Tag Archives: Apocrypha

Impressions of “The Shepherd of Hermas,” translated by Daniel Robinson

The Shepherd of Hermas is early Christian apocrypha.

Shepherd was probably written about the same time as 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, and The Protoevangelium of James but the style is modern. Shepherd is also archetypical, and reads like a compansion to Jordan Peterson. Its Christology is mainstream — with the exception of a novel Procession of the Trinity. Like other apocryphal literature its purpose was to provide a bridge to Christianity — in the case of Shepherd, that community is well-off Romans.

The Writing

The framing of Shepherd reminds me of C.S. Lewis, in particular his use of a fictionalized version of himself as the narrator in The Great Divorce.

Just as the framing device in Divorce is a Lewis on bus ride, the frame for Shepherd is a long walk interrupted by visions:

Twenty days after the former vision, brothers, I saw another — a representation of the tribulation that is to come. I was going to a country house along the Campanian road, which is about one and-a-quarter miles from the public road (the district is one that is rarely traveled).
“The Fourth Vision”

The author at turns ironically chides himself:

They were stubborn and eager to place themselves, wishing to know everything and yet knowing nothing at all. Because they were unbending, understanding left them, and foolish senselessness entered into them. They praise themselves as having wisdom, and though they are destitute of sense they desire to become teachers.
“The Ninth Parable”

And at other times, is heavier in his self-criticism:

“Because, sir, I don’t know if I can be saved!” I replied.

“Why is that?”

“Because I never spoke a true word in my life, but have always spoken deceitfully to everyone, and made lies out to be truth. No one ever contradicted me, but rather believed my words. How can I live since I have acted like this?”
“The Third Commandment”

In The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton ensnares the reader by first writing ina secular or licentious way, and then (all while retaining a present-perfect point-of-view) transitioning to a more discerning perspective. Shepherd does the same — the gazing upon a naked woman is at first denied to be lustful:

The master who raised me sold me to a woman named Rhoda in Rome. Mayn years after this I met her again, and began to love her as a sister. Some time after I saw her bathing in the Tiber river, and I gave her my hand and drew her out of the river. The sight of her beauty made me think to myself,” I’d be a happy man if I could get a wife as good and beautiful as she is.” This was the only thought that passed through my mind — this and nothing more.
“The First Vision”

until the truth is revealed, and the narrator of the Shepherd’s self-criticisms become not-so-gentle after all:

With a smile she [a woman in a vision] replied, “The desire of wickness arose in your heart. Isn’t it your opinion that a righteous man commits sin when an evil desire arises in his hearth? In such a case there is sin — and the sin is great, for the thoughts of a righteous man should be righteous. By thinking righteously his character is established in the heavens, and he will find the Lord merciful to him in everything. But those who entertain wicket thoughts in their minds bring death and captivity on themselves, especially those who set their affections on this world and the glory in their riches, and don’t look forward to the blessings of the world to come.
“The First Vision”

I am not aware of any of the books of scripture which use such an unreliable narrator — though of course some (as Robert Alter has explained at depth) were at least using the tools of fiction.

The Archetypes

I am grateful that I finished Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief immediately before beginning Shepherd. Just as the narative similarity to C.S. Lewis stories makes me suspect Lewis took notes from Shepherd, the self-conscious use of archetypes in Shepherd imply a similar understanding of the collective unconscious. (Either the author of Shepherd and Carl Jung came to very similar conclusions about archetypes, or Shepherd is one source document for Jung’s theory.)

