Gospel of James

Gospel of James
Date ~140-170 AD
Attribution James, brother of Jesus
Sources Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of John,[1] Septuagint, extracanonical traditions
Theme Virginity of Mary and birth of Jesus

The Gospel of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protoevangelium of James, is an apocryphal gospel probably written about AD 145, which expands backward in time the infancy stories contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and presents a narrative concerning the birth and upbringing of Mary herself. It is the oldest source outside the New Testament to assert the virginity of Mary not only prior to, but during (and after) the birth of Jesus.[2] The ancient manuscripts that preserve the book have different titles, including "The Birth of Mary", "The Story of the Birth of Saint Mary, Mother of God," and "The Birth of Mary; The Revelation of James."[3]

Authorship and date

The document presents itself as written by James: "I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem."[4] The purported author is thus James, the brother of Jesus, but scholars have concluded that the work was not written by the person to whom it is attributed, but was composed some time in the mid to late 2nd century.[5]

That conclusion is based on the style of the language and the fact that the author describes certain activities as contemporary Jewish customs that probably did not exist. For example, the work suggests there were consecrated temple virgins in Judaism, similar to the Vestal Virgins in pagan Rome, but that is never directly stated to have been a practice in mainstream Judaism. Conversely, some Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics argue that the Old Testament shows that the idea of Mary being a consecrated virgin is plausible and claim the practice of consecrated virginity was within Judaism since the days of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:22),[6] and until the time of the Maccabees (2 Macc 3:19-20). A similar claim is also made by a number of Rabbinic sources.[7]

The consensus is that it was actually composed in the latter half of the 2nd century. The first mention of it is by Origen of Alexandria in the early 3rd century, who says the text, like that of a Gospel of Peter, was of dubious, recent appearance and shared with that book the claim that the "brethren of the Lord" were sons of Joseph by a former wife.[8]

Although a number of Church councils condemned it as an inauthentic writing of the New Testament, this did little to diminish its popularity. Pope Innocent I condemned this Gospel of James in his third epistle ad Exuperium in 405 AD, and the so-called Gelasian Decree also excluded it as canonical around 500 AD.[9][10] Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae rejects the Protevangelium of James teaching that midwives were present at Christ's birth, and invokes Jerome as contending that the words of the canonical gospels show that Mary was both mother and midwife, that she wrapped up the child with swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. And thus concludes, "These words prove the falseness of the apocryphal ravings."[11]


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 Saviour. 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".[12] The literary genre that these works represent shows stylistic features that suggest dates in the 2nd century and later. Other infancy gospels in this tradition include The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (based on the Protevangelium of James and on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas), and the so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel; all of which were regarded by the Church as apocryphal.

Manuscript tradition

Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that over 150 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 it must have been known in the West by the fifth century though the vast majority of the manuscripts come from the 10th century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the third 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 text is a 10th-century codex in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (Paris 1454).


The Gospel of James is in three equal parts, of eight chapters each:

  • The first contains the story of the unique birth of Mary to Anna and her childhood and dedication to the temple.
  • The second starts when she is 12 years old, and through the direction of an angel, Joseph is selected to become her husband.
  • The third relates the Nativity of Jesus, with the visit of midwives, hiding of Jesus from Herod the Great in a feeding trough and the parallel hiding in the hills of John the Baptist and his mother (Elizabeth) from Herod Antipas.

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 to be Salome, later the disciple of Jesus who is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as being one of the women at the crucifixion.

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 feature is mentioned in the text of Origen, who adduces it to demonstrate that the 'brethren of the Lord' were sons of Joseph by a former wife.[8]

Among further traditions not present in the four canonical gospels are the birth of Jesus in a cave, the martyrdom of John the Baptist's father Zechariah during the Massacre of the Innocents and Joseph's being elderly when Jesus was born. The Nativity reported as taking place in a cave remained in the popular imagination; many Early Renaissance Sienese and Florentine paintings of the Nativity continued to show such a setting, which is practically universal in Byzantine, Greek and Russian icons of the Nativity. The Gospel also describes the narrative of Mary’s early childhood in the holiest part of the temple, which was later also mentioned in the Qur’an.[13]

See also


  1. Porter, J. R. (2010). The Lost Bible. New York: Metro Books. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-4351-4169-8.
  2. Gambero, Luigi (11 June 1999). "Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought". Ignatius Press via Google Books.
  3. Ehrman, Bart D. (2 October 2003). "Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament". Oxford University Press via Google Books.
  4. "The Book of James--Protevangelium". www.gnosis.org.
  5. Barriger, Lawrence. "The Protoevangelium of St. James", American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A.
  6. "Mary would thus serve the Lord at the Temple, as women had for centuries (1 Sam. 2:22)" "Mary: Ever Virgin", at catholic.com
  7. Dr. Taylor Marshall, "Did Jewish Temple Virgins exist?", December 2011
  8. 1 2 Origen of Alexandria. "The Brethren of Jesus". Origen's Commentary on Matthew 10.17 in Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume IX. Retrieved 2008-09-18. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or "The Book of James," that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee," might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her.
  9. Betsworth, Sharon (2014). Children in early christian literature : children as characters, metaphors, and types in early... [S.l.]: T & T Clark. p. 169. ISBN 978-0567235466.
  10. Cumming, John (1849). Books on Google Play A Preservative Against Popery, in Several Select Discourses. United Kingdom. p. 320. ISBN 978-0243973637. Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  11. Aquinas, Thomas. "Summa Theologiae, Third Part". New Advent. Kevin Knight. Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  12. Toschi, O.S.J., Larry M. Toschi."St. Joseph in Apocrypha", Oblates of St. Joseph
  13. "The smashers of Mary's images are acting more against statues than against her". The Economist. 30 Nov 2017. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
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