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 times.
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 Church.
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 abiding voice."
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 of John:
And the 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.
The 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 earliest Christians.
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger