The untold story of Jesus’ birth—from the Gospel of James

The untold story of Jesus’ birth—from the Gospel of James December 12, 2018

birth of Jesus
The Nativity, Nicolas Mignard, 1656, via Wikimedia Commons

If you go looking for a story on the birth of Jesus in the Bible, you might come away disappointed. Of the four gospels that talk about the life of Jesus, only Matthew and Luke include the tale of the miraculous virgin birth—and while they agree on some key components, they tell different stories that may not match the simple narrative you’ve known since childhood.

That’s where the Gospel of James comes in. Also known as the Infancy Gospel of James, it was purportedly written by James, the step-brother of Jesus. It has elements of both Matthew and Luke but is a much longer story than you’ll find in Matthew and adds additional details you won’t find in Luke, while changing others. Read as a companion piece to Matthew and Luke, it paints a fuller, richer story of Jesus’ birth.

Where does the Gospel of James fit in with the other gospels?

Consider that the earliest known gospel, Mark, dates back to the year 70 AD, while John, the last gospel written, dates to the year 90-100 AD or some say to the early first century. The fact is all four gospels were written decades after the life and death of Jesus and came from an oral tradition. Stories about Jesus were passed around person-to-person until one day, many years later, they were written down.

According to experts, the Gospel of James dates back to 145 AD, during a time the early Christian church had scores of gospels in play. It was wildly popular across many cultures and was translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin. However, it was eventually barred from the official church canon and suppressed, as were hundreds of books that were part of the early Christian church. (All in an attempt to get early Christians literally on the same page.)

While the Gospel of James details the early life of Mary, it also covers the birth of Jesus, from the point of conception to his birth in a cave (the closest thing to a manger is the cow stall where baby Jesus is hidden). It goes out of its way to reinforce Mary’s virginity, including an unsettling passage on a post-birth physical examination, while also discussing a doubting Joseph who wonders how Mary got pregnant until his concerns are addressed by a visiting angel.

For the sake of space, this is a greatly shortened version of the text. You can find a full transcript here. Note that the part about the birth of Jesus appears in the third section of the gospel and not all of the details mentioned above are included in this excerpt. To avoid confusion, I’ve added a few notes in italics below.

An Excerpt from the Gospel of James

A voice said to her, “Rejoice, blessed one. The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” And Mary looked around to the right and the left to see where this voice came from. And trembling she went into her house. Setting down the cup, she took the purple thread and sat down on the chair and spun it.

Suddenly, an angel stood before her saying, “Do not be afraid Mary. You have found grace before the Lord of all. You will conceive from his word.” Upon hearing this, however, Mary was distraught, saying to herself, “If I conceive from the Lord God who lives, will I also conceive as all women conceive?”

And the Angel of the Lord said, “Not like that, Mary. For the power of God will come over you. Thus, the holy one who is born will be called son of the most high. And you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And Mary said, “See, I am the servant of the Lord before him. Let it happen to me according to what you say.”

Joseph was extremely frightened and kept quiet about her, pondering what he should do. And Joseph said to himself, “If I hide her sin, I will be rebelling against the law of the Lord. And if I expose her to the children of Israel . . . well, I am afraid that the child in her might be angelic and I will be betraying innocent blood to a judgment of death. What then will I do about her? I will send her away from me secretly.”

Night overtook him. And suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Do not fear this child. For the child in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son for you and you will call his name Jesus. For he will save his people from their sins.” And Joseph arose from his sleep and glorified the God of Israel who had given grace to him.

Later, Mary and Joseph are on the road, avoiding a census being conducted by Emperor Augustus.

When they came to the middle of the journey, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me off the donkey, the child is pushing from within me to let him come out.” So he took her off the donkey and said to her, “Where will I take you and shelter you in your awkwardness? This area is a desert.”

In the middle of the following section, the voice suddenly switches to that of Joseph.

And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, while he went to find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem. Then, Joseph wandered, but he did not wander. And I looked up to the peak of the sky and saw it standing still and I looked up into the air. With utter astonishment I saw it, even the birds of the sky were not moving.

And I saw a woman coming down from the mountain and she said to me, “Man, where are you going?” And I said, “I am seeking a Hebrew midwife.” Replying, she said to me, “Are you from Israel?” And I said to her, “Yes.” Then, she said, “And who is giving birth in the cave?” And I said, “The one who has pledged to be married to me.” And she said to me, “She is not your wife?”

And I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was raised in the temple. I won her by lot to be my wife. She is not yet my wife, but has a fetus from the Holy Spirit.” And the midwife said, “Really?” And Joseph said to her, “Come and see.” So the midwife went with him. And they stood near the cave and a dark cloud was hovering over the cave. And the midwife said, “My soul glorifies this day, for today my eyes have seen a miracle: salvation has come to Israel.”

And immediately, the cloud withdrew from the cave and a great light appeared in the cave so that their eyes could not bear it. And a little while later the same light withdrew until an infant appeared. And he came and took the breast of his mother, Mary. And the midwife cried out and said, “How great this day is for me, for I have seen this new miracle.”

Now, Joseph was about to depart to Judea when there a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judea. For astrologers had come, saying, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and came to worship him.”

And when Herod heard, he was shaken up and sent servants to the astrologers. And he also sent for the high priests and questioned them in his palace, saying to them, “What has been written about the messiah? Where will he be born?” They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written.” And he let them go.

And he questioned the astrologers, saying to them, “What sign did you see about the one who has been born king?” And the astrologers said, “We saw a star shining with incredible brilliance amidst the constellations and making them seem dim. And so we knew that the king had been born in Israel and we came to worship him.” And Herod said to them, “Go and search. If you find him, report to me so that I also may come and worship him.”

And the wise men departed. Then, the star which they had seen in the east led them until they came to the cave and stood over the head of the child. And when the astrologers saw him with his mother Mary, they took gifts out of their bags: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judea, they returned to their country by another road.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the astrologers, he flew into a rage and sent his executioners, telling them to destroy all the infants that were two years old or younger. And when Mary 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.

Here the action oddly switches to Elizabeth, a relative and possible cousin of Mary who is mentioned earlier in the Gospel of James. While Mary’s concern is Jesus, Elizabeth is worried about her son, John. She is aided by divine intervention and one can speculate that Mary received the same assistance.

She (Elizabeth) looked around to find where she could hide him (John), 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.

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