The evolution of the infancy narratives

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 24

As noted in prior posts, the evangelist Mark holds an adoptionist point of view. For him, the spirit of God indwells Jesus the Nazarene (“The Savior, the Holy One of God”—Mk 1:24). Mark’s adoptionism conforms with what I have called ‘Stage II’ christology, the conception of the spiritual Jesus dominant in the first century CE.

The spiritual Jesus was incompatible with the Catholic conception of God becoming man—the Incarnation. The two christologies are mutually exclusive. If Jesus is a spirit, then it cannot be one particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. The earlier, pre-Catholic conception of a mobile Jesus (the saving spirit of God) entering into worthy people, now here, now there, resulted in polymorphy—Jesus appearing in multiple guises. Anyone indwelled by this mysterious Spirit of God was a ‘Jesus’—perhaps the humble fruitseller at the corner, perhaps the itinerant tinkerer who came to the village one day and was gone the next, perhaps the lady who always seemed to have a special connection to children and to animals… Such was the predominant Christian view of the first century. It survived into later times until the Catholic view (“Jesus of Nazareth,” the Incarnation, redemption, vicarious atonement, salvation by faith…) became dominant and percolated into the hinterlands where Catholicism came only later. Thus, we find polymorphy in the noncanonical acts of several apostles, in the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, and in other apocryphal Christian works dating as late as the fifth century.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is now a particular human being—but not yet God. GMk can be described as semi-Catholic: on the one hand, the mobile spiritual Jesus no longer exists (for Mark, other people cannot be ‘Jesus’). On the other hand, Jesus the Nazarene is not God, unlike the more pronounced Catholic theology of the other three canonical gospels. Rather, GMk’s Jesus is an exemplary wonderworker who is designated, somewhat ambiguously, as the ‘Son’ of God (9:7). Mark the evangelist was still oblivious to the doctrine of the incarnation, as we see for example in him blithely enumerating the brothers and sisters of Jesus (6:3). Yet GMk was quite revolutionary—‘Jesus’ was now defined as a single individual rather than as the Holy Spirit/Spirit of God. This is a giant step in the direction of Catholicism. In the evangelist Mark’s view, the spirit of God is no longer entirely mobile: the sonship of Jesus emphatically does not belong to anyone else, never did, and never will. The old equality (wherein anyone could become a “Jesus”) has been rejected, and Jesus the Nazarene is now the unique Son of God. Within the Christian fellowship, this was altogether revolutionary.

Thus the Gospel of Mark accomplished two principal objectives: it provided incipient Catholicism with a powerful, compelling biography of Jesus the Nazarene; and it rejected the mobile, spiritual Jesus—which had been a democratic, ‘equal-opportunity’ view that was an impediment to Catholicism. For the mobile spiritual Jesus (of ‘Stage II’ christology) made the exclusivity of Jesus of Nazareth impossible and, as a result, the Catholic Church impossible. After all, no follower would obey the local bishop if s/he claimed to possess a direct connection to God via the mobile, spiritual Jesus. From the beginning the christology of the spiritual Jesus was abhorrent to Catholics. They needed to become the exclusive conduit for the salvation of people. In other words, they needed a monopoly on salvation.

Thus, it was absolutely necessary to the Catholics that Jesus not only be (1) a singular human being, but that he also be (2) a manifestation of God Himself. The Gospel of Mark provided the former but not the latter. The Jesus of GMk is a wonderworker and Son of God, but he is not the exclusive or only Son of God—at least, neither emphatically nor even explicitly, as in the other canonical gospels. In other words, GMk did not go far enough for the Catholics. His gospel offered too weak a basis upon which to build a church: revisions in the first gospel were necessary.

When Mark’s “Jesus the Holy One of God” (Jesus the Nazarene) morphed into the divine “Jesus of Nazareth” with GMatthew, the Catholics came into possession of a literary figure fully commensurate with their global designs. In the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus of Nazareth is the only Son of God. Furthermore, the latter three canonical gospels also depicted the Catholic Church as the only designated and approved vehicle for salvation. Thus we read that Jesus gives the principal apostle, Peter, the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:19; lacking at Mk 8:29)—and Peter then becomes the designated head of the incipient Church. The Gospel of John is even more explicit: Jesus of Nazareth is “the way, the truth, and the life—no one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn 14:6).

The challenge of the Incarnation

In order for Catholic gospels to be written, the problem of the Incarnation had first to be solved: God becomes man. The Gospel of Mark was an early, pre-emptive attempt at Catholicity that ignored the issue. In that gospel Jesus is still man, yet he is raised to the status of “Son” of God, with all the power of God to command nature, to raise people from the dead, to heal, etc. But GMk does not tackle the thorny question: How did God become man? Believers would want to know this astonishing “good news” and to be convinced of it’s truth. The Catholics needed a compelling and convincing scenario for the Incarnation.

It’s a tall order. Certainly, it is conceptually impossible (or at least mind-boggling) that a human female would/could give birth to the God of creation! In this conception resides something not only obscenely irreverent but also backwards: after all, the God of creation creates humans, not the other way around.

Greek religion offered little help—there we find gods occasionally begetting other gods (by copulating amongst themselves), and sometimes gods begetting demigods (by copulating with humans). But the Christians did not have a pantheon of gods to draw upon—they had only one God, the Creator of the universe.

The Jewish tradition was also of little use, for in Jewish scripture Yahweh cannot even be seen by unworthy humans (cf. Ex 3:6, 33:23), much less reified—again, a conceptual obscenity. When the cosmic order in Judaism is broken—as when angels copulate with humans in Gen 6:1–4 and in 1 Enoch 6—the result is that they produce monsters.

