Explore Education Iconics College of Education and Human Development

Jesus at School - Lecture


Did Jesus of Nazareth go to school? Medieval people thought so. Visual evidence of the belief is no longer plentiful. But we catch glimpses of it, here and there, through images that somehow escaped the zeal of Reformation clean-up crews. Prominently displayed in the British Museum, for example, is a series of tiles illustrating scenes from Jesus' childhood, including school scenes. The tiles date to the early 14th century, are of English or Norman manufacture, and are thought to have been wall-mounted in the Tring parish church, which is about half an hour by train from London.

The school imagery of the Tring tiles is not obvious to the modern eye. Jesus might be known by his nimbus. That he is shown twice within the same composition might be confusing. Modern viewers expect vertical bars to divide pictorial content when passages of time or sequences of action are intended. Comic strips have been our teachers in this.

Those who are unfamiliar with the story illustrated by the Tring tiles would need an explanation of the images. Were we members of the Tring congregation in the 1320s, we might have learned the meanings of the tiles through sermons or, perhaps, from other members of the congregation who had been initialed? We would have learned that on the tile in question, Jesus is first shown on the right, entering school. Next, he is shown directly in front of his teacher, receiving a slap on the face.

The idea, yea the sight, of a teacher slapping little Jesus probably seems odd to modern viewers, perhaps reprehensible. Why would anyone want to strike Jesus? The answer to that question and to other questions about the stories illustrated by the Tring tiles are to be found in a manuscript tradition which traces ultimately to the second century. Syriac, Arabic, and Greek texts and their recensions telling tales of Jesus' childhood made their way into Latin and subsequently into the other languages of Europe. Collectively, these have been called infancy gospels.

Although the Tring tile series is incomplete, enough of it is extant to reveal correspondences with illuminations in manuscript of the same time. Entitled Enfancie de Nostre Seignour, this work is thought to be the most fully illuminated infancy gospel still extant. Rhymed in couplets, the text relates Jesus' childhood acts. These may be characterized on a scale ranging from harmless to horrendous. Some of Jesus' deeds are beneficent. He heals the lame. He multiplies a harvest and distributes the surplus to the poor. Other of his acts are simply marvels. At his touch, man-eating lions become tame as tabby cats. Beneath his hand, clay sparrows become animate, take wing, and soar aloft. He can walk up a sunbeam or slide back down. He can, but other children cannot. When they try, they fall and break their pales. Some texts suggest that Jesus tempted children to follow him, intimating that he could foresee the consequences.

Passages in all the infancy gospels--Syriac, Arabic, Greek, and their later European derivatives--attribute malicious acts to Jesus. For example, a boy running down the street bumps into Jesus, knocking him down. In the Tring series and in the Enfancie, the collision occurs in a classroom. Wherever it happens, Jesus grows angry as an Old Testament God, and declares:

As thou has thrown me down, so shalt thou fall, nor ever rise. And that moment the boy fell down and died.

A death for a bump. Jesus apparently was unaware of ethical proportionalities long before established in the Old Testament, such as "an eye for an eye," and so on. Indeed, Jesus regularly exhibited no sense of proportion in the infancy gospels. He terrified the children of his village.

When a group of parents saw him coming up a lane one day, they hid heir children in a large oven. Jesus asked what was in the oven. "Little pigs," said the parents. "So be it." Jesus replied. And when the oven was opened, lo, no children; only piglets. In another instance, Jesus had made pools beside the river. Then a boy, son of Annas the Scribe, wrecked his handiwork. Jesus said to him: "In like manner as this water has vanished, so shall thy life vanish;" and presently the boy died. In the Tring tiles, Jesus uses a large compass to make his pools round. His use of this implement lends credence to an allegorical interpretation.

Jesus' creation of the pools can be seen as parallel to the acts of God in Genesis. The motif of the large compass was often associated with God in medieval iconography. With it, He is the Ultimate Geometer or Architect delineating His creation, measuring it, putting it in order. Disruption of His order would be satanic. In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the destructive child is twice associated with Satan:

Then one of the children, the son of the Devil, and of an envious mind, shut up the channels which supplied water to the pools, and overthrew what Jesus had made. Then Jesus said unto him, Woe unto thee, son of death, Son of Satan. Doss thou destroy the works which I have wrought? And straightway he who had done this died.

If this interpretation fits, then the imagery of the Tring tile might be counted successful from the point of view of allegory, i.e., God may strike down the Devil because the contest is between incalculable good and evil. But at the level of human acts and motives, the retribution meted out by Jesus once again exceeds the limits of moral justice. The death penalty was incommensurate with the offense. Certainly, it was more than could be borne by the villagers described in the infancy gospels.