This is true both in its prescriptions,

Instead ask the Lord, so that you may receive understanding to know them. You cannot see what is behind you, but rather what is before you .So whatever you cannot see, let it alone, and do not torment yourself about it. Make yourself the master of what you do see, and don’t waste your energy on other things.
“The Ninth Parable”

which echo Peterson’s from 12 Rules for Life

Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

… and in more complex allegories:

I also saw other stones which had been thrown far away from the Tower and landed in the public road; and they did not stay on the road, but were rolled into a pathless place. I saw other stones falling into the fire and burning, and others falling close to the water yet not capable of being rolled into it, even though they wanted to enter.
“The Third Vision”

Peterson’s interpretation of the “path”:

The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree — is the individual who voluntarily carves out the space between nature and culture. The interpretation of words in relationship to these prototypes (unknown, knower, known) is complicated by the fact of shifting meaning: earth, for example, is unknown (feminine) in relationship to sky, but known (masculine) in relationship to water; dragon is feminine, masculine and subject simultaneously.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 90

The same is true of the archetype of the water-beast…

I had gone on a little farther when, suddenly, I saw dust rising up as high as the heavens about two-hundred yards away. “Are cattle approaching and raising the dust?” I thought out loud. Then I saw more and more dust rising, and I started to think it was something sent from God. The sun shone out a little and suddenly I saw a mighty beast like a whale, a hundred feet long and with a head shaped like an urn, and fiery locusts were coming out of its mouth. I began to weep, and to call on the Lord to rescue me from it, but then I remembered the words I had heard: “Doubt not, O Hermas.”

Therefore, my brothers, clothed with faith in the Lord, and remembering the great things He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now it came on with such noise and force that it could have easily destroyed a whole city, yet when I came near it the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, showing nothing but its tongue, and did not move at all until I had passed it be. “The Fourth Vision”

… which likewise is addressed by Peterson:

The battle of a god against an ophidian or marine monster is well known to constitute a widespread mythological theme. We need only remember the struggle between Re and Apophis, between the Sumerian god Ninurta and Asag, Marduk and Tiamat, the Hittite storm god and the serpent Illuyankas, Zeus and Typhon, the Iranian hero Thraetona and the three-headed dragon Azhi-dahaka. In certain cases (Marduk-Tiamat, for example) the god’s victory constitutes the preliminary condition for the cosmogony. In other cases the stake is the inauguration of a new era or the establishment of a new sovereignty (cf. Zeus-Typhon, Baal-Yam). In short, it is by the slaying of an ophidian monster — symbol of the virtual, of “chaos,” but also of the “autochthonous” — that a new cosmic or institutional “situation” comes into existence. A characteristic feature, and one common to all these myths, is the fright, or a first defeat, of the champion (Marduk and Re hesitate before fighting; at the onset, the serpent Illyunakas succeeds in mutilating the god; Typhon succeeds in cutting and carrying off Zeus’s tendons). According to the Satapatha Brahmana (1.6.3-17), Indra, on first seeing Vrtra, runs away as far as possible, and the Markandeya Purana describes him as “sick with fear” and hoping for peace.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 117

The similarity with Peterson is all the more notable, as while Peterson’s theory of the Son redeemer the Father seems to be original to him, Shepherd‘s concept of the Son proceeding from the Holy Spirit is likewise unique.

The Trinity

The “procession of the Trinity” refers to the way the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other, considering that each Person is eternal and co-equal with the others. For the past thousand years the main question in the Procession has been whether the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father alone, or from the Father and the son. Western and Eastern Christians to this day pray the Nicene Creed differently, with Western Christians adding the words in bold to strew the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the son:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
Nicene Creed

While this difference in formula may or may not be theological, there is a unity in this difference: almost all contemporary Christians profession either a Father-Son-Spirit procession, or a Father-Son and Father-Spirit co-procession.

The view of the Shepherd of Hermas seems to be different, and describes the Father, then the Spirit, and then the Son.

God caused that holy, pre-existent Spirit which created all things to dwell in a body which he chose. The body into which that holy Spirit was placed served the Spirit, walking rightly and purely in humbleness, never defiling that Spirit. The body obeyed that holy Spirit at all times, laboring rightly and virtuously with Him and not faltering in any way. That wearied body served in humility, but was mightily approved to god with the Holy Spirit, and was accepted by Him. This courageous course pleased God because e was not defiled in the earth but kept the Spirit holy. Therefore He called His Son and the glorious angels as fellow councilors, so that this body might be given a place of honor — since it had served the Holy Spirit blamelessly — and that it would not seem to have lost the reward of its service. For the body in which the Holy Spirit dwelt that has been found without spot of defilement will receive a reward.
The Shepherd of Hermas, “The Fifth Parable”

This is confusingly even laid out in a parable, when it’s revealed that the “son” of the story is in fact the Spirit!

