Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My favorite pages of scripture

Christine gave me this rare copy of a French-language edition, dated 1848, of the apocryphal scriptures.

It includes, above all, the marvelous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, whose naive simplicity stunned and amused me as soon as I read it.

This amazing document is now available on the web in French and in English. The background of these fabulous pages of Christian scripture is outlined here.

The story I like most presents the child Jesus as a sculptor of miraculous sparrows:
When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.

Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.

And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.

And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.

More recently, Christianity got back in intimate contact with birds through Saint Francis of Assisi, who was said to have preached regularly to congregations of winged creatures.

Getting back to the Infancy Gospel, I suppose that most people would agree with me that the sparrows affair in the childhood of Jesus was frankly miraculous, and must therefore be judged according to the famous criterion of David Hume that I presented in my article of 20 August 2012 entitled A little knowledge [display]. We have to decide which was the more likely happening:

— Possibility #1: The lovely child Jesus made sparrows out of clay and then transformed them into living creatures that flew off into the heavens.

— Possibility #2: The fellow who penned the delightful Infancy Gospel of Thomas was an inveterate fabulator, liar, etc.

All this wouldn't be so bad if sophisticated Christians, today, had simply written off the affair of young Jesus and the sparrows as an antiquated non-event, due to the zeal of an anonymous latter-day evangelist who had gone out of his way to make things look really stupendous for Jesus. Unfortunately, there's an Islamic fly in the ointment. In a nutshell, these folk are stuck with their Koran. In this first extract, Jesus is talking:
I have come to you, with a sign from your Lord, in that I make for you of clay the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God's permission. And I heal the blind, and the lepers, and I bring the dead to life by God's permission. [Koran 3:49]
A second extract presents the words of God, addressed to Jesus on the Day of Judgment:
You make out of the clay the figure of a bird, by my permission. And you breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by my permission. [Koran 5:110]
The bottom line in the Koran occurs a little later:
I restrained the children of Israel from violence to you, when you showed them the clear signs. And the unbelievers among them said: "This is nothing but evident magic."
Concerning Jesus and his sparrows, and all the delightfully silly rest of the Infancy Gospel, that Koranic statement about unbelievers suits me fine: This is nothing but evident magic.

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