Tag Archives: Apocrypha

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

Recently I read the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in the translation by Alexander Roberts, Ian Donaldson, and Cleveland Coze. It is an “infancy narrative,” purporting like the Protoevangelium of James to tell stories that occur during the youths of Mary and Jesus. Protoevangelium takes itself seriously, was written at an early time, and speaks to the depths of the human experience

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 1:9-2:1

Pseudo-Matthew — doesn’t:

And having come to a certain cave, and wishing to rest in it, the blessed Mary dismounted from her beast, and sat down with the child Jesus in her bosom. And there were with Joseph three boys, and with Mary a girl, going on the journey along with them. And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired. Then was fulfilled that which was said by David the prophet, saying: Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons; ye dragons, and all ye deeps. And the young child Jesus, walking before them, commanded them to hurt no man. But Mary and Joseph were very much afraid lest the child should be hurt by the dragons.

And Jesus said to them: Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me. Pseudo-Matthew 18

And it’s not just the cool adventures of dragons and lions and such, but even in the introduction by “Jerome” where the author is assured that this book is not canonical:

An arduous task is enjoined upon me, since what your Blessedness has commanded me, the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew himself did not write for the purpose of publishing. For if he had not done it somewhat secretly, he would have added it also to his Gospel which he published. But he composed this book in Hebrew; and so little did he publish it, that at this day the book written in Hebrew by his own hand is in the possession of very religious men, to whom in successive periods of time it has been handed down by those that were before them. And this book they never at any time gave to any one to translate.
Pseudo-Matthew: “Reply to Their Letter by Jerome”

Later in the “introduction,” it’s made explicit that the story is doubtful, but at least it contains nothing harmful. Pseudo-Matthew is the King of Kings or Greatest Story Ever Told is the early middle Ages:

Whether this be true or not, I leave to the author of the preface and the trustworthiness of the writer: as for myself, I pronounce them doubtful; I do not affirm that they are clearly false. But this I say freely—and I think none of the faithful will deny it—that, whether these stories be true or inventions, the sacred nativity of St. Mary was preceded by great miracles, and succeeded by the greatest; and so by those who believe that God can do these things, they can be believed and read without damaging their faith or imperiling their souls.
Pseudo-Matthew: “Reply to Their Letter by Jerome”

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is Christian fan fiction, maybe to a heretical extent, but in dong so emphasizes the importance of Mary as an mediatrix between sinners and Jesus. Pseudo-Matthew is also referenced in the Qur’an, in its chapter on Mary.

Cool Fan Fiction

There’s lots of cool stuff that one would expect from Christian fan fic.

Jesus creates birds from clay.

And it came to pass, after these things, that in the sight of all Jesus took clay froth the pools which He had made, and of it made twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when Jesus did this, and there were very many children with Him. When, therefore, one of the Jews had seen Him doing this, he said to Joseph: Joseph, dost thou not see the child

Jesus working on the Sabbath at what it is not lawful for him to do? for he has made twelve sparrows of clay.
Pseudo-Matthew 27

Mary was teased as a teenager, and her living arrangement with Joseph early on sounds like a sitcom:

Then Joseph received Mary, with the other five virgins who were to be with her in Joseph’s house. These virgins were Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea, and Cael; to whom the high priest gave the silk, and the blue, and the fine linen, and the scarlet, and the purple, and the fine flax. For they cast lots among themselves what each virgin should do, and the purple for the veil of the temple of the Lord fell to the lot of Mary. And when she had got it, those virgins said to her: Since thou art the last, and humble, and younger than all, thou hast deserved to receive and obtain the purple. And thus saying, as it were in words of annoyance, they began to call her queen of virgins. While, however, they were so doing, the angel of the Lord appeared in the midst of them, saying: These words shall not have been uttered by way of annoyance, but prophesied as a prophecy most true. They trembled, therefore, at the sight of the angel, and at his words, and asked her to pardon them, and pray for them.
Pseudo-Matthew 8

Joseph talks!

And Joseph said to the blessed Mary: I have brought thee two midwives–Zelomi and Salome; and they are standing outside before the entrance to the cave, not daring to come in hither, because of the exceeding brightness.
Pseudo-Matthew 13

There’s plenty of fun stuff like that.

The Perfect Son

In the canonical gospel we only have one vignette of Jesus’s life between infancy and being a man, the finding in the Temple:

His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.

So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”

And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
Luke 2:41-52

Recently, Pope Francis was attacked by some Catholics for saying Jesus was corrected by Joseph and Mary when he was young:

At the end of that pilgrimage, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents (cf. Lk 2:51). This image also contains a beautiful teaching about our families. A pilgrimage does not end when we arrive at our destination, but when we return home and resume our everyday lives, putting into practice the spiritual fruits of our experience. We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, causing great distress to Mary and Joseph who were unable to find him. For this little “escapade”, Jesus probably had to beg forgiveness of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it. Mary’s question, moreover, contains a certain reproach, revealing the concern and anguish which she and Joseph felt. Returning home, Jesus surely remained close to them, as a sign of his complete affection and obedience. Moments like these become part of the pilgrimage of each family; the Lord transforms the moments into opportunities to grow, to ask for and to receive forgiveness, to show love and obedience.
Pope Francis, “Holy Mass for Families, 2015

Some corners of the Catholic Internet were not impressed., and cited other Catholic thinkers, like the founder of the Redemptorists:

It is certain that, to a soul which loves God, there can be no greater pain than the fear of having displeased Him. Therefore in this sorrow alone did Mary complain, lovingly expostulating with Jesus, after she had found Him: “Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing” [Lk 2:48]. By these words, she had no idea of reproving Jesus, as heretics blasphemously assert, but only meant to express to Him the grief proceeding from the greatest love she bore Him, which she had experienced during His absence: ‘It was not a rebuke,’ says Denis the Carthusian, ‘but a loving complaint.’
St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The Glories of Mary

Here the author of Pseudo-Matthew would agree with St. Liguori over Pope Francis. In The Boy-God corrects (six years before being found in the Temple! at age six!) his teachers:

And the master Levi said one letter to Jesus, and, beginning from the first letter Aleph, said to Him: Answer.

But Jesus was silent, and answered nothing.

Wherefore the preceptor Levi was angry, and seized his storax-tree road, and struck Him on the head.

And Jesus said to the teacher Levi, “Why dost thou strike me? Thou shalt know in truth, that He who is struck can teach him who strikes Him more than He can be taught by him. For I can reach you those very things that you are saying. But all these are blind who speak and hear, like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, in which there is no perception of those things which are meant by their sound.”

And Jesus in addition said to Zachyas, “Every letter from Aleph even to Thet is known by its arrangement. Say thou first, therefore, what Thet is, and I will tell you what Aleph is.”

And Jesus said to them, “Those who do not know Aleph, how can they say Thet, the hypocrites? Tell me what the first one, Aleph, is; and I shall then believe you when you have said Beth.”
Pseudo-Matthew 31

and is declared to be unlike a human being — the closest this document comes to heresy, bordering on docetism, the heresy that Jesus was “truly” God but not “truly” man.

I tell you of certainty, I am not lying, that to my eyes the proceedings of this boy, the commencement of his conversation, and the upshot of his intentions, seem to have nothing in common with mortal man. Here I do not know whether he be a wizard or a god; or at least an angel of God speaks in him. Whence he is, or where he comes from, or who he will turn out to be, I know not.
Pseudo-Matthew 31

The Intercession of Mary

The lack of the young Jesus’ familiarity with human experience in Pseudo-Matthew makes Mary more important as an intercessor. For instance, in one episode the young Jesus strikes down another for meddling in his work:

And it came to pass, after Jesus had returned out of Egypt, when He was in Galilee, and entering on the fourth year of His age, that on a Sabbath-day He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools of water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up.

Then Jesus said to him, “Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought?”

And immediately he who had done this died.

Then with a great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: “Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead!”

And when Joseph and Mary heard this, they came forthwith to Jesus, on account of the outcry of the parents of the boy, and gathering together of the Jews.
Pseudo-Matthew 26

It is Joseph and Mary who has a passion, a passivity, in the face of this chaos:

But Joseph said privately to Mary, “I dare not speak to Him; but do thou admonish Him, and say, ‘Why has Thou raised against us the hatred of the people, and why must the troublesome hatred of men be borne by us?'” Pseudo-Matthew 26

And Mary intercedes for the woe-begotten youth with Jesus:

Then His mother asked Him, saying: “Do not so, my Lord, because all men rise up against us.” But He, not wishing to grieve His mother, with His right foot kicked the hinderparts of the dead boy, and said to him: “Rise, thou son of iniquity, for thou art not worthy to enter into the rest of my Father, because thou didst destroy the works which I had made.”

Then he had had been dead rose up, and went away. And Jesus, by the word of His power, brought water in to the pools by the aqueduct. Pseudo-Matthew 26

Links to the Qur’an

The nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an, “Mary,” includes an episode about a palm tree:

Thus she conceived him, then withdrew with him to a distance place. The birth pangs brought her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “I wish I had died before this and become a forgotten thing, beyond recall.”

Thereupon he called her from below: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has made a spring to flow at your feet. Shake the trunk of a palm tree, freshly picked dates will drop upon you. Eat, drink, and be comforted. Then if you see any human, say, “I have indeed vowed a fast to the All-beneficent, so I will not speak to any human today.”
Qur’an 19:22-26

While there’s certainly an Old Testament type to this:

Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar…

When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many.
Ezekiel:47:1,7-10

The episode more clearly reflects the Pseudo-Matthew:

Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm tree, O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down at the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop.

Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father ; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling.
Pseudo-Matthew 20

The site of this location is at Kithisma, the long-destroyed Church of the Seat of Saint Mary. Built in 456, then a site of joint Christian-Islamic Marian devotion, then a mosque… and possibly the model for the Dome of the Rock.

In this Pseudo-Matthew reminded me of Jubilees, which is also a bridge between Christianity and Islam. Jubilees shares the narrative structure of the Qur’an — Angels telling a Prophet about past events — and Pseudo-Matthew contains some of those novel past events.

Conclusion

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a popular work of Christian fiction, dating to the early period of the Dark Ages. It is Christian fan fiction. Jesus’ greatness is emphasized (at the expense of his Humanity), His power is emphasized (at the expense of His mercy), and cool tricks are emphasized (at the expense of His discretion). Plenty of well-meaning Christian movies do worse than the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in making the world of the gospels come alive. Think King of Kings, or (erring in a different direction) The Last Temptation of Christ.

Like much of the Qur’an, (the “Night Journey” after the Last Supper, or the Book of Jubilees, or “Ta Ha” about the Golden Calf), Pseudo-Matthew extends the Biblical narrative in ways that aren’t quite Christian. In the Catholic Encyclopedia the full text of Pseudo-Matthew is categorized under “Church Fathers.” I think this is because it provides, like The Shepherd of Hermas, the testimony of what Christians thought Christians were at an earlier time in Church history.

I read The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “A Companion to the Book of Enoch: A Reader’s Commentary, Vol. I — The Book of the Watchers,” by Michael S. Heiser

Michael Heiser’s commentary of 1 Enoch is fantastic. His commentary ties together scholarly criticism of the first part of Enoch, The Book of the Watchers, and reveals the context of the book’s composition. The closest I can compare it to is Gabriel Said Reynold’s commentary of the Qur’an. Central to the Book are the “Watchers,” fallen angelic beings who may be allegories of Temple Priests. In the book God condemns the Watchers and their sons as he condemned the House of Eli in the Hebrew Bible. But God also promises a renewed world, a Tree, a Throne, a the path of the Holy Mountain required to get there.

A Brief Note

I first read The Book of Enoch after exposure to Canaanite mythology and Robert Alter’s’ Biblical literary criticism.

Since then my reading has expanded to cover more of the allegorical sense of scripture. Augustine of Hippo and Jordan Peterson focused on experientially real meanings of concrete symbols, like with fish or snakes. I read Michael Heiser on the Second Temple supernatural context of the Bible, and N.T. Wright on the politico-religious context of Jesus and Paul. And I read works that derive from the Book of Enoch, like Jubilees and the Qur’an

This effected how I read Enoch. In my previous impressions I was basically lost, except for the “Animal Apocalypse” — an enjoyable retelling of the adventures of the Jewish people, but with all the characters being animals. What was going on, with “Watchers” and giants and the angelology? Now, I think I know.

Allegories and Angels

The rebellion of the sons of God is mentioned in Genesis:

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.

And the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Genesis 6:1-4

The Book of the Watchers takes this as a point of departure. And we immediately get characterization. In Hebrew scriptural literature] the first quoted line from a character indicates the character. And the collective character of them are of men seeking women:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: “Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.”
1 Enoch 6:1-2

But then, somewhat surprisingly for a divine being, we see the character of their leader. And it’s not lust-incarnate or even family-incarnate, but fearfulness mixed with consensus-seeking. He’s acting like a middle-level manager, or a mildly successful politician. Why?

And Samjaza, who was their leader, said unto them: “I fear ye will not indeed agree to this deed, and I alone shall have the pay the penalty of a great sin. And they all answered him and said: “Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.” Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundreds, who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it.
1 Enoch 6:3-6

A clue is the number of theophoric names — names ending with “-el” (meaning “of God”) among this leadership of the falling angels. The names are Jewish, or at least Canaanite.

And these are the names of their leaders: Samlazaz, their leader: Arakiba, Rameel, Kokabiel, Tamiel, Ramiel, Danle, Ezeqeel, Baraqijal, Asael, Armaros, Batarel, Ananel, Zaqiel, Samsapeel, Satarel, Turel, Jamjael, Sariel.
1 Enoch 6:7

And why, after God commands Enoch (a human being!) to be a prophet to the watchers (angels!)…

Enoch, thou scribe of righteousness, go, declare to the Watchers of the heaven who have left the high heaven, the holy eternal place, and have defiled themselves with women, and have done as the children of earth do, and have taken unto themselves wives: Ye have wrought great destruction on the earth: and ye shall have no peace nor forgiveness of sin.
1 Enoch 12:4-5

… Do the Watchers ask him to intercede for them?

Then I went and spoke to them all together, and they were all afraid, and fear and trembling seized them. And they besought me to draw up a petition for them that they might find forgiveness, and to read their petition in the presence of the Lord of heaven. For from thenceforward they could not speak with Him nor lift up their eyes to heaven for shame of their sins for which they had been condemned.
1 Enoch 13:3-5

The Watchers

Here’s why, at least according to scholars cited by Heiser: “Watcher” is a thin allegory for Temple Priests, who serve in the presence (literally, face) of God. Presuming the author meant the Temple Priests of his own era, then his target were Sadducees:

And He answered and said to me, I heard His voice: “Fear not, Enoch, though righteous man and scribe of righteousness; approach hither and hear my voice.

And go, say to the Watchers of heaven, who have sent thee to intercede for them: ‘You should intercede for men, and not men for you.Whereof you have you left the high, holy, and eternal heaven, and lain with women, and defiled yourselves with the daughters of men and taken to yourselves wives, and done like the children of earth, and begotten giants as your sons.

And though ye were holy, spiritual, living the eternal life, you have defiled yourselves with the blood of women, and have begotten with the blood of flesh, and, as the children of men, have lusted after flesh and blood as those who also do who die and perish..
1 Enoch 15:1-4

The Sadducee Temple priests were targeted by Zealots (as collaborators), Pharisees (for the lack of belief in angels and the resurrection), and early Christians (also for the lack of belief):

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”

And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”
Acts 23:6-9

The “Watchers” focused on women and power instead of service to God, and used their skills and position for all sorts of schemes not properly focused on God (according to the Zealots, Pharisees, and early Christians):

And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells. Who consumed all the acquisitions of men. 1 Enoch 7:1-3

To emphasize the point, and bite a bit more, the Sanhedrin of the Sadducees claimed succession to the helpers of Moses, organized in line with advice from Moses’s father-in-law, from the most trusted (Moses and the Rulers of Thousands) to the lowest level of managers, the Rulers of Tens:

So Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people: rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves.
Exodus 18:24-26

The “Watchers” are the lowest, and presumably least competent, in this hierarchy:

These are their chiefs of tens.
1 Enoch 6:8

The fate of the “Watchers” is to see the children, who they raised without fear of God, die.

