Clear Thinking about the Protoevangelium of James

Clear Thinking about the Protoevangelium of James September 18, 2012

Over at the Register, a reader writes concerning the Perpetual Virginity of Mary:

The source of the perpetual virginity of Mary is the “Protoevangelium of James,” generally conidered to have been written in the middle of the second century. It also is the source of the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, and the Josephite marriage. The document is very detailed about Marys’s early life and “marriage” to Joseph, an aged widower who didn’t want the marriage. It is so detailed that you have to accept it as revelation and make it part of the canon, or you have to reject it as a fable. The Church has always rejected it. To this day, the Roman Catholic Church regards it as fraudulent, and yet teaches its contents as sacred truth. How do you justify that? How can you justify teaching something the apostles never even heard of?

No. The source of the doctrine is the fact that Mary was perpetually a virgin and the whole Church remembered this fact, beginning with the apostles. The Protoevangelium of James reflects the existence of this tradition and incorporates it into a legend about Mary, but it does not originate the tradition. You might as well say that “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is the source of our belief that Abraham Lincoln existed and was President. No. “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is, like the Protoevangelium, a fictional tale which refers to a tradition which precedes it. One can distinguish between the fiction and the real traditions that fiction exploits to tell a story. That’s why the Church rejects the fictional book, but retains the real tradition about the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, just as we are not forced to conclude that, because “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is fictional, therefore Abe never existed and never was President.

Once we are done discussing the meaning of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, we will take a look at the strong evidence for the historicity of it.

And, by the way, nothing so clearly demonstrates the provincialism of the anti-Catholic American Protestant polemicist as the insistence on attributing some belief common to all the apostolic Churches east and west–from Catholic to Orthodox to Copt to Chaldean to the Thomas Churches of India–to the “Roman Catholic Church”. It’s like the entire Eastern Church doesn’t even exist for these people. I’m sure the Orthodox Patriarchs in their sundry sees will be grateful to know that they only believe all that rubbish about Mary because the Pope of Rome commands them to do so.

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  • Irenist

    Speaking of insufficient critical thinking skills about apocrypha, here’s Andrew Sullivan overreacting just now to the discovery of a 4th century Gnostic papyrus as though it were at all relevant to a deeper historical understanding of the 1st century life of Christ:

    • and OMG did you know that the New Testament repeatedly refers to the BRIDE of Christ!!!! Like, OMG, Jesus was totally married!

      • ivan_the_mad

        Brilliant! You win the intarwebz for today.

        • I count that judgment as exceedingly profound coming from ivan, the winner on many other days and occasions.

    • And I missed who wrote the original NY Times piece. I’ll give you three guesses and here’s a hint: this writer frequently likes to highlight items that cast doubt on Church teaching or paint the Church in a bad light.

      • Irenist

        Um…any NY Times religion reporter ever? Is that the answer?

    • Ted Seeber

      What’s funny about that is that they’re claiming a text in COPTIC has implications for the ROMAN Catholic tradition and church.

      If it does, I hope it leads to more married priests; the homilies I’ve heard from converts from Lutheranism and Anglicanism are downright awesome.

  • Ted Seeber

    I went through a phase in my life when I really liked some of the New Testament Apocrypha out there. There is no way to tell how much is pious legend or remembered gossip; and nothing in them is vital for salvation; but they do paint another picture than the Gospels about Jesus’ and Mary’s lives.

    My favorite (and I doubt strongly it ever happened) were the stories of Jesus using the power of resurrection in childhood, innocently, just like a child might (resurrecting a young playmate who died falling off the aqueduct to testify that Jesus did NOT, as accused, push him. I don’t think Nazareth was a big enough town to have an aqueduct at the time, for one. And I seem to remember another story about resurrecting a bird that had fallen out of a nest.)

    But like I say- more myth than fact. There was also a later one about the Apostle John, and something about a plow that Christ himself had created in Joseph’s woodworking shop.

    But NOTHING necessary to believe for salvation- and NOT a part of public revelation at all, just gossipy stories about a child.

    • MarylandBill

      Some books of the Apocrypha, like the Protoevangelium of James appears to be harmless enough. That being said, others are, I think quite dangerous. They are books that support Gnostic and other heretical views of Christ and the early Church. People like John Dominic Crossan and Elaine Pagels have certainly lead people astray with their writings which take the Apocrypha as being as legitimate as the Canonical books of the New Testament.

    • JoFro

      The Quran has some of the rubbish from those Gnostic texts – with Jesus as a little boy turning clay birds he’s created and then ABRACADABRA!!! SHAZAM!! They’ve turned real.
      Jesus the baby also speaks to the townfolk aparently to make them understand that Mary is a Virgin and was not sleeping around – which only makes me think? Why the heck are they still Muslim? If you knew a talking baby and he told you he was born of a virgin, I’d be terrfied and then bow down and worship the wee baby!

  • Good discussion, but may I offer a correction on a technical point? Catholics usually use the word ‘apocrypha’ regarding books that have been rejected as legitimate and ‘tradition’ for those that we acknowledge as part of the good stuff. Some documents are neither accepted (as a whole) nor rejected. I was told be a very good Church historian that the Protoevangelium falls into the latter category.

  • B.E. Ward

    As far as I’m aware, Orthodox thinking on the Protoevangelium is mixed. There’s no universal acceptance (or rejection) of it.

  • BobRN

    There’s a big difference between not including a text in the Scriptural canon and rejecting it as a fraud. The “Protoevangelium of James” just as likely was written by a pious believer intending it as a devotional effort to answer questions about Mary’s life prior to the Annunciation. It’s likely the traditions put down in writing in the Proto. of James pre-dated the writing of the text by several decades.
    The same attitude exists toward the Shroud of Turin. People assume that if it’s not really the burial cloth of Jesus, then it must be a fraud, the product of a maliciuos effort to deceive the faithful. Why? Why could not the Shroud, if it’s finally proven not to be the burial cloth of Jesus, been inspired by sincere devotion, the pious desire to create a work of art that showed the suffering of our Lord for the sake of our salvation?

  • Fr. Austin

    We Orthodox generally accept the Protoevangelium, and the Eastern liturgy refers to it in its hymnody and texts for various feasts. Details from the Protoevangelium show up in Patristic hymns, homilies, writings, etc. Or, alternately stated, of course, universal points of Sacred Tradition show up in both the Protoevangelium and in Patristic and Liturgical texts.

    None of that is to say that the Protoevangelium is accepted as Sacred Scripture; but there does seem to be a widespread belief that, in the main, it is a reliable account of Sacred Tradition regarding the Virgin’s life, and several other points. Some feasts of the Eastern Churches – such as the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (a feast which also made it to the West) – concur in details with the Protoevangelium’s account. I don’t know who has decreed that the Church rejects the Protoevangelium; it accords with Sacred Tradition on points sundry.

  • Thomas R

    As a Catholic I’m hesitant to say this, but what is the source for their being a tradition of these Marian beliefs before “The Protoevangelium of James” was written? I definitely am willing/wanting to believe in a Pre-Protoevangelium Marian tradition and all, but I’m blanking on evidence.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      I don’t know that this would actually support the claim in the end, but if you are that curious, look at the beliefs of Apostolic Churches which split before Pr. of J. What do the Thomas Christians say? The Nestorians? If they have the tradition of PV of the BVM, then it would seem at least highly likely that J. doesnt originate this belief.

      Which he doesn’t.

      • Thomas R

        Thanks! Like I meant to say I’m a fairly orthodox Catholic, or am trying to be (some of the economic elements of Catholic social teaching are a bit difficult for me), so figured/hoped there was I just didn’t know what it would be as mid-second century is fairly early for Christian writing. I know Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, as well as the New Testament, predate that but I wasn’t sure what they said of Mary.

    • Mark Shea

      I will discuss the evidence–biblical and otherwise–for the PVoM in coming weeks at the Register.

    • MarylandBill

      Well lets keep in mind that the Protoevangelium is actually a very early work; really one of the earliest works written after the New Testament Canon was completed. While it is probable that everyone who knew Jesus, Mary and the Apostels was gone by the time it was written, it is not impossible that the children and grandchildren of the first Christians were still around. Now add to the fact that the work appears to have been very popular in the early Church. To me this suggests that the work did not contradict what the Early Christians believed about Mary and that it is likely she was already among the venerated Saints of the Church. The idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity is so remarkable (and so easily thrown away by Protestants and Moderns), that it seems very unlikely that a written work like this could have been responsible for starting that belief. It seems more likely that it is something that was carried by the Apostles with them and took root where ever Christianity did.

  • thana anthony

    Dear Friends, the book protoevangelium of james is just a story book.
    Remember Jesus told his Mother Mary, that the time had not come for him to start his ministry, including miracles, at the wedding feast at Canaa.
    The book of James quotes, Jesus as a child did a lot of miracles.
    Can you see why the Catholic Church rejected the book, and it is certainly not included in the Holy Bible.
    Guys – my opinion and observation.
    Yours in Christ. – thana anthony

  • Lewelyn Fidler

    A Work of Fiction from mid level years of history. Mary was instructed to “know no Man” and Joseph to not to “untill” the birth of Jesus. Their is evidence that siblings came along after. Christianity is the first religion since the same God of Adam, Moses Abraham and today.