The Protevangelium of James

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 22

It may surprise you that the Protevangelium of James is a work uniquely positioned in Christian history for its capacity to shed light on the origin of the canonical gospels. However, that capacity is hardly admitted by the tradition, which classifies PrJames with the New Testament Apocrypha (lit: ‘hidden’)—biblical or related writings not accepted as scripture, i.e., not considered genuine or ‘true.’

Terms such as orthodox, apocryphal, canonical, accepted are self-serving and ultimately depend upon a circular argument: if the Church approves a work (that is, if the work agrees with its theological positions), then the work is ‘admitted.’ But if the work conflicts with the Church’s position then it is ‘not genuine’, ‘apocryphal’, ‘not accepted’, ‘false,’ and so on.

Thus, we must continually keep in mind that the scholarly classification of Christian texts is specious and holds little scientific, historical, or probative weight. In fact, when it comes to setting the historical record straight, I aver that the Christian apocrypha are generally of more value than forged (yet ‘approved’) works such as the two letters of Clement, the dozen or more letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the so-called ‘Martydom of Polycarp,’ and a host of other works (essentially propaganda) that the Church wishes to pass off as historical, genuine, and ‘authentic.’

Mind you, apocryphal Christian works are also propagandistic to a greater or lesser degree. The Protevangelium of James amounts to what many would today dismiss as a ‘fairy tale’—angels speak, the ground opens, time stops… By modern standards the work is literally incredible. However, like the canonical evangelists (who also penned yarns amounting to fairy tales), the author of PrJames intended his work to be believed. And while no modern reader believes what the author of PrJames recounts, an amazing number of our contemporaries persist in believing what the evangelists recounted long ago in their equally fantastic canonical gospels.

In the nineteenth century, Adolf Harnack proposed that PrJames is a fusion of three separate writings. Harnack’s proposal has never been seriously challenged. The three subtexts making up PrJames are:

• Chapters 1–17: A biography of Mary, dealing with her miraculous birth and holy infancy and childhood, her engagement to Joseph and virginal conception of Jesus;
• Chapters 18–20: The birth of Jesus, including proof that Mary continued to be a virgin even after the birth;
• Chapters 22–24: The death of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist.

These three subtexts have not survived independently, showing that they were fused together at an early time. A great many versions of PrJames exist, and in numerous languages, for the work was at one time exceedingly popular among Christian readers. The original title was certainly that of the first seventeen chapters: “The Birth of Mary” (Γενεσισ Μαριασ), as evidenced from important early witnesses, including one known as the Bodmer Papyrus. Other titles such as the “Revelation of James,” “Protevangelion of James,” etc., are clearly late.

The association of “James” with the authorship of this work owes to the final paragraph of the text—tacked on, as it were, to lend weight and credence to the text: “And I, James, who wrote this history in Jerusalem, decided to retire to the desert when the troubles began upon the death of Herod…” The “James” here is the mythical elder brother of Jesus, the son of Joseph by an earlier marriage—that is, “James the brother of the Lord.”

A critical issue: dating

The date of PrJames has never been seriously contested: the middle decades of the second century CE—thus Strycker (op. cit. 412 ff). One scholar (O. Cullmann) writes: “The work cannot have been written before 150” (NTA I:423). Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE) knew the work, and so did Origen (d. ca. 253 CE). More to the point is that Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165 CE) “shows very close contacts with its ideas (birth in a cave, Davidic descent of Mary)” (NTA I:423). Thus, we have a short window for the writing of PrJames—essentially the 150s CE.

That dating is entirely non-threatening to the tradition, for PrJames appeared decades after the canonical gospels and thus in no wise challenges the New Testament canon.

Or so it has been thought… The foregoing assumptions have force only if the canonical gospels are first century works. However, I have argued on this weblog that the canonical gospels appeared in the mid-second century CE. Thus, it appears that all of these works were created at roughly the same time—in the twenty years between c. 140 and c. 160 CE. The canonical gospels may not have been penned earlier than PrJames.

This revised chronology allows new questions to arise. We can perceive the mid-second century as a time when new religious texts were rapidly appearing and were jockeying for influence and acceptance. The texts doubtless influenced one another. Thus, which text came before another is a matter of great significance to the historian.

Of course, the academy will have none of all this. A first century dating for the 4G is universal among academics and represents a red line that cannot be crossed. Not a single working academic has, to my knowledge, proposed a second century dating for the canonical gospels—as have I. The first century dating of the New Testament effectively keeps all such questions as those posed above at bay.

Understandably, Strycker and all other scholars dealing with PrJames, from Harnack to Ehrman, have blithely assumed that the work simply borrowed from the 4G in myriad ways.

Yet I propose here that the situation was much more complex.

The New Testament and the Protevangelium of James

For the markan evangelist, the divine spirit comes down into Jesus at his baptism (in the form of a ‘dove’) and leaves Jesus before his crucifixion—hence, the anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34.) In this sense, Mark is adoptionist and continues what I have termed Stage II Christology, in which the founding prophet was indwelled by the divine spirit.

It may well be that the original UrMark contained an account of the birth and childhood of Jesus, one that was later snipped away. The surviving gospel does indeed seem to begin abruptly, with no introduction and (the already adult) Jesus at his baptism. Now, if GMark did originally contain the pre-baptismal history of Jesus, that lost account would necessarily have been consistent with the evangelist’s portrayal of Jesus as reflected in the surviving gospel—that is, of a man indwelled by the spirit of God (Stage II).

This adoptionist theology, however, was unacceptable to the nascent Catholic Church, for which it was necessary that Jesus be both God and man. It is understandable, then, that the Catholics would have snipped away the beginning chapters of Mark (if they existed) from his gospel—chapters that would have dealt with the conventional birth and normal youth of a very human Jesus.

In any case, the Catholics needed an account that reflected the birth of a God. And that is precisely what they got with the Protevangelium of James.

In theology, the PrJames is more Catholic than GMk. It is my suspicion that the author of PrJames knew GMk (probably recently written) but was not satisfied with its adoptionist theology. The author of PrJames set about to rewrite Mark’s gospel and to do so from a fully Catholic perspective. He reviewed the ancestry of Jesus, his relation to John (the Baptist), and the birth of both figures, but he only got as far as the childhood of Jesus.

The author of PrJames’ main task was to exalt Jesus from the status of human to divine. PrJames has the earmarks of a sketch, of a quickly written and poorly thought-out template intended for revision. It never received that revision, probably because it was quickly put aside by the Church—yet picked up by the Christian rank and file, ordinary folk who loved this story of Mary.

Nevertheless, PrJames did give the engineers of Catholicism some important elements: the Davidic descent of Jesus (and thus his identification with the Messiah son of David), Jesus’ birth in the mythical town of Bethlehem (ancestral home of David and fabled gateway to the gods since ancient times), the Matthean slaughter of the innocents (XXII.1 // Mt 2:13–23), and the virginity of Mary ( = the divinity of Jesus).

Joseph, the ostensible ‘father’ of Jesus, can have nothing to do with impregnating Mary—that is accomplished by the divine Logos:

And now an angel appeared before her, saying, “Fear not, Mary, for you have found grace before the Lord of All. You will conceive by his Word [Logos].” And she, Mary, having heard [these things], hesitated within herself, saying, “Shall I conceive, even I, by the living Lord God, as every woman conceives?” And here [another?] angel appeared, saying to her: “Not thus, Mary, for the power of God will cover you with his shadow; it is why the holy [fruit] that must be born will be called Son of the Highest. And you will give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (PrJames XI:23.2–3)

Note that the foregoing theology is fully Catholic. The female that brings God into the world must, of course, be of impeccable purity. So, the author of PrJames logically portrays Mary as being raised from her childhood in the Jerusalem temple! “And Mary lived in the temple of the Lord like a dove and received nourishment from the hand of an angel” (VIII.1). In these and other ways, we see that the author has not only abandoned common sense but also shows little knowledge of the Jerusalem temple (which was destroyed in 70 CE) or of its customs. As pointed out above, he is writing a fairy tale.

← Previous                    Next →

About René Salm

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


The Protevangelium of James — 1 Comment

  1. The orthodox churches all accept the Revelation of John – any group that considers those insane rants to be holy is not to be taken seriously.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *