Jesus the Precocious and the Angel’s Slap

For family scripture study in the mornings we’ve started just following the Primary manual rather than merely reading the scriptures. This has lead to much, much more fruitful scripture study I think. If you’ve not done this yourself, consider trying it out for a week or two. I’m not sure kids get as much out of reading the scriptures particularly in the KJV. Yet when you discuss the issues with them they understand it much better. This week we were covering Matthew 2 and Luke 2.

The story that interested me the most was young Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph. They discover Jesus missing a day later and have to head back to Jerusalem. They find him in the temple discussing things with the local rabbis. This always struck me as showing Jesus to be so human and fallible. Why didn’t he tell Joseph or his mother what he was doing? Yet Jesus is also so precocious apparently having understanding surpassing what was typical for one his age. There’s almost an inherent contradiction in the text. Jesus is simultaneously portrayed as flawed yet unusually gifted.

While I think we should always be somewhat careful with accounts of Jesus’ childhood, the idea of a rabbinical prodigy has a long history. There’s even a Hebrew word for it – illui. In the Talmud and Midrash possibly reflecting traditions at Jesus’ time there’s the idea of an angel’s slap. The tradition is also interesting for Mormons and our conception of forgetting at birth. This is from Urbach’s The Sages [1]

…a child, while still in its mother’s womb, is taught the entire Torah to the glow of a supernatural lamp that allows it to see to the ends of the earth. It is only at the moment of birth that an angel appears and imposes upon it an oath to live a righteous life, and then slaps the youngster on the mouth or the nose, causing it to forget all that it has learned.

The angel’s smack in the Talmudic legend produces total amnesia for all, but in the Greek theory of “anamnesis” the souls quaff varying quantities of the oblivion-inducing potion. The clever souls drink no more than they have to, which makes for an easier job of learning and recalling during their coming lives. Only the foolish and short-sighted souls make the mistake of rashly and greedily gulping down excessive doses, dooming them to lives of ignorance and dull-wittedness.

Furthermore, the Jewish world had its share of child prodigies and geniuses who mastered the Talmud at a tender age (such a person is known in Hebrew as an “Illui”). This phenomenon could be ascribed to the soul’s evading the angel’s slap, whether by accident or design.

1. The Sages, while a fairly old book is a book well worth picking up for interesting selections from the Talmud. It first came out way back in 1969 and so in some ways is quite dated. Yet there’s a good reason that it gets reprinted in a new edition every decade. A lot of the topics are of interest to members interested in ancient Judaism as well as how it relates to contemporary theology. One should remember that most of these texts post-date the New Testament often by quite some time. Yet the traditions often reflect the views at the time of Christ – particularly the two prominent pharisee teachers Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai whose thought can be found throughout the New Testament.

8 comments for “Jesus the Precocious and the Angel’s Slap

  1. It was far more then just the “local rabbis” with whom Jesus was meeting in the temple at the tender age of twelve. Passover was one of three times in the year that the most learned men met in the temple complex and gave speeches, held oral discussions and debates, and hashed out difficult new questions in regards to the Law of Moses and Rabbinical law. It was literally the top minds of Judaism. This was the group Jesus was meeting with when Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple. (I can’t quote a source on this; I learned it when I was taking a Jewish history class in a synagogue.)

  2. Isn’t it good that there was open discussion of difficult questions, and that a 12 year old could join in. Transparency. But then they also had a broarder range of acceptable opinions. We could learn.
    Did you notice the bible refers to Anna s s a prophet. The manual couldn’t bring its self to call a woman a prophet. Not really honest?

  3. A teacher at education week talked about this incident saying Christ was sinless but even he still made childish mistakes as he was learning, not realized how upset his parents would be. So we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for mistakes as we are learning.

  4. GEOFF-AUS — Latter-day Saint literature is not silent on Anna being called a prophet — no dishonesty there. I’ve known she was called a prophet since I was in Primary way back in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s called a ‘spiritual gift,’ just like Deborah in the Old Testament had a spiritual gift which enabled her to be a Judge in Israel — which in her day was not a priesthood position. Anyone can have the spiritual gift of prophecy, but not many are called to fill the priesthood position.

    And as far as there being an acceptable range of opinions among the theologians in Christ’s time — it was one of the main reasons for fighting, arguing, disunity, and condemnation of each other during that time period. Fortunately for us today, we have prophets and the Holy Spirit, so that there doesn’t need to be needless disputations (3 Nephi 11:28). And historically speaking, a child the age of Jesus when he crashed the discussion in the temple — no, he was far too young to even be considered for attending, but He obviously did anyway, much to the astonishment to everyone who was busy debating and discussing.

  5. In my similar study with my family we wondered if Luke was again pointing out the deficiencies in the understanding of the Jews, even those closest to him. His family home didn’t have room for his birth; his parents didn’t know that he was going to be busy doing his Father’s work. 
    This is not to point out a disobedient soon who dallied and caused problems for the travelers; this is to demonstrate their inability to understand him from the beginning.

    If Luke is writing to Gentile believers perhaps he is pointing out that they can find room and understanding in contrast to the Jews who ultimately reject him fully in crucifixion.

  6. I think what’s so fascinating is how it can read both ways simultaneously. That is he’s this precocious kid who knows far more than is normal for his age, his parent don’t really get him even though they’ve had these miraculous experiences, yet at the same time Jesus isn’t being as respectful to his parents as perhaps he should. It’s an interesting narrative.

    The bit I found interesting was this connection to Jewish tradition though. More interesting and surprising was how this tradition really is quite similar to the Mormon conception of the veil of forgetfulness. This is an issue that I think Christians sometimes struggle with in Jesus – the problem of the two natures how he’s fully God but fully human too and all that entails. While most Christians accept Jesus as having pre-mortal knowledge they don’t for regular humans. With Mormonism we’re all much closer to how they view Jesus. We all have two natures, although we’re not sinless like Jesus. It’s interesting seeing this Jewish tradition that really links up with our own views – albeit distorted somewhat.

  7. It is interesting in that while little is known of the Saviour’s early years, we might infer from Luke’s observation that Mary and Joseph went to Passover every year (Luke 2:41) and that Jesus was subject to them (vs 51), that he attended also and likely engaged in similar exchanges with the learned in the ensuing years, while also increasing his understanding of how to combat the faith distortions evident in the Jewish sects of his day. Just a thought.

  8. That’s a really good point. By the time of his ministry it’s clear he’s familiar with the positions and arguments of the Sadducees but also both factions of the Pharisees and particularly their methods. Indeed it’s clear in many of his sermons he’s very familiar with Hillel’s methods of interpreting the law and has appropriated a lot of it for his own use. But he’s also familiar with the more Enochian tradition possibly out of Qumran even though the Essenes aren’t mentioned anywhere in any of the gospels.

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