Bring more books

A sculpture in Avila of the boy Jesus disputing with learned Jews in the Temple.

A relief sculpture from 1531 in the cathedral in Ávila, home of the redoubtable Saint Teresa. The theme is the twelve-year-old Jesus disputing with learned Jews in the Temple (Luke 2:46).


It’s good if not great work. (Sorry for the mediocre photo). The Jesus is unconvincing, but then the challenge of representing a rebellious know-all adolescent Jewish Son of God would defeat greater artists. What Lucas Giraldo and Juan Rodríguez got right, unusually, is the energy of the disputation, with the learned frantically looking up texts and a boy attendant bringing fresh ammunition. This isn’t a sedate lecture but a proper academic cat-fight. Easy trivia question – answer below the jump: what is the anachronism?

The anachronism is the books. The edge-bound book as we know it, the codex, was invented in the second century. Before that, Jewish and Greek scholars alike used scrolls, and so did Jesus. The Christians were early adopters of the technology and may have been its inventors (Jack Miles, God: A Biography). It gave them a technical advantage in the three-cornered polemics they were constantly engaged in; when arguments were won and lost by citing texts, codices gave faster access to the smackdown. Learned pagans and Jews were handicapped by their attachment to the prestigious but inefficient scroll. The Christians were outsiders with no prestige to lose. The later invention of verse numbering by Calvinist printers in Geneva in the 1550s gave a similar polemical advantage to Protestants against Catholics.

The sculpture is also an act of some courage. The sequence – the scene is flanked by a good but conventional Presentation in the Temple – is impeccably orthodox in subject, but displays obvious sympathy with Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition was at the height of its power, and managed even to imprison the Primate of Spain, Archbishop Carranza, for 18 years: poetic justice, as he had been one of the prime movers of the Marian persecutions of Protestants in England. The Inquisition was professionally and virulently antisemitic, though its prime target was not Jews themselves (expelled from Spain in 1492) but conversos, the far more numerous Catholic descendants of Jews forcibly converted in pogroms round 1400 CE. The outlet for the antisemitism was charges against conversos of an imaginary “judaizing” heresy. Even protected by powerful patrons like the bishop and canons of Ávila, mere sculptors were soft targets.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

2 thoughts on “Bring more books”

  1. I’m not at all sure I’m right here, but wasn’t the ‘Jew’ headwear adopted well after Jesus’ time?

    1. More than likely. The first artist I know of who tried for historically plausible clothing in scenes of antiquity (such as here – it may be wrong, but it's not contemporary gear at all) was Nicolas Poussin, who died in1665. Any earlier offers welcome.

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