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The Apocryphal New Testament Easy to use collection of English translations of the New Testament Apocrypha.

The Protevangelium of James

J. K. Elliott

The Protevangelium of James (PJ) is one of the most important and influential of the apocryphal gospels. It represents the earliest written elaboration of the canonical infancy narratives that has survived: what has sometimes been described as a midrashic exegesis of Matthew's and Luke's birth narratives finds permanent expression in this document. Theories that stated that PJ was the source of the canonical Gospels’ infancy narratives (Conrady) or that Matthew, Luke, and PJ were all dependent on a common written source (Resch) have not found general acceptance.

The influence of PJ was immense, and it may be said with some confidence that the developed doctrines of Mariology can be traced to this book. Together with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas PJ influenced other and later birth and childhood gospels such as Pseudo‐Matthew and the Arabic, Armenian, and Latin infancy traditions.

It seems to have been a popular book, and over one hundred extant Greek manuscripts, some of them dating from the third century, contain all or part of PJ. Translations were made into Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Sahidic, Old Church Slavonic, Armenian, and presumably into Latin (in so far as PJ was apparently known to the compiler of the Gelasian Decree). Thilo includes an early Arabic translation in his edition. In some cases (e.g. Ethiopic) the translation is very free, many liberties having been taken with the text. Others, such as the Syriac edited by A. Smith Lewis, are very literal. The absence of surviving early Latin translations 1 The Latin of Postel is a 16th‐cent. translation of a contemporary Greek manuscript. But see the Bibliography (below) under ‘Latin’. may be explained on two grounds. First, PJ was prohibited in the West because of its teaching about Joseph's first marriage. Secondly, the parallel development of Latin infancy gospels such as Pseudo‐Matthew and de Nativitate Mariae (both of which were commended by introductory letters attributed to Jerome, who had denounced PJ), as well as the story of Joseph the Carpenter and the Liber de Infantia, all of which were based on PJ, obviated the need for its survival in Latin, as these other writings served to satisfy the same needs. In the Eastern church PJ continued to enjoy great popularity.

Printed editions have been known in the West since the mid‐sixteenth century. The title by which the book is now known originated with Postel's Latin translation Protevangelion sive de natalibus Jesu Christi et ipsius Matris virginis Mariae, sermo historicus divi Jacobi minoris (Basle, 1552; 2Strasbourg, 1570), because he wished to imply that the contents of PJ were older than those in the canonical Gospels. The title in the Bodmer Papyrus V text is ‘The Birth of Mary: Revelation of James’. The second half of the title is patently unsuitable, as PJ is in no sense apocalyptic. Even the first half is not entirely accurate because much more is related than Mary's birth. Variations of this title occur in other manuscripts. Origen refers to the book as that of James.

In PJ 25. 1 the author claims to be James the step‐brother of Jesus by Joseph's first marriage, and the Gelasian Decree identifies him with James the Less of Mark 15: 40 . In fact the author is unknown. He is not likely to have been a Jew: there is in PJ a great ignorance not only of Palestinian geography but also of Jewish customs (e.g. Joachim is forbidden to offer his gifts first because of childlessness; Mary is taken to be a ward of the Temple; Joseph plans to go from Bethlehem to Judea).

Most scholars now date PJ, or at least the bulk of the first draft of PJ, to the second half of the second century. It may well be that one of the motives behind the original composition was to counter the views of Celsus expressed c.170 (see further below). Attempts to prove that links between Justin (died 165) and PJ (e.g. Apology 1. 33 and PJ 11. 3 link Luke 1: 35 and Matt. 1: 21 ; cf. also Dialogue with Trypho 100. 5 and PJ 12. 2; Apology 1. 33, 36 and PJ 11. 2) are due to Justin's familiarity with PJ have not generally been accepted, and the counter‐arguments of de Strycker, pp. 414–17, are significant. There is, however, no doubt that a terminus ad quem may be found in the patristic testimony of Origen (died 254) and Clement of Alexandria (died 215). The oldest explicit reference to the existence of PJ is in Origen, on Matt. 10. 17 (Klostermann and Benz, pp. 21–2): Origen is aware of the teaching about Joseph's first marriage (on Matt. 9. 2; 17. 1 (ibid. pp. 575 f.)) and of the birth in a cave (c. Cels. 1. 51 (ed. P. Koetschau, GCS 2 (Leipzig, 1899), p. 101)). Clement's testimony is to be found in Strom. 7. 16. 93 (Stählin, GCS 172, p. 661). The Bodmer Papyrus V has been dated to the third century and already shows secondary developments.

