Saturday, May 9, 2015

Protovangelium of James

I am guessing that no apocryphal book has had more impact on art, culture and Catholic and Orthodox doctrine than the Protovangelium of James, also known as the Gospel of James or Infancy Gospel of James. It is a genre of apocrypha known as an Infancy Gospel, written to satisfy the desire of early Christians to know more about the youth of Jesus. Protovangelium is a Greek term for a pre-Gospel narrative. 

The Protovangelium, a copy of which is found here, purports to be written by James, the brother of Jesus, but it is pseudonymous. It relies heavily on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as sources. Matthew talks about the slaughter of the innocents by Herod and Luke talks about the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth and the sojourn to Egypt by the Holy Family. The Protovangelium harmonizes these stories. Since the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written around 80 or 85 CE, it had to be written after that time. Since James died earlier than that, around 62 CE, James could not have been the author. On the other end of the spectrum, the first mention of the Protovangelium was by Origen of Alexandria in the early 3rd century.  So it was written before then. Most scholars believe the Protovangelium was written mid-2nd century, about 145 CE. 

It is the earliest document to name the mother and father of Mary: Anna and Joachim. It starts with a parallel to the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Joachim is grieved because he has no seed. He thinks of Abraham and goes into the desert, without telling Anna, for 40 days and nights to fast and pray. Anna thinks Joachim is dead and mourns her "widowhood" and "childlessness." Angels visit each of Joachim and Anna to inform them that God has heard their prayers and they have a joyful reunion. 
This statue of Anna and her child, Mary, are found in St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to Anna and Joachim. The church is erected over the site of the grotto the crusaders believed to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. 
It has a parallel to Hannah and Samuel. Anna promises the angel that the child (she doesn't know if it will be a boy or girl) will be a "gift to the Lord my God" and will "minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life." At the age of three, Mary was taken to live in the Temple in Jerusalem where, on at least one occasion, "she received food from an angel." She stayed until she was age 12, then the priests were concerned that she would reach puberty and defile the Temple. 

A primary focus of the Protovangelium is the virginity of Mary and it is the earliest source to indicate that Mary remained a virgin during and after the birth of Jesus. The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which states that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth for all her life, is an essential part of faith for Catholics and is believed by the Orthodox and Anglicans as well. The focus on Mary's virginity begins when Zacharias, the high priest and eventual father of John the Baptist, goes into the holy of holies to pray about what to do with Mary. The answer is to find her a husband. An angel tells Zacharias to assemble "widowers" (who will be older and less interested in and capable of marital relations) and to determine Mary's future husband by lot. Each widower brought a rod and Joseph was chosen when a dove flew out of his rod and landed on his head. Joseph then took Mary to his home and immediately went away for six months to "build" his "buildings" (there is to be no question that Joseph is not the father). While Joseph was gone, Mary, with seven other virgins, made a veil for the temple (probably the same veil that was rent when Jesus died). During that time she was visited by the archangel Gabriel who told her that she would conceive "the Son of the Most High" and "call His name Jesus." But it would not be "as every other woman brings forth," the "power of the Lord shall overshadow" her. Mary then visited Elizabeth, wife of Zacharias the high priest, who greeted her as the "mother of my Lord" and John the Baptist, in her womb, "leaped and blessed" Mary. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (and somehow, by then, she had advanced to age 16).

Joseph returned home after 6 months and found Mary "big with child...and wept bitterly...I received her a virgin out of the temple...and I have not watched over her...Who has done this evil thing in my house, and defiled the virgin?" Mary wept and said, "I am innocent, and have known no man." That night an angel visited Joseph in a dream and told him that the child in Mary "is of the Holy Spirit" and will be a "Son" who shall be called Jesus.

An order was issued by the Emperor Augustus that all in Bethlehem should be enrolled. We learn that Joseph has sons from his prior marriage who need to be enrolled, but he wondered what to do with Mary because "all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter." He saddled an ass for Mary and his "son led it, and Joseph followed."  
A mural from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It shows the birth of Jesus in a cave, the Magi coming to visit, and the Holy Family leaving for Egypt. 
Mary indicated that "that which is in me presses to come forth." So they "found a cave," the first source to indicate that the nativity took place in a cave, and Joseph left his two sons with Mary while he went to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem. One midwife arrived first and a "cloud overshadowed the cave." Then it disappeared "and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it." Gradually, the light decreased "until the infant appeared" and the midwife cried out, "This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight." As the midwife left the cave, Salome, another midwife, arrived and would not believe Mary is a virgin "unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts..." Salome entered the cave and told Mary to "Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee." Salome "put in her finger, and cried out...Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine hand is dropping off as if burned with fire." Salome cried out for help and an angel appeared and told her to put her "hand to the infant, and carry it." As she did so, she "was immediately cured."
This spot in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is where tradition holds that Jesus was born. It is in what was once a cave and was determined to be the spot by Helena, the mother of Constantine. 
A cave we visited at Beit Lehi, an archaeological site, which was an ancient stable. 
This cave stable had two chambers separated by a rock wall with windows. The people to the right are leaning through the windows. 
The windows had little troughs where feed could be placed for the animals. The story of the birth in a cave, which seemed hokey to me when I first heard it, was brought to life for me by this experience. 
The Magi arrive, guided by the star, and then were warned to go back by a different route to avoid Herod who wanted to know where the "king of the Jews" was born. Herod was enraged that they did not return and "sent murderers" to kill the children "two years old and under." Mary, "having heard that the children were being killed...took the infant and swaddled him, and put Him into an ox-stall."
A stained glass window of the nativity from the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem.
Elizabeth learned "they were searching for John, and took him and went up into the hill-country." There was no place to hide, so Elizabeth groaned with a loud voice and said, "O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her" and an angel stayed with them and watched over them. Herod sent officers to Zacharias to ask him where he'd hid his son. Zacharias replied that he was "constantly in the temple" and did not know where his son was. Herod apparently believed that John was the child the Magi were seeking, the child "destined to be king over Israel," so Herod sent men to kill Zacharias instead. Simeon, who had been told he would "not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh," replaced Zacharias as high priest and that is how it ends. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story that makes some interesting connections, not all that work for me, but that are definitely food for thought and do shine more light on some of the things we have seen. Great post.