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The Jesus of History

Page 12

Chapter II

Childhood And Youth

It has been remarked as an odd thing by some readers that the Gospels tell us so little of the childhood of Jesus. It must be remembered, however, that they are not really biographies, even of the ancient order—still less of that modern kind, in which the main concern is a tracing of the psychological development of the man. Plutarch, the prince of ancient biographers, put fact and eulogy together, cited characteristic sayings or doings of his hero, quoted contemporary judgements, and wove the whole into a charming narrative, good to read, pleasant to remember, perhaps not without use as a lesson in conventional morality; but with little real historical criticism in it, and as little, or less, attempt at any effective reconstruction of a character. His biography of Pericles illustrates his method and his defects.

The writers of the Gospels did not altogether propose biography as their object either in the ancient or the modern style. They left out—perhaps because it did not survive—much about the life of Jesus that we should like to know. The treatment of Mark by Matthew shows a certain matter-of-fact habit, which explains the obvious want of interest in aspects of the life and mind of Jesus that would to a modern be fascinating. They are dealing with the earthly life of the Son of God—and they deal with it with a faithfulness to tradition and reminiscence, which is, when we really consider it, quite surprising. But it is the heavenward side of the Master that mattered to them most, and it is perhaps not a mere random guess that they were not in any case so aware of the interest of childhood and of children as Jesus was. Matthew and Luke record the miraculous birth, and each adds a story, that has never failed to fascinate men, of the Magi or the Shepherds who came to the manger cradle. Luke gives one episode of Jesus' childhood. That is all.

The writers of the Apocryphal Gospels did their best to fill the gap by inventing or developing stories, pretty, silly, or repellent, which only show how little they understood the original Gospels or the character of Jesus.

But when we turn to the parables of Jesus, and ask ourselves how they came to be what they are, by what process of mind he framed them, and where he found the experience from which one and another of them spring, it is at once clear that a number of them are stories of domestic life, and the question suggests itself, Why should he have gone afield for what he found at home? If we know that he grew up in the ordinary circle of a home, and then find him drawing familiar illustrations from the common scenes of home, the inference is easy that he is going back to the remembered daily round of his own boyhood.