There was a strong sense while reading J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus that there was much going on that was eluding me, to the degree that I wanted to dig a little deeper. The piece below references the apocryphal infancy gospels that are not permitted to be part of the biblical canon. While I was vaguely aware of their existence, it is quite clear this is a rabbit hole I must follow, not only to do justice to the concentration of thought and feeling in Coetzee’s novel and to prepare to read its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus, but also for curiosity’s sake.
Coetzee’s novel is quite different to what came before, to which he eludes in his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011:
“One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”
It is I think a very fine novel, one to which I intend to devote time thinking, but it also prompts me to reread some of Coetzee’s earlier work (I’ve read everything) to see how they foreshadow The Childhood of Jesus. In some cases, they seem very directly to do so. One of the reviews I read posed this question: ‘what might happen if characters from previous work were reborn in a new one, with only shadow memories of their prior selves.’ I find this idea very intriguing and, at very least, wish to re-read Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello, The Master of Petersburg and Foe, all of which are echoed, to some degree, in The Childhood of Jesus.
“In the canonical New Testament gospels, there is only one reference to Jesus as a boy before the age of twelve and his famous visit to the temple. That is in Luke (2.40), where it is simply said that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’. But there were infancy gospels that did not make the cut, or make it into the canon. (They might be said to be like David’s lost letter.) The infancy gospel called pseudo-Matthew resolves the issue [was he fully human as well as fully divine throughout his life] just raised by having Jesus calm Mary and Joseph about it: ‘Do not be afraid nor consider me a child; I always have been a perfect man and am so now.’ But in the earliest infancy gospel, that of Thomas, the bearing of that narrative on Coetzee’s novel is very clear. In that gospel Jesus is most definitely a child, or perhaps a vindictive and petulant and very childish small adult. A boy bumps into the child Jesus at one point, and Jesus strikes him dead. Another boy displeases him and is said to be ‘withered’. And, again very directly mirroring particular elements of David’s story, the young Jesus is taken by Joseph to Zacchaeus to learn to read, and Jesus outwits and humiliates him to the point where Zacchaeus begs Joseph to take him away. (Jesus, it is clear, does not need to learn to read.) He is later taken to learn Greek and Hebrew (which again he clearly already knows) and in a fit of anger he kills the teacher, although he brings him back to life. (In the novel, David has kept secret that he taught himself to read, and he torments his teacher, señor Léon, until the teacher insists the boy be removed.) Moreover the Thomas Jesus performs miracles that are much more like feats of magic than benevolent displays, and David says several times that he is and will be a great magician. These cannot be accidental and they go beyond irony, or at least that first sort of exasperated irony. If David is not merely an ironic ‘Jesus,’ then in this sense – and perhaps in another irony – he is more ‘realistically’ ‘divine’ and ‘human’ (‘age-appropriate human’) than the ‘official’ biblical Jesus, and is much more like the Thomas Jesus.”
J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas & Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford & Anthony Uhlmann