The infancy gospels - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster (2009)

Chapter 3. The infancy gospels

The infancy of Jesus in the canonical accounts

In the earliest surviving Christian writings - the letters of Paul - there is little interest in the events surrounding the early life of Jesus. Indeed, for Paul, only two ‘facts’ from that phase of Jesus’ life seem to have been of importance, because of their theological significance. First, Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom. 1.4) and secondly, he was born of a woman (Gal. 4.4). If these fleeting details could not have been exploited for theological purposes it is virtually certain that Paul would not have alluded to them. Similarly, the earliest canonical gospel - Mark - opens with Jesus commencing his public ministry in Galilee. However, the curiosity of early believers naturally meant they wanted to know more and more about the life and origins of Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel described Jesus’ origins in a brilliantly cosmological way, which equated Jesus with the Logos that featured in the Jewish wisdom tradition. Such a theological innovation provided some of the major impetus for the more developed cosmologies found in other early Christian texts, such as those discovered at Nag Hammadi. However, that approach was not the only possibility.

Among the canonical evangelists, Matthew and Luke both relate events from the earthly life of Jesus prior to his public ministry. These ‘hidden years’ have intrigued and fascinated believers down through the centuries, and the very compressed details contained in Matthew and Luke represent the beginning of a process of ‘reconstructing’ the early life of Jesus that increased in late antiquity, flourished in the medieval period, and has continued even in the works of modern authors. In his opening two chapters, Matthew combines purported historical details with theological interpretation. Above all, Jesus’ Davidic pedigree is affirmed. He is presented as belonging to the kingly line and is described as being born at home in Bethlehem, the city of David (Matt. 2.7-11). When his father Joseph (who is the second biblical seer of dreams by the name of Joseph, cf. Gen. 37.39-50) is warned in a dream the family have an exodus into Egypt prior to returning to Nazareth, a city of Galilee, after the death of Herod the Great.

Luke’s account shares many details in common with Matthew, but there are also striking differences. Mary, not Joseph, receives angelic visions. The hometown is Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Yet nonetheless, the couple travel to Bethlehem because of a census that requires people to be enrolled in their ancestral homes. Jesus is not born at home, but at an inn. And contrary to Matthew, there are no magi (wise men) who present gifts, but simple shepherds who come to observe the newborn child.

Both stories do identify the parents - named as Joseph and Mary - the actual birth takes place in Bethlehem, and there is an association with Nazareth. These narratives reveal a core of shared traditions, but they create decidedly different ways of weaving these details into an extended narrative. Luke alone, among the canonical gospels, records an incident from the adolescent years - the family visit to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2.41-52). During this visit, the family unwittingly leave the prodigious youngster behind in the city where, in common with childhood stories of prominent figures in antiquity, he already displays his phenomenal abilities by demonstrating a wisdom that surpasses his years. Such scant details of the ‘hidden years’ perhaps created more interest than satisfying readers’ curiosity. Later writers sought to please pious readers by supplying additional information. It may be debated whether the non-canonical accounts of the young Jesus represent mere fabrications or enshrine kernels of historical incidents. However, it is apparent that in order to make an informed answer, it is necessary to consider those non-canonical traditions in some detail.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

One of the better known non-canonical texts, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains some of the most striking and bizarre of Jesus’ miracles. Yet these are challenging not only because of their intrinsic implausibility. The greater challenge arises from the portrait they create of the child Jesus. No model Victorian child Jesus here, whom the hymn writer could laud as ‘meek and mild’. Instead readers are confronted with a precocious and capricious child, ‘shaming teachers and maiming playmates’, who constantly leaves a trail of havoc wherever he goes - and this is presumably from the pen of a scribe who wrote as a pious follower of Jesus. No wonder such a portrait of the uncontrollable enfant terrible has left subsequent readers bemused concerning the purpose of this text.

This gospel account covers a period of approximately 7 years of Jesus’ life. It opens, after the initial prologue, by recounting a story that occurred when Jesus was 5 years old and it concludes by telling its own modified version of the story recorded in Luke’s Gospel of the visit of the 12-year-old Jesus and his family to Jerusalem. The text of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was known in antiquity. However, the title attached to it was either simply the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ (mentioned by Origen, Hippolytus, and others) or the ‘Childhood of Jesus’ (mentioned by John Chrysostom, Epiphanius of Salamis, and others). Among modern scholars, the confusion that the first title caused with the sayings Gospel of Thomas was not appreciated until fragments of the latter text were discovered in the late 19th century. Thus comments of early Christian writers to the effect that the Gospel of Thomas was a ‘Gnostic’ text led scholars working on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to misunderstand the character of the text. This initial problem has been clarified, but many others remain.

