Christmas: The Prequel (Infancy Gospel of James)
by Bob Schwartz
Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Whether you are one who takes the events in the canonical gospels as history or story, there are certainly missing pieces in the narratives. Over the centuries, these gaps have been filled in by inspiring and imaginative “other gospels.”
The Infancy Gospel of James is a dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. It can be found in The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše.
Bart Ehrman writes:
Of all the early Christian apocrypha, none played a larger a role in the theology, culture, and popular imagination of late antiquity and the Middle Ages than the Proto-Gospel of James. This is the Gospel “prior to” the Gospel, an account of the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus.
The focus of attention is on Jesus’ mother Mary, on her own miraculous birth, upbringing, young life, and engagement to Joseph. In addition, the account narrates, as a kind of Christian expansion and interpretation of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s continued virginity (demonstrated famously by a midwife’s postpartum inspection), and the opposition to the Christ child by King Herod, leading to the miraculous protection of John the Baptist and his mother, and the murder of his father, Zacharias, the high priest of the Jews, in the temple.
The account was probably written in the late second century and became particularly popular in the eastern part of Christendom….
For the most part the Proto-Gospel was not transmitted in the West because its portrayal of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage was roundly condemned by no less an authority than Jerome. In Jerome’s forcefully stated view, Jesus’ alleged brothers were in fact his cousins. This interpretation was closely tied to Jerome’s ascetic agenda: for him, not only was Mary a perpetual virgin, but Joseph—the earthly father of the Lord—was as well. The account of the Proto-Gospel was explicitly condemned in 405 CE by Pope Innocent I….
Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out. If he was special, as shown by the fact that he was conceived by a virgin—what can we say about his mother? Who was Mary? What made her special? How was she herself born? How did she maintain her own purity, to make her a worthy “vessel” for the Son of God?…
Here Mary is not an impoverished Jewish peasant. Her father is the richest man in Israel and of royal blood. She herself is of impeccable morals and purity. Her purity is safeguarded from the time of her birth and demonstrated in her unusual upbringing, as she spends her young life, literally, in the temple, day and night, fed by the hand of an angel. The stories of the account demonstrate in particular her sexual purity. Not only is she a virgin at the time of her conception; she also remains a virgin, even after giving birth, as shown by the physical inspection of a skeptical midwife. Joseph himself never lays a finger on her. Moreover, he is not a poor carpenter, but an established building contractor. Finally, Mary’s spinning activity is not for money, it is to provide a curtain for the sacred temple of God.
From The Proto-Gospel of James (The Birth of Mary, the Revelation of James)
The Rich Joachim and His Self-Exile
(1) In the “Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” there was a very wealthy man Joachim, who used to offer a double portion of his gifts to the Lord, saying to himself, “The portion that is my surplus will be for all the people, and the portion that is for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my atonement.” (2) Now the great day of the Lord drew near, and the sons of Israel were offering their gifts. Reuben stood before him and said, “You are not allowed to offer your gifts first, since you have not produced any offspring in Israel.”
(3) Joachim was very upset and went away to consult the book of the twelve tribes of the people, saying to himself, “I will examine the Book of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to see if I am the only one not to produce offspring in Israel.” And he searched and found that everyone who was righteous had raised up offspring in Israel. Then he remembered the patriarch Abraham, that at the end of his life the Lord God had given him a son, Isaac.
(4) Joachim was very upset and did not appear to his wife, but went out to the wilderness and pitched his tent there. Joachim fasted for forty days and nights, saying to himself, “I will not come down for either food or drink until the Lord my God visits me. My prayer will be my food and drink.”
Some Angelic Visitations
(1) Then, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.” Anna replied, “As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it will minister to him its entire life.”
(2) Behold, two angels came, saying to her, “See, your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.” For an angel of the Lord had descended to Joachim and said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here; see, your wife Anna has conceived a child.” (3) Joachim immediately went down and called his shepherds and said, “Bring me here ten lambs without spot or blemish, and the ten lambs will be for the Lord God; and bring me twelve young calves and the twelve calves will be for the priests and the council leaders, and bring a hundred male goats for all the people.”
(4) And behold, Joachim came with his flocks and Anna stood beside the gate and saw Joachim coming with his flocks; and running up to him she hung on his neck and said, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me abundantly. For see, the widow is no longer a widow and I who am childless have conceived a child.” Then Joachim rested the first day in his home.
The Birth of Mary
(1) On the next day he brought his gifts as an offering, saying to himself, “If the Lord is gracious to me, the leafed plate of the priest’s mitre will make it known to me.” And Joachim offered his gifts and looked closely at the priest’s leafed mitre as he went up to the altar of the Lord; and he saw no sin in himself. Joachim then said, “Now I know that the Lord God has been gracious to me and forgiven me all my sins.” He went down from the temple of the Lord justified and came to his house.