“The field is this world, and the lord of the field is He who created, perfected, and strengthened all things; the son is the Holy Spirit, and the slave is the Son of God.
“The Fifth Parable”

This surprised me, and is rare, because a Father-Spirit-Son view is not one that can be derived easily from the Bible. A sort of Duotheism can be found in the Hebrew Bible, and Jewish Messianism a core of the Christian New Testament, but these both rely on the importance o the Father and the Son.

In a footnote the translator insists on using “holy Spirit” for “Holy Spirit,” and debates what seems to be a straw-man argument that Shepherd is adoptionist — that it argues Jesus was a holy man who was simply adopted as Son of God, perhaps in the manner of his ancestor David. But I don’t think that this is a point. Rather, Shepherd was written for a Roman audience used to philosophical monotheism, who could more easily view the Spirit as proceeding from the Father, and the Son in some way as coming from the Spirit. I would argue, though, that by using this Procession of the Trinity both the writer and the readers missed one of the central but most confusing claims of Christianity: that the Creator became a creature.

Thus, while Shepherd misses out on an important Christian message, its lack of easy compatibility with the Nicene Creed is not as terrible as it may seem. The Creeds are not the central statements of Christianity. As N.T. Wright notes, they are statements against specific heresies. To the best of my knowledge, the Father-Spirit-Son procession was simply unknown or irrelevant to the Fathers who promulgated the Nicean creeds, and thus was not intentionally condemned.

The Romans and the New Testament

The non-canonical Messianic works I have read — 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, Protoevangelium, and now Shepherd all translated Christianity to populations with their own traditions. 1 Enoch tells an exciting story of the war of angels, 2 Esdras emphasizes the Jewish nature of Chrstianity, and Protoevangelium turns the Holy family into the stars of a melodrama with a recurring cast.

Shepherd of Hermas, the most philosophical and self-aware of the works, is a bridge for wealth Romans to the religion preached by the carpenter from Nazareth:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Mark 10:17-31

The Shepherd is patient with the rich, and provides a path for salvation even for those poor sinners who in material things are not as poor:

“Listen, he said. “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in things that relate to the Lord becaues he is distracted by his riches. He offers very few confessions and prayers to the Lord, and those he does offer are small and weak, and hav eno power above. But when the rich man refreshes the poor and assists them in their needs, believing that what he does to the poor will be able to find its reward with God, he helps them in everything without hestitation. And the poor man, being helped by the rih man, prays for him, giving thanks to God for the one who gave him the gifts. The rich man continues in a zealous conern for hte poor man to make sure his needs are constantly supplied, for he knows that the prayer of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God. So both accomplish their work in their own way: teh poor man continues in prayer — which is the very riches he has received from the Lord — nand in this way pays back the one who helped him. The rich man, in the same way, unhesitatingly gives the poor man the riches he has received from the Lord. This is a great and acceptable work before God, because the rich man understands the purpose of his wealth, and has rightly carried out his duty to God by giving to the poor what the Lord has given to him.
“The Second Parable”

The Shepherd (as did later writers who referred to “Green Martyrdom“) also recognized as martyrs those who accepted partial mortification, whether by Roman persecution, loss of business, or friends:

The ones who returned their branches green with offshoots but no fruit are those who were not put to death, but have been afflicted because of the law and did not deny it.
“The Eighth Parable”

Finally, the Shepherd has an original teaching about the Harrowing of Hell and baptism. Heiser, in The Unseen Realm, notes the connection between these two passage as emphasizing that the fallen angels, who provoked the flood, were visited by Christ after the crucifixion…

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long-suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.

There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
1 Peter 3:18-22

… but Shepherd allegorically reads that passage as indicating the spirits who are preached to in prison by Christ as us, in this world, before our baptism.