Outraged village parents came to Joseph complaining of Jesus' atrocious acts. They demanded that something be done about the boy. Joseph then attempted to admonish Jesus, but when Jesus discovered that the parents had complained against him, he used his powers to strike them blind. It was at this advanced stage of Jesus' delinquency that Joseph was persuaded by Zaccheus, a teacher, that the boy should be sent to school where he might learn both discipline and literacy and more.

The apocryphal gospels vary in accounts of how many teachers tried to work with Jesus. The numbers range from two to four. Zaccheus is the first of them. Poor Zaccheus; he promises Joseph that he will teach Jesus his letters and "with the letters all knowledge, and to salute all the older people and honour them as grandfathers and fathers, and to love those of his own age." Zaccheus fails utterly. Jesus overwhelms him with a display of knowledge salted with contempt. Demoralized, Zaccheus berates himself:

Woe is me...wretch that I am; I have brought shame to myself in drawing to myself this child. Take him away, therefore, I beseech you brother Joseph. I cannot endure the severity of his look, I cannot make out his speech at all.

The second teacher, "a more learned master" called Levi in some texts, begins by requiring Jesus to say "Aleph." Jesus complies. The text continues:

And when he had said Aleph, the master bade him pronounce Beth; to which the Lord Jesus replied, Tell me first the meaning of the letter Aleph, and then I will pronounce Beth.

For this impertinence, the teacher decides to chastize Jesus. The consequences are dire: But this master, when he lift up his hand to whip him, had his hand presently withered, and he died. This new atrocity drove Joseph to an extreme measure: "Henceforth," he declares, "we will not allow him to go out of the house; for everyone who displeases him is killed."

A French manuscript of the fifteenth century parallels the Norman Enfancie, but is much briefer. Its illustrations, however, are more detailed. Jesus meets his would-be master in a room of monumental proportions, illuminated by glassed, gothic windows. Several teachers are present, as though to observe the teaching scene. Instead, they see their colleague come to grief. Folio 51v reveals Jesus standing over the body of his victim The teacher's huge scourge is also on the floor. All witnesses have fled.

A Latin manuscript in the Ambrosian Library (Milan) provides an abbreviated treatment of Jesus' adventures at school. Joseph introduces Jesus to the schoolmaster, presumably Zaccheus; outside his school house. Both Jesus and Joseph are nimbed. Jesus holds a hornbook in his left hand; a stylus dangles from its handle. The school house architecture is North Italian. That the school building is represented as freestanding is more likely the result of an effort to focus attention on the site of central interest than it is a rendering of the actual conditions of medieval schools in Northern Italian cities. The classroom is jammed with unruly students. Hornbooks are on the floor and on the ground outside the school.

The second scene concentrates on the schoolmaster's humiliation. Stupified by Jesus' erudition, the schoolmaster holds his head in shame. The classroom appears unchanged in the second drawing. As before, two boys in the front of the room continue to lay claim to the teacher's ferule.


The prominence of Joseph is notable in the ancient accounts of Jesus' childhood. It is to Joseph that the villagers complain about Jesus. It is Joseph who arranges for his schooling. Joseph makes the key decisions, and when things go wrong, he does his best to put them right. Mary's role is limited mainly to what her womb and breast and lap can do.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Mary is given an increasingly important role related to Jesus' schooling. She is seen repeatedly taking him to school; she and Jesus alone. That school is their destination is indicated by the hornbook in Jesus' hand. In some instances, Mary and Jesus are placed at the school door. By the Fifteenth century, Mary has made it into the presence of the schoolmaster or even into the school. Some sixteenth century texts still allow Joseph to participate in the imagery of Mary and Jesus on the way to school, but he has lost the halo he enjoyed in the earlier Ambrosian manuscript.

Whereas Mary had begun to take Jesus to school in the thirteenth century, imagery of her role at home as housewife through the fifteenth century emphasized needlework or reading the Old Testament. But by the sixteenth century, she can be seen in compositions which correspond to teaching scenes in contemporaneous secular iconography. A Swiss calendar of 1508, for example, features a woodcut in which Mary and Jesus step into a classroom occupied by the schoolmaster and two young students. An overscript reads:

Ich han min Kind erzogen zarl und schon  Und wolt es gern zu schul lassen gon.

Mary wants very much to have her clever, handsome child attend school.


