Reading the Protoevangelium of James

The Protoevangelium of James  (or the Infancy Gospel of James) is one of the documents from early Christianity that didn’t make it into the New Testament. The author claims to be James the brother of Jesus and the gospel gives Mary’s back-story. As the document is dated to 140-170 A.D., it is unlikely that James penned it.

Before I get to my observations on the Protoevangelium, some wise words from an expert. Simon Gathercole gets paid to read old manuscripts (and to do other stuff, I’m sure). At a recent conference, he and a colleague gave a talk titled The Historical Trustworthiness of the Gospels in which he gave advice on bad and good arguments regarding the extra-canonical gospels.

Points to avoid:

  1. Don’t say that they’re all gnostic. Some are, some aren’t.
  2. Don’t dismiss them on the grounds that they’re weird. Matthew 27:52-53 is also weird
  3. Don’t exaggerate the date of the texts, saying that they’re later than they’re taken to be

Points to make:

  1. The text of these gospels is not secure. In most cases, we don’t have their original Greek wording.
  2. There is a generation gap between the four canonical gospels and the apocryphal gospels. By the time the latter get written there were no eyewitnesses, no contemporaries of Jesus
  3. The apocryphal gospels display a cultural distance from 1st-century Palestine. They don’t pass the tests of knowledge of geography, personal names, numismatics, etc
  4. They also show a theological distance from the Old Testament and 1st-century Judaism, drawing more often on Greek and Egyptian mythology

I had read the Protoevangelium before hearing this, and these were my take-aways:

  • While the author is familiar with Old Testament material (e.g. Numbers 5:11-31) and the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, he or she could have done more research. Which areas of the temple were accessible to non-priests, let alone women? Who is the Zechariah Jesus refers to in Matthew 23:35? I’ll leave it to you to read the Protoevangelium and see for yourself how these questions are answered.
  • It is plainly clear why God chose Mary to bear Christ: she was the most pure of all the undefiled virgins in Israel at the time. The divine initiative isn’t based on grace.

And so, unexpectedly, reading this extra-canonical book left me with a greater appreciation for the canonical gospels. For in them we see God in the person of Jesus reaching out to miserable undeserving sinners—Zacchaeus, the thief on the cross, etc.—and freely giving them a place in His eternal kingdom. Sadly, I don’t get that from the Protoevangelium of James.

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3 thoughts on “Reading the Protoevangelium of James

  1. What a great comment – “reading this extra-canonical book left me with a greater appreciation for the canonical gospels.”

    When reading proto-James, it doesn’t even sound like the author of the NT epistle of James. The real James had such a penchant for the way Jesus spoke. He picked up on the parabolic and illustrative language of Jesus like, “the one who does x is like a person who does y.”

    The OT and NT Apocrypha are still interesting (and sometimes fun) texts to read.

    I wrote about the OT Apocrypha here: http://ericcostanzo.com/2011/07/22/the-last-words-of-mattathias-the-man-who-saved-judaism/

    1. What an interesting coincidence! I’m reading through 1&2 Maccabees, though I’m finding it difficult to keep all the people and places straight. I’ve never been so thankful for Wikipedia!

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