Infancy narratives IV: The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 27

In the last several posts I have been building the case that the concept of the Incarnation was a seminal turning point—not only in the ‘birth’ of Jesus of Nazareth, but also in the birth of the Christian religion. In my view, the revolutionary conception of the Incarnation first occurred towards the middle of the second century CE. Before that, a diffuse range of non-incarnational Christianities existed. This pre-Catholic stage, before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth, was characterized by belief in a spiritual Jesus (‘Stage II’ christology). These early Christianities focussed on the aspirant, not on God or on a Son of God. These first century CE religious movements were gnostic, encratite, and ascetic Christianities of transformation and personal empowerment. In nature, they were closely related to the so-called Mystery Religions which predominated in Late Antiquity, and which were also religions of transformation and of personal empowerment. At its core, pre-Catholic Christianity belonged to the family of mystery religions.

A vast literature dealing with the transformation of the spirit Jesus into the man-God, Jesus of Nazareth (Stage II –> Stage III), exists. At one time this literature was exceedingly popular. But because they present views of Jesus incompatible with the canonical gospels, the many so-called ‘infancy narratives’ were marginalized and eventually quite forgotten. However, this literature is critically important, for it preceded the canonical gospels, whose own infancy narratives (Mt 1–2 and Lk 2) are latecomers that draw from the library of infancy literature current in the mid-second century CE.

If the same criteria of form criticism were applied to the infancy literature as has been applied to the canonical gospels (e.g. in the age-old attempts to elucidate the Synoptic Problem), then it would become quite apparent that the nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke drew upon already-existing narratives. Traditional dating roundly excludes this possibility, however, for ‘the tradition’ ( = church cum academy) clings to the standard first century dating for the New Testament. However, when that dating is moved approximately one century later—as I have argued in these pages (see here and here)—then new possibilities arise and a whole new set of interrelationships between the Christian texts becomes apparent.

The early infancy literature deals not only with the birth of Jesus as a human being, but also with the births and childhoods of John the Baptist, Mary, and even of Joseph. There is considerable confusion and overlap of characters—especially between John and Jesus; between John’s parents (Zacharias and Elizabeth) and Jesus’ parents (Joseph and Mary); and between John’s parents and Mary’s parents (Joachim and Anna). For example, in the long Armenian Gospel of the Infancy:

[Herod] sent soldiers to Zechariah to demand the child John, saying to him: “As for you, Zechariah, I have heard from many that your son will reign over Israel…”  

Here we see that Herod seeks John, not Jesus, and furthermore that John, not Jesus, “will reign over Israel” (cf. Jn 19:3, “King of the Jews”).

A study of the Christian infancy literature shows that Jesus (literally, Savior), originally a divine light-spirit (that is, gnosis), gradually became anthropomorphized. Under the pens of the Catholics, the prophet of history (whom I identify with the Talmudic Yeshu ha-Notsri, aka John the Hasmonean, aka John the Baptist)—who had the light-spirit—became God. The prophet of history was John, but he brought a gnostic theology anathema to the both the Jews of his own time and Catholics of later times. In replacing John’s theology with the Pauline kerygma (belief in the atoning sacrifice of the only Son of God), the Catholics invented an exclusive new prophet who closed the door on all other religions (“No one comes to the Father except through me”—Jn 14:6; “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—Mt 16:19) and thus provided themselves a vehicle for world mastery—Jesus of Nazareth.

However, the process of God becoming man was not easy. In fact, it was quite messy. Though the literary record of that process has been sanitized through many centuries of Christian editing, destruction of texts, and the writing of new texts, a literary record of that process remains. It survives at the fringes of Christianity in incidental elements that were once important, quasi-gnostic elements like the star, the magi, and the flight into Egypt.

In the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy (AGI), Jesus is likened to a “star.” Anna, the mother of Mary, says to her young daughter: “From you shall dawn the morning star, light like the moon, brighter than the stars, a sunbeam at the break of day, from the rising of the sun in the east” (Terian 12). This coheres with three works that we have recently considered on this blog in separate posts: the Ascension of Isaiah (with its simple infancy narrative), the so-called ‘New Source,’ and the Revelation of the Magi. In all three of these accounts (which I maintain are pre-canonical) Jesus is a being of light, commensurate with its status as a spiritual divine entity of ‘Stage II’ christology. Jesus is not yet the flesh and blood creature of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, texts that emphasize Jesus’ humanness by providing him with full-fledged genealogies going back to Adam.

The emergence of Jesus from a background of Jesus-as-spirit must certainly impact any discussion of ‘docetism’ in early Christianity. Evidence is mounting—as now presented on this website—that prior to the mid-second century ‘Jesus’ was emphatically a spiritual entity. This cannot be stressed enough.

In the text known as The Revelation of the Magi, we saw that the Magi were Sethian gnostics, believers in secret wisdom traditions handed down since Adam, the first man. “Believers in secret wisdom traditions” is merely an elocution for the Hebrew notsri = Greek Nazarene. Here we are, then, once again inexorably led back to Yeshu ha-Notsri = “Jesus the Nazarene,” a prophet attested in the Talmud as having actually lived in the first decades of the first century BCE.

In the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, not only did the three Magi follow the star to Jesus’ birthplace, but they were also accompanied by entire armies:

At that same time the angel went forth to the regions of Persia and announced the good news to the Magian kings, that they should go and worship the newborn child. And the star led all their armies for nine months, and they came and arrived for the birth from the holy Virgin…

[On] the 23rd of the month Tebeth and 8 January, behold the Magi from the east, who had left their land with many armies, arrived in the city of Jerusalem within nine months… And heading their armies, there were twelve men who were appointed commanders. And the armies that accompanied them numbered 12,000 men, a thousand under each commander…

When Herod saw the multitude of mounted troops encamped around the city, he feared them greatly… He summoned his princes and magistrates… [They] said to the king: ‘Command that the city be watched carefully, lest they should seize it by surprise and take it by force and engage in taking captives.’ (Terian 26, 48–50)

In one astonishing passage, Joseph and Mary actually abandon the baby Jesus out of fear of the oncoming Magi!

And when Joseph and Mary saw all these things, they feared the kings and all their armies; and being terrified, they left the cave and fled from that place. And the child Jesus Christ was left alone in the cave, sitting in the manger for brute animals. When all the princes [of the Magi] saw Joseph, they said to him: ‘Elder, why are you startled with fear and fleeing? Fear not. Are we not people like you? Joseph said: ‘Where have you come from and who are you looking for here?’ The Magi said: ‘We have come from a distant land–from the land of Persia–with many gifts, and we desire to see the newborn child, the king of the Jews, and to worship him. Now, if you happen to know where he is, tell us the truth that we may see him. Upon hearing this, Mary entered the cave joyously and with gladness of heart took the child into her lap. And she glorified God with thanksgiving. (Terian 54)

Nazareth in the Christian infancy narratives

In a whole range of this early infancy literature—including the AGI, the Protevangelium of James, and the History of Joseph the Carpenter—Nazareth is located not in the Galilee but within walking distance of the Jerusalem Temple, for Mary and others go between Nazareth and the Temple “as if going from Nazareth to Jerusalem was [like] walking up the garden.”  In this connection, I argued in my first book that the Southern (Jerusalem-Qumran) Tradition preceded the Northern (Galilee) Tradition (The Myth of Nazareth 300–07).

The apocryphal infancy literature here under review confirms the precedence of the Southern/Judean stratum before the Northern/Galilean stratum. These apocryphal infancy narratives know of a Nazareth, but not a Nazareth in Galilee—it is in Judea! Of course, no settlement of Nazareth ever existed in Judea. Once we understand the very early dating of the noncanonical infancy narratives (as also of the Protevangelium of James), then we recognize that a Galilean Nazareth was purely an invention of the later Catholic tradition.

