What Are the Infancy Gospels?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

During the second through ninth centuries, a large body of Christian literature was produced that claimed (falsely) to be produced by apostles of Jesus or those close to the apostles. These works, rejected by the Church as authentic, came to be known as the New Testament Apocrypha.

One of the most interesting genres of the Apocrypha is the “infancy gospel.” Biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, explains just what these “infancy gospels” are.

The “Infancy Gospels” are so-called because they are stories of Jesus, albeit only of his early years. In the canonical Gospels, Mark has nothing about Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke each have two chapters as a prologue to Jesus’ ministry, but John also does not write about Jesus’ birth. To judge from these writings, and both orthodox-Christian and gnostic-Christian writings outside the NT, Christians were primarily interested in the words and deeds of the adult Jesus.

As time went on, beginning from the first century, many ancient Christians developed a stronger interest in Jesus’ birth and early years. Oral traditions arose to supplement Matthew and Luke, mostly with popular Christian imagination and with Greco-Roman and Indian legends about the birth of supernatural children.

Just what was the aim of these infancy gospels? Why did this genre develop during the centuries following Jesus’s life and death?

The aim of the infancy gospels was not just to fill in a gap in the Gospels. They have a wider doctrinal and apologetic motive: to define the Davidic descent of Jesus by way of Mary’s supposed Davidic descent, and to defend against rising Jewish attacks on the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth. The Infancy Gospels at their oral and written stages drew on Matthew and Luke, but went far beyond them. As Oscar Cullmann stated, “The tendency to draw upon extraneous legends, already discernible in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, is greatly increased.”

In our next blog post, we’ll look at the two most well-known infancy gospels.