During December’s twenty-four days before Christmas, blog readers joined me in reading one “chapter” a day from the Protoevangelium of James, which functions as a sort of prequel and addendum to the gospel accounts of the Nativity.
What are we to think of this poetic, mystical document? Scholarly debates about its origins and historicity are way above my pay grade, and the purpose of this devotional exercise was not to debate, but to experience in a fresh way the mysteries of the Incarnation and of a young girl whose womb became “more spacious than the heavens” as she carried God in the flesh.
Legend, Not History
In his Orthodox Christian Network blog post on the Protoevangelium, Fr. Lawrence Farley writes, “When one reads the document in its entirety, it quickly becomes apparent that one is reading legend and not history.”
Some errors are obvious: the author identifies Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (“Zacharias” many translations), as the high priest. He also writes, “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.” But at the time of the Slaughter of the Innocents, Joseph had already taken Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt for safety.
However, the errors in the story do not discount its importance. Fr. Constantine Callinicos, author of Our Lady the Theotokos, writes, “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” (quoted in the above-mentioned post). Especially in relation to November’s Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Church’s ecclesiastical literature is “often embellishing the narrative with rhetorical flowers, and at other times penetrating into the philosophical essence of this event.” According to Fr. Lawrence, the “philosophical essence of this event” is 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.”
Setting aside questions of historicity, three items stood out to me in my reading. One is an explanation for a mysterious reference in Jesus’ words, and the other two emphasize profound truths about the Virgin Mary.
1. The Possible Source of Jesus’ Cryptic Words
In Chapter 23 of the Protoevangelium, Herod sends officers to Zacharias to demand the whereabouts of his son, John the Baptist, then he personally threatens Zacharias’s life if he will not reveal John. “And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak.”
This exchange might explain Jesus’ words in a confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees, when He said: “… the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple” (Luke 11:50-51; also Matt. 23:35).
Who is this Zechariah?
The note on Luke 11:51 in the Orthodox Study Bible says, “Some of the Fathers teach this was the prophet at the time of Joash the king (2 Chr. 24:20-22), while others say it refers to the father of St. John the Baptist, who, according to tradition, was also murdered in the temple.”
It seems odd that Jesus would single out the prophet during Joash’s reign rather than a more well-known prophet, but it makes poetic sense that He would speak of the first murder, Abel, then the most recent, the father of his cousin John the Baptist.
2. The Young Mary as the New Temple
In Chapter 10, the priests call for a group of virgins to spin fine cloth for a veil for the Temple of the Lord, and the lot fell to Mary to spin purple and scarlet, the colors of royalty and high status. Weaving was a common duty of women in those days; fabric was expensive, and only the rich could afford to buy linen and silk from a merchant.
This little detail shows up in icons of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. Notice Mary’s hands in the icon below:
Her right hand is raised in a gesture of acceptance as she responds to Gabriel’s message. Her left hand holds a spindle of scarlet yarn in reference to her task of spinning purple and scarlet to be used in the veil for the Temple (Protoevangelium 10). Notice also that she is standing on a raised platform as she and Gabriel converse, illustrating that as the Mother of God she is “greater in honor than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, who without corruption gave birth to God the Word” (from the hymn used in the Divine Liturgy).
Mary grew up knowing that God “dwells in Jerusalem” (Psalm 135:21), but now He will dwell “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,” Fr. Lawrence writes. “For nine blessed months, her body was literally a temple and container of the uncontainable God… The Temple, with all its glory and splendour, was prophecy of her life and flesh and pregnancy.”
Later, as recorded in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit will come to dwell in the bodies of all believers: St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Cor. 6:19).
3. Affirmation of the Ever-Virginity of Mary
In Chapters 19 and 20 of the Protoevangelium, Mary’s ever-virginity is emphasized, which surprised me in a second-century document. My response was probably due to the trivialization of Mary’s importance in my Protestant background, combined with the generalized belief that traditions about her are Roman Catholic and therefore wrong. (The historical arrogance of this view is tempting to explore, but… not now.) The details in these two chapters may or may not be historically accurate, but they are theologically profound.
Earlier in the story, from Chapter 8 and onward, Mary’s status as a virgin betrothed to the older man Joseph is established, including her virgin state in the midst of a miraculous pregnancy.
Next, as she prepared to give birth, “a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary” (Protoevangelium 19). This recitation of events shows her mystically remaining a virgin even through the process of delivering a child, and this belief is emphasized in Chapter 20 when Salome’s hand withers as she attempts to give the new Mother a vaginal exam.
Mary’s ever-virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ is proclaimed by the three stars on her garments in icons of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and in all other icons of the Virgin Mary.
“Legend” Does Not Mean “Irrelevant”
As the hymnography and feasts of the Church attest, the Protoevangelium of James has had a profound impact on our worship and our understanding of the holy example of the Virgin Mary. The Church understands that this document is not Scripture; it is not included in the New Testament canon, and it was not written by an Apostle. And yet it is profoundly inspiring.
Fr. Lawrence sums up its importance well. He writes that this 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.”
For those of you who read the Protoevangelium of James this Christmas season (or at any other time), which aspects of the story stand out to you? Please share your reflections in the Comments section below. I’d love to read your thoughts!