Jesus Raises the Clay Birds of his Playmates to Life from Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk by Unknown German Artist

Unknown German artist

Jesus Raises the Clay Birds of his Playmates to Life, from Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, c.1340, Illumination on parchment, 380 x 275 mm, Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Switzerland, Gen. 8, fol. 28r,

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Jesus Raises the Clay Birds

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The Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth largely follows the Gospel of Mark’s. But in Matthew 13:58, Mark 6:5’s ‘he could do no (ouk edynato) mighty work there’ becomes ‘he did not do (ouk epoiēsen) many mighty works there’. This departure from Mark’s version is often interpreted as ‘correcting’ Mark’s suggestion of a lack of power in Jesus. In fact, Mark 6:5 actually does mention some healings, so Mark may intend to imply (as some early interpreters like Origen Commentary on Matthew 10.19 thought) that miracles require two elements: divine power and a faithful response to recognize them.

It is often assumed that the apocryphal gospels of Jesus’s infancy took a quite different line, in making him a constant and effective miracle worker from the very beginning. Among the best known of these miracles is the transformation of sparrows the young Jesus had made from clay into real birds (recounted in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). Indeed, so popular was the story that it not only appears twice in the Qur’an (3.49; 5.110) but also acquired semi-canonical status within Christianity, as can be seen from its appearance in the anonymous fourteenth-century vernacular harmonized gospel text from which this illustration is drawn.

More recent scholarship has disputed an obsessive preoccupation with miracles as the explanation of why these scenes of infant wonder-working appealed to so many. For one thing, such miracles were presented as generating just as much hostility as the adult encounter in Mark 6 and parallels—an episode without accompanying miracles. The reprimanding adult in this manuscript illustration is evidence of that. So perhaps their real motivation can be seen to lie in allowing Jesus to identify with common human concerns, as in this instance with a children’s game of the time.

In some ways, then, these miracles ask to be read alongside the Gospels’ references to Jesus’s expression of human emotions such as compassion and anger or his eating and drinking with ordinary folk—one more way of endorsing John’s declaration that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (1:14).



Davis, Stephen J. 2014. Christ Child: Cultural Memories of a Young Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Origen. Commentary on Matthew. 1896. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 9—Recently Discovered Additions to Early Christian Literature, ed. by Allan Menzies (Buffalo: Christian Literature), p. 426

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