Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Josephology Part 2: The Protevangelium Jacobi

“These words prove the falseness of the apocryphal ravings.”
–St. Thomas Aquinas, paraphrasing St. Jerome

The Proto-Gospel or Infancy Gospel of James is a highly relevant testimony to early Christian belief about St. Joseph. The authorship of this short narrative is contested, but most scholars seem to agree that it was composed in the second century A.D. under a pseudonym. The Proto-Gospel ends with this claim of authorship: “And I, James, that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased” (24). Still, there is something to consider about the belief that this was written by St. James (presumably James the Just, not the early-martyred James the Greater). If this popular text had indeed been written by the hand of James, it would have doubtless been canonized into the New Testament with his epistle, but there is nothing to disprove its basis at least partially in an oral tradition from the apostle.

The apparent intent of the Proto-Gospel is to tell a more fleshed-out version of the Nativity story from the Gospels, filling in a few gaps here and there, and making explicit narrative connections that could be only guessed at from the canonical accounts. Here, St. Joseph is a prominent character with much to do, as are Sts. Joachim and Zacharias. We learn about the birth not only of Christ, but of Mary, and we follow her childhood at some length. The names of her parents Joachim and Anna come to us through this document, and from no other known source. The belief that the Virgin’s parents miraculously conceived after many barren years—a belief attested to by numerous later mystics—also springs from these so-called apocryphal ravings.

The Narrative

Joseph & Joachim
As difficult as it is to skip over the stories of Joachim and Anna’s trials and of Zacharias’ martyrdom, Joseph is so important to the Jacobian narrative that his presence easily overpowers the others. When the priests assemble all the widowers of the land to present themselves as potential caretakers for the Virgin Mary (who has hitherto been living in the Temple up to her twelfth year), Joseph is so ready to obey that he “throw[s] away his axe” (9) immediately upon hearing the herald. When drawing lots between the widowers, Joseph’s staff is drawn last and miraculously produces a dove, which alights on his head. He immediately contests the call, for “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.” The priests threaten him with divine retribution if he continues to refuse an obvious call from Heaven, recalling the example of Korah’s rebellion against Moses. Joseph concedes the point, brings the betrothed girl to his house, and apparently leaves her there for almost four years while he leaves to build some houses, merely saying that while he is away, “The Lord will protect you.”

While Joseph is away on his construction projects, Mary has been chosen (again by lot) to spin the cloth for a new Temple veil. Noting that “at that time Zacharias was dumb” (10, cf. Luke 1:20), it falls to the priest Samuel to give instructions to the Virgin. While walking outside, Mary hears a voice saying the Ave. Confused at seeing no speaker, she returns home to her purple cloth and is in the more iconographically correct pose of being seated when St. Gabriel appears to finish his message. When he leaves, she finishes her sewing quickly and absconds to Elizabeth’s house until her sixth month.

Then Joseph comes home. Mary is sixteen years old by now (12) and he is shocked to find her pregnant. He chastises himself first for his negligence: “I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her” (13); immediately followed by a condemnation of her supposed unchastity: “Has not the history of Adam been repeated in me? The serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her.” She insists on her own innocence, but seems unable to explain her fecundity, saying simply that “I do not know whence it is to me.”

What follows shows a subtle understanding of psychology that is lacking in many later commentators. Joseph’s troubling dilemma is expressed with a nuanced detail skipped over in St. Matthew’s Gospel:
And Joseph said: If I conceal her sin, I find myself fighting against the law of the Lord; and if I expose her to the sons of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel, and I shall be found giving up innocent blood to the doom of death. What then shall I do with her? I will put her away from me secretly. (14)
Joseph does not simply assume that Mary is lying about her innocence, but nor is he certain she is not guilty. He has to cover both possibilities, and, recognizing the dangerous consequences of assuming either one, finds the safest middle ground in divorcing her quietly.