In fact, the Gospel of Mark also does not know Nazareth (see Myth of Nazareth xiii; NazarethGate 444), suggesting that GMk and this Christian infancy literature belong to the same literary stratum. I provisionally date that stratum to the mid-second century CE.

The birth of Jesus in AGI

The passage regarding the birth of Jesus in the Armenian Gospel preserves elements that are rudely noncanonical and, I maintain, must be earlier. I cite here the relevant account from AGI in its entirety:

(8.9)      Joseph looked far away and saw a woman coming from a distance and carrying a large sheet on her shoulder; and meeting her, he greeted her. Joseph said: ‘Woman, where you coming from or where are you going?’ The woman said: ‘And what do you want that you are asking me?’ He said: ‘I seek a Hebrew midwife.’ The woman said: ‘Who has given birth in the cave?’ Joseph said: ‘Mary, who was nurtured in the temple and was given by lot to be my wife, not according to the flesh—as far as I am concerned—but a spouse by name [only], and her pregnancy is of the Holy Spirit.’ The woman said: ‘You have spoken well. But tell me, where is she?’ Joseph said: ‘Come and see.’

(8.10)      And as the two went together, Joseph asked her on the way and said: ‘Woman, tell me your name that I may know who you are.’ The woman said: ‘Why are you asking me? I am Eve, the foremother of all, and I have come to behold with my own eyes the redemption that is wrought on my behalf.’ Upon hearing this, Joseph marveled at the wondrous things that he saw.

(8.11)      And when they arrived from far away and stood by the entrance of the cave, they saw the beams of heaven open up and abundant light pour all the way down from above. And a pillar of fire, comprised of cloud, stood above the cave. And they heard the voice of the bodiless hosts of heaven singing songs with ceaseless voice and glorifying God.

(9.1)      When Joseph and the foremother heard and saw this, they bowed down and fell prostrate, and raising their voices they blessed God saying: ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of Israel, who today wrought salvation to the children of men by your coming.’ [Eve added:] ‘And you restored me from that fall and established [me] in my former glory. Now my soul has been magnified and my hope has been gladdened in God my Savior.’

(9.2)       And as the foremother Eve was saying this, she saw the cloud being lifted up into heaven and moving farther from the cave. And the holy child was revealed openly, seated in the manger of irrational creatures. And he came and took the breast of his mother, as he was fed with milk, and returned to his place. And when Joseph and the foremother saw this, they marveled with amazement and gave glory to God with thanksgiving and said: ‘Has this ever been heard by anyone, or has anyone every seen with his eyes all these things that took place?’

(9.3)      And the foremother entered the cave and took the infant into her lap, hugged him tenderly and kissed him and blessed God… And she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger of the oxen… (Terian pp. 43–45)

Where to begin commenting on this remarkable passage? First of all, let us confirm that it is radically noncanonical. The few canonical elements include Joseph, (very marginally) Mary, the cave, and the manger. Surprisingly, the midwife Eve dominates the account and plays the principal role. Mary is scarcely mentioned at all. Note that it is the midwife Eve who wraps the infant in swaddling clothes and lays him in the manger—not Mary. In fact, if we delete one sentence from ¶8.9, Mary disappears completely. This suggests that the original account turned on the conception (made explicit at ¶8.9 and 9.1) that Jesus came to earth to redeem/restore Eve from “the Fall.” The authors of this text are under the heavy influence of the Genesis narrative. In their conception, Christ is figuratively (if not literally) the son of Adam and Eve—the Son of Man as well as the Son of God.

But the narrative plot was poorly executed by the author(s). For example, at ¶8.9, Joseph seeks a midwife. But the midwife Eve says: “Who has given birth in the cave?” This makes no sense, for if the child has already been born then there is no longer need of a midwife.

The Catholic theology of the nativity literature

Scholarship reflexively dismisses these stories as trite, nonsensical, and fabulous—which, admittedly, they often are (e.g. the outrageously puerile miracles in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). But such hasty dismissal overlooks a deceptive aspect of the nativity stories: their theology is already fully-formed, explicit, and thoroughly Catholic. From reading this literature, we quickly recognize what the proto-Catholics wished to express—that God became man in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, that He did so in order to save Adam’s progeny from Original Sin, that Jesus accomplished this feat through his sacrificial death on the cross, and that Jesus will return as eschatological judge. These elements are all in the apocryphal infancy literature. It is clear, however, that the proto-Catholics had difficulty fashioning convincing stories that would effectively convey their ambitious doctrines. Stories that are more refined (and convincing?) belong to the next stage of the Catholic tradition—the canonical gospels.

As regards the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, the following passages reveal the theology that the author(s) of the work intended to convey through the narratives:

The Virgin Birth: [The High Priest speaks] “The virgin shall conceive without a man and shall give birth to a male child; and he shall become a great ruler, king of Israel.” (Terian 10)

The Logos made flesh: “For the Word of God was to come and take body from the immaculate and undefiled holy Virgin, and in body to appear as a man wandering on earth.” (Terian 17)

The Son of God: [The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary] “Behold, you shall conceive and shall bear the Son of the Father Most High. And he shall become a great king over all the earth.” (Terian 21)

God becomes man: [Mary speaks to the angel Gabriel] “I am greatly amazed and astonished! To envelop the deity whom heaven and earth cannot contain; nor could the full ranks of the heavenly hosts, the bodiless, spiritual, and fiery beings dare to look upon or behold his glory! How then shall I be able to bear patiently and to endure the infinite Fire and to have him tabernacle in my body? Or how would I be able to support and to lift him bodily into my lap, or to touch him with my hands? Your word is impossible and beyond all human imagination to ponder and to comprehend!” (Terian 22)

All of the above: [Gabriel replies to Mary] “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, and God the Word shall become embodied in you, and you shall give birth to the Son of the Father Most High. Your virginity shall remain pure and undefiled.” (Terian 23)

Jesus is the savior of mankind: [The High Priest Zechariah speaks to Mary] “From you shall be the salvation of all the earth.” (Terian 28)

Jesus is the King of Israel: [Salome speaks] “O newborn child of the mighty Father,
You child Jesus, Messiah, King of Israel.
You, Savior and anointed Lord, have been revealed in the city of David.
You, Light to the ends of the world,
have been revealed for the salvation of the world.” (Terian 46)

Jesus is the long-awaited messiah and rehabilitated Adam: [The Magi read from the document written by God and passed down from Adam and through Seth’s descendants.] “Since Adam first desired to become divine, God condescended to become human because of his abundant compassion and love for humankind. Through his intercession God vowed and swore to the forefather [Adam] to write a document and to seal it with his finger, that ‘in the 6,000th year, on the sixth day, I shall send my Only-begotten Son, God the Word, who shall come to take body from your progeny; and my Son shall become Son of Man. And I shall restore you to your former glory. Then shall you, Adam, become bodily immortal, divine, united with God as one of us, knowing good and evil.’ ” (Terian 58)

With the arguable exception of man becoming “divine,” the above doctrines are unambiguously Catholic. Yet they do not reveal the emphasis on the passion and resurrection of Jesus that will come with the canonical gospels. The infancy literature simply presents the basic case: God became man, how this occurred, and why it is important. The gospels would soon take the theology embedded in the infancy literature and would marvelously elaborate it, improving that element in the infancy literature that is weakest: the narrative component. They would reduce the emphasis on the Incarnation (the gospels of Mark and John omit the Incarnation entirely), and would add dimensions familiar to us all today: the ministry of Jesus, his passion, and his resurrection from the grave.

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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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