The Feast of the Entrance and the Protoevangelium of James

Much of the hymnography adorning our Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple causes the raising of eyebrows—talk about Mary being escorted into the Holy of Holies by Zechariah the high-priest and remaining there, being miraculously fed by an angel. How is it that any female was allowed past the Court of Women, much less into the Holy of Holies? And how might she have remained there anyway, even if an angel did make regular deliveries of food? There were no sleeping quarters there or any other facilities such as would allow anyone to lodge there.

Furthermore, the whole narrative presupposes that Mary was well-known to all Israel, nationally if not internationally famous as The Girl who Lives in the Holy of Holies. All this seems radically inconsistent with the Biblical picture of her in the Gospel of Luke, where she is basically a young unknown girl. And when the townspeople of Nazareth stumble at Jesus during His ministry, they call attention to His ordinary family: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matthew 13:54-56) Their puzzlement is hard to explain if in fact His Mother was famous throughout the land as the girl raised in the Temple. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that our hymnography is drawn from a legendary source known to scholars now as “the Protoevangelium of James”. It was not actually written by St. James as claimed, but is a pseudepigraphal work from the second century, originating on the fringes of the church. When one reads the document in its entirety, it quickly becomes apparent that one is reading legend and not history. The author knows little of Jewish culture, and even his knowledge of the Gospel is a bit off. For one thing he identifies Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist), the one who presided over the child Mary’s entry into the Holy of Holies, as the high-priest. Anyone reading the Gospel knows that Zechariah was not the high-priest, but a simple priest. That was why he had to draw lots to burn incense in the Temple (Luke 1:8-9). The high-priest did not have to draw lots.

Another error: the author confuses the timing of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem with the birth of Christ almost two years earlier. “When Herod perceived that he was mocked by the wise men, he was wroth and sent murderers, saying unto them, ‘Slay the children from two years old and under’. And when Mary heard that the children were being slain, she was afraid and took the young child and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger”. Actually, when the children were being slain, Mary and her child were safely in Egypt. He had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger on the night He was born about a year or two before Herod’s murderers arrived.

The author’s knowledge of Jewish culture is just as shaky: he assumes that virgins would reside at the Jewish Temple, like the Vestal Virgins resided in a temple of pagan Rome, but this was not the case. He also asserts that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was slain by Herod after “Herod sought for John”, presumably out of frustration at not being able to find Jesus, and because Herod was convinced that John “was to be king over Israel”. The author seems here to confuse Jesus and John, or at very least misunderstand John’s significance in Israel.

There are many other touches in the Protoevangelium too that draw attention to its legendary character. Take for example the detail that when Christ was born all time came to a standstill, so that Joseph saw workmen eating out of a dish and a shepherd moving to strike a sheep with his staff all frozen in mid-movement. Time and movement only unfroze after Christ’s birth “and of a sudden” (the text says) “all things moved onward in their course”. Wonderful poetic touch, but clearly legendary. Or take the detail of the cave in which Christ was born: the midwife drawing near saw a bright cloud overshadowing the cave. As Christ was being born, “immediately the cloud withdrew itself out of the cave and a great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And little by little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared”. Again, a wonderful image, but clear evidence that the literary genre of the text is legend, not history.

What then does this mean for the Feast of the Entrance? In the words of Fr. Constantine Callinicos, author of Our Lady the Theotokos, “If the reader asks if he is to accept these narratives according to their letter or according to their spiritual depth we must answer: according to their spiritual essence”. He writes, “In such a manner does our ecclesiastical literature…the deal with the Feast, often embellishing the narrative with rhetorical flowers, and at other times penetrating into the philosophical essence of this event”. And what is the “philosophical essence of this event”? That the young girl who once entered the Temple (as many young Jewish girls in Palestine entered the Temple as children) was destined to become the temple of God.

In ages past, God dwelt in a temple of stone. From the days of Solomon, the Ark of God’s Presence dwelt in a massive stone building, and this building became the House in which the living God lived. From the days of David and Solomon, Yahweh was the God who “dwells in Jerusalem” (Psalm 135:21), in the glorious edifice built for Him. This edifice was a prophecy and promise in stone that God would one day dwell in the hearts of His people, living not in temples of stone, but in temples of human flesh.

Eventually He would one day come to dwell in the bodies of each Christian, so that St. Paul could write, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God’s first step to that end was His dwelling in the flesh of Mary, for through Christ He came to dwell in her womb, living in her body as He once dwelt in the Temple. For nine blessed months, her body was literally a temple and container of the uncontainable God. Mary’s first visit to the Temple constituted a promise of that change, for she who was to become the Temple herself first came to the Temple as a little child. The Temple, with all its glory and splendour, was prophecy of her life and flesh and pregnancy.

The Feast of the Entrance thus is the feast of the coalescence of the two covenants. Mary’s first entrance into the Temple as a little child, though unremarkable and unnoticed historically at the time, was a prophetic snapshot, a revelation of the Temple’s eschatological purpose. Well may the Church adorn such a revelation with the legendary tinsel from the Protoevangelium of James. That second century document is not history. It is something more. It is beauty and poetry, a hymn of praise to Mary, the true Temple of God. A better response than raising our eyebrows at the lack of historicity is raising our hearts at the beauty of the poetry. The physical Temple was not to last forever, for even stone can wear away and be destroyed. But Mary, the true and eschatological Gospel temple, will live forever. Her holiness abides to ages of ages, and can never be destroyed.


  1. Fr Lawrence, you wrote:

    “the young girl who once entered the Temple (as many young Jewish girls in Palestine entered the Temple as children) was destined to become the temple of God.”

    When you say, “as many young Jewish girls in Palestine entered the Temple as children,” can you explain what you mean, or point to toward somewhere I can read about this practice? What was the purpose of these children entering the temple? Was it simply for the day?

    1. I meant that many Jewish girls in the Holy Land visited the Temple with their families when they were young–just as our Lord did when He was twelve years old.

  2. I assume a lot of people to believe it to be an accurate historical document. I have heard highly educated and degreed people make that assertion. After 200 years of Orthodoxy on the continent and no more than 1.5 million active and practicing Orthodox Christians in North America shouldn’t the focus be elsewhere? Asking for a friend.

    1. Those declaring it an accurate historical document need to explain the presence of clearly legendary elements in it and also its basic errors of historical fact. Part of the reason for focussing on the text (on the feast of the Entrance) is that many non-Orthodox are tempted to write off Orthodoxy when they hear that becoming Orthodox involves accepting the historicity of a obviously legendary document and believing that a young girl was escorted into the Holy of Holies and fed by an angel there. Presumably Fr. Callinicos was responding to the same pastoral need when he wrote his book.

  3. I’ve sometimes wondered which came first – the Protoevangelium, or the stories remembered in the liturgy. Were there some accounts of Mary’s childhood held in the living memory of the Church that eventually became both the content of the Protoevangelium *and* kernel of truth behind the feasts and liturgical references. Or, is it a documented certainty that the entirety of the Tradition on these matters was drawn in whole from the Protoevangelium as its source? (I think I remember from somewhere that St. Justin refers to the cave as the birthplace. Was he repeating Church “common knowledge”? Or quoting the fiction/legend?)

    1. My guess (it can be no more than that) is that the Protoevangelium indeed utilized some remembered details and used them in its legendary account–details such as the names of her parents and the birth in the cave. I say this because names would be easily remembered and transmitted, and the cave as the place of the birth is indeed part of other traditions such as in St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 78. It is unlikely that Justin got this detail from the Protoevangelium, since they were more or less contemporaneous.

  4. I read a while ago that Mary was taken into the temple with other dedicated girls and learned the skills of weaving and needlework ,looking after the woven fabrics of the temple . Mary was the daughter of very old parents and they needed to provide for her in case they died before she was old enough to marry. Her marriage was arranged for her while she was in the Temple.
    The other girls may have been orphans. They would not be lodged in the Temple itself but in the grounds of the temple. I don’t remember the reference but it was Orthodox!

  5. For those who wish to do a bit more research than set forth above (albeit in a short blog post), particularly dealing with how the Church took what was legitimate from the Protoevangelium (ie. that which corresponded to Her living memory) and left that which was fantastical, you might consider reading:

    The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos

    The book provides interesting/necessary historical background regarding the communities and residences on the Temple Mount during the time of reconstruction under Herod the Great. For instance, priests who were trained to complete the masonry work in the places were only they could enter, had temporary housing built for them in the inner court, placing their residences in close proximity to the Holy Place. Girls were not housed here, they had another location near the boarding school, yet, it would not stretch credulity to believe that a young girl around the age of three, might in spending time with her uncle, who was a priest in the Temple, have occasion to access areas otherwise forbidden and inaccessible.

    There are other views and other data points, which are perhaps worth considering or at least being aware of, so we don’t appear hastily dismissive or reactionary to those who won’t accept anything outside of the official canon.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Father, and for the link. My main point about the Protoevangelium revolved not around the historicity of individual details, but around the necessity of recognizing its literary genre–i.e. as legend, not history. According to the legend contained in the Protoevangelium, Mary was escorted to the third step of the altar with the full knowledge of the high priest (erroneously identified with Zechariah) who prophesied that God who use her later for the redemption of Israel and that she was fed by an angel during her years there, and was well-known through all Israel. This in itself suffices to identify it as a legendary genre. It was these legendary elements that were used in the Church’s hymns.

      1. I note that the volume is the (anonymous) work of Holy Apostles Convent, and was printed with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the “Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece and the Diaspora”. The book takes for granted (among other things) that Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the high priest at that time, that Mary entered the Holy of Holies, and that she was fed there for at least nine years by an angel, all with no apparent awareness that these statements might be controversial–not a great endorsement of its scholarship.