That night, the angel visits his dreams and corrects his errors. The next morning, a scribe friend arrives to say hello to the newly returned carpenter, but is horribly scandalized to find that Mary is pregnant before their marriage. The two are dragged to the priest and are made to endure an extensive ritual to prove their innocence, which they do just in time to receive the summons of the Roman census.

After some indecision about whether to enroll Mary as his wife or daughter, he enlists the help of two of his unnamed sons for the journey to Bethlehem. Once there, he leaves Mary with his sons and goes off to find a midwife, leading to this strange incident:
And I, Joseph, was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. (18)
Time stands still for St. Joseph. It seems plausible that part of the narrative is missing here, since the very next thing that happens is the appearance of the midwife walking over a hill. He explains himself and his strange marital situation to the woman as they walk back to the cave in which Christ is about to be born.

At this point Joseph nearly disappears from the narrative, and has little to do except act embarrassed at the midwife’s questions and meet the Magi when they arrive. There is not even a mention of the Flight to Egypt, and the Christ Child is hidden in an ox-stall when Herod sends out his army of late-term abortionists.

The Importance of the Proto-Gospel

The Jacobian portrait of St. Joseph is more subtle than one might expect. He is not the crotchety old man of the mediæval mystery plays, nor the balding and sexless youth of later plaster statuary. The Joseph of the Proto-Gospel is stubborn but ultimately obedient, quick to anger but clever in prudence, practically minded but open to mystical experiences. In later retellings he would lose much of his nuance and become a more two-dimensional character. Some details would change over time as well, one notable example being the dove-sprouting staff which would become the more icon-friendly flowering staff.

St. Jerome took the slightest deviation from the scriptural text as a sign of doctrinal corruption. It is the rather benign addition of the midwife to the Nativity story which prompts him to condemn the “ravings of the apocryphal accounts” (Against Helvidius, 10). With all due respect to this master theologian, his exclusionary scriptural minimalism leaves much to be desired. He and St. Augustine argued frequently about the proper interpretation of the Holy Writ, and Jerome famously desired to delete the so-called deuterocanonicals from the canon for rather pedantic reasons. The invective against “apocryphal ravings” has a rhetorical force that can be easily misused against the wrong targets.

If the claim that Joseph brought two of his sons to Bethlehem for the census (and perhaps for babysitting duties) is true, that would provide a reasonable substantiation that St. James was at least one source for this Proto-Gospel. It is not beyond the realm of plausibility that James told his disciples in Jerusalem about incidents surrounding the Nativity which were not to be found in the already-written Synoptic Gospels. A few decades and a few embellishments later this account would finally be written down, and from there quickly copied and very widely distributed, if the large body of manuscript evidence is to be believed.

In the East, selections from the Proto-Gospel are read at Mary’s feasts. In the West, it is so reviled that some even doubt the names of the Virgin’s parents given therein. See, for instance, the modernist nonsense posited in the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia about St. Anne. We ought to consider raising this text to a place of reverence again, even if not to the canon. The Jacobian narrative at least has the weight of liturgical and artistic tradition behind it, unlike the recent Josephite novelties.

Next Time:

A short survey of other early patristic-era texts, including the Gnostic gospels.

St. James the Babysitter, pray for us!


  1. Just two remarks:

    1) Has not the history of Adam been repeated in me? This sentence is quite interesting, for it seems to betray some mythological tales which were quite common among Second-Temple/Early Medieval Jews, and which, afs far as I know, can be found even in the Talmud. There was a tradition among rabbis that the "sin of Adam" was not one of ὕβρις, as the Genesis text actually tells, but a sexual sin: Cain would have been son not of Adam, but of the Snake, and so the evil would have come into humanity by that way. As a Jew of his time, could be this the "betrayal" Joseph was thinking about?

    2) I have no authority to judge, or even suggest, the inclusion af a new book into the Scriptural Canon; but we should bear in mind that the Council of Trent actually threw out some books: 3 and 4 Maccabeans, the Prayer of Manases, &c. If that Council could break with Tradition in such an open way, I don't understand why so many Tradistanis, who hate the Protogospel due to its portrayal of st. Joseph, appeal to its "apocryphal" nature to disregard it.

    K. e.

    1. I don't think there's necessarily a reference to the sexual interpretation of the Fall in Joseph's complaint. While I'm no expert on Jewish speculative theology, my sense is that the Proto-Gospel of James predates that particular speculation. But I do wonder if the Proto-Gospel is the first reference to Mary as a Second Eve? Granted, it's not done in the most flattering way, but this might have been written earlier than Justin Martyr's works.

      For the record, I'm not suggesting we add the Proto-Gospel to the canon of scripture. The text as we have it seems to have not been written directly by St. James, so a clear apostolic authorship cannot be claimed.

    2. Sorry, I misunderstood your statement above on the text's dignity above. But I was also addressing another issue on Josephology: the attack on this book due to its support of the old st. Joseph.

      Nor I am expert on that matters, but when I studied it at university, it was stated that those discussions have begun long before the advent of Our Lord, though their final recensions (Talmud) were far more recent; indeed, those folktales are likely to be much older - as those oral traditions use to be. That st. Joseph had that tale in mind is a possibility, which from my point of view doesn't undermine his nor Mary's role on the History of Salvation.

      Anyway, I am just speculating!

    3. Justinianus, I am not sure that you are exactly correct when you say, "the Council of Trent actually threw out some books: 3 and 4 Maccabeans, the Prayer of Manases, &c." The Council of Trent's decree on Scripture, merely defined a canon of Scripture. It did not rule against the inspiration of any text outside that canon, nor did it rule that other books could not be included in the canon by a future council, or that the Eastern Churches could not continue to use additional books as canonical. The Council of Trent was directed against Protestantism, not the Eastern Churches.

      Secondly, you claim that the council "threw out" books and "broke with Tradition." Whatever tradition you are talking about, it is not the Roman tradition. The Council of Florence gave the same list of books as Trent.

      [The Holy Roman Church] professes that one and the same God is the author of the old and the new Testament — that is, the law and the prophets, and the gospel — since the saints of both testaments spoke under the inspiration of the same Spirit. It accepts and venerates their books, whose titles are as follows.

      Five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two of Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel; the twelve minor prophets, namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi; two books of the Maccabees; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; fourteen letters of Paul, to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians, two to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two letters of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; Acts of the Apostles; Apocalypse of John.

      The list of books given by Trent and Florence is the same list given by the 3rd/4th Century North African Church and by the Roman Church in the Gelasian Decretal and other sources. As such, I would say that if there is any Roman tradition, it is the very same as the tradition given by Trent.

      It is true that historically, there are additional books included in editions of the Vulgate which are not included in the canon of Trent. However, the inclusion of books in a Bible, does not mean they are considered canonical or even inspired Scripture. In fact, many of the Medieval scholars, following Jerome's prefaces, deny the canonicity of deuterocanonical books such as 1 and 2 Maccabees that are in Trent's Canon. The Thirty-Nine Articles reject the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books, yet the King James Bible includes them (and then some) as apocrypha. Luther rejected the inspiration of the deuterocanonical books, several New Testament epistles and perhaps other books of the Old Testament, yet they are included in his translation of the Bible.

      The Protoevangelium is not rejected because a bunch of 1950s-era grannies didn't like that its depiction of St. Joseph conflicted with their plaster statuary. It is a late work (at least mid-Second Century), its claim to Jacobean authorship, even in an extended sense, is doubtful and it has never been accepted in the West as Sacred Scripture. To this, some later commentators have added to this allegations of historical incongruities. This does not mean that the work is bad or worthless (or "apocryphal ravings"), but there are several more worthy candidates for a canonical status than this.

    4. "3rd/4th Century" should read "4th/5th Century."

    5. StrongmanBob:

      The subject is certainly more complex (and fascinating) than what here can be written. It is a historical fact that the different churches have used not exactly the same Scripture books: the Ethiopian Church still holds 1st Enoch as part of the Bible.