“Even those who fell asleep had to receive the seal of the Son of God, for before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. Once he receives the seal, he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they rise up alive. So this seal was preached to those who had fallen asleep, and they took advantage of it so that they might enter into the kingdom of God.”
“The Ninth Parable”

This is an interesting interpretation. The Harrowing of Hell is normally considered a supernatural-historical event while baptisms are performed constantly — but perhaps they are not so different after all!

The Conclusion

While Shepherd is a striking book — both very modern and very old in its style, both inclusive of a gentile readership and exclusive of our Procession of the Trinity, it was not read as any of these things when it was written.

It was read as proclaiming Christ, as calling people to holiness, as pleading with them to repent. Crying for us sinners to live the gospel in their lives:

“Therefore do good works, you who have received good from the Lord! While you delay in doing them the building of the Tower may be completed and you will be rejected from it — and there is no other tower to be built! The work on that Tower was suspended for your sake, and unless you hurry to act rightly, it will be finished and you will be excluded.”
“The Ninth Parable”

Amen!

The Protoevangelium of James

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both well-intentioned, separated much of the Christian world from their heritage. The great Christian debates of the late middle ages were collapsed into a ridiculous dispute over faith and works. Christian festivals and popular culture were lost all over western Europe, as described by Phillip Jenkins in The Many Faces of Christ by Phillip Jenkinks. One such popular work, ironically most Central preserved in Islam, but still remembered in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, is The Protoevangelium [First-Gospel] of James. I once called it “Joseph/Mary fan fiction.” That’s correct. But the Protoevangelium takes place before the Gospels. Really, it’s a prequel.

Most Christian perspectives separate the Scriptures (that which was written down) and the Tradition (the guide to that which was written down, which itself was not written down). But it’s not always clear where one begins or one ends. Are the Catholic Deuterocanon, “Secondary” Scriptures like Tobit or Maccabees), part of the Scriptures or Tradition? What of prayers (like the Prayer of Mannasseh) and prayer-like works, such as 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras. Books in the above list are considered part of the Scriptures by at least some Christian traditions.

The Protoevangelium is not considered Scripture by anyone. But it captures much of the Tradition of many Christians. The Protoevangelium is something like the script of a nativity play, or a pre-cinematic of Christian films like The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, like Passion, Protoevangelium was written in an explicitly Catholic tradition, takes the Faith seriously, but also incorporates other devout but non-canonical and even imaginary material.

A Prequel

The Protoevangelium is to the Gospels what the Star Wars prequels were to the original trilogy. Like the Star Wars prequels, the Protoevangelium clearly takes place in the same “universe” as the Gospels and includes many of the same characters — to the point of implausibility.

A problem with prequels in general is that if the characters really did have these adventures, why were they forgotten? This happened to the Jedi in Star Wars. In the original film, Luke can hardly believe that Jedi were real. But only two decades before the Jedi were a highly visible arm of the central government with a large office building in the capital and a prominent role in economic rule-making. Is it really credible that everyone forgot this — that the mere existence of a government agency — be forgotten in twenty years?

There are many many articles, videos, and podcasts about this mystery, but the same could be asked of most popular prequels:

Protoevangelium questions might included

  • How did Joseph’s staff become not even a myth in the Gospels?
  • Why did everyone forget about Mary and Joseph?
  • Why did Jerusalem apparently become a much larger city in 30 years?

Of course, people can forget. Especially sick people. This is what distinguishes prequel-style blindness from the mental blindness of a legitimately dramatic figure, like King Saul in the Book of Samuel, where once-renounced individuals appear to be unknown, is the dual introduction of David son of Jesse. He is King Saul’s musician:

But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Surely, a distressing spirit from God is troubling you. Let our master now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp. And it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well.”

So Saul said to his servants, “Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”

Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him.”

Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” And Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a young goat, and sent them by his son David to Saul.
1 Samuel 16:14-20

yet when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul does not recognize him, and Saul’s assistant Abner does not point this out:

When Saul saw David going out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?”

