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How Many Baby Jesuses are There?

by Dr. Hal Taussig

A photo of a manger against an abstract background

One of the most fascinating dimensions of the expanding scholarship surrounding the writings of the early Christ people is how many baby Jesuses there are.

This increase of baby Jesuses actually happened on several fronts. Over the past hundred years or so, other baby Jesus stories outside the Bible have gained attention.  These different, non-biblical stories about the baby or child Jesus are usually given the titles “Protogospel of James” and “Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”

Many students of the Bible are surprised to discover there are really two different baby Jesuses in the Bible itself. Conventional Christianity has mostly held that there is just one baby Jesus depicted in the Bible. However, closer examination leads readers to realize that there are really two very distinct baby Jesuses portrayed. One is described in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. (And only implicitly have most Bible readers realized that that there is no story of a baby Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John.)

When closely examined, it turns out that the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are almost the only things that are the same in the respective infancy narratives of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. There are two other aspects that each of these two gospel stories of a baby Jesus have in common. One is a miraculous conception. The other is the town of Bethlehem. Otherwise these two stories really are independent of one another.

Here are the aspects of the Gospel of Matthew’s story of a baby Jesus that are completely independent of Luke:

  • A completely different genealogy of baby Jesus through his mother (Luke’s is different parentage and through his father).
  • Magi visit the home of baby Jesus from a far-away country.
  • Because of the pregnancy without Joseph’s intercourse, he resolves to put an end to his engagement to Mary privately.
  • An angel comes to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to stay with Mary.
  • All this happened to fulfill the prophecy of the birth of a son to be called “Immanuel.”
  • Joseph does not sleep with Mary until after the baby Jesus was born.
  • King Herod receives the Magi and inquires of them about Jesus’s impending birth.
  • King Herod also calls the chief priests and teachers of the Law and asks them about where the Christ was to be born, and they tell him about Bethlehem.
  • King Herod learns of a star to indicate where the child was to be born.
  • The Magi visits Jesus, but do not return to Herod to tell him of the birth.
  • Herod then tries to kill all the boys in the region who were under two years old to fulfill the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
  • An angel appears to Joseph and tells him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape the killings of children by King Herod.
  • After Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph not to go back to Judea, but to Nazareth in Galilee. The baby lived there with Mary and Joseph.

Here are the aspects of the Gospel of Luke’s story of the baby Jesus that are completely independent of the Gospel of Matthew:

  • Elizabeth and a Temple priest, Zechariah, relations to Mary, conceive and miraculously bear a baby, John, despite Zechariah’s lack of confidence in a promise of the angel Gabriel.
  • Six months later the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary promising a miraculous birth of Jesus from God.
  • Mary hesitates but—in contrast to Zechariah—believes the promise from Gabriel; and said, “I am the slave of the Lord, let it be as you have said.”
  • Mary travels to her relative Elizabeth, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb salutes the baby in Mary’s womb.
  • Mary praises God for all this and sees it as a great example of things that God was doing for Israel.
  • Elizabeth and Zechariah also praise God for their son John.
  • The emperor Augustus decrees that a census be taken of the entire empire in each person’s home town.
  • Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to observe the census.
  • They could not find any place to spend the night, so found shelter among the animals and gave birth to the baby Jesus and laid him in a manger.
  • Shepherds in the field were told of Jesus’s birth by the angel of the Lord in the sky, and they traveled to see the baby.
  • Mary treasures the visit of the shepherds.
  • Eight days thereafter, Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the Temple for purification, and are greeted with the praises of the devout man Simeon and the prophetess Hannah.

The huge differences between the gospel stories of the birth of the baby Jesus in Matthew and Luke is not just incidental, but striking. Each story is fundamentally different, makes different points, and assigns very dissimilar meanings to the baby’s birth. For instance, Mary is at the heart of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Luke, but Joseph has the key parental role in Matthew. The Roman emperor plays a primary role in the Gospel of Luke while King Herod plays the key role in Matthew. The Magi visit the baby in Matthew, the shepherds visit in Luke.

There are at least two other gospel accounts concerning the child Jesus, and these not only differ from Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but also differ from one another.  These two gospels are the Protogospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Both of these gospels are being more broadly recognized as time goes on.

The Protogospel of James does mix broad components of Matthew and Luke, but it also adds a number of elements that are not found in either. In this way, one could think of the Protogospel of James as either a contradiction of both Matthew and Luke, or as a broad stroke that makes the strongly differing Matthew and Luke appear to be aspects of the same story, sort of. The style of this Protogospel convinces almost all scholars that it was written later than Matthew or Luke.

The same cannot necessarily be said of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which has completely different stories than any of the other three. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not so much an infancy gospel as it is a gospel of the young child, Jesus. In this gospel, the child Jesus is a healer. Some of his miracles are tricks or pranks that the young Jesus plays on his playmates. Some scholars propose that this gospel is the story of the young Jesus learning (sometimes by mistakes) how to be a healer.

Since only one of the ancient “writers” (Proto-James) seems to be aware of the multiple stories about the child Jesus, the four different accounts are probably not best thought of as opposing gospels. Instead it is probably best to think of them as four narratives each designed to create meaning for different communities of early Christ followers.  Each of the baby/child Jesuses stands in for different communities with different challenges, gifts, hopes, and ways of making sense of who they can become. Not unlike the increasingly large family of writings for the diverse peoples of the first three centuries, these four baby/child Jesuses engage the strength and capacities of different Christ movements and groups. How fascinating it would be to allow each story to function similarly in the 21st century! Familiarizing ourselves with each of these vastly different baby Jesus stories could help us to approach and address our own situations in the 21st century.