The Gospel of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protoevangelium of James, is an apocryphal Gospel written about 150 C.E. The Gospel is the earliest surviving document attesting to the veneration of Mary by stating her perpetual virginity and presenting her as the New Eve. Besides its focus on Mary’s virginity, it is also the earliest text that explicitly claims that Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary is entrusted to his care. This is the feature which appears in its earliest mention, in Origen, who adduces it to demonstrate that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were sons of Joseph by a former wife. Since the text was among those “which are to be avoided by catholics” according to Gelasian Decree, its dismissal may be due in part to this interpretation of James’s relationship to Jesus, which corresponded to the developed Eastern Orthodox view rather than the western, such as Roman Catholic, view, which treated them as cousins.
Authorship and date
The document presents itself as written by James the Just, whom the text claims is a son of Joseph from a prior marriage, and thus a stepbrother of Jesus. However, scholars have established that, based on the style of the language, and the fact that the author is apparently not aware of contemporary Jewish customs while James the Just certainly was, the work is pseudepigraphical (written by someone other than the person it claims to be written by). The echoes and parallels of the Old Testament appear to derive from its Greek translation, the Septuagint, as opposed to the Hebrew Masoretic Text, which is noticeable due to several peculiarities and variations present in the Septuagint. It apparently embellishes on what is told of events surrounding Mary, prior to and at the moment of, Jesus’ birth, in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke.
As for its estimated date, the consensus is that it was actually composed some time in the second century C.E. The first mention of it is by Origen in the early third century, who says the text, like that of a “Gospel of Peter,” was of dubious, recent appearance and shared with that book the claim that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were sons of Joseph by a former wife.
Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing it have survived. The Gospel of James was translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin. Though no early Latin versions are known, it was relegated to the apocrypha in the Gelasian decretal, so must have been known in the West. As with the canonical gospels, the vast majority of the manuscripts come from the tenth century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the third or early fourth century, was found in 1958; it is kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva (Papyrus Bodmer 5). Of the surviving Greek manuscripts, the fullest surviving text is a tenth century codex in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Paris 1454).
The Gospel of James is organized in three equal parts, of eight chapters each:
- The first part contains the story of Mary’s own unique birth and childhood and assignment to the temple.
- The second part concerns the crisis posed by Mary’s imminent pollution of the temple, her assignment to Joseph as guardian and the tests of her virginity,
- The third part relates the Nativity, with the visit of midwives, hiding of Jesus from Herod the Great in a feeding trough and even the parallel hiding in the hills of John the Baptist and his mother (Elizabeth) from Herod Antipas.
A primary theme is the work and grace of God in Mary’s life, Mary’s personal purity, and her perpetual virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, as confirmed by the midwife after she gave birth, and tested by “Salome” who is perhaps intended to be Salome, who is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as being at the Crucifixion.
Besides the perpetual virginity of Mary, this is also the earliest text that explicitly claims that Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary is entrusted to his care. This is the feature which appears in its earliest mention, in Origen, who adduces it to demonstrate that the “brethren of the Lord” were sons of Joseph by a former wife. Since the text was among those “which are to be avoided by catholics” according to Gelasian Decree, its dismissal may be due in part to this reading of the adelphoi, which corresponded to the developed Eastern Orthodox view rather than the western, that is Roman Catholic, view, which treated them as cousins.
Among further traditions not present in the four canonical gospels are the birth of Jesus in a cave, the martyrdom of John the Baptist’s father Zachariah during the slaughter of the infants, and Joseph’s being elderly when Jesus was born. The Nativity reported as taking place in a cave, with its Mithraic overtones, remained in the popular imagination; many Early Renaissance Sienese and Florentine paintings of the Nativity, as well as Byzantine, Greek and Russian icons of the Nativity, show such a setting.
The Gospel of James is one of several surviving Infancy Gospels that give an idea of the miracle literature that was created to satisfy the hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of their Saviour. Such literature is filled with ignorance of Jewish life, unlike the many consistent details in the Bible, which where obviously written by authors who were at least acquainted with Judaism. Interestingly enough, not one work of the genre under discussion is in any Bible. In Greek, such an infancy gospel was termed a protevangelion, a “pre-Gospel” narrating events of Jesus’ life before those recorded in the four canonical gospels. Such a work was intended to be “apologetic, doctrinal, or simply to satisfy one’s curiosity.” The literary genre that these works represent shows stylistic features that suggest dates in the second century and later. Other infancy gospels in this tradition include The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (based on the Protoevangelium of James and on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas), and the so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel; all of which were regarded by the church as apocryphal.
Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing it have survived. Apocryphal gospels testify to the reverence that many Jewish followers of Jesus (like the Ebionites) had for James. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews fragment 21 relates the risen Jesus’ appearance to James. The Gospel of Thomas (one of the works included in the Nag Hammadi library), saying 12, relates that the disciples asked Jesus, “We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?” Jesus said to him, “No matter where you come [from] it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist.”