And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.”

So the king said, “Inquire whose son this young man is.”

Then, as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?”

So David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”
1 Samuel 17:55-58

But in Samuel this is an example of psychological realism: Saul’s mental decay has already gone, and is now accelerating as even loyal men, like Abner, no longer treat him like a competent actor. The priest’s forgetting of Mary and Joseph does not teach us a lesson though. It simply indicates Star Wars-quality writing.

The Backstories

The Protoevangelium gives back-stories for numerous characters in the Gospels, including Mary, Joseph, and even minor characters.

Mary, Mother of God

The story of uses Mary to parallel the life of Christ. Christ’s humanity is a vital part of the scriptures, and Christ’s shedding of blood is a lesson: God bleeds and suffers with men.

Mary likewise is a woman and not some abstract platonic spirit, and herself the daughter of a real woman.

The midwife said, “A girl.”

Anna said, “My soul exalts this day.” And she put her baby to bed.

After her days were completed, Anna cleansed her menstrual flow and gave her breast to the child and gave her the name Mary.

Day by day, the child grew stronger. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground to test whether she could stand. And after walking seven steps, she came to her mother’s breast.
Protoevangelium 5:7-6:2

Mary was raised in the Temple itself and her approaching menstrual cycles were a topic of discussion for the High Priests:

When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?”
Protoevangelium 8:3-4

There are two obvious reasons for this. The first, the shocking claim that God was born of a woman, a claim that in much of the Muslim world can still get one killed, doubtless appealed to women. And the second, that Mary herself was a type of Christ, as is every mother.

Blessed Joseph, Her Spouse

Joseph is specifically invited to be part of a Temple marry-a-virgin contest, and wins it by a miracle. No one in the Gospels ever mentions this, or thinks it relevant to events only a generation later.

Throwing down his ax, Joseph went out to meet them. And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest. After receiving everyone’s rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed. When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph’s head. And the high priest said, “Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping.”
Protoevangelium 9:1-7

Joseph is a widower, and old man, and the perpetual chastity of the Holy Couple is explained and more plausible in that way.

The Protoevangelium also dramatizes the confrontation between Joseph and Mary as the pregnancy becomes obvious. They are the second couple in this work, after Joachim and Anna, to be well textured.

You can hear their shouting:

In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Joseph came from his house-building and went into the house to find her swelling. And he struck his face and threw himself on the ground in sackcloth and wept bitterly,

And Joseph got up from his sackcloth and called her and said to her,

“After having been cared for by God, what have you done?
Did you forget the Lord your God?
You who were raised in the holy of holies, you who received from the hand of an angel, do you know how much you have humiliated yourself?”

Then, she wept bitterly, saying, “I am pure and I did not know a man.”

And Joseph said to her, “Where did this thing in your womb come from then?”

But she said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know where it came from.”
Protoevangelium 13:1-2,6-10

The Saints

Prequels often take place in small worlds, where characters who interacted in the original stories meet each other in different circumstances before.

For example Simeon, mentioned in Luke’s gospel..

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law
Luke 2:25-27

… turns out to have been the replacement for the father of John the Baptist!

Then, after three days, the priests deliberated about who they should appoint to take the place of Zachariah. And the lot went to Simeon. For he was the one to whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he saw the messiah in the flesh.
Protoevangelium 24:12-14

Likewise, Salome, who in Mark’s gospel was with Mary Magdalene in caring for the body of the murdered Christ and entered the hole — the bomb — he was buried in:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.

Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large.

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
Mark 16:1-5

finds herself in the same situation, but for the newborn Christ!

And the midwife went in and said, “Mary, position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place.”

When Mary heard these things, she positioned herself. And Salome inserted her finger into her body. And Salome cried out and said, “Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire.”
Protoevangelium 20:1-4

Artistic Choices

There is beautiful writing in the Protoevangelium that echoes the best of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible story of Samuel’s parents, and the emotional pain of childlessness

Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”

So Hannah arose after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish.
1 Samuel 1:5-10

is echoed here, in the pain of Joachim and Anna:

Then, Joachim was extremely frustrated and did not appear to his wife, but gave himself to the desert and pitched his tent there. He fasted forty days and forty nights. All the while, Joachim was saying to himself, “I will not go down for food or drink until the Lord my God visits me; prayer will be my food and drink.”