Most notably, the form - or maybe forms - of the text require further clarification. A manuscript (subsequently lost) of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was first described, briefly, in a modern scholarly work in a catalogue of 1675. A second manuscript was then published by J. B. Cotelier in his 1698 edition of the Apostolic Constitutions, but this was a fragmentary version of the text. Over the next 150 years, further manuscripts of the text were found. The colossus of 19th-century textual criticism, Constantin von Tischendorf, published in 1853 what has become the standard scholarly edition of the text. He actually published two versions of the text. The first, based primarily on two 15th-century manuscripts and known as Greek A, presented a 19-chapter version of the text. Today this represents the better-known form of the text. Alongside this he published a shorter form, Greek B, based on a manuscript he found during his visit to St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai. He also drew attention to several Latin witnesses to the text. These demonstrate the wide circulation and popular appeal of the narrative. Since Tischendorf’s day, the body of manuscripts of the text has increased, with at least 11 extant Greek manuscripts now known. Most significantly, in 1927 Delatte published a 15th-century manuscript which, while closer to the form of Greek A than Greek B, showed greatest affinities with the Latin witnesses and was seen as a witness to another textual form labelled as Greek D. Further discoveries have demonstrated that this text was translated into languages other than Latin, including Syriac, Georgian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Irish. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas certainly has not been a ‘hidden text’ down through the centuries.

The prologue to the text opens with a self-attribution of authorship to a ‘Thomas, the Israelite’ and presents itself as sharing details of Jesus’ childhood with non-Jewish believers.

I, Thomas the Israelite, am reporting to you, all my non-Jewish brothers and sisters, to make known the extraordinary childhood deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ - what he did after his birth in my region. This is how it all started:

(Inf. Gos. Thom. 1.1)

After this brief description of author and purpose, this racy narrative rapidly moves on to relating the spectacular and at times lurid miracles of the boy Jesus.

The first is innocuous enough. At the age of 5, Jesus fashions 12 clay sparrows beside a flowing stream, and as part of this process he makes ponds of water from the stream and then instantly purifies the water with ‘a single word’. This innocent narrative then introduces a dark side which both foreshadows later confrontations in Jesus’ life and at the same time stigmatizes Jewish attitudes to the law. The narrator notes that Jesus’ actions took place on the Sabbath and that what he had done was observed by a Jew. This unnamed figure calls Joseph, the father of Jesus, and informs him that his son ‘has violated the Sabbath’. Joseph joins in haranguing his son for this Sabbath transgression. Jesus does not address the two adults, but instead speaks to the clay sparrows: ‘Be off, fly away, and remember, you who are now alive.’ The compliant birds do as they are instructed, and although amazed the Jews (now plural) report these happening to their leaders.

Three features which are common to many later Christian texts are immediately apparent. First, the miraculous elements of the Jesus tradition are heightened. In a pre-Enlightenment age, a more miraculous Jesus was seen as being able to attract more followers. The story perhaps was not understood as straining credulity, but rather as a way of commending faith. Second, anti-Jewish sentiments are also increased and there is a greater divide between ‘Jews’ and Jesus, to whom that label is not applied. It is noteworthy that at this stage in the story Joseph is


8. The infancy gospels had widespread impact on popular piety and artistic representations of scenes from the life of Christ. Here, drawing upon the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the boy Jesus brings to life clay he had fashioned on the Sabbath

an ambiguous character, who although siding with the Jewish informer is not labelled as a Jew himself. The text should be classified as anti-Jewish rather than anti-Semitic since it appears that there is no racial or ethnic prejudice against Semitic people as a whole. Rather, the Jews, who are viewed as a religious grouping opposed to the claims of Jesus’ messiahship, are seen as recalcitrant and deserve whatever judgments are visited upon them. Third, it should be observed that while the category ‘Jewish’ is viewed negatively, the notion of being an ‘Israelite’ is taken over as a way of identifying the putative author of this text. There is, therefore, an implicit ‘supersessionary’ theology at work whereby Christians see themselves as inheritors of the covenantal promises made to the nation of Israel, but conveniently deny any link between historic Israel and the contemporary Jewish people.

The next two stories take a macabre turn. Following the narrative of the story about the vivified clay sparrows, a young boy named as the ‘son of Annas the scholar’ drains the pools of water that were made by Jesus. An enraged Jesus responds with bitter invective, ‘Sodomite, ungodly and ignorant. What harm did the pools of water do to you? From this moment you too will dry up like a tree, and you will never produce leaves or root or bear fruit’ (Inf. Gos. Thom. 3.2). In response to this curse, the boy withers up and dies.

Next in this episodic drama, while Jesus is going through his village another boy running along innocently bumps him on the shoulder. For the second time the petulant Jesus is angered. He shouts, ‘You will not continue your journey’, and another child drops dead. The people of the village and the parents of this dead boy speak in similar confused and fearful tones:

Some people saw what had happened and said, ‘Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!’ The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him saying, ‘Because you have such a boy, you cannot live with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not curse. He is killing our children!’

(Inf. Gos. Thom. 4.3-4)

There is no doubt that the stories are fascinating, but what motivated the creation of narratives that portray the young Jesus as insolent, uncontrolled, and murderous? Later in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas Jesus’ behaviour is transformed from that of being a life-taker to that of a life-restorer. Perhaps the message stems from this reversal in Jesus’ character. It may be intended to encourage the reversal of uncontrolled behaviour in other people, but it would appear unusual to present Jesus as a character who was in need of personal reform. Chapter 5 of the text offers a slightly different perspective through a dialogue between the boy Jesus and his father Joseph. In response to questioning, Jesus declares that the words he has spoken are not his own and also that the people must take their punishment. When an exasperated Joseph grabs the ear of Jesus, the child responds ‘It is one thing for you to seek and not find; it is quite another for you to act this unwisely. Do you not know that I do not really belong to you? Do not make me upset’ (Inf. Gos. Thom. 5.5-6). From the perspective of the narrative, the stories seem more concerned to reveal something about the hidden identity of Jesus. The stories are somewhat reminiscent of Old Testament stories where people die for infringing the holiness of God. In particular, there is an incident when a certain man called Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant when he thinks it is about to topple off the cart on which it is being transported. His punishment is that ‘God struck him down there for his irreverence’ (2 Sam. 6.7). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas may want readers to identify the boy Jesus with the holiness of the God of the Old Testament.

Choice of school is often a hard decision, and at the best of times teacher-pupil relations can be strained. With such a dangerous and petulant child, the problems, as the narrative now makes clear, become even more unpredictable. There are three scenes that depict the schooling of Jesus. The first is an extended story in the narrative when an unfortunate school master by the name of Zacchaeus mistakenly believes he can both teach and discipline the child (Inf. Gos. Thom. 6.1-8.4). When Zacchaeus attempts to teach Jesus letters, the child launches forth on the mystical meaning of each letter. Here the text shows its closest point of contact with the esoteric learning of mystery cults or Gnostic forms of religion. However, these similarities are slight and their purpose is to show the superiority of Jesus’ learning, not to promote Gnostic forms of Christianity. Perplexed, the confused Zacchaeus makes a number of insightful comments about Jesus. He states, ‘this child is no ordinary mortal … perhaps he was born before the creation of the world’. Later he goes on to say, ‘what great thing he is - god or angel or whatever else I might call him - I do not know’ (Inf. Gos. Thom. 7.4, 11). The type of faith being offered to readers is highly miracles-based. The wonder-working Jesus is the one in whom followers should place their trust.

On two other occasions there are attempts to school Jesus. The story in chapter 14 is really a doublet and shorter version of the early story. Jesus is unresponsive to the instruction to write out the alphabet. After a period of silence, he challenges the unnamed school master to explain the meaning of the letters. The exasperated teacher strikes Jesus and as a result is cursed and left unconscious (Inf. Gos. Thom. 14). The third time Joseph agrees to Jesus attending school, the new school master recognizes that Jesus already possesses more knowledge than he himself does. Adopting a more deferential attitude, this third teacher gains an irenic response from Jesus. This results in a promise to heal the second teacher, who had been struck down because of his confrontation with Jesus earlier in the narrative (Inf. Gos. Thom. 15.7). It is interesting that the tradition about Jesus learning letters and then displaying superior esoteric knowledge of their intrinsic meaning is known outside of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.20.1). Thus a variant of the story, which is closer to the shorter form contained in Inf. Gos. Thom. 14, was in circulation at least by the second half of the 2nd century. This does not demonstrate that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was composed by this time, since it may have incorporated this tradition into its text, but it does show that such stories of Jesus’ childhood were already of interest to certain Christians by this stage.

Jesus’ hyperactive behaviour does not always result in acts that terrorize those around him. Admittedly from mixed motives, in chapter 9 Jesus raises a child who had fallen from a roof and died. This occurs after the dead boy and other children including Jesus were playing on the roof. Since the other playmates have run away, in order to defend himself against the accusation that he pushed the child from the roof, Jesus brings the boy back to life so he may witness to his innocence. In chapter 10, Jesus miraculously heals a young man who has died of blood loss after cutting his foot with an axe. Next, when a water pitcher accidentally breaks, Jesus carries water home in his cloak (Inf. Gos. Thom. 11). Jesus causes super-abundant harvests (Inf. Gos. Thom. 12); makes short planks of wood extend to help his father (Inf. Gos. Thom. 13); saves James, the son of his father - interestingly not described as Jesus’ brother - from a viper bite (Inf. Gos. Thom. 16); runs to the aid of an infant who has died and brings him back to life (Inf. Gos. Thom. 17); and returns to life a man who falls to his death on a construction site (Inf. Gos. Thom. 18).