The largest category of imagery that depicts Jesus' late childhood is conventionally called "Christ among the doctors." It is based on an episode told briefly by Luke, who omits reference to any previous contact Jesus reputedly had with schoolmen. Because the episode is related in Luke, one of the canonical Gospels, visual works depicting it were less at risk during periods of orthodox zeal. Luke's narrative is relatively benign. According to Chapter 11, verses 46 and 47, Jesus is found by Mary and Joseph in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. Few artists and none of the infancy gospel writers were content with so bland an account.

Rather than depictions of Jesus merely sitting "amidst" the doctors, imagery of the theme in early Christian art already began the process of elevating him well above the learned men whom he addresses. A fifth century ivory carving on a Bible cover is a restrained example of the type. In the imagery of subsequent centuries, Jesus may rise still higher above the doctors. And instead of discoursing with them, he is more likely to appear as a lecturer or a patient expositor. In sixteenth-century baroque imagery, he can be seen as an orator performing in a manner that should have pleased Cecil B. DeMille and Dino di Laurentis.

Another iconographic type stresses the youthfulness of Jesus, reducing him from Luke's 12 year old to an earlier stage of life, sometimes approaching infancy. This age reduction has the advantage of emphasizing the miraculous character of Jesus' precocious wisdom. In addition, it effectively contrasts the simplicity and freshness of the child image with those of the adult males and their Temple space. Those heavy bodies, and of ten the Temple space itself, are laden with the complexities of old, established institutions. At another level of symbolism, the imagery can be read as the New Testament topping or capping the Old.

In the Syriac infancy gospel, as in some of the Thomas infancy gospels, "Christ among the doctors" is the culmination of the series in which Jesus has progressively subordinated his would-be teachers. Having demoralized or otherwise destroyed those who tried to teach him the A B C's--in most of the texts, he rarely let them get past B--he passes on to the institutional setting which houses the most learned men of Israel, i.e., the Jerusalem Temple. There he meets the "doctors." Coming before them, Jesus may be said literally to take his doctoral orals.

Jesus arrives at the Temple already expert in the trivium. The term "trivium" is not used in the infancy gospels, but if Jesus' knowledge of Aleph and Beth as well as Alpha and Beta and the other letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets are taken to signify grammar as a whole, and if his speeches to the schoolmasters are accepted as demonstrations of his expertise in logic and rhetoric, the result would be a symbolic equivalent of the trivium. The medieval habit of allegorizing, inherited from the rhetorical schools of antiquity, would have made such translations easy to accomplish in the minds of educated laymen and clergy.

To the scholars of medieval Europe, the knowledge displayed by Jesus in his oral examination in the Temple could be perceived as corresponding to the highest curriculum of the universities. The first examiner begins the ritual with an open ended question. He asks: "Hast thou read books?" Jesus answered, he had read both books and the things which were contained in books. He goes on to reveal himself as a master of law. The second examiner, "a certain astronomer," asks Jesus "Whether he had studied astronomy?" Jesus replies in terms Ptolemaic and astrological, telling him:

...the number of the spheres and heavenly bodies, as also their triangular, square, and sextile aspect; their progressive and retrograde motion; their size and several prognostications; and other things which the reason of man had never discovered.

Because such knowledge of astronomy presupposes knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, and music, the term or notion of astronomy in the foregoing passage may be understood as a metonym for the quadrivium as a whole. The final examiner, a philosopher, asks whether Jesus has studied "physic." Jesus, it turns out, has studied both physics and metaphysics. Seven verses are required to list his knowledge of physiology and psychology. In the end, the philosopher declares himself Jesus' student. We are not told whether the Rabbi and the astronomer participate in this role reversal, but it appears that they all join together at a later point in congratulating Mary: "O happy Mary who has borne such a son."

The Syriac infancy gospel translated from a manuscript of the 13th or 14th century adds a note of hostility absent from Luke, and which in the earlier recensions of the infancy gospels is reserved for the lower school teachers. According to the Syriac narrative, when the doctors cannot answer Jesus' questions, he calls them "hypocrites." His knowledge stuns them, sends their minds reeling:

Then the doctors cried out and said, "Oh, oh, it is not right for this Child to be upon earth...What womb received this Child? Or what mother reared him? We are not able to bear Him. We thought that a disciple had come to us, but he is found to be a doctor." And Jesus said unto them, "Ye marvel al My smallness, but ye are smaller than I in your minds." And the first teacher said, "He entrealeth us to instruct Him! O my bowels. I cannot bear it!. . ."