And inasmuch as they delight themselves in their children, the murder of their beloved ones shall they see, and over the destruction of their children shall they lament, and shall make supplication unto eternity, but mercy and peace shall ye not attain.
1 Enoch 12:6

This is the same fate that befell the High Priest Eli, an ancient days:

Then a man of God came to Eli and said to him,

“Thus says the LORD:

‘Did I not clearly reveal Myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house? Did I not choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon My altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod before Me? And did I not give to the house of your father all the offerings of the children of Israel made by fire? Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?’

Therefore the LORD God of Israel says:

‘I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before Me forever.’

But now the LORD says:

‘Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming that I will cut off your [u]arm and the arm of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. And you will see an enemy in My dwelling place, despite all the good which God does for Israel. And there shall not be an old man in your house forever. But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age. Now this shall be a sign to you that will come upon your two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas: in one day they shall die, both of them.'”
1 Samuel 2:27-34

And as Enoch’s petition for the “Watchers” would fail:

I wrote out your petition, and in my vision it appeared thus, that your petition will not be granted unto you throughout all the days of eternity, and that judgment has been finally passed upon you: yea your petition will not be granted to you. And from henceforth you will not ascend into heaven unto all eternity, and in bonds of the earth the decree has gone forth to bind you for all the days of the world.
1 Enoch 14:1-5

The High Priest Eli also believed the judgment was irrevocable:

Then Samuel told him everything, and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord. Let Him do what seems good to Him.”
1 Samuel 3:18

The Future Priests

But God is the God of Hope. Even the condemnation of Eli’s sons came with a promise:

Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever.
1 Samuel 2:35

It is easy enough, when we read Scriptures, to see the priestly predilection for power and sin:

Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
Matthew 26:2-5

Yet God will heal this. Both the To understand the Qur’anicand the Enochian authors promise this:

And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons. And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin.
1 Enoch 10:7-8

While the Watchers, standing in for the Priests, seek a legalistic procedure of asking forgiveness through a formal petition, they don’t offer the repentance — the turn of the heart — advocated by the Prophet Isaiah:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear.

For your hands are defiled with blood,
And your fingers with iniquity;
Your lips have spoken lies,
Your tongue has muttered perversity…

For our transgressions are multiplied before You,
And our sins testify against us;
For our transgressions are with us,
And as for our iniquities, we know them:

In transgressing and lying against the Lord,
And departing from our God,
Speaking oppression and revolt,
Conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood.
Isaiah 59:2-3,12-13

This is also the meaning of the Qur’anic author: repentance is not a legalistic formula, but a turn of heart made manifest in works:

I indeed forgive those who repent, become faithful, act righteously, and thereafter follow guidance.
Qur’an 20 (Ta Ha):83

The Enochian writer sees this. The resolution to our story is not political games that can be won by Temple insiders, but a world free of oppression:

And cleanse though the earth from all oppression, and from all unrighteousness, and from all sin, and from all godlessness: and all the uncleanness that is wrought upon the earth destroy from off the earth. And the children of men shall become righteous, and all nations shall offer adoration and shall praise Me, and all shall worship Me. And the earth shall be cleansed from all defilement, and from all sin, and from all punishment, and from all torment, and and I will never again send them upon it form generation to generation and forever.
1 Enoch 10:20-22

And as the Letter to the Hebrews urge its audience to be (non-Sadducee!) priests for Jesus Christ

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16

So the author of Enoch urges continuous blessings of God by the (non-Sadducee!) righteous in his audience:

And as often as I saw blessed always the Lord of Glory, and I continued to bless the Lord of Glory who has wrought great and glorious wonders, to show the greatness of His work to the angels and to spirits and to men, that they might praise His work and all His creation: that they might see the works of His might and praise the work work of His hands and bless Him forever.
1 Enoch 36:4

The Mountains of the Lord

The way from the corrupted priesthood to to a renewed world leads up a mountain.

Non-Sadducee Jewish writing during the Roman empire saw an explosion of messianic writing, foreseeing the Lord enthroned on the Holy Mountain:

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude, which I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and they have confessed the name of God; now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who places crowns on them and puts palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, “Go, tell my people how great and many are the wonders of the Lord God which you have seen.”
2 Esdras 2:42-48

Likewise, Enoch looks forward, to the Tree, and to the Throne of the Lord, on the High Mountain

And he said unto me: “Enoch, why dost thou ask me regarding the fragrance of the tree, and why dost though wish to learn the truth?”

Then I answered, saying: “I wish to know about everything, but especially about this tree.”

And he answered saying: “This high mountain which thou hast seen, whose summit is like the throne of God, is His throne, where the Holy Great One, the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit, when he shall come down to visit the earth with goodness.”
1 Enoch 25:1-3

This is a prophecy looking back, towards Eden, and forwards, toward Golgotha. Thinkers from the Qur’anic author to Thomas Merton have seen the path to paradise going through the a mountain.

Between Eden and Paradise, the beginning and the end, is Purgatory:

The inhabitants of paradise will call out to the inmates of the fire. ‘We found what our Lord promised us to be true; did you find what your Lord promised you to be true?’ ‘Yes,’ they will say. Then a caller will announce in their midst, ‘May God’s curse be on the wrongdoers!’ — Those who bar from the way of God, and seek to make it crooked, and disbelieve in the Hereafter.

There will be a veil between them. On on the Elevations will be certain men who recognize each of them by their mark. They will call out to the inhabitants of paradise, ‘Peace be to you!’ They will not have entered it, though they would be eager to do so. When their look is turned toward the inmates of the Fire, they will say, ‘Our Lord, do not put us among the wrongdoing lot!

The occupants of the Elevations will call out to certain men who they recognize by their marks, ‘Your rallying did not avail you, nor what you used to disdain. Are these the ones concerning whom you swore that God will not extend them any mercy?’ Enter paradise! You shall have no fear, nor shall you grieve.
Qur’an 7 (The Elevations):47-49

Between Eden and Paradise is Jerusalem, the vision predicted by the Prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD:

‘I will return to Zion,
And dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth,
The Mountain of the LORD of hosts,
The Holy Mountain.’

“Thus says the LORD of hosts:

‘Old men and old women shall again sit
In the streets of Jerusalem,
Each one with his staff in his hand
Because of great age.

The streets of the city
Shall be full of boys and girls
Playing in its streets.’
Zechariah 8:3-5

Te Enochian writer describes the geography of Jerusalem, a location with such significance (Mount Zion, Gehenna) that it transcends the merely topographical…

And there I saw a holy mountain, and underneath the mountain to the east there was a stream and it flowed towards the south. And I saw towards the east another mountain higher than this, and between them a deep a narrow ravine: in it also ran a stream underneath the mountain. And to the west thereof there was another mountain, lower than the former and a ravine between them,: and another deep and dry ravine was at the extremities of the three mountains.
1 Enoch 26:1-5

Within this cosmos geography is the Throne Room of God

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.
Revelations 22:1-5

A geography that is in fact a cosmology — fire, lighting, and stars:

And the floor was of fire, and above it were lightnings and the path of stars, and its ceiling also was flaming fire. And I looked and saw therein a lofty throne: its appearance was of crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun, and there was a vision of cherubim. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon. And the Great Glory sat thereon, and His raiment shone more brightly than the sun and was whiter than any snow.
1 Enoch 14:17-20

And the promise of New Earth:

Then shall they rejoice with joy and be glad, And into the holy place shall they enter; And its fragrance shall be in their bones, And they shall live a long life on earth, Such as thy fathers lived: And in their days shall no sorrow or plague Or torment or calamity touch them.
1 Enoch 25:6

Conclusion

The Book of the Watchers, the beginning of 1 Enoch, seems to be an allegory of the Sadducee priesthood. The “Watchers” have access to the presence of God and have Jewish-style names, but intentionally choose to band together and ignore God. Whatever personal virtue they had during their rebellion is lost on their children, who become even worse. The Enochian author promises the Watchers / Sadducees are not the end of the story though, but promises all things (including, presumably, the priesthood) are cleansed. In this Watchers echoes both the Old Testament renewal of the priesthood after Eli, and foreshadows the Qur’anic call to Catholic religious centuries later.

I read A Companion to the Book of Enoch: Reader’s Commentary Vol. 1 — The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36) in the paperback edition.

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 1:9-2:1

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.