Protevangelium of James

JAMES, PROTEVANGELIUM OF. The oldest and most famous of the infancy gospels, this document is significant (a) for its evidence of the extent to which devotion to Mary had already developed by the time of its composition, and (b) for its influence on later developments in the history of Mariology. With the Infancy Gospel of Thomas it formed the basis on which the later infancy gospels were constructed (e.g., the Arabic and Armenian infancy gospels, the Gospel of Pseudo-matthew, etc.); most of them incorporate considerable parts of its contents along with material drawn from other sources.


The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke carry the story of Jesus back to His birth and to the birth of His forerunner, John the Baptist. The Protevangelium begins with the birth of Mary. The story starts with a wealthy but childless couple, Joachim and Anna. Publicly reproached because he alone has not begotten children in Israel, Joachim goes off sadly to the wilderness, where he remains forty days and forty nights. Mean-while his wife Anna mourns her childlessness. An angel appears to her (and also to Joachim), promising that her prayers will be granted. In due time the child is born and named Mary. At the age of three she is presented in the Temple, and remains there, nurtured like a dove and receiving food from the hand of an angel. When she reaches the age of twelve, the widowers of Israel are summoned together, and Joseph is chosen by a miraculous sign to take her under his charge. Leaving her in his home he goes off to his work of building. Mary is chosen with other virgins to weave a veil for the Temple, and during this time, the Annunciation takes place, followed by the visit to Elizabeth (cf. Luke 2). On his return after some months’ absence, Joseph finds Mary with child, but is reassured by an angel (cf. Matt 1:18ff.). The matter is reported to the high priest, and Mary and Joseph are subjected to trial by ordeal, from which they emerge unscathed. Following the edict of Augustus they travel to Bethlehem. Joseph finds a cave for Mary, leaves her in the care of his sons, and goes in search of a midwife. (Here there is a sudden switch to the first person, as Joseph describes the silence of all things at the Nativity.) After episodes concerning the midwife and the unbelieving Salome, the story continues with the visit of the Wise Men and the slaughter of the Innocents. It is Mary’s fear at the news that leads her to lay her child in a manger; John and Elizabeth are miraculous ly delivered, but Zacharias is murdered at the altar (he is thus identified with the Zechariah of Matt 23:35). The final paragraph gives the writer’s name as James.


The document is marked by evident use of OT motifs, esp. from the story of Samuel, and by equally clear use of the canonical gospels. There are quotations from the infancy narratives of both Matthew and Luke, and several passages are written in imitation of the canticles in Luke. The book therefore presupposes the canonical gospels, although it makes free use of the material drawn from them, and may at some points supplement this material from oral tradition (e.g., in placing the birth in a cave). There is a strong element of the miraculous in the description of Mary’s childhood and upbringing, but the tone of the work is on the whole comparatively restrained. The author was not familiar with Jewish customs, and was prob. neither a Jew nor a Jewish Christian. For example, Joachim’s childlessness is made to debar him from presenting his offering; Mary is brought up within the Temple; the altar seems to be thought of as indoors. On the other hand, there is nothing specifically heretical in the book, although it was later to be condemned in the W. It was clearly written for the glorification of Mary, the Jewish slanders relating to the Virgin Birth being refuted by implication, and testimony provided for Mary’s subsequent virginity by outside witnesses.


The oldest MS is the Papyrus Bodmer V, published in 1958 and dated by its editor to the 3rd cent. (de Strycker 14, n. 3 corrects to the first half of the 4th). Most of the other Gr. MSS are comparatively late, from the 10th cent. and after. No complete Lat. MS has survived, but there are ancient Lat. texts which incorporate portions, and there is evidence that a Lat. VS was once current (Biblica 43 [1962], 57ff.). In addition, there are VSS in Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and other languages, not to mention the various paraphrases and adaptations based upon the work. The MS tradition has been exhaustively examined by de Strycker, who concludes that it shows a remarkable homogeneity and continuity (374f.). Even the Bodmer Papyrus, however, already shows numerous errors, although most of them are superficial and it remains by far the most faithful witness.


The title “Protevangelium” owes its established position to Postel and Neander, who in the 16th cent. were the first to publish the text. The Bodmer Papyrus has the unusual double title “Birth of Mary. Revelation of James,” of which the second part is almost certainly wrong (two Apocalypses of James, q.v., in the Nag Hammadi library have no connection whatever with the present work, nor has the Jung Codex Apocryphon of James, which also has sometimes been called an Apocalypse of James). Later Gr. MSS usually have “Story,” “History” or “Account,” and a statement of the contents, without mention of James; but as noted above the final paragraph affirms that the book was written by James. Origen refers to a “Book of James” for the view that Jesus’ “brothers” were Joseph’s sons by a previous marriage. The James in question is commonly identified with the Lord’s brother, not the son of Zebedee; but some authorities simply speak of James without further identification.


The Bodmer Papyrus is proof that the document by the early 4th cent. had been in existence long enough for errors to creep into the text. How much earlier it can be placed depends on our assessment of patristic evidence. Origen apparently knew it, although he gives a different account of the death of Zacharias. It is also possible that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria. On the other hand, while there are links with Justin in the reference to the cave and to the Davidic descent of Mary, these are not sufficient to justify the claim that Justin knew the book. The materials from which it is composed may have been current about a.d. 150, but this does not mean that the book itself was already in existence. The use of the canonical gospels points to a period when they were already fairly well established, although oral tradition was still available. This suggests a date in the latter half of the 2nd cent., but there are also problems relating to the composition and integrity of the work.


Three points in particular have given rise to doubts concerning the unity of the work: (a) the first-person passage in 18:2, already mentioned (it is missing from the Bodmer papyrus); (b) Origen’s use of a different story of the death of Zacharias, which suggests that this passage was not in the text he knew; and (c) certain variations in chs. 18-21 (the Bodmer text is shorter, and omits some of the dialogue in the episode of Salome and the midwife). The addition of Salome as a witness, as well as the midwife, has been regarded as “altogether secondary” (Cullmann, NTAp. I. 372).

Following earlier scholars, Harnack distinguished three documents incorporated into the work as we have it; a Nativity of Mary (chs. 1-17), an Apocryphon of Joseph (18-20), and an Apocryphon of Zacharias (22-24). The Zacharias section is often considered a later addition in view of Origen’s silence, but whether the other two sections were originally separate is more doubtful. The story seems to require the birth of Jesus for its completion, and this leads naturally to the story of the Magi. Possibly only chs. 23, 24 are later interpolations, together with the passage in 18:2.

In the most recent study, de Strycker claims that the Bodmer text is not an original VS later to be expanded but an abridgement that presupposes the longer VS. He rejects Harnack’s three-document theory and argues for the unity of the book, although admitting that there are certain redactional anomalies.


NTAp. I. 370ff.; de Strycker, La forme la plus ancienne du Protévangile de Jacques (1961); Smid, Protevangelium Jacobi: A Commentary (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



See also

  • