Gospel of James

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Template:Early Christian Writings

The Gospel of James also sometimes known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protevangelium of James probably written about AD 150. It is an apocryphal gospel, that was widely read but never accepted into the New Testament canon. Though the book is not an official part of Christian canon and hence "apocryphal", the Gospel of James may be the earliest surviving document attesting the veneration of Mary and her continuing virginity.


Authorship and date

The document presents itself as written by James: "I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem." Thus the purported author is James the Just, the brother of Jesus. Scholars have established that, based on the style of the language and the theological concerns, and the fact that the author is apparently not aware of contemporary Jewish customs, the work is pseudonymous. The echoes and parallels of the Old Testament appear to derive from its Greek translation, the Septuagint. Its content, emphasizing the continued virginity of Mary, would seem to make it an unlikely document to have been written by a brother of Jesus, ("if one existed" some Catholics might interject). In fact this is the earliest text that explicitly claims that Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary is entrusted to his care.

As for its estimated date, the consensus is that it was actually composed some time in the 2nd century AD. The first mention of it is by Origen, who adduces the text to demonstrate that the 'brethren of the Lord' were sons of Joseph by a former wife. So the text was already old enough in the second quarter of the 3rd century to be taken as authentic by Origen.

Manuscript tradition

Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing it have survived. The Gospel of James was translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin. Though no early Latin versions are known, it was relegated to the apocrypha in the Gelasian decretal, so must have been known in the West. As with the canonical gospels, the vast majority of the manuscripts come from the tenth century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the 3rd or early 4th century, was found in 1958; it is kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva (Papyrus Bodmer 5). Of the surviving Greek manuscripts, the fullest surviving text is a 10th century codex in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Paris 1454).


The Gospel of James is one of several surviving Infancy Gospels that give an idea of the miracle literature that was created to satisfy the hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of their Savior. In Greek such an infancy gospel was termed a protevangelion, a "pre-Gospel" narrating events of Jesus' life before those recorded in the four canonical gospels. Such a work was intended to be "apologetic, doctrinal, or simply to satisfy one's curiosity" [1] (http://www.osjoseph.org/stjoseph/apocrypha/). The literary genre that these works represent shows stylistic features that suggest dates in the second century and later. Other "infancy gospels" in this tradition include The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, The Infancy Gospel of Mark, and the so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel, all apocryphal.


The Gospel of James is in three equal parts, the first eight chapters containing the story of Mary's own unique birth and childhood, the second eight chapters concerning the crisis posed by Mary's becoming a woman and thus her imminent pollution of the temple, her assignment to Joseph as guardian, and the tests of her virginity, and the last eight chapters relating the Nativity, with the visit of midwives, the hiding of Jesus from Herod in a feeding trough, and even the parallel hiding of John the Baptist from Herod in the hills with his mother Elizabeth.

The Gospel of James depends on hints in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), and expands on what is told of these events in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. These legends appear to be embellishments upon the stories given in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The contents of this gospel describe the birth and childhood of Mary, the mother of Jesus, her coming of age and betrothal to Joseph, and the birth and early childhood of Jesus. One of the work's high points is the Lament of Anna. A primary theme is the work and grace of God in Mary's life, Mary's personal purity, and her perpetual virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, as confirmed by the midwife after she gave birth, and tested by "Salome" who is perhaps intended for Salome, later the disciple of Jesus mentioned at the Crucifixion by the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Besides the perpetual virginity of Mary, this is also the earliest text that explicitly claims that Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary is entrusted to his care. This is the feature which appears in its earliest mention, which is in a text of Origen, who adduces it to demonstrate that the 'brethren of the Lord' were sons of Joseph by a former wife. Since the text was regarded as heresy by the time of the Gelasian Decree, its dismissal may be due in part to to this reading of the adelpoi, which corresponded to the developed Eastern Orthodox view rather than the western, i.e. Roman Catholic, view, which treated them as cousins.

Among further traditions not present in the four canonical gospels are the birth of Jesus in a cave, and the martyrdom of John the Baptist's father Zechariah during the slaughter of the infants. The Nativity reported as taking place in a cave, with its Mithraic overtones, remained in the popular imagination; many Early Renaissance Sienese and Florentine paintings of the Nativity, as well as Byzantine, Greek and Russian icons of the Nativity, show such a chthonic setting.

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