The Ascension of Isaiah 11 written early in the second century has a similar account of the birth to that found in PJ, but dependence of one on the other is difficult to prove. Ignatius, ad Eph. 19, implies virginity in partu, and the Odes of Solomon 19 also shows knowledge of this. All that this need suggest is a common provenance, possible Syrian.

As apocryphal texts were not sacred scripture they were subjected to a greater degree of alteration, addition, and abridgement than canonical writings. It may well be that some parts of PJ printed below are later than the second century.

The unity of PJ has often been questioned. PJ 22–4 in particular, the socalled Apocryphum Zachariae, seems not to have been known to Origen, who gives in his writings a reason for Zacharias’ death that differs from the version in PJ. These chapters have been seen as a later addition based on the analogy of the Jesus–John stories of Luke, and the death of Zacharias as an elaboration of Matt. 23: 35 . Peeters, in Michel, i. p. xvii, assigned the composition of these chapters to the sixth century. Other scholars in the last hundred years, such as Harnack, were prepared to argue that three separate documents (PJ 1–16, 17–20, and 22–4) were combined in the fourth century and chapters 21 and 25 then added. Recent discoveries have tended to undermine such arguments for disunity. The Pistelli fragment, of the fourth century, contains chapters 13–23 and thus cuts across the three sections. The Bodmer Papyrus V has certain abbreviations, especially in chapters 19 and 20 , but the unity of 1–25 is not in question. É. de Strycker's major study of PJ argues for the homogeneity of the book on literary, linguistic, and paleographical grounds.

This does not, however, mean that the author did not make use of earlier written material in the composition of his work. The stories of Mary, of Jesus’ birth, and of Zacharias’ death may all have reached him from separate sources. Joseph's first‐person narrative in 18. 2–7 probably came from an earlier written source, and invites comparison with the ‘We’ sections of the Acts of the Apostles. It is absent from P. Bodmer V. The story of the midwife could also have reached the author from another source. Certainly, Salome and the midwife are very suddenly introduced into the narrative. Other arguments for disunity (such as the apparent difference in attitude to Judaism between the piety of the Jews in the Temple caring for Mary their ward, and the lamenting Jews of 17. 2) can be explained on other grounds, not least the author's inconsistencies as a storyteller, about which more below.

Although the birth of Jesus is recounted, the main motive behind the composition is to glorify Mary by telling of her birth, childhood, and marriage. In accord with the demands of popular piety responsible for the growth of much apocryphal material, PJ sets out to satisfy curiosity about Jesus' antecedents by filling in the gaps left in the canonical material. Unlike much apocryphal literature, it is relatively restrained in its style. Its approach is sincere, although it is apologetic. One motive behind the composition seems to have been the defence of aspects of Christianity in the light of attacks on it by such as Celsus. Our author is concerned to tell us that Jesus' parents were not poor: Joseph is a building contractor; Mary spins, but not for payment. Another apologetic motive is to defend the conception of Jesus against charges of sexual irregularity: Mary's virginity is vindicated before Joseph (14. 2) and the priests (16).

A strong dogmatic motive lies behind the writing, too. The author wishes to stress that not only is Jesus' conception virginal but that his birth too preserved Mary's virginity. Virginity in partu is combined with a belief in Mary's perpetual virginity: the siblings of Jesus known from the canonical Gospels are explained in PJ as being Joseph's children of a previous marriage. Subsequent church opinion in the West found such teaching unacceptable: Jerome was instrumental in condemning this teaching in PJ as wrong, and he argued that Jesus' siblings were his cousins. Jerome's explanations met with papal approval and were responsible for the decline in the use of PJ in the West.

The biographical interest in this book centres on Mary, her miraculous birth (not her immaculate conception), her youth, and her marriage. The teaching in PJ includes the Davidic descent of Mary, itself of apologetic significance once the Davidic descent of Jesus through Joseph is rendered of no significance after Joseph is presented only as the supposed father of Jesus. Also of relevance for encouraging the enhancement of Mary is that she is seen in PJ as an instrument of divine salvation in her own right.

The catalepsy of all creation at Jesus' birth seems to be innovative although it may be compared to other nature miracles such as the earthquake and eclipse at the time of the crucifixion.

The historical value of the stories in PJ is insignificant. The names of Mary's parents, the names of Reuben, Zacharias, and Samuel are all fictitious. Zacharias is wrongly identified with Zacharias of Matt. 23: 35 . Simeon was not a high‐priest. The water of jealousy was not administered to men. The oracular plate on the forehead is not known outside PJ. Other peculiar details include the contradiction of the angelic annunciation (12. 2, cf. 11) and the warning given to the Magi not to go to Judea when they were already there (21. 4). 2 Among other inconsistencies Mary is 12 in 8. 2–3, but 16 in 12. 3; Joseph has many sons according to 9. 2, 17. 1, 18. 3, but only one in 17. 2. Such details do not necessarily indicate the author's use of variant sources; they may result from his own lack of interest in, or awareness of, such apparent inconsistencies.

The main inspiration and sources behind PJ have been the birth stories in Matthew and Luke and the Old Testament. Like Luke 1–2 the language of PJ is heavily influenced by the LXX. The name of Mary's mother, Anna, may have come from Luke's birth story, but the figures of Hannah, Samuel's mother, Susanna in the additions to Daniel, and Manoah's wife in Judges 13 have been models for Anna. The name Joachim may have been suggested by Susanna's husband in the additions to Daniel, but Manoah and Elkanah in 1 Samuel have also been models. 1 Samuel in particular seems to have served the author of PJ as a source. The popularity of the LXX version of 1 Samuel and of the story of Susanna in the second century AD seems evident.

Most surviving Greek manuscripts of PJ are later than the tenth century. The eighteen used by Tischendorf are all late; details are given in his Prolegomena. Since his time four earlier manuscripts have come to light:

  • 1. B. P. Grenfell, An Alexandrian Erotic Fragment and other Greek Papyri chiefly Ptolemaic (Oxford, 1896), pp. 13–19 (contains PJ 16. 1–21. 4). Fifth–sixth century.

  • 2. E. Pistelli, Pubblicazioni della Società italiana per la ricerca dei papiri. Papiri greci e latini (Florence, 1912), pp. 9–15 (contains PJ 13. 1–23. 3). Fourth century.

  • 3. H. Schöne, ‘Palimpsestblätter des Protevangeliums Jacobi in Cesena’, in Westfälische Studien Festschrift A. Bömer, (Leipzig, 1928), pp. 263–76 (contains fragments of PJ 14; 15; 16. 2; 17. 1–2, 18; 18). Ninth century.

  • 4. P. Bodmer V, published in 1958. Fourth century.

J. van Haelst, Catalogue des papyrus littéraires juifs et chrétiens (Paris, 1976) refers to other fragments. His 601 (P Grenf. 1. 8) contains PJ 7. 2–10. 1; his 602, which he plans to edit, contains 3. 3–4. 4. In addition Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 50, publishes a sixth‐century papyrus containing PJ 25. P. Ashmoleana inv. 9 contains a fragment of PJ 13. 3–14. 2 and 15. 2–4, to be published by J. Bingen in Papyrologica Bruxellensia.

The first edition of the printed Greek text, based on a now unknown manuscript, was by M. Neander (Neumann) in 1564. His text was used in the editions of Grynaeus, Fabricius, Jones, and Birch. Birch's may be seen as the first text‐critical edition; in addition he made use of two Vatican manuscripts. Thilo's edition was based on Paris 1454 (= Tischendorf's C) with an apparatus that included seven other Paris manuscripts and Birch's two Vatican manuscripts. Suckow's text reproduced a Venice manuscript (= Tischendorf's A).

The composite new text created by Tischendorf from eighteen manuscripts, of which C is deemed to be the best, has been the most influential edition from which most modern versions have stemmed, although Hennecke gives prominence to the text of Bodmer V. É. de Strycker's attempt to establish the oldest form of PJ tries to combine the text of Tischendorf with that of Bodmer V.

My translation is based on Tischendorf.


1 The Latin of Postel is a 16th‐cent. translation of a contemporary Greek manuscript. But see the Bibliography (below) under ‘Latin’.

2 Among other inconsistencies Mary is 12 in 8. 2–3, but 16 in 12. 3; Joseph has many sons according to 9. 2, 17. 1, 18. 3, but only one in 17. 2.

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