Then, his wife Anna mourned and lamented,

“I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I am childless.”
Protoevangelium 1:1-2:1

But there’s a section which simply seems out of place. It happens once, it is very odd, and I don’t know what to make of it. A passage from the journey to Bethlehem…

When they came to the middle of the journey, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me off the donkey, the child 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.”

And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, while he went to a find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem.
Protoevangelium 17:10-18:1

… is suddenly interrupted with a bizarre passage when the tone — and narrator! — of the work changes:

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 looked at the ground and saw a bowl lying there and workers reclining. And their hands were in the bowl. And chewing, they were not chewing. And picking food up, they were not picking it up. And putting food in their mouths, they were not putting it in their mouths. Rather, all their faces were looking up.

And I saw sheep being driven, but the sheep were standing still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike them, but his hand remained above them. And I saw the rushing current of the river and I saw goats and their mouths resting in the water, but they were not drinking. And suddenly everything was replaced by the ordinary course of events.
Protoevangelium 18:2-11

Eventually, the narrative resumes. The Joseph-narrated portions smoothly flow back into the standard third-person narration while talking about Salome, and by the end James is revealed to be the narrator.

I, James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased. All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history.

And grace will be with all who fear the Lord.

Amen.
Protoevangelium 25:1-4

I do not know what is happening here. The Book of Ezekiel in particular breaks the reader’s expectations for dramatic effect, spiraling out from Jerusalem to Israel, the neighboring countries, and finally the trans-real Gog and Magog. But is this simply a case of pieced-together fragments that were recognized as such at the time? Is this why the Protoevangelium considered “not only to be rejected but also condemned” since A.D. 405? I don’t know.

The Faith Traditions

Three faith traditions contain material that either comes directly from the Protoevangelium, or else from the lost source that inspired by Protoevangelium: Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and Islam. The story of Mary under the care of the Priest Zachariah in Islamic scriptures:

Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?” She said: “From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.”

There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer!
Qu’ran 3:37-38

Is clearly from the same tradition, with the same affection for the protagonists, as the Protoevangelium:

When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?”

And they said to the high priest, “You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.”

And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.” So the heralds went out to the whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in.
Protoevangelium 8:3-9

The Catholic affection of the Protoevangelium is not as explicit but widespread. The names of Jesus’s grandparents, Anna and Joachim, come from this work. Much western art doesn’t make sense without it.

An edited version of the Protoevangelium is included in New Advent’s The Fathers of the Church. And more popularly, a priest on the Catholic media site EWTN explains the work this way:

The Protoevangelium is not to be classed with the Gnostic writings of old, which were products of heretical groups, claiming secret knowledge. On the other hand, as you note, we cannot elevate this work to the level of Sacred Scripture, as it has no guarantee of inerrancy. This early work reflects at least some ancient traditions, held by at least some substantial part of the early Church. As to the general preference for the view that the “brothers” of the Lord are likely kinfolk, and not step-siblings from a previous marriage by Joseph, we have likely been strongly influenced by the Western Fathers, including Saint Jerome, who strongly dismissed the view that they were step-siblings. Saint Jerome had a great command of the ancient languages and customs, and while not an infallible source, is worth attending to.
Answer by Fr. John Echert

These thoughts are echoed by a poster at a forum post for Orthodox Christians:

Is it Scripture? No. Is it infallible? No. Is it accurate in all its details? Probably not. Is it worthless? No. Does it preserve the earliest thoughts about the family life of Christ? Yes. Does it seem to be based on the early Church’s traditions? Yes. Is it the earliest coherent source on the Theotokos? Yes.

The full text of the Protoevangelium‘ is available online. I read the Protoevangelium of James in the Kindle edition translated by James Orr.