Tag Archives: Simeon

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.