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Clay birds and curses

19 September 2014

John Pridmore on the tall tales of the Paidika

Christ Child: Cultural memories of a young Jesus
Stephen J. Davis
Yale £30
Church Times Bookshop £27 (Use code CT968 )

IT IS an oft told tale. The child Jesus, playing by a river, makes clay birds from mud. When rebuked for performing this action on the sabbath, he claps his hands, and the birds come to life and fly away. This is the best-known of a collection of stories about the childhood of Jesus, in circulation from Christian antiquity, most commonly referred to today as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (This compilation is not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas - a different kettle of fish.)

Among other stories, we have Jesus cursing - to death - a boy who bumps into him on the street; we have him bringing home water in his cloak after it had spilt to the ground from a broken pitcher; we have one of his teachers dropping dead - again by the power of the boy's curse. Your reviewer's favourite of these tales tells how Joseph was commissioned by the king - presumably Herod - to make him a throne. This Joseph did. But, when Herod tries to sit in it, he finds that he cannot squeeze his regal posterior between the arm-rests. There was, one infers, a lot of him. The boy Jesus tells Joseph to take one side of the throne while he takes the other. Both pull and - miraculously - the seat of the throne widens to allow Herod to lower the royal behind comfortably.

In earlier times the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was simply known as the Paidika, the "Childhood Deeds" of Jesus, and that is the term Stephen Davis uses throughout his study of these strange tales. "Strange" they certainly are, to us. But that is our problem. We are not where those stories were first told, nor where they have been remembered and retold across the centuries. Davis's purpose is to examine how these stories have been read and reshaped in the many ancient and medieval lieux de mémoire, as he calls them, where they have been recalled.

This work - this great work - falls into three parts. In Part One, Davis delineates his "Methods and Approaches". There is no question of ransacking these texts for the edifying. But Davis's approach, grounded in "the sociology of cultural memory", yields much that is illuminating. Little may be learned from our texts about the life of faith. Much, however, may be gathered about the locations where these texts were read.

In Part Two, Davis discusses how the different types of narratives that make up the Paidika were received and understood in the Graeco-Roman world - stories of clay birds' taking flight, of fatal curses' falling from the lips of a fearful child, of the encounters of a precocious Jesus with his teachers.

Part Three is, first, an exploration of how the Paidika material was interpreted in the contested locations where Jewish and Christian communities were not yet altogether apart, but in a continuing, albeit uneasy, relationship. Second, it is a study of the reception of the Paidika by Muslims. We are reminded that Jesus's miracle of bringing clay birds to life is cited twice in the Qur'an.

Davis shares with us his hope that he has written "an idiosyncratic but useful and interesting book". This modest hope is more than amply fulfilled. But he has also produced a work of immense erudition and considerable importance. Those who told the tall tales of the Paidika at least recognised the Christian obligation to remember the child Jesus. The latter is now largely forgotten.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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