The Protoevangelium of St. James
One of the most important books in the history of the
Church as it relates to Mary, the Mother of God, is The Protoevangelium of
St. James. Although this book has been regarded as "apocryphal" and even
condemned by the Church, it relates traditions about the Mother of God that
simply are not to be found anywhere else.
Most scholars believe that this work dates from about
the year 150 A.D., the era of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Since St. Polycarp
heard the Apostle John preach, it means that the origin of the work was not
very far removed from the time of the Apostles.
This book, which purports to have been written by the
Apostle James, the brother of the Lord, records the events leading up to the
birth of the Theotokos. The influence of this work in the life of the
Church in regards to Mary is difficult to overestimate. Although Church councils condemned it repeatedly on the grounds that it
was not an authentic writing of the New Testament, these condemnations did not
discourage its reputation in the least.
Although most people have never seen or heard of it,
this book gives us many details concerning the life of the Mother of God that
have become familiar through the Feast Days dedicated to her memory. In The
Protoevangelium of St. James we discover that the names of the Virgin
Mary's parents were Joachim and Anna. It relates to us the events of her conception,
birth, presentation in the Temple, her betrothal
to Joseph and the Nativity in Bethlehem.
However, simply because the book is regarded as
"apocryphal," we must not conclude that it is filled with myths and fables.
While it is true that much of the apocryphal literature was the product of
heretics desiring to spread their views, there are works that were produced for
different reasons, such as an innocent desire to know the details of the life
of Christ or the Mother of God that were not recorded in the Gospels.
When the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (a collection of
sayings of Jesus) was discovered in the late 1940's, many scholars had no
problem seeing in it the origin of the Gospels - a theory no longer very
popular but one that shows how much impact these works can have even in modern
Many times Apocryphal books, such as the Protoevangelium
of St. James, blend factual material with artistic embellishment. For
instance, it is certainly possible that since the Acts of the Apostles records
Mary's presence at the Pentecost and the Gospels reveal that she was a
well-known figure in the Early
Church, the names of her
parents, Joachim and Anna, were well known among the faithful in the early
It is also possible that many of the traditions found
in the book were passed down orally from an earlier time until they were
brought together in this written form. Although we disdain any and all "oral
traditions" today, such was not the case in the ancient word. For example,
among the collections of writings of the Apostolic Fathers are often found the
literary remains of Papias, who heard the Apostle John preach and was the
Bishop of Hierapolis. He recounts the basis of his writings:
If, then, any one who had attended on the
elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, what Andrew or Peter said,
or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by
Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the
presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to
be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and
It is possible that the parents of the Theotokos lived
near the Temple,
providing a basis for such things as her Presentation, even if those events are
not understood to be literally true in every detail. In fact, in Jerusalem today there is an Orthodox women's monastery
literally a stone's throw from the Temple
site that claims to be built over the house of Joachim and Anna. Inside you can
descend a narrow staircase into a typical first century one-room house at what
may have been street level centuries ago.
On the other hand, there are many details in the Protoevangelium
that are obviously inspired by Gospels. A rather crude illustration of this is
the refusal of Salome to believe the midwife that Mary was and remained a
virgin in giving birth, which was obviously based on the story of St. Thomas in the Gospel
midwife came out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, "Salome, Salome,
I have a new sight to tell you about; a virgin has brought forth, a thing which
her condition does not allow." And Salome said, "As the Lord my God lives,
unless I insert my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a
virgin has given birth" (Protoevangelium of St. James).
If nothing else, the Protoevangelium of St. James illustrates that the core "catholic" beliefs about
Mary and her perpetual virginity could have been presented in a developed
written form less than a century after the end of the Apostolic age and
accepted as normative by the Church with few exceptions.
We must point out again
that while The Protoevangelium
of St. James was condemned by the Church,
many of the traditions concerning the Mother of God that it relates were
accepted as a part of the deposit of faith by the Early Church.
Protoevangelium of James is available
today in a work titled "The
Forgotten Books of the Bible and the Lost Books of Eden."
The premise behind this compilation
of Apocryphal works - that there was some sinister reason the Church banned
these books - is ludicrous and laughable to anyone who is familiar with the
history of the Church and the Canon of Scripture. But works such as The Protoevangelium of James provide us with an insight into the mind of the
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger