A while back I shared a possible reconstructed Baptist source for the Christian infancy stories about Jesus. That’s “Baptist” as in the group around John the Baptist, and not a modern Christian denomination by that name, just to be clear. The more I have thought about it, the less likely it seems that Matthew and Luke would each have independently chosen different things to borrow from there. More likely, in my view, is that the followers of John crafted stories, supporters of Jesus borrowed from them, detractors not persuaded by the claims of the Jesus party drew from their own materials and that of their opponents and further enhanced their depiction of John, and on it went until both sides had quite elaborate narratives. What I am sharing here is thus not a purported “original” infancy story about John the Baptist, but the story that followers of John might have been telling at some point in the process that led not only to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew but also the Protevangelium of James and the Mandaean Book of John. This version of the story differs from what I shared previously in two major ways. First, it weaves in Mandaean material. Second, it views the Protevangelium not as a Christian work to which a small snippet from a Baptist source was appended, but a Christian reworking of a Baptist source. If you compare what I share below to the Protevangelium, you’ll see what I mean. I have used the NRSV and public domain translations of the Protevangelium in crafting this. I hope you find it interesting, and I hope you will share your impression of it. The poetic style in the Protevangelium and Mandaean material is particularly striking in its similarity, as is the way that puzzling details in each of these sources make better sense when considered in the context of this larger composite narrative.
The Birth of John the Baptist
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them also numbered David among their ancestors, and both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty, Zechariah was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. But then a star appeared over Jerusalem, and all the people were troubled, and the priests wondered what this portent might mean.
Early in the morning Reubel went to the Temple and stood in Zechariah’s way. He opened his mouth for evil, saying to all the priests,
“In my night vision, I saw in my vision.
When I lay down I did not sleep, and I did not lie down,
and sleep did not overtake me in the night – And I did not lie down.
Because a star came and stood over Elizabeth
fire burned upon Old Father Zechariah
three lamps appeared
the sun set and lamps appeared
the house of the people was set alight
smoke billowed in the temple
In the Merkabah (throne-chariot) there was groaning
so that the earth trembled from (its) place
a shooting star flew over Jerusalem
The sun appeared in the night
and the moon arose/shone during the day.”
On hearing this the priests sprinkled dust on their heads. Reubel opened his mouth for evil, and his lying lips, saying, “It is a sign. You cannot offer gifts because you have not conceived a child in Israel.”
Zechariah became extremely frustrated and went away to the history of the twelve tribes of his people, saying to himself, “I will look in the history of the twelve tribes of Israel and see whether I am the only one who has not conceived a child in Israel.” He searched and found that all the righteous people had raised children in Israel. And he reminded himself about the patriarch Abraham and that the Lord God gave his son Isaac to him in his last days. He remembered Elkanah and Hannah, whose son became a prophet in Israel. Zechariah was extremely frustrated and did not return to his wife but went into the wilderness and pitched his tent there. He fasted forty days and forty nights. All the while, Zechariah was saying to himself, “I will not leave here to find food or drink until the Lord my God visits me; prayer will be my food and drink.” But he received no answer.
Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth mourned and lamented, “I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I
am childless.” Her servant Juthine said to her, “How long are you going to humble yourself? Do you not
see that the festival is approaching? You are not allowed to mourn. Take this headband which the leader of the activity gave me. I am not allowed to tie it because I am your slave and it has a royal mark.”
Then, Elizabeth said, “Get away from me. I did not cause these things, even though the Lord God has
humbled me greatly. Perhaps a crafty person has given this to you and you have come to cause me
to partake of your sin.” Her servant Juthine said, “Should I invoke a curse on you because you did not heed my voice? The Lord God has shut your womb and he will not give you offspring in Israel.” So Elizabeth too became extremely frustrated and removed her mourning garment, washed her head and clothed herself with her wedding dress.
Around the ninth hour, she went down to her garden to walk around. She saw a laurel tree and sat down under it. After a rest, she petitioned the Lord, saying, “God of my ancestors, bless me and hear my prayer, just as you blessed our mother Sarah and gave her son Isaac to her.”
Elizabeth looked up to the heavens and saw a nest of sparrows in the laurel tree. Immediately, Elizabeth cried out mournfully, saying to herself,
“Oh me, who gave birth to me? What womb caused me to grow? For I was born cursed before the children of Israel. I am reviled and they treat me with contempt and cast me out of the temple of the Lord my God.
Oh me, what am I like? I am not like the birds of the sky, for the birds of the sky are fruitful before you, Lord.
Oh me, what am I like? I am not like the domestic animals, for the domestic animals are fruitful before you, Lord.
Oh me, what am I like? I am not like the wild animals of the earth, for the wild animals of the earth are fruitful before you, Lord.
Oh me, what am I like? I am not like these waters, for these waters are fruitful before you, Lord.
Oh me, what am I like? I am not like this earth, for the earth produces its fruit in season and blesses you, Lord.
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood in front of her, saying, “Elizabeth, Elizabeth, the Lord God has heard your prayer. You will conceive and give birth and your child will be spoken of everywhere people
And Elizabeth said, “As the Lord God lives, whether I give birth to either a male or a female
child, I will bring it as an offering to the Lord my God and it will be a servant to him as a nazirite all the days of its life.” And Elizabeth said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
At the end of the forty days, Zechariah returned home. Elizabeth ran to meet him, threw her arms around his neck, and told him, “Zechariah, Zechariah, the Lord God has heard your prayer. I have conceived in my womb!” But he did not believe her.
Zechariah was again called to serve in the temple. Eleazar the priest said to him, “Oh, Old Father, Leave Judaea so that you don’t cause trouble/strife in Jerusalem.” Zechariah was again distressed, and asked how he knew the meaning of Reubel’s dream. But no man was found among them who could provide a trustworthy interpretation. Then one of them said that Liliuk can interpret dreams. So they sent word to him and related the vision that Reubel saw. Liliuk wrote to them in a letter and said to them,
“The star which came and stood over Elizabeth (means)
the child comes from on high (and) is given to Elizabeth
the fire that burns on Old Father Zechariah (means)
John is born in Jerusalem.”
Eleazar showed the letter to Zechariah, but Zechariah was troubled. He struck Eleazar and asked, “Together with whom did she… ? It isn’t through me—is it through you, that Elizabeth bears a child?” All the priests muttered among themselves. They said to him, “Oh Old Father Zechariah, calm yourself! Settle down and be settled! The child was planted from on high. He was taken and bestowed on us, given to you in your old age.” Zechariah replied, “if a child is indeed sent from on high, what will it mean for Jerusalem?”
The next day, when he was presenting his offerings, he said to himself, “If the Lord God will indeed be reconciled to me, he will make it clear to me.” Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to Zechariah an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them but remained unable to speak. Unable to complete his time of service, Zechariah returned to his home.
The priests deliberated about who they should appoint to take the place of Zachariah. The lot went to Simeon, a man who was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
After those days Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me in this time, when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his child David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
in his presence all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.
When the time came for her purification according to the law of Moses, Elizabeth brought the child up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple, and when Elizabeth brought in the child John, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
The child’s mother was amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to the mother, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to their own town of Bethlehem. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.
In the time of King Herod, after John was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. When Elizabeth heard that all the children were being destroyed, she was afraid and took the child and wrapped him up and put him in a stall of cows. But Herod continued seeking John. And when Elizabeth heard that John was still being sought, she took him and headed for the hills. And she looked around to find where she could hide him, but there was not any good place. Then, as Elizabeth sighed, she said with a loud voice, “Mountain of God, take me, a mother with her child.” For Elizabeth was too afraid to go up higher. And at once, the mountain split open and received her. And there was light shining through the mountain to her. For an angel of the Lord was with them, guarding them. The angel took John to safety in the wilderness, providing him with locusts and wild honey to eat, teaching him wisdom, and dressing him in camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist. The child John grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.