  6. I feel there must be more meaning and purpose behind all the embellishments. Why else would they be so faithfully preserved in the Church- hymnography, iconography, and indeed a Feast that uses these details.
    I agree fully with your analysis of the genre as legend. But I’m interested in why the Church wants this legend preserved. I would like to understand the symbolic meaning(s) of these embellishments better, so cherished by the Church as they are.
    Father can you help us with this?

    1. It seems clear that the original hymnographers accepted the details as historical, and not legendary, and that is why they used them. Such non-historical anachronism seems to have been widespread among the ancients: witness the acceptance of (Pseudo) Dionysius’s writings as written by the Biblical Dionysius in the first century.

      1. That is helpful, thank you.
        I am also wondering about the usefulness of all of these embellishments. Why would such a document be written by a believer? Why then would it be so utilized by the Church?

        I think I’m trying to grasp more precisely what is its “beauty and poetry”- in the specific (non-historical) details that the Church so celebrates. I see the beauty and poetry in the historical events you described already. I’m trying to understand what then do the embellishments add?
        Can you help shed some light on this aspect Father?
        Thank you again.

        1. I suppose that beauty and poetry is in the eye of the beholder. For example, I love the carol “We Three Kings”, although the mythology it expresses is quite unhistorical. But I also love the song “The Little Drummer Boy”, which many find pathetic and irritating. It seems that in liturgical hymnography, there’s no accounting for taste.

    1. The link you cite does not really present any substantive argument at all, but represents the triumph of wishful thinking over scholarship. It can’t even get the basic facts straight: it asserts that the ancient rules said that “only males were allowed to enter the Temple” which is not true, since men and women entered the Temple courts every day, though the women were confined to the Court of Women. Describing the Protoevangelium as “an historical source” betrays a complete blindness to its clearly legendary character.

      1. I understand. I’d be interested if you could cite one single Church Father or saint of our Church that has talked about the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple in the manner you have described above. You mention in a comment above that “the original hymnographers” accepted the Entrance as historical – but I need to point out, that not only them, but ALL the Saints and Fathers of our Church that have ever written on this subject accepted the historical narrative as well. Including St Gregory Palamas. Out of curiosity, can you cite a single Saint or Father of our Church that has ever described the Entrance as a legendary and NOT a historical event? Even any modern-day saint like St John of Kronstadt or St Paisios of Mt Athos? With all due respect, your article is concerning to me, because today I am celebrating the literal fulfillment of prophecy – the miraculous Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, where she literally lived in the Holy of Holies and was literally fed by an angel there. I’m not celebrating a fictional legend, but an event that actually occurred in time and space.

        1. The issue is one of fundamentalism and its rejection of modern scholarship. The views of the Fathers on the historicity of the Protoevangelium–or, come to that, the geocentric nature of the solar system–cannot determine our use of the scholarly tools now at hand. I believe that some Fathers did reject the historicity of the Protoevangelium–but one could hardly expect them to write at length about it. One writes panegyric sermons about what one believes, not about one rejects.

          1. Why do you believe that some Fathers did reject the historicity of the Protoevangelium? Which ones?
            As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t need fables and legends. I need the Truth. According to “modern scholarship” how many of the other Twelve Great Feasts are fictional? Is this the only one? If I thought the введение во храм was not true and never even happened, I would not be celebrating it.
            Here are the words of four pastors of the Russian Church – are they also “fundamentalists”? :

          2. Since, as I said, those who did not accept the Protoevangelium did not write about it, obviously I cannot tell you “which ones”. And I never said that the Feast was “fictional”, but that like Fr. Callinicos its teachings should be accepted “according to their spiritual essence” and not historically. Like many fundamentalists, you are reacting to the post without responding to the arguments contained in it.

          3. Just because some “pastors of the Russian Church” believe that it’s a literal actual factual event, doesn’t mean that it was. Here’s another perspective from a Russian Bishop:

            “There are also holidays, as well as icons, which tell us about some very special event, even if their historical context is not clear. Such is the feast of the Entry of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the Temple. It is hardly possible that the event described in the liturgical hymn did indeed happen in ancient Jerusalem; but it tells us something more significant and important about the Mother of God than Her physical entry into the Holy of Holies, which was forbidden even to the High Priest other than on specific days.”


  7. As I’ve continued trying to understand this more deeply, I ordered this volume by Nikolai D. Velimirovich:
    The Universe as Symbols and Signs

    And here’s a link to Fr Stephen Freeman’s approach which I think finds a good middle line. So much of the challenge for us is to think with an Orthodox mind about these things- challenging when my mind is deeply formed and steeped in Modernist world view.

    Why we might find meaning and truth in something without knowing it is historically accurate:
    Possible helpful research:

    Hope some of this is helpful.

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