There is little doubt that the longer form of the text (Greek A) presents a positive progression and development in the behaviour of Jesus. His behaviour as one who maims and murders is transformed as he becomes a healer and restorer of life. However, it has recently been suggested that the shorter form (Greek B) is closer to the original form of the text. Stories contained in chapters 10, 17, and 18 are thus seen as attempts to ameliorate the unpalatable portrait of Jesus as he changes from one who curses to one who blesses. If the shorter form is indeed original, then the text presents a cursing wonder-worker and maintains this characterization more uniformly throughout the narrative. It is not totally obvious why this would have been an attractive understanding of the boy Jesus. Perhaps this develops a Christology of Jesus as judge. This proposal is supported by the observation that in chapter 5 Jesus sees it as his role to mete out ‘punishment’ on the inhabitants of the village.

The text of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas ends by narrating a revised form of the story of the visit to Jerusalem (Luke 2.42-51). This provides strong evidence for seeing the text as post-Lukan, and therefore as being written no earlier than the 2nd century. Many details are embroidered in such a way as to emphasize the astounding wisdom of Jesus. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas Jesus is not only ‘sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’ (Luke 2.46), but is more actively engaged in legal debate, and there is greater detail provided about the nature of the material under discussion.

After three days they found him in the temple area, sitting among the teachers, listening to the law and asking them questions. All eyes were on him, and everyone was astounded that he, a mere child, could interrogate the elders and teachers of the people and explain the main points of the law and the parables of the prophets.

(Inf. Gos. Thom. 19.4-5)

This expansion of the Lukan description more emphatically presents Jesus as an authoritative teacher and as a Torah expert. The other striking feature about this final chapter is that here for the first time Mary is explicitly introduced into the narrative. In contrast to the negative representation of Joseph, Mary is presented in a positive way and receives the veneration of the Pharisees through the blessing they address to her. Here is the most obvious place where the pious veneration of emerging 2nd-century Mariology replaces the more negative aspects of the biblical text. At this juncture in Luke (2.50), it is stated that the parents ‘did not understand what he [Jesus] was talking about’. This is replaced by the beatitude addressed to Mary, which draws upon the doxology uttered to Mary by Elizabeth in chapter 1 of Luke’s account. Thus she is told, ‘You are first among women because God has blessed the fruit of your womb, for we have never seen or heard of such glory and such virtue and wisdom’ (Inf. Gos. Thom. 19.10).

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas radically expands and supplements the one story known about Jesus from the canonical accounts during the period after his infancy until the start of his public ministry. Covering the years in Jesus’ life between the ages of 5 and 12, the text creates a storyline that is rich in folkloric details, resulting in a narrative that is both fantastic and fanciful. To assess the value of the text in historical terms concerning the actual events it describes will obviously result in a particularly low estimate of its worth. However, the text is valuable not for revealing facts about the life of Jesus, but for providing a more complete picture of one of the various ways that Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries expanded the Jesus story in line with their own pious beliefs and theological concerns. While the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is an entertaining text, it is also definitely theologically challenging. There are no easy or obvious answers to the question concerning what motivated an author to present the young Jesus in such an uncongenial manner, at least to modern ears. The longer recension accommodates the problem by showing development in the character of Jesus; the shorter (and perhaps earlier) form makes few attempts to solve such problems. In that textual version the young Jesus is a figure of cursing and judgment.

The Protevangelium of James

The problems of defining the term ‘gospel’ in relation to a literary genre have already been highlighted both by general discussion and through consideration of specific texts that have had that label applied to them. Since a large amount of the material in the Protevangelium pertains to events prior to the birth of Jesus, it is correct to ask whether this text should be classified as a gospel. Although the usual title of this work contains the Latinized word -evangelium meaning ‘gospel’, not only is this qualified by the prefix proto-, showing that the events are prior to the usual starting point of the gospel story, but even more importantly it should be recognized that the title Protevangelium of James is in fact a modern construct and not actually the title provided by the text.

Like so many ancient books, the title of this work is not found at the beginning, but at the end. In the final verse of the brief epilogue, the twin-title ‘Birth of Mary, Revelation of James’ is supplied. While these twin ancient titles may be preferable to the modern construct of Protevangelium of James, these are not without their own problems. In comparison with other ancient texts labelled as ‘Revelations’ or ‘Apocalypses’, this writing is devoid of much of the apocalyptic imagery that is a feature of that literary genre. The description ‘Birth of Mary’ is perhaps more useful, but this text is far more than a simple birth-story of Mary, since it tells of events down to the early years of Mary’s own mother. So one is left with the conventional title, the Protevangelium of James, as the accepted way to describe this text.

