The Protevangelium


The Infancy Narrative of James is also known as the Protevangelium of James. Protevangelium implies that most of the events recorded in this initial gospel of James occur prior to those recorded in the gospels of the New Testament. The gospel received this name when it was first published in the sixteenth century. There are about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing the Infancy Gospel of James, but the vast majority of these come from the tenth century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text was found in 1958; it is now kept in Geneva's Bodmer Library and dates to the third century. It takes only the briefest amount of investigation to recognize the fallacious claims attributed to this writing.

Rather quickly one can determine, generally, that there are three different sources for the Infancy Gospel of James: extracanonical traditions, the Old Testament, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The mythical element of birth in a cave, for example, is an extracanonical also known to Justin Martyr. Not only are individual words, phrases, and even whole paragraphs reminiscent of the Septuagint, but the hymn and the lament of Anna also display conscious, direct remembrance of the stories recorded in the scriptures.

The composition begins with an account of the birth of Mary to Joachim and Anna in their old age, when they had given up all hope of having children. Like the infant Samuel in the Old Testament, Mary was dedicated by her grateful mother to the service of God in the temple, and there she was placed under the care and guidance of the priest Zechariah. When she was twelve years old she was betrothed by her guardians to Joseph. The story of the angelic annunciation and virginal conception follows the nativity narratives of Luke and Matthew, with various embellishments: Mary's chastity is vindicated, for example, by the ordeal of jealousy prescribed in Numbers 5.11-28. In a cave near Bethlehem Mary gives birth to Jesus, Salome acting as midwife. When Herod fails to find the infant, after the visit of the wise men from the east, he tries to lay hands on the child John (later the Baptist), but when he too is not to be found (having been hidden with his mother Elizabeth in a hollow mountain) Herod has his father Zechariah put to death in the temple court.

We can divide the writing basically into three parts. In the first eight chapters, there is the story of Mary's own unique birth and childhood, wherein it is related that Anna, Mary's mother, becomes pregnant only after supplication to God. In the second eight chapters, the story starts with the crisis posed by Mary's becoming a woman and thus her imminent pollution of the temple. The priests resolve the crisis by turning her over to a divinely chosen widower, the carpenter Joseph, who agrees to be her guardian, but refuses to marry her. When Mary becomes pregnant, a priest suspects Joseph and Mary of wrong-doing and put the two to a test, which they pass. In the last eight chapters, we hear of the birth of Jesus with the visit of midwifes, the hiding of Jesus from Herod in a feeding trough, and even the hiding of John from Herod in the hills with his mother Elizabeth.

These legends are obviously creative expansions on the stories given in Matthew and Luke. The author cannot have actually been James because of the apparent dependence or foundations in Matthew and Luke. For example, only Matthew tells us about the massacre of the infants arranged by Herod, while only Luke tells us about the birth of John to Elizabeth. So although it does make for some most entertaining reading and despite all of the media attention, this and other such imaginative writings are only that – the imaginings of an era when it was felt that the “holes” in scripture needed mending.


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