Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels

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Christopher A. Frilingos
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , September
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the preface to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Christopher A. Frilingos observes that the attention scholars of early Christianity have devoted to the Proto-gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—he calls them “family gospels”—“has failed to capture the imagination—not only of the public but also of scholars across the discipline” (x). It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that public figures are often unaware of the contributions these gospels have made to Christian traditions or that they would misrepresent the content of such traditions.

For example, nearly two months after the publication of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, on November 9, 2017, Jim Zeigler—the state auditor of Alabama—offered a bizarre defense of Roy Moore, the GOP’s nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the US senate. Multiple women accused Moore of sexual abuse that had occurred forty years prior, when the women were teenagers and Moore was a district attorney in his thirties. “There is nothing to see here,” Zeigler asserted unconvincingly, “The allegations are that a man in his early 30s dated teenage girls.” He later offered the following justification: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

In his response, Frilingos lays bare the absurdity of Zeigler’s reasoning. Matthew and Luke include infancy narratives, but in both cases Mary is divinely impregnated; there was thus no sexual contact between Joseph and Mary in the process of conceiving Jesus. Moreover, neither New Testament account refers to their ages. The Proto-gospel of James is the earliest extant narrative to indicate that Mary was twelve and that Joseph was elderly, though, as Frilingos notes, not so old as to foreclose the possibility of sex. Be that as it may, the Proto-gospel of James is hardly a narrative about sexual predation.

Instead, the Proto-gospel of James narrates Mary’s childhood and subsequent events through the birth of Jesus. This family gospel explores issues of knowledge shared (or not) between family members (chapter 4), of well-intentioned parental expectations (chapter 3), and of intimate moments made into spectacles (chapter 2). Anna and Joachim dedicate their baby, Mary, to the temple, imitating Hannah’s actions in gratitude for the end of her childless state. Though they seek a noble, holy life for their daughter, God—as the reader knows—has greater plans for Mary, and she leaves the temple custody at the age of twelve. The much-older Joseph is chosen by lottery to take her into his house as his wife. Whereas many interpreters of the Proto-gospel choose to focus on Mary at this stage—and understandably so—Frilingos foregrounds the relational dynamic between Mary and Joseph, emphasizing the theme of ignorance. Joseph and Mary do not get to “know” each other in any meaningful sense, because as soon as Joseph accepts Mary into his house, he leaves town for six months, precluding any suggestion of sexual impropriety. Gabriel appears to Mary and, echoing Luke’s narrative, informs her that she will be impregnated by the power of God. Mary, however, quickly forgets this information and is befuddled by her pregnancy. Joseph returns home, finds Mary six-months pregnant, and hurls both questions and accusations at her, only to have an angel appear to him in a dream to assure him regarding the nature of Mary’s pregnancy, as in the gospel of Matthew. All is well until a “nosy neighbor” arrives the next day, learns that Mary is pregnant, and reports what he views as impropriety to the high priest. Both Mary and Joseph deny having sexual relations, and both survive after drinking the “water of refutation.” A second test occurs after Jesus is born. With a crowd of onlookers present, the midwife—disbelieving Joseph’s claim regarding Mary’s virginity—interrupts Mary’s breastfeeding in order to examine her vagina. Her hand is thereupon scorched but subsequently restored when she holds Jesus: baby’s first miracle.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas begins its narrative with Jesus as a young child and recounts a series of events culminating with the Lukan story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. In addition to exploring issues related to spectacles (chapter 2) and parental expectations (chapter 3), Frilingos reads the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as addressing a perplexing issue in Luke’s narrative (chapter 5). The first two chapters of Luke chronicle a series of revelations to Jesus’s parents about his identity and relationship to God. Nevertheless, at the end of the second chapter, Mary and Joseph demonstrate little understanding in these areas. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, however, narrates a series of episodes from Jesus’s childhood that exhibit both his supernatural abilities and his parents’ inability to comprehend him. For example, the young Jesus curses to death childhood playmates and hired tutors, much to the consternation of his parents and others in their community. Within this context, the Infancy Gospel concludes by re-narrating the scene from Luke 2. In contrast to Luke’s account, readers following along may actually anticipate Mary and Joseph’s lack of understanding. Frilingos writes, “Mary knows the blessings and curses, the good and the bad that her strange child can do, and the combination has left her, like the reader, at a loss” (123).

Frilingos’s study thus explores familial relations and imperfect knowledge in these two second-century gospels. He summarizes this theme well in the book’s antepenultimate and penultimate sentences: “In this life, it is possible to stumble arm in arm with family and friends through the ‘fog of uncertainty’ that blankets human minds. And this is why, for me, the lingering image from all of these stories is that of Joseph, Mary, and the twelve-year-old Jesus, reuniting at the temple and returning home, together” (133). Frilingos has written an enjoyable and compelling study of two under-researched “family gospels.” I would encourage those interested in the themes of family, knowledge, spectacles, and education in early Christian narratives to read it. Someone might also send a copy to Jim Zeigler.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher A. Frilingos is associate professor of religious studies at Michigan State University and author of Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.



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