January 6) before they celebrated the date of his birth.

However, in the second century and later, Christian authors began reporting the legendary accounts of otherwise unknown acts and deeds of Jesus Christ not reported in the New Testament. These apocryphal accounts were successful in the second century and later because they built on a well-known canonical foundation that could be borrowed from to lend credibility; they also fed an interest in knowing more than the public accounts reported.

The following excerpt aptly represents the unlikely tenor of the infancy narratives: “Now after some days Jesus was playing on a roof in the upper storey, and one of the children who were playing with him fell down from the roof and died. And when the other children saw it they fled, and Jesus remained alone. And the parents of him that was dead came and accused him of having thrown him down. And Jesus replied: ‘I did not throw him down.’ But they continued to revile him. Then Jesus leaped down from the roof and stood by the body of the child, and cried with a loud voice: ‘Zenon’-for that was his name-‘arise and tell me, did I throw you down?’ And he arose at once and said: ‘No, Lord, you did not throw me down, but raised me up’ ” (The Infancy Story of Thomas 9.1-3, translated by Oscar Cullman, in New Testament Apocrypha 1:446).