The Boy Jesus and the Doctors

The Iconography
The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas traces the moral development of Jesus through a series of miracles that culminate in his colloquy in the Temple with "the doctors" (scripture scholars). The miracles are occasionally represented in medieval art (example), but the most important influence of the work is on images of the Temple colloquy. This is narrated in Luke 2:41-49, which is much less emphatic about the impression the boy makes and less specific about the subject of his remarks. Luke says only that the doctors "were astonished at his wisdom." But in the apocryphon the boy "listens to their lectures on the Law" and answers with comments "unraveling the chapters of the Law and the parables of the prophets" – comments that leave the doctors "speechless" and lead one of them to tell Mary, "we have never seen or heard such glory, virtue, and wisdom."1

It is this more enthusiastic account of the colloquy that governs medieval representations. In them Jesus is commonly placed in the center of the frame above the scholars, sometimes on a daised throne and often with a book or scroll in his hand to reference his exposition of the scriptures. In many images the scholars themselves are holding books or examining them (example).2 Their amazement is due in part, according to medieval commentators, to the boy's revelation that he is the fulfilment of the prophecies in scripture.3

Many images emphasize the amazement and even the hostility of the doctors (example). They are usually presented as old men, reflecting St. Paul's repeated use of the phrase "the old man" as a metaphor for the person one was before conversion: "the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error" (Ephesians 4:22, c.f. Colossians 3:9).

Both Luke and the apocryphon say that while Jesus was with the doctors his parents were frantically searching for him. Many of the images show them entering the scene from the left or right frame (example).

The locale is pictured sometimes as a church or as a structure that could be the Temple. In the former case, the boy is sometimes placed in the apse or under the ciborium, A canopy over an altar in a church, standing on four pillars — Google Definitions making the point that this child is indeed the Christ who will undertake the sacrifice of the Cross that is memorialized in the sacred liturgy (example).

After the episode in the Temple the boy "went down with them [his parents], and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them" (Luke 2:51a). The Gaudí "Jesus Among the Scholars" (at right) addresses this by adding a scene of the young Jesus at work in his father's carpentry shop.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.



1 Possibly the most authentic form of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is found in a group of Church Slavonic translations, which are themselves translated in A. de Santos Otero, Los Evangelios Apócrifos (124-133) under the title Evangelio del Pseudo Tomás. The original work may be as early as the 2nd century. Schneemelcher (I, 439-451) provides an overview of the various recensions and an English translation of the one called "Greek A." Quotations on this page are translated by me from Santos Otero.
   I seem to be alone in concluding that the theme is the boy's moral development, but I believe my reasoning is sound. The work encourages the reader to follow the child chronologically by carefully noting the ages at which each set of miracles occurs: five, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Furthermore the moral progression seems clear. In the early years the boy breaks the Sabbath, responds mockingly to complaints from his father and other adults, and uses his divine power to avenge himself on adversaries. Later, he learns to be helpful, enacts miraculous cures, and finds that he can expound the scriptures without even reading them. At the end, the work concludes that he was thereafter "obedient to his parents" and that "he grew in wisdom and grace and wrought cures, being glorified by God, his Father" (133). Although the notion of Jesus' moral development is radically inconsistent with orthodox christology, Schneemelcher (I, 443) notes that this work "spread far and wide not only through its translation into other languages, but also through the fact that it was combined in major popular collections with material from the favourite Protev[angelium] of James and all kinds of popular legends about the sojourn of the child Jesus in Egypt."

2 Cartlidge and Elliott suggest (116) that the books in the images refer to an episode earlier in the work, where the boy goes to school for the first time, picks up a book, and starts expounding the Law without needing to read the book.

3 For Ælred of Rievaulx, the boy was showing the doctors "the design of the Paternal Mercy for the salvation of men in the Sacred Writings" (Toal, I, 251). And for Origen, "his replies were not merely an exchange of speech, but…spoke of the wisdom contained in the sacred scriptures" (Toal, I, 242-43).

SHOWN ABOVE Christ Among the Doctors, 17th century. Follow this link for the description page.

Infancy Gospel of Thomas, XIX, 2,4: …they finally found him in the Temple, seated in the midst of the doctors, listening as they read the Law and asking questions. All were attentive to him and were in wonder that, a boy though he was, he left the old men and the leaders of the people speechless and unraveled for them the chapters of the Law and the parables of the prophets.… The scribes and Pharisees said to his mother…"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for we have never seen or heard such glory, virtue, and wisdom."


Predella panel from the 15th cen­tu­ry. Be­fore the mid-16th the im­ages tend to sug­gest a calm and de­co­rous dis­course. See the de­scrip­tion page.

In Gaudí's sculp­ture for the Sa­gra­da Fa­mi­li­a, Mary and Jo­seph ar­rive to find Jesus preach­ing to the schol­ars in the Temple. They do not en­ter from the left, as in medie­val im­ages, but are placed in a niche of their own be­low the schol­ars and Je­sus. See the de­scrip­tion page for de­tails.