The self-abasing speech of the teachers continues for several lines before reaching the assertion: "He is either God, or He is an angel." The passage concludes with Jesus enjoying his triumph: Then the Child Jesus laughed and said unto them, "Indeed I laugh with you."

Jesus' laughter is ambiguous. Does he sympathetically laugh "with" or scornfully laugh "at?" Although the passage is unclear on the point, nothing in the previous episodes suggests that Jesus would be sympathetic to his teachers so long as they thought themselves capable of teaching him anything. Confession of inadequacy, however, sometimes caused him to relent. This occurs in one version of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The defeated teacher says to Joseph:

"Know, brother, that I took the child as a disciple; but he is full of great grace and wisdom; and now I beg you, brother, take him to your house." And when the child heard this, he at once smiled on him and said: "Since you have spoken well and have testified rightly, for your sake shall he also that was smitten be healed." And immediately the other teacher was healed.

Then Joseph took Jesus home.

Jesus confounded the most learned men of Israel, refuted them utterly. How did he come to be so well informed, so proficient in argument, so poised a public speaker? The question would have been reasonable to ask in antiquity, when grammar and rhetoric dominated the curriculum of most schools around the Mediterranean, and especially in the second century, when the Institutes of Oratory had become a great text in the west. Medieval believers, accepting the legend of Mary's education in the Temple, might assume that she taught Jesus the rudiments of literacy.

Concerning his vocational education, it was possible to point to Joseph as his teacher in the carpentry shop. But what of a more advanced formal education? The question could, of course, be ignored. The shift from humble domesticity to high place in the Temple might be accomplished without elaboration. It is so illustrated in a Flemish version of Ludolph's Line of Christ (1461). But for the curious, a fuller account was required. The infancy gospels filled this need, albeit with little sensitivity to core values of the New Testament.

In presenting Jesus as a Wunderkind possessed of supernatural power, the infancy gospels left him too little of the virtues extolled by the gospel of love, namely, humility, patience, and charily unbounded. Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) specifically condemned as "false and wicked" the school episode in which Jesus refused to say Beta until the teacher explained Alpha to his satisfaction. Yet recensions of the infancy gospels continued to multiply over the centuries. It is probably due to them that the hugely popular Meditations on the Lime of Christ (late thirteenth century) would include the line, ". . .among the people he was commonly known as big and bad."

Might the Jesus of the infancy gospels be excused for his excesses on the basis of his years? After all, he was only a child, which meant that he was not yet of the age of full reason let alone judgment, according to contemporaneous Hellenistic and Jewish theories. Such an approach to the texts from the standpoint of developmental psychology is plausible. The passages in Luke pertaining to the twelve year old Christ in the Temple have long been viewed in this way. There the fit between psychology, morals, and theology requires no contortion of Christian principles. In absenting himself from his parents without forewarning anyone, Jesus' lack of consideration left something to be desired in respect to courtesy and filial duty. Mary and Joseph suffered emotionally when they thought he was lost, according to Ludolph:

Joseph was crestfallen; it was the worst day of Mary's life; she was in tears; she spent the night in anguish. Yet Jesus' failure in this event could be attributed to youthful enthusiasm for the things of God. The infancy gospels, in contrast, make him the perpetrator of dreadful deeds triggered by comparatively small provocations. At the same time, the texts endow him with supernatural wisdom. It is implied that he acts knowingly, which undercuts any appeal to immaturity as an extenuating consideration.

Jesus' several triumphs over the men of the schools were costly for Christian educators. Whatever was gained by his displays of inspired intellectual power and his abuse of teachers was a loss on the side of symbolism useful in fostering attitudes favorable to schooling. Christian parents and teachers could not point to Jesus as a model student. They could not say to children, for example, "See how faithfully Jesus attended school" "See how hard he worked on his lessons!" Not having Jesus as a positive model meant having no support from an especially important source. That would have been bad enough. But burdened with Jesus as a negative model in relation to teachers would mean having to justify his actions and, perhaps, to make clear that children should not imitate him in his anti-school behavior. The redactor of the Norman manuscript seems to have been aware of the problem, for this text includes an illuminated passage in which Jesus encourages children to go to school. Of the extant infancy gospels and related illuminations, this is the only instance of its kind that has come to light. The broad tendency of this literature and imagery is both anti-school and anti-Jewish. It reflects, then, two of the least fortunate themes in the Christian story. To study them in the words and images that describe Jesus' relations to the schools may increase understanding of some long-term, formative elements of Western culture.


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