The infancy narratives–conclusion

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 28

In this post I’d like to wrap up my survey of the Christian literature devoted to the birth of Jesus. As mentioned in a prior post, this literature is surprisingly extensive. In fact, it was once as popular as it is now obscure. The reasons are that the infancy literature gave scope for endearing domestic scenes, to portray the family of Jesus, and to bring a common touch to the otherwise exalted messiah, the awe-inspiring Son of God.

In modern times, the only infancy gospel to have been accorded a modicum of scholarly attention is the so-called Protevangelium of James (PrJ).  It was once a very popular work, surviving in many different editions. In 1924 one scholar described and cited about twenty infancy gospels that may ultimately descend from PrJ. It may be that two or more of these works once constituted part of a single longer account—the first (entirely fabulous) ‘Catholic’ gospel. After all, the PrJ is made up of three distinct parts that scholarship has determined were later slapped together, as Harnack first perceived (see preceding post). But the exact original form and extent of that early gospel is not known.

I recently suggested that the Protevangelium of James had its inception after the Gospel of Mark but before the Gospel of Matthew, that is, towards mid-II CE. I arrived at this hypothesis from the fact that PrJ is more Catholic (and hence later) than the adoptionist GMk, and also because PrJ shares several themes with the subsequent canonical tradition—including the birth in Bethlehem, the magi, and the star. These latter themes are also lacking in GMk.

At the back of his short book, The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy (Oxford 2008), A. Terian presents “Three Early Armenian Versions of the Protevangelium of James.” In significant respects, these supplementary versions differ from one another and from the ‘standard’ edition of PrJ (which was published by E. Strycker in 1961). Only two of these three supplementary Armenian versions of PrJ have birth stories relevant to Jesus. Version [A] depicts his ‘birth’ (actually, his transformation) as follows:

[Joseph and the midwife] paused outside the cave. And a bright cloud overshadowed the cave. The midwife said: ‘My soul has been magnified today, for I have seen a new miracle with my eyes. For God has given salvation to Israel.’ And right away the cloud was lifted up from the cave there, and a great light appeared within the cave, so that the eyes could not gaze at it or bear it. Soon, after a moment, the light was drawn aside, until the infant was seen. And he took the breast of Mary and began to feed. (Terian 157)

As we saw in the simple birth account from the Ascension of Isaiah, in the foregoing there is also a cave, a cloud, a great light, and—presto!—an infant. No description is given of an actual birth which, in any case, does not involve Mary. Nevertheless, the author underlines the physical nature of the new infant with his final line: “he took the breast of Mary and began to feed.” In sum, depicted here is the transition from a being of light into a being of flesh (Stage II –> Stage III christology; Gnosticism –> Catholicism). This transition reveals both the dating (mid-II CE) and the theological Sitz im Leben (emerging Catholicsm) of this account. Note that Jesus is not yet born of Mary. He is born of light—i.e., directly from God.

Supplementary version [B] is similar to versions we have already considered. Here, light also transforms into the infant Jesus. The central role is, once again, not played by Mary. But in this version another female assumes the principal role: the midwife who, as we saw elsewhere in the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, is explicitly identified as Eve, the mother of all humanity. Hence, in version [B] Eve is the “midwife” to the baby Jesus:

[Joseph and the midwife] stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, a bright cloud overshadowed the cave. The midwife said: “My soul has been magnified, for today I have seen miracles with my very eyes—this very day. For God has given salvation to the sons of Israel.” And right away the one who was born appeared, as the cloud departed from that cave. A great light appeared within the cave, so that they could not look at it with their eyes. After a minute the light also was drawn aside, until the infant was seen. (Terian 165–66)

Once again, light transforms into a human. The vegetative ‘Magnificat’, so important to later Catholic liturgy, is here uttered by the midwife Eve—not by Mary. Thus we see here the origins of the Magnificat: the foremother of humans gives thanks to God for Jesus, who would redeem us all from Original Sin. We also note the great theological transformations taking place: Mary the mother of Jesus would take the place of Eve, the mother of humanity, even as Jesus of Nazareth would become the only Son of God, instead of all the sons and daughters of humanity becoming Sons of God.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (James:49 ff) offers an account of the boyhood of Jesus. This text was once immensely popular and exists in a bewildering number of variants and in numerous languages.  The work is full of awe-inspiring miracles (no doubt its primary reason for existing). Though we can quickly put those aside as pure invention, it is noteworthy that in the so-called Greek version C, the writer (“I, James”) notes:

[The Holy Family is in Egypt] An angel of the Lord met Mary and said to her, “Take the child and return to the land of Judea; for those who were seeking the child’s life have died.” Mary arose with Joseph and Jesus, and they came to Capernaum, in the region of Tiberias, in their own homeland. When Jesus knew he had come out of Egypt, he withdrew into the wilderness after the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem had died out.

Several elements in this passage merit comment:
(a) The angel commands the Holy Family to return to “Judea” but they return to Capernaum, “in the region of Tiberias.” This shows confusion between the southern and northern traditions and recalls a statement attributed by Eusebius to Julius Africanus (whose date is uncertain): “…Of these were the above-mentioned persons, called desposynoi, on account of their affinity to the family of our Savior, these coming from Nazara and Cochaba, villages of Judea, to the other parts of the world…” (Cf. The Myth of Nazareth pp. 295 ff). As in the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, and the Protevangelium of James, Nazareth is located not in the Galilee but in Judea (even within walking distance of the Jerusalem Temple).
(b) For the author of InfThomas, the eventual home of Jesus is Capernaum. Frank Zindler, myself, and others have long argued that this is the view reflected in the Gospel of Mark (see The Myth of Nazareth 298, etc).
(c) In InfThomas, Jesus “withdrew into the wilderness.” This motif would be transferred to John the Baptist in the later canonical gospels.

The InfThomas continues as follows:

And I myself, James, began to glorify God, who gave me the wisdom I found before him to write his story. Amen! I also thought it necessary make known to all the brothers from the Gentiles all the things done by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was born in our region of Bethlehem and in the village of Nazareth…

(d) The writer claims to be “James.” This reflects an early stratum when the Jewish-Christian James was the primary authority figure in the Jesus tradition (cf. GTh 12; PrJ; Pseudo-Clementine literature, etc).
(e) However, the writer directs his text not to Jewish-Christians but explicitly to “Gentiles.” This suggests a very early date when James was still an authority figure but Gentiles in the Church were breaking away. The wording “all the brothers from the Gentiles” categorically excludes Jews and betrays some tension with the latter, as if Jewish Christians were not “brothers” and would not be receptive to the author’s text.
(f) Note the locution: “our Lord Jesus Christ.” This would become standard in Catholic/Pauline literature.
(g) Jesus was “born.” The doctrine of the Incarnation is accepted and not a matter to be disputed (e.g. by laggard Jewish Christians for whom “Jesus” continued to be a spiritual entity).
(h) Jesus “was born in our region of Bethlehem and in the village of Nazareth.” This astonishing declaration furnishes some back-story to Mt 2:23. It is important to the author of InfThomas that Jesus be from both Bethlehem and Nazareth. We can appreciate why: (i) Bethlehem was the mythical ‘home’ of the Jewish messiah, son of David (Mic 5:2–5; 1 Sam 16:1 ff); (ii) “Nazareth” reveals that the author already seeks to redefine the odious term Natsarene ( = gnostic ‘keeper’ of hidden wisdom) into a place name—the (invented) village of Nazareth.

Spirit, man, or God-man?

The PrJ may be the first text to have made the conceptual leap from the spiritual Jesus to the God of flesh and blood (Stage II to Stage III). Once again I note that the Gospel of Mark—probably known to the author of PrJ, as intimated in the preceding post—has an adoptionist theology. In GMk, Jesus is not yet fully divine—he is in an intermediate position. That is, GMk’s Jesus is an especially worthy prophet who is designated the Son of God at Mk 1:11: “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (cf. Mk 9:7). The designation is somewhat ambiguous. Others can, presumably, also be designated “Sons of God.”

A similar christology—where Jesus is intermediate between man and God—obtains in the so-called Gospel of Peter (aka the Akhmim Fragment). GPet may well have influenced the passion account in GMk, for the account in GPet seems more primitive, as Crossan observed.   In both GPet and GMk Jesus cries out from the cross, but in GPet the cry is, “My power, O power, you have forsaken me!” This power can only be the indwelling spirit of God (Stage II). Before Jesus cried out, however, GPet states that he “felt no pain” (4.10). How the evangelist would know this is of course a mystery, but my point is that for the author, when the power that indwelled Jesus departed, Jesus was in anguish. Clearly, for the author of GPet, Jesus is still a man and the power of God is a separate entity.

The Gospel of Mark followed the Gospel of Peter and manifested a critical separation: the sundering of Jesus from the Baptist into two separate figures. This was new, for previously the prophet (and any worthy person) was indwelled by the divine spirit (Stage II). Though they were two different entities, the divine spirit Jesus and the human vessel were not two separate people. But GMk has now made the spirit Jesus into a person, and has at the same time reduced the original prophet, John (the Baptist), into a subordinate of Jesus.

Therein lies a colossal yet subtle change in focus, for with GMk the focus moved from man to God. Consider: the preceding gnostic worldview was man-centered, and the initiative and agency lay entirely with the individual—life was about seeking and finding (GTh 1: “He who finds the meaning of these words will not taste death”); the goal required breaking family ties; social marginalization (“Become passers-by”); giving one’s all; self sacrifice; unconditional love…

But the ensuing Catholic worldview was God-centered, and the initiative and agency lay with God. This change in focus also permits a move away from works, seeking-and-finding, and ‘enlightenment’ (man-centered) to the doctrines of redemption, atonement, belief, and worship (God-centered).

The worldview of gnosticism (Stages I and II) was not acceptable to the Catholics, for in the gnostic quest anyone could be ‘indwelled’ by the spirit of God—anyone could be ‘a Jesus.’ And with multiple Jesuses running around, it was impossible for the Catholic Church to amass power, to assert exclusivity, to claim that it alone possessed the way to salvation. This is why the Catholics needed one Jesus (‘Savior’)—their Jesus. By making their Jesus God, and by mandating worship of their Jesus, they could rule the world. And, as we know, their plan worked. The Catholic Church teaches us that (in the guise of Peter) it is God’s only approved representative on earth (Mt 16:18), and that the only way to salvation is via their savior: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (Jn 14:16).

The Protevangelium of James laid the groundwork for these head-spinning concepts by ensuring that Jesus’ birth was the birth of a God. This was absolutely essential to Catholicism. The stories in PrJ were quickly reworked by Matthew and Luke in the mid-second century and form the basis for the creeds of the later Church, for the incessant speculation, interpretation, and infighting that characterize later Christian history, and for the unique claim of Christianity that God became man in Jesus of Nazareth.

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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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