(2) Some six months came to completion for Anna; and in the seventh month she gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The midwife replied, “A girl.” Anna said, “My soul is exalted today.” And she laid the child down. When the days came to completion, Anna washed off the blood of her impurity, gave her breast to the child, and named her Mary.
Mary’s Early Life
(1) The child grew stronger every day. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground, to see if she could stand. She walked seven steps and came to her mother’s bosom. Her mother lifted her up and said, “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk at all on this ground until I have taken you up to the temple of the Lord.” Then she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not allow anything impure or unclean to pass through her lips. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews and they entertained her.
(2) When the child had her first birthday, Joachim held a great feast and invited the chief priests, priests, scribes, council leaders, and all the people of Israel. Joachim brought the child out to the priests and they blessed her, saying, “O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name that will be famous forever, to all generations.” And all the people replied, “Let it be so! Amen.” They brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, “O Most High God, look upon this child and bless her with an ultimate blessing, equal to none.”
(3) Her mother took her back to the sanctuary in her bedroom and nursed the child. And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying, “I will sing a holy song to the Lord my God, for he has visited me and removed from me the reproach of my enemies. The Lord my God has given me the fruit of his righteousness, unique and abundant before him. Who will report to the sons of Reuben that Anna is now nursing a child? Listen closely, you twelve tribes of Israel: Anna is nursing a child!” And she laid her down to rest in the bedroom of her sanctuary and went out to serve the others. When the feast ended they descended happy, and they gave glory to the God of Israel.
Joseph Becomes Mary’s Guardian
(1) Her parents went away marveling, praising and glorifying God, the Master, that the child did not turn back. Mary was in the temple of the Lord, cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel.
(2) But when she reached her twelfth birthday, the priests held a council and said, “See, Mary has become twelve years old in the Lord’s temple. What then shall we do with her, to keep her from defiling the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” They said to the chief priest, “You have stood on the Lord’s altar. Go in and pray about her, and we will do whatever the Lord God reveals to you.” (3) The chief priest went in, taking the robe with twelve bells into the Holy of Holies; and he prayed about her. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to him, “Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and gather the widowers of the people, and have each of them bring a rod; she will become the wife of the one to whom the Lord God gives a sign.” The heralds went out to all the countryside of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord was blown, and see, everyone came running.
Mary Spins for the Curtain in the Temple
(1) Then the priests held a council and said, “We should make a curtain for the Lord’s temple.” The priest said, “Call to me the undefiled virgins from the tribe of David.” The servants went out looking for them and found seven virgins. The priest then remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David, and that she was undefiled before God. The servants went out and led her back. (2) And they brought them into the Lord’s temple. And the priest said, “Cast lots before me to see who will spin the gold, the asbestos, the fine linen, the silk, the sapphire blue, the scarlet, and the true purple.” Mary drew the lot for the true purple and the scarlet, and taking them she returned home. At that time Zacharias became silent. Samuel took his place, until Zacharias spoke again. And Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it.
(1) Mary took a pitcher and went out to fetch some water. And behold, she heard a voice saying, “Greetings, you who are favored! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” Mary looked around, right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She then entered her house frightened and set the pitcher down. Taking up the purple she sat on her chair and began to draw it out. (2) And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her and said, “Do not fear, Mary. For you have found favor before the Master of all. You will conceive a child from his Word.” But when she heard this she asked herself, “Am I to conceive from the living Lord God and give birth like every other woman?” (3) The angel of the Lord said to her, “Not so, Mary. For the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one born from you will be called the Son of the Highest. And you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary replied, “Behold the slave of the Lord is before him. May it happen to me as you have said.”
Mary Visits Elizabeth
(1) She made the purple and the scarlet, and brought them to the temple. The priest took them and blessed her, “Mary, the Lord God has made your name great; you will be blessed among all the generations of earth.”
(2) Full of joy, Mary went off to her relative Elizabeth. She knocked on the door; and when Elizabeth heard she cast aside the scarlet and ran to the door. When she opened it she blessed Mary and said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For see, the child in me leapt up and blessed you.” But Mary forgot the mysteries that the archangel Gabriel had spoken to her, and gazed at the sky and said, “Who am I, Lord, that all the women of earth will bless me?”
(3) She stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Day by day her own belly grew. Mary then returned home in fear, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. She was sixteen when these mysteries happened to her.
