What is the Protoevangelium of James?

The Protevangelium of James (henceforth Protevangelium), also known as the Infancy Narrative of James, is an apocryphal, pseudepigraphical text that narrates events not found in the New Testament. Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, adopts the central role in this story. There are several familiar biblical characters in the Protevangelium also found within the canonical gospels.

Author, Date, and Manuscript Attestation

The Protevangelium’s concluding chapter states that it is James, the brother Jesus Christ, whose hand produced this work,

“I, James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased. All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history” (25:1-3).

Despite this claim, we do not know who authored the Protevangelium. It is very unlikely its author was the actual brother of Jesus. Concerning the date of authorship, this must be at the very least after the year 80 CE as the author evidences a clear knowledge of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The writer mentions the story of Herod’s massacre of the infants, which occurs solely in Matthew, thus suggesting knowledge of this gospel. He also mentions the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, a story only found in Luke. Both Luke and Matthew were composed around 80 to 85 CE, so the Protevangelium cannot be any earlier than this.

Scholar Lily Vuong says that consensus is that the Protevangelium dates between the mid-second century and early third century CE (1). The early church theologian Origen (ca. 185-254) was aware of the Protevangelium, suggesting that it can be dated no later than 254 CE. Scholar P. A. van Stempvoort places the date of composition anywhere between 178 and 204 CE (2). George Zervos has observed a possible reference to the Protevangelium in the work of Justin Martyr (100-165), notably in Martyr’s mentioning of Mary giving birth in a cave outside of Bethlehem (1 Apol. 1.33; cf. Protevangelium 18). If this is the case, the Protevangelium is datable to anywhere between 150 and 160 CE (3).

The Protevangelium is pseudepigraphical, meaning that it was authored by someone else other than the person it claims to have been written by. It is understandable why its author attributed his text to James, the brother of Jesus. James was an important historical figure within the early Christian movement as he was not only Jesus’s brother but also an important convert and subsequent leader. Any text produced by a figure of such standing would wield significant authority and be taken seriously. 

The Protevangelium has persevered on manuscripts in several languages, including Syriac, Georgian, Sahidic, Ethiopic, Old Church Slavonic, Armenian, and Arabic in Syriac script, Greek, and Latin. There are around 130 of these manuscripts, although most of them date from the tenth century or later.

Central Narrative

The Protevangelium focuses centrally on Mary and narrates various stages of her life. According to biblical scholar F. F. Bruce, the Protevangelium, “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” (4). The opening introduces readers to Joachim, a rich man soon to become the father of Mary, who is rejected from making a “double” offering to God because he is childless (1:1-5). Grieved at his rejection and for having no child, Joachim retreats to a desert where he pitches a tent and fasts for forty days and forty nights. Anna, Joachim’s wife, feels her husband’s absence and gives into grief, lamenting that she is now a widow and childless. God knows of her grief and sends an angel to visit her, informing her that she will give birth to a child,

“Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood in front of her, saying, “Anna, Anna, the Lord God has heard your prayer. You will conceive and give birth and your child will bespoken of everywhere people live” (4:2).

And just as God had promised, Anna gives birth to a girl whom she names Mary (6:1). “Day by day” Mary grows stronger and eventually Anna makes her bedroom into a holy sanctuary to keep her daughter from anything profane or unclean (6:4). Mary is allowed to play with undefiled girls until she is three years old (7:1-3), upon which the time arrives for her to be sent to live in the Temple under the supervision and care of a priest who keeps her free from impurity (7:4-8:2). When Joachim, Anna, and Mary arrive at the Temple, the priest greets Mary by saying: “The Lord God has exalted your name among all generations. In you the Lord God will disclose his redemption to the people of Israel during the last days” (7:7-8).

One reads that at the Temple, Mary was well cared for as “she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel” (8:2). At the age of twelve, Mary has to find another home and guardian outside of the Temple to avoid polluting it with her menstrual cycle. This detail, among others, demonstrates that the Protevangelium is an expansion of the Lukan infancy narrative, particularly of the Lukan verse that establishes the priestly lineage and holiness of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-9). 

Zechariah is the high priest during this time and he appoints Joseph to be Mary’s carer. Joseph had been chosen by lot to take Mary into his care (8:3-9:12). After this, Zechariah became mute and was replaced by Samuel as high priest until he could speak again (10:9).

While living in Joseph’s home, Mary becomes pregnant and later gives birth to Jesus in a cave (8-20). The Protevangelium then rounds off the story with King Herod mobilizing to have all infants two years and younger killed (22:1), a story narrated in the canonical Gospel of Matthew (2:16-18). Mary learns of this threat and attempts to hide the infant Jesus in cloth and a cattle trough (22:2). Herod is not only looking to kill Jesus but also the infant John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth flees with John into the country (22:5) where they are concealed in a mountain that splits open and lets them in (22:7-9). Herod’s men find Zechariah in the Temple court and attempt to have him give up the location of John (23:2), but he refuses and is then killed (23:2-9). 

The Value and Reliability of the Protevangelium

The Protevangelium’s value lies in many of its details and additions. For one, it emphasizes the role of purity and holiness within the Temple and priesthood, both important to Jews. The text is also closely associated with images and events known from biblical stories and how these narratives were interpreted, enhanced, and/revised by later Christian writers. Certainly, the author felt he could enhance the personhood and story of Mary by including events and episodes not found in the New Testament gospels. This is apparent in the author’s attempt to establish Mary’s birth as planned by God himself. She is also righteous and obedient in her upbringing. 

Although the Protevangelium has not been included in the New Testament canon, it has been influential within Eastern Christianity where it can be found in Nativity icons in the Byzantine, Greek, and Russian traditions. As a historical source, it would be very difficult to put the Protevangelium on the same level as the canonical gospels. 

References

1. Vuong, Lily. 2019. The Protevangelium of James. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 14 

2. Van Stempvoort, P. A. 2011. “The Protevangelium Iacobi: a case of gospel harmonization.” Studia Patristica 35(13):410-426.

3. Zervos, G. R. 1994. Dating the Protevangelium of James: The Justin Martyr Connection. Baznīcas iela: Scholars Press. p. 419. 

4. Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. 1974. Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 86-87.

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