The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple as “disputation”

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The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1860, William Holman Hunt (detail)

My investigation seeks to closely examine and problematise one of the most puzzling aspects of the work, that is, what I will refer to as its Jewish presence. The Finding is construed as a Christian painting and yet depicts almost entirely Jews and Judaism.

Therefore, one of my concerns is why this Jewish presence has been overlooked. My thesis will consider what this appearance of Jewishness means in terms of how the European West understands itself historically and philosophically. In other words, in addition to why, we will consider how the Jewish presence in The Finding has been overlooked.

The Finding purports to depict the scene from the New Testament book of Luke (Luke 2:41-52) which describes an encounter between the twelve-year-old Jesus and the Temple elders. The picture shows Jesus and the Jewish rabbis as separate from, and in conflict with each another.

The short account in Luke is the only canonical story of Jesus’s childhood in the New Testament. The episode describes the losing of Jesus on the part of Mary and Joseph on the return home after the Passover festival. Mary and Joseph return to find Jesus in the Temple in discussion with the elders. The Finding is an example of  portrayals of this biblical scene which has become known as the “disputation,” As such, it follows in a tradition of other, mostly older paintings depicting this scene.

The scene is also known as Christ Among the Doctors, Christ in the Temple with the Doctors, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple and variants around this theme. Examples include works by Heinrich Hofmann, 1884, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, Bernardino Luini, circa 1530, Albrecht Dürer, 1506, and others.

This thesis will therefore bring to the fore a genre of “disputation paintings” which although clearly Western European in origin, is not organised by reference to a particular artistic style or nation. 

The binary division of Jewish and Christian implied in The Finding and its sense of confrontation is not easily explained by its purported New Testament origin. A close reading of the Lukan scene will show that it is not actually one of confrontation. The elders (represented and often described in The Finding as “rabbis”) are described as amazed or astonished at the twelve-year-old’s wisdom and knowledge.

I quote here:

(46) After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (47) And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2: 46-47) (My emphasis)

The Lukan text does suggest that a discussion is taking place because it says that Jesus is “listening to them and answering questions.” However, if we accept that the scene is known as the “disputation” we must acknowledge that this discussion has come to mean, for modern readers of the New Testament, a much later conception of disputation. It is debateable as to whether or not this new understanding has been influenced by disputation paintings specifically. Nevertheless, whatever is understood about the discussion by modern readers, given that the story is situated as a biblical event it can only be an inner-Jewish debate, not a Jewish versus Christian one. This later interpretation and naming of the scene as a disputation can only be explained in my view, by the identification of a wider discourse of disputation. This discourse can be seen to be inextricably linked with matters concerned with historical Jewish-Christian relations and obliquely refers to actual public events such as the renowned disputations of Paris (1240) or Barcelona (1263).

I will re-contextualise The Finding away from its customary situatedness within the Pre-Raphaelite fold to posit it as a Disputation painting. This allows me to demonstrate that The Finding is not merely as illustrative of the Lukan story but functions as an engagement within a wider 19th century Jewish-Christian debate. Therefore, when we talk about disputation more generally, it is not merely an artistic, literary, or even biblical type scene but a discourse, and a discourse within which The Finding effectively participates.

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