Monday, June 9, 2014

Stephen J. Davis' "Christ Child: Cultural Memories of a Young Jesus"

Stephen J. Davis is professor of religious studies, executive director of the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project, and master of Pierson College at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Christ Child: Cultural Memories of a Young Jesus, and reported the following:
Christ Child is about stories that early Christians (and later Jews and Muslims as well) told about Jesus’ early years between the ages of five and twelve. Our earliest source for such stories is the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but in antiquity this collection of tales was simply referred to as the “Childhood Deeds of Jesus”—in Greek, the Paidika.

Several of the stories pertain to Jesus’ encounters with teachers in the classroom. Such interactions were conflict-laden. The young Jesus resists his teachers’ instruction, talking back to them and displaying his own precocious, divine knowledge. The teachers react with violence, striking him on the head, and Jesus reciprocates by uttering fatal curses against his instructors.

My approach to these stories is to draw on sociologies of cultural memory—on the social and cognitive processes by which people remember, and in fact creatively construct—the past in and through their present-day concerns and experiences. My fundamental argument is that adult readers in the ancient Mediterranean world would have turned to their own childhood recollections and to their imprinted, contemporary perceptions about children’s roles in trying to make sense of a young Jesus.

On page 99 of Christ Child, I examine visual evidence related to classrooms in antiquity in an effort to see what ancient readers would have envisioned when they read stories about Jesus in school. At Pompeii and Herculaneum, paintings of students interacting with teachers survive on the walls of posh private homes. In one, a small child performs his lessons in the presence of a teacher sitting in a chair with papyrus rolls on the floor beside him. In another, much less sanguine scene, a student is held down by two of his peers while the schoolmaster whips him with reeds, a stark image of ancient corporal punishment. Other analogous images survive on numerous ceramic cups and vases from Greece and on a funerary relief from Neumagen, Germany.

How is this kind of visual data relevant to the study of stories related to Jesus’ childhood? Here is how I put it on page 99:
Such imagery of ancient educational practice would have served as ready-made sites of memory—cultural markers and signposts—for recipients of the Paidika. Indeed, the details of Jesus’ encounters with his teachers correlate in significant ways to what we know about teaching and learning at the elementary level in Graeco-Roman society. In what follows, I show how the Paidika stories intersected with the spaces and practices of late ancient education, and thereby served as a catalyst for memory work related to childhood performed by readers and hearers.
In this way, as I note in the Epilogue to the book, “the enigmatic figure of the young Jesus was constantly reimagined—incrementally remade to conform to the eye and image of the beholder.”
Learn more about Christ Child at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue