The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas traces the moral development of Jesus through a series of miracles that culminate in his colloquy in the Temple with "the doctors" (scripture scholars). The miracles are occasionally represented in medieval art
but the most important influence of the work is on images of the Temple colloquy. This is narrated in Luke 2:41-49, which is much less emphatic about the impression the boy makes and less specific about the subject of his remarks. Luke says only that the doctors "were astonished at his wisdom." But in the apocryphon the boy "listens to their lectures on the Law" and answers with comments "unraveling the chapters of the Law and the parables of the prophets" – comments that leave the doctors "speechless" and lead one of them to tell Mary, "we have never seen or heard such glory, virtue, and wisdom."1
It is this more enthusiastic account of the colloquy that governs medieval representations. In them Jesus is commonly placed in the center of the frame above the scholars, sometimes on a daised throne and often with a book or scroll in his hand to reference his exposition of the scriptures. In many images the scholars themselves are holding books or examining them (example).2 Their amazement is due in part, according to medieval commentators, to the boy's revelation that he is the fulfilment of the prophecies in scripture.3
Many images emphasize the amazement and even the hostility of the doctors (example). They are usually presented as old men, reflecting St. Paul's repeated use of the phrase "the old man" as a metaphor for the person one was before conversion: "the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error" (Ephesians 4:22, c.f. Colossians 3:9).
Both Luke and the apocryphon say that while Jesus was with the doctors his parents were frantically searching for him. Many of the images show them entering the scene from the left or right frame (example).
The locale is pictured sometimes as a church or as a structure that could be the Temple. In the former case, the boy is sometimes placed in the apse or under the ciborium, A canopy over an altar in a church, standing on four pillars — Google Definitions making the point that this child is indeed the Christ who will undertake the sacrifice of the Cross that is memorialized in the sacred liturgy (example).
After the episode in the Temple the boy "went down with them [his parents], and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them" (Luke 2:51a). The Gaudí "Jesus Among the Scholars" (at right) addresses this by adding a scene of the young Jesus at work in his father's carpentry shop.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-12-29, 2016-12-12, 2017-02-04, 2020-11-02.
Christ Among the Doctors, 17th century. Follow this link for the description page.
Luke 2:46-47: And it came to pass, that, after three days, they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas, XIX, 2,4: …they finally found him in the Temple, seated in the midst of the doctors, listening as they read the Law and asking questions. All were attentive to him and were in wonder that, a boy though he was, he left the old men and the leaders of the people speechless and unraveled for them the chapters of the Law and the parables of the prophets.… The scribes and Pharisees said to his mother…"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for we have never seen or heard such glory, virtue, and wisdom."OTHER IMAGES