So far in my ever-rolling War on Christmas I have demonstrated that the tradition of Jesus’ birth as on Dec 25 of whatever year is dubious at best and likely due to some post-hoc calculations (rather than influence from the Mithras cult). However, in many ways what I have done has been very centered around the canonical version of Jesus’ life and birth (even where they contradict). But there are many other gospels about Jesus, including about his early years. There are other stories of Jesus as well that seem to place him into a completely different timeline and which so far as I can tell are without explanation in the scholarly literature.
First though, let’s mention some of these interesting tales of Jesus’ birth and childhood as told to us by the non-canonical infancy narratives. The first of these is the Protoevangelion or Infancy Gospel of James. This 2nd century story obviously messes together the stories of Jesus’ birth as found in Matthew and Luke, but it includes some of the other details that cave become common in secondary traditions. For example, the birth takes place in a cave outside of Bethlehem (cf. Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho 78), a tradition that occasionally makes it into modern Nativity scenes. Also from this infancy gospel comes the earlier versions of the belief of the Immaculate Conception of Mary via her own paranormal birth. (People often confuse this with the Virgin Birth, but the former is the Catholic belief that Mary was born without sin such that she would be the perfect vessel for the birth of the god-man Jesus.) The miraculous birth of Mary to her elderly parents in this gospel is so prominent sometimes the book has been called the Birth of Mary.
Another fun gospel is called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew. This one has some awesome stories, including one where baby Jesus is able to tame dragons as will. Don’t you wish a story like that made it into the canon? Sunday school may have been a little more tolerable. The book is interesting because it creates its own narrative from the Old Testament in an obvious fashion. Like Matthew, it first says what happened and then said how that fulfilled some prophecy; conservative readers of Matthew will just say that is what happened and the prophecy was fulfilled, but do they give the same credence to Pseudo-Matthew? You can probably guess.
These two gospels are also interesting in another fashion, and that is they were clearly forged. A name was simply attached to them, but in fact they claim to have been written by people in the know. The Infancy Gospel of James, for example, ends with James, the brother of Jesus, claiming to have written this history at around the death of Herod the Great (quite the trick if Jesus was supposed to have been the first-born!). Pseudo-Matthew is even beyond the pale in making things up, including a faked letter from St. Jerome authenticating the gospel. That’s right, the forger even made up the authentication documentation.
Similarly in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gnostic sayings Gospel of Thomas), a brother of Jesus is said to have written this, Thomas. Specifically, this name is often found to be Didymos Thomas, both names coming from different languages that mean ‘twin’. This book is in some ways scary as it makes Jesus out to be the son of Satan from The Omen. He’s going around killing people he doesn’t like, playing tricks on people, and being a real jerk throughout much of it. Basically, what would you expect if you took the power of the creator of the universe and put it into a petulant little child? At least in the mind of this author, we don’t see Clark Kent but Damien.
However interesting these stories are, they are all later than the canonical versions of Jesus’ life and birth and dependent upon them. But there are traditions of the life of Jesus that are so different that they need explanation.
For example, we know from Jewish and Jewish-Christian circles in the past that there was the belief that Jesus was born and raised a century earlier than what we see in the canonical Gospels. For example, in the Toledoth Jesu, Jesus is killed during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, the king of the Jews in the early first century BCE. This timeline for Jesus is not restricted to this medieval work, but it is also found in the Talmud. Epiphanius, from the 4th century, also says Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of King Alexander (Panarion 29.3). Now, all of our sources are not as old as the canonical version of Jesus’ life, but they form a very strange conundrum. How is it that all of our Jewish sources (and some Jewish-Christian) only seemed to know this version which is a century out of place with the better known one? Consider that the Nicene Creed itself specified Jesus died under Pontius Pilate. How does one forget that Jesus was crucified during the Roman occupation of the Holy Land during the time of the Herods and instead think the events took place when Judea had autonomy in their nation? How does one forget about the baptism by John the Baptist, phrases such as “give unto Caesar”, prophecy of the destruction of the great Jewish temple, not to mention the disciples, and retroject it all a century into the past with a completely different historical context?
So far as I can discover, there is no explanation for how this happened. In an old book against those that claimed Jesus was completely mythical, Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus (1912) tries to explain that Epiphanius was making a theological claim of conflating the time of Herod and Alexandar Jannaeus (pp. 97f). However the argument isn’t very good because it is not Epiphanius that is making the claim but a sect of Torah-observant Christians called the Nazorareans. It also fails to explain why this is found so prevalent in Jewish literature while the canonical timeline is apparently unknown. James Dunn (in Beily, Eddy, The Historical Jesus: Five Views (2009), p. 98) thinks the stories of Jesus a century out of place are not a problem at all, but he also have no good explanation for this strange data. Bart Ehrman in his Did Jesus Exist? (2012) just claims there are no such sources (cf. p. 251), which means he doesn’t have a response. 100 years go by, and there isn’t much better in response. If anything it has gotten worse.
But that isn’t the only strange timeline out there. Another one that is mentioned by Wilhelm Schneemelcher (New Testament Apocrypha, Vol 1, p. 434): the source gives Jesus an age of about 50 when he died, being born in 9 CE, baptized in 46 CE, and crucified in 59 CE. Now Jesus is dying nearly 30 years later than the Gospels suggest. 46 CE is also well after the time of John the Baptist (who died no later than 36 CE), and 9 CE goes against both Matthew and Luke. What gives?
Again, I can find no explanation of this strange timeline, not even an attempt as I searched for when it came to the 100 BCE Jesus. This means that if something could explain this disparate data it would be a rather strong hypothesis. And I think I may have one, somewhat related to what I had with the Christmas calculation. Let’s see what may be the key next time around.