The Catholics needed two things. Firstly, they needed a man who was all-good, all-knowing, and all-divine. Secondly, they needed this God-man to give his divine authority to them—that is, to the Church. This was the impetus for the birth of Christianity (as we know it) and remains the ultimate core of Catholicism. In the second century CE, these two simple steps constituted the revolutionary Catholic masterplan.

To have Jesus born in the normal manner would not work for several reasons: (1) Joseph would be the ‘father of God’; (2) Joseph and Mary would choose (or not choose) when and if God would appear on earth (i.e., Jesus’ parents would be in the position of creating God); and (3) Jesus would be the product of lust/concupiscence.

These problems took time to resolve. A number of very early (100–150 CE) apocryphal Christian texts survive that describe the birth of God/Jesus in ways foreign to the canonical stories—which were still some decades in the future. These obscure and long-marginalized nativity stories reveal ways in which the early Catholics struggled with the concept of the Incarnation.

The pre-canonical Christian infancy narratives

The earliest depiction of God becoming man may also be the simplest. It is found in the Ascension of Isaiah. This apocryphon can be viewed as either: (1) a first century heterodox Jewish text; or (2) a first century pre-canonical Jewish-Christian text. The document depicts the Old Testament prophet Isaiah ‘rising up’ through the heavens to God. This is the gnostic elevation of man –> divine, as opposed to the Catholic descent of God –> man. Regardless of how we categorize the original document, the Ascension of Isaiah was quickly interpolated by proto-Catholics:

[Isaiah relates his vision.] “And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name was Mary, and she was a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, a carpenter… And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. And he did not live with her for two months. And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house with Mary his wife, but both alone, it came about when they were alone that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as it was at first, before she had conceived. And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, ‘What has made you astounded?’ his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord…” (Asc.Is 11)

And there you have it: Mary opens her eyes and sees an infant; Joseph’s “eyes were opened” and he also sees the infant; both ‘parents’ are duly astounded. And in that simple way, God becomes man!

The passage above is a scaled-down, almost shorthand description. It reads not like a fully-elaborated scene, but as if the writer were simply jotting down notes for his peers to consider as a way to solve the problem of the Incarnation. It has core elements later found in the gospels: the lineage of David, Mary and Joseph, and (especially) the virgin’s pregnancy by the divine spirit.

Interesting, pre-canonical views of the Incarnation also survive in obscure Christian texts from faraway Ireland, Armenia, and Ethiopia. It is not surprising that early elements relating to the Incarnation are found at the very frontiers of Christendom. After all, through the centuries the Church exercised maximum control where it was most organized—around the Mediterranean basin. In contrast, heretical notions had the greatest chances of survival in remote regions far from Rome. Modern researchers should not despise texts from the frontiers of Christendom, which had much greater chances of surviving early Catholic purges than did more familiar texts worked over by prelates for long centuries.

A very early, precanonical depiction of the Incarnation occurs in a lost text embedded in several Irish infancy narratives that date to medieval times. M. R. James first identified this text in 1927 and dubbed it the “New Source.” A specialist in the Christian infancy literature, Brent C. Landau, dates the embedded account to the early second century CE. He maintains that the New Source was composed before the much better known Protevangelium of James.  He also writes: “Since scholars now generally date the Prot.Jas no later than the second half of the second century, the ‘New Source’ is apparently a quite ancient infancy gospel.” It survives in Latin as well as Irish versions and reads as follows:

[Joseph speaks.]     “When therefore the hour drew near, the power of God revealed itself [Lat: processit] openly. And the girl [Mary], standing gazing at the heavens became white as snow. For the goal of good things [terminus bonorum] was already revealing itself.
     “When, therefore, the light had come forth, she adored him whom she saw she had brought forth.
     “The child himself was indeed radiating light round about in a unique manner, extremely clean and beautiful to look at, because he appeared alone as peace, bringing everything into a state of peace.
     “Indeed, in that hour in which he was born, the voice of an invisible multitude was heard, with one voice saying ‘Amen.’
     “And I made bold and bent down and touched him, and lifted him up in my hands with great fear, and I was thoroughly frightened, since there was no weight in him as there would be in the case of a newborn person.
     “And I observed him and there was no defilement in him, but was as if in the dew of God the most High, all shining in his body, light to carry, bright to look at.
     “And while I was amazed greatly in that he did not cry as newborn children are wont to cry, and while I held him looking into his face, he smiled at me with a most pleasant smile and, opening his eyes, he looked at me intently.
     “And suddenly there came from his eyes a great light like a great flash of lightning.”  

The gnostic overtones of the New Source’s infancy account are evident: Mary brings forth ‘light,’ and that light becomes reified in the form of a weightless infant. Here we trace another stage in the embryonic Catholic tradition as it grappled with the mammoth task of translating God into man. According to the dating schema presented on this website, all this took place about a half century before the accounts in the canonical gospels. Even Raymond Brown, the late Catholic scholar, admits that “the tradition of birth at Bethlehem is considerably more ancient than its present context in the Gospels.”  

In the foregoing ways, the christological Stages I and II began to give way to Stage III—Jesus in the form of a (fleshly) human being. This insight adds context to the question of GMk’s (and perhaps GJn’s) omission of an infancy narrative. During the first half of the second century the concept of the Incarnation was not yet fully defined and was still in the process of development.

In the next post we will continue our exploration into the interesting birth of Catholicism as revealed by the earliest infancy narratives.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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