The Gospel of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protoevangelium of James, is an apocryphal Gospel probably written about AD 145, which expands backward in time the infancy stories contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and presents a narrative concerning the birth and upbringing of Mary herself. It is the oldest source to assert the virginity of Mary not only prior to but during (and after) the birth of Jesus. The ancient manuscripts that preserve the book have different titles, including “The Birth of Mary”, “The Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God,” and “The Birth of Mary; The Revelation of James.”
Giotto, the Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel. The traditional presence of the ox and the donkey is given by the Gospel of James.
The document presents itself as written by James: “I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem.” The purported author is thus James, the brother of Jesus, but some scholars have established that the work was not written by the person to whom it is attributed.
That conclusion is based on the style of the language and the fact that the author describes certain activities as contemporary Jewish customs that probably did not exist. For example, the work suggests there were consecrated temple virgins in Judaism, similar to the Vestal Virgins in pagan Rome, although this is unlikely to have been a practice in mainstream Judaism. Conversely, some Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics argue that the Old Testament shows that consecrated virginity had been practiced in Judaism since the days of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:22), and the idea of Mary being a consecrated temple virgin is not far-fetched.
The consensus is that it was actually composed some time in the 2nd century AD. The first mention of it is by Origen of Alexandria in the early 3rd 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 over 150 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 it must have been known in the West by the fifth century though the vast majority of the manuscripts come from the 10th century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the third or early 4th century, was found in 1958; it is kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva (Papyrus Bodmer 5). Of the surviving Greek manuscripts, the fullest text is a 10th-century codex in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (Paris 1454).
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. 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 2nd century and later. Other infancy gospels in this tradition includeThe Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (based on the Protevangelium 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.
The Gospel of James is in three equal parts, of eight chapters each:
- the first contains the story of the unique birth of Mary to Anna and her childhood and dedication to the temple,
- the second starts when she is 12 years old, and through the direction of an angel, Joseph is selected to become her husband.
- the third relates the Nativity of Jesus, with the visit of midwives, hiding of Jesus from Herod the Great in a feeding trough and the parallel hiding in the hills of John the Baptist and his mother (Elizabeth) from Herod Antipas.
One of the work’s high points is the Lament of Anna. 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, later the disciple of Jesus who is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as being one of the women at the crucifixion.
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 feature is mentioned in the text of Origen, who adduces it to demonstrate that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were sons of Joseph by a former wife.
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 Zechariah during the Massacre of the Innocents and Joseph’s being elderly when Jesus was born. The Nativity reported as taking place in a cave remained in the popular imagination; many Early Renaissance Sienese and Florentine paintings of the Nativity continued to show such a setting, which is practically universal in Byzantine, Greek and Russian icons of the Nativity.