Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Josephology Part 4: Crossing the Streams

Continuing our examination of Nativity narrative cycles jumps us a few centuries ahead to somewhere in the A.D. 400-600s range with the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or the Book about the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior, as it was known in antiquity. As noted in earlier posts, there was a line of Infancy narratives that had more to do with unorthodox and Gnostic influences than any plausible orthodox traditions. This retelling we’re looking at now combines the more plausible Proto-Gospel of James with the blasphemous Infancy Gospel of Thomas in ways that unfortunately would be influential for many centuries.

Prefacing the text is a correspondence between St. Jerome and the bishops Cromatius and Heliodorus. Or so it claims. Even though these letters of Pseudo-Jerome have some pretension of scholarly fairness in expressing doubts against any absolute certainty concerning this text, he does concede that it was possibly written by “the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew himself” in Hebrew as a preface to his canonical Gospel. He also says that the stories contained within “can be believed and read without damaging their faith or imperilling their souls.” Considering how dismissive the real Jerome was about the Proto-Gospel of James (“the ravings of the apocryphal accounts”), it seems impossible that he would be so casual about a retelling of the Proto-Gospel combined with outright blasphemous stories. The Jeromic forger probably knew of this Doctor’s hatred of anything non-canonical, and used it to his advantage to ease any suspicions about this text.

St. Jerome, lover of whimsy.
Chapters 1-17 are a retelling of the Proto-Gospel with a few interesting changes:

  • While Joachim is grieving his childlessness in the desert, Anne is visited by an angel and apparently miraculously conceives without him: “I am an angel of the Lord, and I have today appeared to your wife when she was weeping and praying, and have consoled her; and know that she has conceived a daughter from your seed, and you in your ignorance of this hast left her” (3). (He has been missing for five months by this point.)
  • Mary performs miracles during her childhood in the Temple, and explicitly desires to remain a perpetual virgin (6-7).
  • Joseph’s complaint about being chosen as Mary’s protector include a reference to his children and grandchildren, enforcing his advanced age (8).
  • Mary’s companions give her the title “Queen of Virgins” as a mockery, but are humbled when an angel appears and tells them, “These words shall not have been uttered by way of annoyance, but prophesied as a prophecy most true” (8).
  • Joseph considers the option of fleeing and sending Mary away when he finds out she is pregnant, apparently to escape any accusations against himself (10).
  • The two men who appear to Mary on the road to Bethlehem are explained as symbolizing the Jewish and Gentile peoples (13).
  • The text is explicit that Mary experienced no pain in childbirth: “But there has been no spilling of blood in his birth, no pain in bringing him forth” (13).

Chapters 18-25 are a new addition to the Infancy narrative cycle, detailing an account of the Flight to Egypt and what happened in that country. As far as I know, there are no written precursors to these stories. Here, the Christ Child tames a cave full of dragons, wild cats and other beasts follow the pilgrims tamely through the desert, Jesus miraculously shortens the road to Egypt, all the Egyptian idols bow before the Child and shatter, and the governor of the city is converted.

Most important for posterity is the story of the palm tree (20-21). Taking their rest beneath the shade of the tree along the road, Mary looks hungrily at the fruits in its high branches, and declares her wish that she could eat some. Joseph says this is impossible, and is worried more about replenishing their water. But the Christ Child asks the tree to bend down and allow his mother to taste of its fruit. It obeys, Mary eats, and Jesus rewards the tree by commanding his angels to carry a shoot of its branches into Paradise where it will flourish forever. This story would become very popular, and in England it eventually became the Christmas song The Cherry-Tree Carol.

Chapters 26-41 are a retelling of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with a few minor changes, but nothing to make the stories acceptable for an orthodox readership. One small change to Joseph’s character is his initial reluctance to chasten Hermus: “I dare not speak to him; but you [Mary] must admonish him, and say: Why have you raised against us the hatred of the people?” (26). Joseph also cooperates with Hermus in performing a miracle of resurrection for another man named Joseph (40).

Chapter 42 is a brief coda describing a feast shared with Joseph’s children and Mary’s side of the family. It serves little purpose but to describe their family trees in moderate detail. (Joachim and Anne apparently had a second daughter they also named Mary because they missed their first daughter, and this second Mary is the one who had other children and stood at the foot of the Cross.)

St. Joseph has more to do in Pseudo-Matthew than in some Infancy narratives, thanks mainly to the additions for the Flight into Egypt which would become so popular in art and iconography, especially among Egyptian Christians. He comes off slightly worse than he did in the Proto-Gospel, where he is a man of moderately better character. If the Gnostic additions are ignored, he is an almost buffoonish player, an aspect that would only increase in the popular Catholic mind over time.

Next time, we discover the roots of devotion to St. Joseph as the patron of holy deaths.

St. Joseph, who never had to stop to ask for directions, pray for us!


  1. Thank you for another great post!
    What is the comic book you are citing? I know some children who might enjoy it.

    1. It's a story from the old "Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact Comic Book Collection." The St. Joseph piece is from the March 12, 1953 issue:

  2. "When we read in the apocryphal gospels how the Holy Child (insert apocryphal ravings here)... we feel at once that the men who could believe such things of Christ, of Him who sought not his own glory, who likened Himself to His brethren in all things, who prayed for His murderers and calumniators, must have already been dead to the lessons of truth and love."
    - 'Oil and Wine', George Tyrrell

  3. Would it be safe to say that, unlike with local traditions surrounding holy places (Egypt and the Holy Family, Rome with Ss Peter & Paul) there were no local stories about St Joseph from which Young Joseph derives?

    1. I have yet to read about any such stories. Young Joseph seems to spring entirely from theological speculation.

  4. J.,

    You might find the following information of interest. A few years ago, I was reading quite a bit of Arabic and Syriac apocrypha, and came across Pseudo-Matthew. Of particular interest in my Arabic course that term was something the infant Jesus says to the palm tree in Pseudo-Matthew: "Aperi autem ex radicibus tuis venam, quae occulta est in terra, et fluant ex ea aquae ad satietatem nostram," in particular the use of the word "venam." It makes perfect sense in context, but what is interesting is that this passage (or a precursor in tradition) seems to lie behind the Koranic account of Mary's giving birth to Jesus.

    In Sura 19:22-25, we read:

    “So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, "Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten." But he called her from below her, "Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.”

    The word “stream” (Arabic "siryaan") is interesting because the 13th century Koranic commentator Ibn al-Jawzi makes the admission that this is not an Arabic word, but rather a Syriac word, "sheryana". The standard dictionaries of Syriac give this word as meaning “blood vessel, vein (!)”, but no indication of a figurative meaning of “stream.” Interestingly, a new Syriac lexicon, issued while we were in that course, has a single citation to a Syriac chronicle mentioning a "sheryana" that runs underneath the world.

    This might not have all that much to do with St. Joseph, but it is an interesting glimpse at a work that is really only extant in Latin having very clear connections with Arabic and Syriac precursors.