Telling stories: extracts from a sermon on Jesus in the Temple, aged twelve

I have a weakness, I confess, for all things biblical, especially stories, especially imaginative retellings of biblical stories, or poetry, or words, words, words …

I am drawn like a moth to a flame to a new fictionalized gospel account, to a new, poetic odyssey through the epic stories of the Old Testament. I think that the reason that I love these books is that they indulge the curiosity which I have about what else is going on behind the words that we read. In my scholarly books, I have the answers to what the Greek words mean, where and how they are used in other places, clues as to what the writer was trying to convey between the lines; but too much imagination, the flights of fancy to which a storyteller is prone or a poet pulled, are discouraged. But sometimes it is just too tempting to wonder what was going on behind the words of the stories we read.

What, for instance, was Jesus talking to the scholars of the Temple about, when he was twelve years old and left all alone in the city?

My fictional guides tend to agree that Jesus must have been looking for some clue as to where he had come from, some details to fill in the whispers that he must have heard about the strange circumstances of his birth, with all the angels and the shepherds and kings and the like. After all, he must have heard something, and what child would not want to know more? He had been born in the south, near Jerusalem, and a trip like this would be a prime opportunity to seek out the years-old gossip that must have accompanied such a strange nativity, such an unusual occasion.

In Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, Jesus is worried about the children of Bethlehem that Herod did away with. He knows that he and his family escaped into Egypt, and that others did not, and he lives with the guilt and the fear and the wonder at what happened. He seeks out a rabbi, one of the men whom Herod consulted to find out the time and place of the Messiah’s birth, and the man describes to young Jesus what happened. He faints away, and spends the three missing days in the household of the rabbi, recovering. Eventually, he comes once more before the rabbi, and this is how the encounter ends, in the account according to Anne Rice:

“There was a stool there. I don’t think I’d ever sat on a stool before. I did as I was told.
‘You’re a little boy,’ he said, ‘and I forgot that you were a little boy. A little boy with a heart.’
‘I wanted to know the answers to my questions, Rabbi. I had to know the answers. I would never have stopped asking.’
‘But why?’ he asked. ‘The child born in Bethlehem has been dead for eight years, as you said yourself. Now don’t begin to cry again.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘And the virgin mother, who could believe such a thing.’
‘I believe it, Rabbi,’ I said. ‘And the child’s not dead. The child escaped.’
For a long moment he looked at me.
And in that moment, I felt all my sadness, all my separation from those around me. I felt it so bitterly.
I felt that he was about to dismiss what I had said, about to say that even if the child had somehow escaped Bethlehem, it was all just a story, and Herod’s butchery was all the more a horrid thing.
Before he could speak, however, I heard voices that I knew very close by.
My mother and Joseph were there.
…Much was said quickly. I couldn’t follow all of it. Joseph and my mother had been looking for me for three days.
The Rabbi praised my answers to his questions, when I had been with the other boys. …
When we were out in the bright light of the Great Court, my mother took me by the shoulders:
‘Why have you done this?’ she asked. ‘We’ve been in misery searching for you!’
‘Mother, I must know things now,’ I said. ‘Things I’m forbidden to ask you or Joseph. I must be about what it is that I have to do!’” (Rice, 290-1)

The more outrageous account, from Christopher Moore’s Lamb, finds Jesus looking not for the innocents of Bethlehem but for the magi, the wise men who prompted that crisis with their seeking out of the Messiah; wise men who might be expected to offer Jesus some wisdom about his destiny and his origins. Jesus’s best friend, Biff, is narrating:

“What we did was stay in the Temple while Joshua grilled every priest, guard, even Pharisee about the Magi who had come to Jerusalem thirteen years before. Evidently it wasn’t as big an event for others as it was for Josh’s family, because no one had any idea what he was talking bout.
By the time he’d been at it for a couple of hours he was literally screaming into the faces of a group of Pharisees. ‘Three of them. Magicians. They came because they saw a star over Bethlehem. They were carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Come on you’re all old. You’re supposed to be wise. Think!’
Needless to say, they weren’t please. ‘Who is this boy who would question our knowledge? He knows nothing of the Torah and the prophets and yet berates us for not remembering three insignificant travelers.’
It was the wrong thing to say to Joshua. No one had studied the Torah harder. No one knew scripture better. ‘Ask me any question, Pharisee,’ Joshua said. ‘Ask anything.’ (Moore, 98)

Of course, these are novels, they are fiction, they are entertainment, and I mean no offence to you or to the gospel by quoting them from the pulpit. It’s really, after all, no different than reading the children’s story on Christmas Eve; the Holy Spirit can speak to our imaginations in many ways, to open up, to elucidate, to illustrate, perhaps is the better term, the scriptures.

But at the end of my little trawl through some little books of faithful fantasy, I am no closer to knowing just what it was Jesus talked about with the scribes of the Temple, or why he spent so long there, leaving his family frantic with worry about him, his friends to wonder.

The point of the story seems, in the end, to be less about what happens within it than that it happened at all. The point seems to be that Jesus was there, in the temple, with the wise ones, learning and asking questions and giving smart answers for three days.

The account that occurs in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas closes a book full of incredible and fantastical stories about Jesus’ childhood; stories about childhood disputes, deaths and resurrections, capricious blindings, cursings and blessings, Joseph’s parenting skills; it’s a second-century collection of stories that did not make it into our biblical canon, probably for very good reason, which may have evolved out of the imaginations of writers a lot like my modern fictional guides. But it ends with this story that we read in the gospel of Luke, and it includes the story almost word for word. It doesn’t fantasize, it barely embellishes; it receives the news just as it is, that a twelve-year-old Jesus sits in the temple with his elders and learns at their feet, and loses track of time, and shows astonishing wisdom, then leaves to go home with his parents, to grow up some more. This, even in the context of a fantastical collection of fairy stories, is wonderful enough to be written down just so.

The point is, we might conclude, that Jesus, born as he was to the sound of angels singing and the gifts of shepherds and kings, had some growing up to do, had some learning to embark upon. The point is, that as blessed with inherent and eternal wisdom as he was, Jesus learned from others, from studying scripture, from asking questions and answering them, from the give and take that comes from studying with others in the context of worship. Even Jesus did Bible Study.

Recommended reading:

Testament, by Nino Ricci (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002);

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, by Anne Rice (New York: Knopf, 2005);

Not recommended, as such, in case it offends, but I enjoyed it immensely: Lamb, by Christopher Moore (New York: Harper, 2002). One might want to begin with his disclaimer on p. 443, “This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”

I also read Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate, US, 2010), which is quite a different affair, “a story about how stories become stories,” to quote the cover; interesting.

Your picks?

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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