      My comment was visceral rather than rational, so it is quite possible that I wrote some things before thinking more carefuly about them. That said, my point was not directed against the Trent nor the different scriptural canons; it rather addressed some people who actually disregards any evidence of the older st. Joseph just because it does not appear in the canonical Gospels, and who use this fact to present the young Joseph as if it were of Divine Faith - I had a discussion on the topic some months ago, with some Italian SSPXers who accused me of threatening the Faith and being anti-Catholic for it.

      Thank you so much for your corrections.
      K. e.

  2. While it doesn't offer much insight into Joseph, the following article by Megan Nutzman does cast light onto the historical reliability of the Protevangelium of James, "Mary in the Protevangelium of James: A Jewish Woman in the Temple?": http://grbs.library.duke.edu/article/download/14673/3895

    She writes: "In this article I investigate one aspect of Prot. Jas. that is among the most frequently cited errors in the text: the depiction of a young Mary living in the temple of Jerusalem. Through a careful reexamination of Mary’s time in the temple, I will challenge this conventional hypothesis and argue that the author structures his narrative to evoke three groups of Jewish women who were given special privileges in the temple cult. Rather than betraying an ignorance of Judaism, Mary’s relationship to the temple artfully weaves together the unique position in the Jerusalem temple allotted to accused adulteresses, to girls who wove the temple curtains, and to female Nazirites."

    1. Very interesting. I know the belief that Mary dwelt in the Temple from a young age has persisted to the modern day, and it often appears in books about the Blessed Virgin and in the visions of the mystics. I am not terribly familiar with the Jewish customs of the first century.

    2. Nowadays it is mostly dispensed with the argument: "Jews did not have consecrated virgins".

  3. Small clarification. James the Just is neither James the Greater nor James the Lesser. James "the brother of the Lord" was a disciple, but not one of the twelve.

    There are 3 James:
    The Just.
    The son of Zebedee and brother of John. (the Greater)
    The son of Alphaeus (the Lesser)

    1. You're right, and I have modified my first paragraph to reflect that.

      I have found many opinions about the identities of the various Jameses in the New Testament. St. James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, called The Greater, is usually not confused with any others, perhaps because he was the first of the Twelve to be martyred and had written no books.

      We know that among the Twelve there was another James, "the son of Alphaeus" (Luke 6, Mark 3). This is the James usually called The Lesser, in order to distinguish him from the other member of the Twelve.

      Then there is the James listed among Christ's brethren (Matthew 13) and called the "brother of the Lord" (Galatians 1). This is the one called James the Just in the East and sometimes in the West. He is believed to have written the New Testament epistle.

      Then we have the James mentioned obliquely in Matthew's account of the Crucifixion, where he tells us that "Mary the mother of James and Joseph" was present on Calvary, who herself is immediately distinguished from "the mother of the sons of Zebedee [John and James the Greater]" (Matt. 27:56). I don't know if this James is supposed to be identified with James the Lesser, but the text is unclear. It might be another James entirely.

      More modern Catholic thought has collapsed James the Just and James the Lesser into the same person, on the basis that St. Joseph was virginal and thus never fathered any sons. James the Just/Lesser was then the cousin of our Lord and the son of Alphaeus (sometimes identified with the Cleophas of John 19). I think there is an overzealous drive to simplify these things too much. James was a common name of the time (being a variant of Jacob, the father of all Israel), as was Joseph (the great patriarch), Judas (the Maccabean warrior), and Simon (another Maccabean, and probably also a variant of Simeon the son of Jacob). We should not be surprised if there were many similarly named men walking around Judea at the time.

      It's also interesting that St. Judas* of the Twelve seems to be historically identified with the brother of Christ and author of the NT epistle, even though his brother James the Just was not one of the Twelve. Perhaps James the Just was a late believer, which is why Christ appeared to him separately after the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15).

      * The words for Jude and Judas are identical in the Latin. It is only a peculiarity of English that we differentiate the two names, with Judas being presented as the "evil" form of Jude. This is doubly unfortunate, because it makes the great Judas Maccabeus sound like he has a villain's name. St. Judas, pray for us!