Was Jesus really born in a manger? And does it matter? Whether he was or not, the message of the story is clear: here is a deity who cares about the common people, who was born one of them and shares humanity’s poverty and pain. Outside of the Bible, many old stories of the childhood of Jesus which now count as folklore deliver similar messages. Derived from various accounts in the apocryphal gospels, and current in medieval times, they found their way into old songs and carols and even on to the walls of churches.
Charming as these tales are with their vibrant images of children’s play, of tell-tales and rivalry, they also have a shocking impact. They show childhood’s ruthlessness as well as its innocence.
The extracts I give below come from the Apocryphal Gospels of Thomas, and the Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew: the translation is by MR James (best known for his classic ghost stories) and was first published by Oxford University Press, 1924. James explains that these stories come from a variety of manuscripts of different ages and different languages: “The few Greek manuscripts are all late. The earliest authorities are a much-abbreviated Syriac version of which the manuscript is of the sixth century; and a Latin palimpsest at Vienna of the fifth or sixth century. The Latin version… is found in more manuscripts than the Greek; none of them, I think, is earlier than the thirteenth century.”
Here are two of the stories from the Greek Text B:
1 On a certain day when there had fallen a shower of rain [Jesus] went forth of the house where his mother was and played upon the ground where the waters were running: and he made pools, and the waters flowed down, and the pools were filled with water. Then saith he: I will that ye become clean and wholesome. And straightway they did so.
2 But a certain son of Annas the scribe passed by bearing a branch of willow, and he overthrew the pools with the branch, and the waters were poured out. And Jesus turned about and said unto him: O ungodly and disobedient one, what have the pools done to thee that thou hast emptied them? Thou shalt… be withered up even as the branch which thou hast in hand.
3 And [the son of Annas] went on, and after a little he fell and gave up the ghost. And when the young children that played with [Jesus] saw it, they marvelled and departed and told the father of him that he was dead. And he ran and found the child dead, and went and accused Joseph.
1 Now Jesus made of that clay twelve sparrows: and it was the Sabbath day. And a child ran and told Joseph, saying: Behold, thy child playeth about the brook, and hath made sparrows of the clay, which is not lawful.
2 And he when he heard it went and said to the child: Wherefore doest thou so and profaneth the Sabbath? But Jesus answered him not, but looked upon the sparrows and said: Go ye, take your flight, and remember me in your life. And at the word they took flight and went up into the air. And when Joseph saw it he was astonished.
In an understated way both stories focus on the poverty of Jesus: he has no fine toys to play with, but only mud and water, the playthings of poor children – yet we are intended to remember the lines from Genesis 2:7, in which ‘the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ The child Jesus, playing in the mud with his friends, has the power of God the Father to create, to purify the water, and to destroy. Though the first tale is one of shockingly over-the-top retribution, it realistically depicts the anger a child feels towards another who has destroyed his game. The second story was embellished by Hilaire Belloc in a very sweet poem, published 1910:
When Jesus Christ was four years old
The angels brought Him toys of gold,
Which no man ever had bought or sold.
And yet with these He would not play,
He made Him small fowl out of clay
And blessed them till they flew away:
Tu creasti Domini
Jesus Christ, thou child so wise,
Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes,
And bring my soul to Paradise.
Closer to the apocryphal gospels is the old ballad ‘The Bitter Withy’, collected by Vaughan Williams in Shropshire and Herefordshire in 1908/9. It is based both on tales from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and from a 13th century poem about the childhood of Jesus known as the Vita Rhythmica. In the ballad, Jesus asks his mother if he may go and play ball:
So up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran
Until he met three rich young lords
All playing in the sun.
“Good morn, good morn, good morn,” said they,
“Good morning then,” cried he,
“And which of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?”
But the rich young lords despise him:
“We are all lords’ and ladies’ sons
Born in a bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a poor maid’s child
Born in an ox’s stall.”
Alas, you don’t meddle with divinity.
“Well though you’re lords’ and ladies’ sons
All born in your bower and hall,
I’ll prove to you at your latter end
I’m an angel above you all.”
So he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he,
The rich young lords chased after him
And drowned they were all three.
So up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran
Saying, “Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he’s drowned each one.”
Then Mary mild, she took her child
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.
“Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You’ve causèd me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.”
Far from being sorry for what he’s done, the little Christ Child curses the withy itself – the willow wands with which his mother has whipped him. There’s a wry, very conscious humour in this ballad. It’s been made and sung by people who were used to being the underdogs, who could only console themselves that, ultimately, God was on the side of the poor and the humble, not the lords and ladies. They knew they would never find equality this side of heaven, however: so the ballad is a joke – a knowing, tender, deliberate joke – about children, and the way they play and quarrel, and the topsy-turvy chaos that is caused when the innocent but all-powerful Christ Child lashes out against those who jeer at him… and how even HE has to be taught a lesson when he goes too far.
Here's Maddy Prior singing 'The Bitter Withy' at Cecil Sharp House, 23rd October 2008
The Miracle of the Clay Birds: The Infant Jesus shows the Virgin Mary a clay bird which he has made. 15th century wall painting: Wikimedia Commons