Joseph Discovers Mary’s Condition
(1) When she was in her sixth month, behold, Joseph returned from his buildings. As he came into the house he saw that she was pregnant. Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.”
(2) Joseph rose up from the sackcloth, called Mary, and said to her, “You who have been cared for by God: why have you done this? Have you forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you humiliated your soul—you who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel?” (3) But she wept bitterly and said, “I am pure and have not had sex with any man.” Joseph replied to her, “How then have you become pregnant?” She said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know.”
The Authorities Discover Mary’s Condition
(1) But Annas the scribe came to see him and said, “Joseph, why have you not appeared before our council?” Joseph replied, “I was tired from my journey and rested on my first day back.” Annas then turned and saw that Mary was pregnant. (2) He left and ran off to the priest and said to him, “Joseph, the one you have vouched for, has committed a great sin.” The priest replied, “What has he done?” He said, “He has defiled the virgin he received from the Lord’s temple and has stolen her wedding rights. And he has not revealed this to the sons of Israel.” The priest asked, “Joseph, has done this?” Annas the scribe replied, “Send some servants, and you will find that the virgin is pregnant.” The servants went off and found her just as he had said. They brought her back to the judgment hall, along with Joseph.
(3) The high priest said to her, “Mary, why have you done this? Why have you humiliated your soul and forgotten the Lord your God? You who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel, and heard his hymns, and danced before him—why have you done this?” But she wept bitterly and said, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him and have not had sex with any man.”
(4) The priest then said, “Joseph, why have you done this?” Joseph replied, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure toward her.” The priest said, “Do not bear false witness, but speak the truth. You have stolen her wedding rights and not revealed it to the sons of Israel; and you have not bowed your head under the mighty hand that your offspring might be blessed.” Joseph kept his silence.
The Journey to Bethlehem
(1) An order went out from the king, Augustus, that everyone from Bethlehem of Judea was to be registered for a census. Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But what should I do about this child? How should I register her? As my wife? I would be too ashamed. As my daughter? The sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord will turn out as he wishes.”
(2) He saddled the donkey and seated her on it; and his son led it along, while Samuel followed behind. When they approached the third milestone, Joseph turned and saw that she was gloomy. He said to himself, “Maybe the child in her is causing her trouble.” Then Joseph turned again and saw her laughing. He said to her, “Mary, why is it that one time I see you laughing and at another time gloomy?” She replied, “Because my eyes see two peoples, one weeping and mourning and the other happy and rejoicing.”
(3) When they were half way there, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out.” He took her down from the donkey and said to her, “Where can I take you to hide your shame? For this place is a wilderness.”
Joseph Watches Time Stand Still
(1) He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.
(2) But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked down to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. The shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.
The Birth of Jesus and the Witness of the Midwives
(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.
(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”
(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”
The Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents
(1) And behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judea. But there was a great disturbance in Bethlehem of Judea. For magi came saying, “Where is the king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.”
(2) When Herod heard, he was troubled; and he sent servants to the magi. He then summoned the high priests and asked them in the praetorium, “What does Scripture say about where the messiah is to be born?” They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for that is what is found in Scripture.” He then released them and asked the magi, “What sign did you see concerning the king who has been born?” The magi said, “We saw a magnificent star shining among these stars and overshadowing them, so that the other stars disappeared. And thus we knew that a king had been born in Israel, and we came to worship him.” Herod replied, “Go and look for him. If you find him, let me know, that I too may come to worship him.”
(3) The magi then left, and behold, the star they had seen in the east preceded them until they entered the cave, and it stood over the entrance of the cave. The magi saw the child with its mother, Mary, and they took from their packs gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (4) When they were warned by a revelation from an angel not to enter Judea, they went home another way.
The Death of Zacharias
(1) Herod was looking for John, and he sent servants to Zacharias, saying, “Where have you hidden your son?” He answered them, “I am a minister of God, constantly attending his temple. How could I know where my son is?” (2) The servants left and reported everything to Herod. Herod became angry and said, “His son is about to rule Israel.” He sent his servants back to him to say, “Tell me the truth: where is your son? For you know that I can shed your blood with my hand.” The servants went to report these things to him. (3) Zacharias responded, “I am God’s witness if you shed my blood. For the Master will receive my spirit, since you will be shedding innocent blood in the forecourt of the Lord’s temple.” Zacharias was murdered around dawn, but the sons of Israel did not know that he was murdered.
(1) But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness when there was a disturbance at the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem came to an end. There I glorified God, the Master, who gave me the wisdom to write this account.
(2) Grace be with all those who fear the Lord. Amen.
© Oxford University Press 2014