It is sometimes suggested that a fundamental difference between canonical and non-canonical gospels is that whereas the former enjoyed widespread circulation throughout the early Church, the latter were read only in small isolationist conventicles that were themselves representative of aberrant forms of Christianity. Not only is such an understanding historically anachronistic, retrojecting the 4th-century structure of a dominant orthodoxy into the 2nd century, when there were multiple expressions of Christianity struggling to define beliefs, but it is just plain wrong in representing the use of at least some of the non-canonical gospels as being highly limited. The Protevangelium of James was a particularly widely read document in many branches of Christianity. Based on the evidence of surviving manuscripts, the wide circulation of this document is amply attested. To date, more than 140 Greek manuscripts have been catalogued. The text is also witnessed in numerous translational versions, including Sahidic, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Slavonic, and Arabic. In fact, the Arabic text may have influenced Qur’anic and later Islamic understandings of the place of Mary in the Christian tradition.

The lack of a complete surviving Latin manuscript may initially seem odd, but a number of factors account for this. It is almost certain that the Protevangelium of James did exist at some stage in Latin translation. Some Latin fragments of similar traditions have been identified as the remains of a manuscript of this text (although this is contested), but more importantly the fact that it was known to the compiler of the Gelasian Decree also strongly suggests the existence of a Latin version. The Decree, written no earlier than the 5th century, contains lists of accepted and rejected writings, among which is listed in the apocryphal category, and hence to be rejected, a work described as the ‘book of the nativity of the saviour and of Mary or the midwife’. This description aligns closely with the contents of the Protevangelium of James, and consequently there is good reason to suspect the same text is being described.

Given the probable existence of this text in Latin, its disappearance can be attributed to two factors. First, much of its content seems to have been absorbed into larger expanded versions of infancy and childhood compilations of stories such as The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, The Life of Joseph the Carpenter, and The Gospel of the Birth of Mary. Yet a more fundamental reason for the loss of the Latin textual tradition was because in the Western Church the text was deemed to be suspect because of its teaching about Joseph’s first marriage. As certain sections of the Church became fixated on virginity as a spiritual discipline and a purer state of being, not only was it necessary to present Mary as a perpetual virgin - a key concern of the Protevangelium - but the perpetual virginity of Joseph was also asserted. Since the storyline of the Protevangelium presented Joseph as an elderly widower with surviving children, this text became highly problematic in the Latin Church. However, within the orthodox tradition the perpetual virginity of Joseph did not feature as a doctrinal concern. Consequently, the text circulated widely and shaped orthodox beliefs, as is attested by the wealth of surviving manuscripts.

Outline of the text

The text, in its current form, can be divided into three major sections which refer to separate though related phases in the life of Mary, together with a brief epilogue giving details of the pseudonymous author.


It is only in the third section that the text overlaps with the versions of the nativity and infancy stories found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The material in the first two sections of the Protevangelium of James is a mix of legendary details and pious theologizing. There is little in this text that can be seen as describing historically the actual events it purports to report. Instead its historical value arises from the way it provides a reflection of the religious and social context which enabled such a text to be written, read, and circulated. Its concerns surrounding the cult of virginity, the attitude that incredible miracles commended rather than hindered belief, and the devotion to Mary are all in accord with the wider tastes of many Christians from the late 2nd century onwards.

Section 1: Prot. Jas. 1.1-8.2

Within the opening section, there is a description of Mary’s conception, birth, and significant life events until her adolescence. The devices used to ‘prove’ that Mary had not been tainted by the impurity of her parents’ sexual union stand very much at the foreground of the concerns of this text. While similar perspectives are present in the canonical stories of the birth of Jesus, the degree of elaboration and intricacy is much less pronounced in the accounts written by Matthew and Luke. Obviously by the time the Protevangelium was written, there was a much greater interest in


9. Marian piety resulted in scenes from Mary’s childhood as related in the Protoevangelium of James being depicted in art. This example is by Albrecht Dürer, Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1502-3)

the virginal state. One striking feature of the opening section is the way the narrative is based on Old Testament stories of barren couples miraculously conceiving. The two most famous examples are the story of Abraham and Sarah’s conception of Isaac, and the birth of the prophet Samuel to his barren mother Hannah. While elements of the Abraham-Sarah story can be detected in the Protevangelium, without doubt it is the story of Hannah conceiving Samuel that shapes the legend of the birth of Mary.

To recap that story (1 Sam. 1-2), the barren Hannah is married to Elkanah, who also has another wife, Peninnah, who has borne him many children. Peninnah is described as Hannah’s rival. During the annual family pilgrimage to the temple-shrine in Shiloh, the priest Eli promises that her prayer for a child will be answered. The promise comes to fruition, and after the boy Samuel is weaned, Hannah deposits him in the temple in accordance with her vow. Hannah sings a song of praise to the Lord as an outpouring of her sense of blessing. Samuel becomes a figure of purity in the Shiloh temple, contrasting with the venial behaviour of Eli’s own sons.

When compared with this story, the similarities of the Protevangelium become immediately apparent. The name of the barren woman who will give birth to Mary is Anna. In Greek there is no ‘h’ sound, so when the story of 1 Samuel is translated into the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, the Hebrew name Hannah is written as ‘′Anna’. Both women are barren; where Hannah is tormented by Elkanah’s other wife, Anna is mocked by her servant Juthine. This may be a detail which is also related to the way that Sarah is mocked by her maidservant Hagar. Anna sings two songs in the opening section. The first is a lament, totally different in tone to Hannah’s joyful song. Yet later Anna sings her second song in the narrative, no longer of mourning but an outpouring of praise. Here is the more direct parallel to the song of Hannah contained in 1 Samuel 2, and simultaneously the counterpoint to Anna’s own earlier lament (Prot. Jas. 3.2-8). There is little doubt that the author of the Protevangelium, in light of the absence of historical source material for the birth of Mary, chose to give his narrative a biblical flavour by basing it on the story of Samuel’s birth.

The text of the Protevangelium commences with a description of Anna’s husband, Joachim, an Israelite, whose piety and prosperity are exemplified by his gift offerings to the Lord. On an unspecified festival day, Joachim is prevented from presenting his offering first by a slightly officious individual called Reubel. Aside from his name, nothing is known of Reubel apart from his protest, ‘you are not allowed to offer your gifts first because you have not produced an Israelite child’ (Prot. Jas. 1.5). Joachim consults a work or record known as The Twelve Tribes of the People and discovers that all the righteous members of Israel indeed produced offspring. From frustration and bewilderment he retires to the desert, fasting ‘forty days and forty nights’, and determines ‘not to go back to food or drink until the Lord my God appears to me’ (Prot. Jas. 1.11). This creates tension in the narrative, with readers wondering how such an ultimatum will be resolved. However, at virtually the same point in the story as Anna receives an angelic visitation telling her she will conceive, she is also informed that her husband has received a similar vision and is returning home. The text is surprisingly restrained at this point in reporting Joachim’s vision second-hand, rather than giving a dramatic account of the events as they supposedly transpired. During this angelic report to Anna of the vision seen by her husband, the actual words spoken to Joachim are recounted.

Here there is a fascinating textual problem. Some manuscripts read ‘behold your wife Anna has conceived in the womb’, while others state, ‘behold your wife Anna will conceive in the womb’. If the future tense were to be preferred, then the note in 4.10 that ‘Joachim rested the first day at home’ could be read euphemistically as the time when the predictive promise was brought to fruition. The textual evidence, however, appears to favour the perfect tense, since the earlier Greek manuscripts contain this reading. This would then imply that Anna was already pregnant, miraculously, by the time Joachim arrived home. Such a reading would align with the piety of this document which goes to extraordinary lengths to affirm Mary’s purity. It would be strange if its author had allowed the heroine of his story to be tainted with carnal concupiscence. Hence, in this text it is possible to see the emergence of a theology of the immaculate conception of Mary, although it is not framed in such theologically developed terms.

Folkloric elements punctuate the remainder of the first section after Anna gives birth to Mary. The text recounts the lengths to which Anna goes to preserve ritual purity for Mary. This includes not allowing her to walk on common ground (6.3), transforming the girl’s bedroom into a sanctuary (6.4), and engaging ‘undefiled’ Hebrew females to entertain the infant Mary. Such tropes are not uncommon in the legends of the childhood years of sacred figures. The act of handing Mary over to the temple is reported in a highly liturgical fashion with processions and acts of devotion to the young girl. Undefiled Hebrew women are summoned to form a lamp-lit procession accompanying Mary so her heart will not be ‘captivated by things outside the temple’ (7.5). The priest kisses and blesses Mary on her arrival (7.7). She is sat on the third step of the altar, she dances in the temple and is the darling of the people of Israel (7.9-10). She is fed directly from the hand of an angel (8.2). Such characterization presents Mary in a manner that approaches that of a goddess being venerated in her own sacred shrine. Yet this situation of blissful veneration of childhood innocence is problematized as Mary approaches her adolescence.

Section 2: Prot. Jas. 8.3-16.8

The narrative sets up another tension to progress the storyline. Governed by the Levitical laws, the priests in the temple are aware that with Mary approaching puberty her menstrual flows will defile the sanctuary (this is based on stipulations in the Old Testament, Lev. 12.1-6; 18.19). Fortunately, in this text angels are ever present to help out pious humans confronted by tricky religious conundrums! The angel informs the high priest that he is to assemble the widowers of the people and Mary will be married off to whichever one is identified with a miraculous sign. Among the assembled widowers is Joseph. Presumably the choice of widowers is meant to signal to readers that the men in question are beyond the stage of sexual desire. A dove lands on Joseph’s head and this is taken as being the promised divine sign. Joseph attempts to resist this choice. Theologically, it is interesting that one of the reasons he puts forward to demonstrate why he is unsuitable for the role is ‘I already have sons and I am an old man’ (Prot. Jas. 9.8). Thus, the Protevangelium can be seen to support in condensed form what became known as the Epiphanian solution to the problem of accounting for the siblings of Jesus.

In the New Testament (Mark 6.3; Matt. 13.55-56), there are instances where the text speaks in an unequivocal and unqualified manner about the brothers and sisters of Jesus. For those who affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary, this creates an obvious problem. Although the ‘solution’ of calling these siblings stepbrothers and stepsisters is associated with Epiphanius, the 4th-century Bishop of Salamis on Cyprus, as the Protevangelium shows, the idea was in circulation much earlier. Ultimately the ploy of casting the siblings as children of Joseph by an earlier marriage was rejected as inadequate. In part, the growing cult of virginity in the 4th century accounts for the climate in which the ‘stepbrother’ explanation was rejected. Instead it was suggested that the brothers of Jesus were actually cousins and that both Joseph and Mary were perpetual virgins. The Protevangelium has no concern to defend the notion of the perpetual virginity of Joseph, which was a theological novelty of the 4th century. However, at every possible point it reiterates and affirms the purity and virginity of Mary prior to conceiving Jesus, at his birth, and afterwards. This is without doubt one of the most important concerns of the text.

Also in this second section readers learn the fascinating detail that Mary was responsible for weaving the curtain in the temple which would be torn from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’ death (Prot. Jas. 10, 12). Immediately prior to Mary’s work of curtain weaving, Joseph takes himself away to build houses. This is a narrative device of convenience, since it means that her reluctant husband is removed from the scene when Mary becomes pregnant - so according to the text there is no possibility that he fathered her child.

In chapter 11, for the first time in the narrative, there is a direct parallel to events contained in the canonical infancy narratives. In line with the appearance story in Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel announces Mary’s forthcoming conception. In the version contained in the Protevangelium, Mary has the good sense to ask a few more questions - this is very helpful for the readers! Mary asks Gabriel if she will ‘give birth the way women usually do’ (Prot. Jas. 11.6). She is told ‘no’, but at this stage no further details are provided. On returning home, Joseph leaps to the logical conclusion that another man has been involved. Mary protests her innocence (Prot. Jas. 13.8), but unhelpfully, as the narrative mentioned slightly earlier, Mary had now forgotten the conversation with Gabriel (Prot. Jas. 12.6). No explanation is given as to how she could have failed to remember this seemingly memorable event. Yet this lack of recollection does serve to heighten the tension that develops in the story. Joseph is brought before the temple authorities and accused as being the one responsible for this heinous act. If there had been any doubt that the marriage was intended as an asexual union, the accusation that Joseph has ‘violated the virgin’ (Prot. Jas. 15.6) makes it clear that he was not expected to exercise any conjugal rites. In order to prove their innocence, both Joseph and Mary are required to undergo the ‘drink test’ (Prot. Jas. 16.3-7). This involves drinking water, journeying into the wilderness, and waiting to see if the accused returns unharmed. The outcome is positive for both, so they are acquitted of the charge. The rite seems to be a variant on the ‘ritual of the water of bitterness’ described in the Old Testament (Num. 5.11-31). Both husband and wife survive the test and consequently are vindicated and acquitted of the charges brought against them.

Section 3: Prot. Jas. 17.1-24.14

Having demonstrated the virginal conception, coupled with the declaration of Mary’s pure state by the high priest, the narrative proceeds to describe the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. Here details from the two biblical accounts are interspersed within the greatly enlarged narrative of Jesus’ birth. Miracles and cosmological phenomena are to be found throughout. Mary sees visions (Prot. Jas. 17.9), Joseph experiences the suspension of time (Prot. Jas. 18), the newborn infant is miraculously brought forth suckling at Mary’s breast without any labour (Prot. Jas. 19.15-16). An examination by Salome the midwife confirms Mary’s hymen is still intact - just to make the point about perpetual virginity (Prot. Jas. 20.2) - but because of her unbelief Salome begins to be consumed with flames (Prot. Jas. 20.4), and upon holding her hand out to the newborn child, Salome is healed (Prot. Jas. 20.8-11).

