Mary 8 – Protoevangelion of James

The oldest surviving complete text containing the even older oral tradition of the life of Mary is the Protoevangelion of James from the second century. There appear to be some older works that are quoted in later writings, but none of those have survived. The Protoevangelion of James is about the life of Mary up to the events surrounding the nativity. It’s not written by James, of course, which is why the Church did not include it in the canon lists of the New Testament. The only texts considered Scripture by the Church were those surviving texts written by an apostolic author — someone who had seen and been sent by the risen Lord. However, while some works were rejected completely and were not to be read at all, there were in the ancient world (as continues to be true today) many works that were considered valuable to read even though they were not Scripture. The Didache (often considered to have been distilled by those who were ‘traditioned’ the faith by Paul and/or Barnabas) and the Shepherd of Hermas are such works from the first century. This is one from the first half of the second century. If you’ve never read it, it’s not very long and worth taking the time to read.

The writing also describes a couple of events that are celebrated as major Feasts within the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church. It describes the Nativity of the Theotokos, born to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna. And it describes the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the West).

I happen to find some of the things people use to reject the protoevangelium interesting. For instance it describes Jesus being born in a cave as is depicted in the icons of the Nativity. If you look around online, you’ll find some people attributing the reference to a cave as Mithraic in origin and a reason to reject the account. Ironically, modern archeology has revealed that animals in that region at that time were often kept in naturally insulated rock-cut caves. It’s an instance where an ancient tradition that had been discounted by many is now known to be pretty likely. And that makes sense. Many of the people who preserved the text lived in that region. If the text (or the older oral traditions it captured) had been discordant with things they knew, they wouldn’t have accepted and preserved it.

You’ll also find people who reject the tradition because of its description of temple virgins. They attribute those references to the pagan Roman vestal virgins. However, there’s ample evidence in the text of Scripture and in extra-biblical sources like the Mishnah for a liturgical role for specifically Jewish temple virgins. Moreover, the document and the oral tradition it captures date from a time when many Jews were still converting to Christianity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was not some distant event. It was still recent. And, at least according to apologists like Justin Martyr, Jewish leaders were trying to stem the conversions and discredit the Christian claims. If the description of temple virgins had had no basis in reality, there would have been no ground for the tradition to take root. That should be easy to see with just a little bit of historical imagination.

I have to admit I find it odd that so many people who don’t hesitate to read modern commentaries, theological, and inspirational books, reject out of hand ancient works that fall into the same category. You do have to be discerning, of course. But in a modern landscape filled with the likes of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, and Bishop Spong you have to be pretty discerning in what you choose to read today as well.

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