After this sequence of miracles, the narrative begins to draw more fully upon the biblical stories. In chapter 21, the visit of the magi is recounted in slightly different terms, but nearly all the major features are present - an encounter with Herod, reference to Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth in accordance with scripture, the guiding star, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and the magi being warned in an angelic dream not to return home by the same route. Comparison of the Greek text of both the account in the Gospel of Matthew and that in the Protevangelium reveals extended agreements. Such similarities strongly suggest that there is a literary relationship between these two texts. Whether the author of the Protevangelium had a copy of Matthew (and elsewhere also Luke) in front of him, or whether he had heard those stories so often that he had internalized and virtually memorized their phrases, is impossible to tell. As the Protevangelium is almost unquestionably later than the canonical gospels, it is apparent that the author knew at least the two gospels by Matthew and Luke. This is not the same as claiming that the author was aware of the fourfold gospel canon, or that the two gospels which are known were bound together in the same codex. However, it does reflect a period when at the very least there was a recognition that multiple gospel accounts existed. This is again evidence that the Protevangelium was written no earlier than some stage in the 2nd century, after at least two of the canonical accounts.

The next three chapters provide an expansionist and fanciful account based on the tradition of Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ (Matt. 2.16-18). These three verses from Matthew stand as the basis of a story of some 32 verses in Protevangelium. Herod’s deployment of soldiers to execute children younger than two becomes the catalyst for the actions of two mothers. Mary simply wraps her son in strips of cloth and places Jesus in a feeding trough (Prot. Jas. 22.4) - a radical reinterpretation of the manger tradition. The more drastic action is taken by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth flees to the hill country, but when through weariness she can go no further, she cries out ‘Mountain of God, please take in a mother with her child’ (Prot. Jas. 22.7). This address to an apparently inanimate object results in the mountain splitting open and allowing this mother and child to enter in; the mountain also becomes translucent to light so Elizabeth and John are not plunged into darkness, and an angel of the Lord remains with them.

The story then moves from Elizabeth to her husband Zechariah. In accordance with the description of him in Luke’s Gospel, he is found ministering in the temple. In an act of ‘special rendition’, Herod sends his servants to ascertain from Zechariah the whereabouts of his son. Stating his ignorance of the location of his son, Zechariah makes a martyr’s speech more akin to the martyrdom accounts of the 2nd and 3rd centuries than to the purported 1st century BCcontext. He states, ‘I am a martyr for God, take my life. The Lord though will receive my spirit because you are shedding innocent blood at the entrance to the temple of the Lord’ (Prot. Jas. 23.7-8).

Where did such a story of the martyrdom of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, originate - was this pure authorial creativity? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Confusion rather than fiction appears to be the basis of this tradition. In Luke 11.50-51 (cf. Matt. 23.35), there is a prophetic announcement placed on the lips of Jesus that is addressed to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, who perished between the altar and the temple: truly I say unto you, it shall be required of this generation.’ The identity of this ‘Zechariah’ remains a mystery to scholars. Most understand this as a reference to the priest Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, whom the people stone in the temple court (2 Chron. 24.20-22). In the Gospel of Matthew, the name Zechariah is qualified with ‘son of Barachiah’, making this a reference to the prophet Zechariah - but there is no tradition of his martyrdom. The author of the Protevangelium appears to have pressed this ambiguous reference into his service, by creating a martyrdom story for the father of John the Baptist and in the process further blackening the reputation of Herod and his minions. It is interesting that this demonizing of Herod does not materialize as an overt anti-Jewish sentiment in the Protevangelium. Instead the temple and its priests are viewed as pious agents of God. The text then concludes with a brief epilogue that describes the death of Herod and identifies the author of the text.

The value of the infancy gospels

Both the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are highly fictionalized accounts of stories relating to the birth, childhood, or ancestry of Jesus. Yet the value of these texts does not arise from the historicity of the events they purport to describe. Instead, these two writings, which are the earliest examples of this sub-genre of apocryphal writings, are a window onto a vibrant and diverse world of early Christianity. The way these fanciful narratives are told is both ponderous and wondrous.

At times, these stories become grindingly tedious, yet at other times they present flashes of theological insight. The bizarre, the pious, and the profound sit alongside each other in these highly creative texts. The theological purpose of the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in creating such a maverick and fearful representation of the boy Jesus remains a mystery. By contrast, the aims of the author of the Protevangelium of James are generally transparent, especially when read against the backdrop of emergent Marian piety. While the historian who correctly recognizes the fictionalized portrayal of the circumstances of Mary’s birth may remain unpersuaded by claims of her immaculate conception, and baulk at the pious devices to circumvent the clear meaning of references to brothers and sisters of Jesus in the canonical gospels by casting them as step-siblings, and moreover perhaps scoff at the incredulous verification of Mary’s virginal state after the birth of Jesus, this does not make the texts worthless. Despite the dubious value of the historicity of the events these texts claim to record, nonetheless, they can still be appreciated as invaluable witnesses to the social and theological history of pious believers in the centuries following the life of Jesus.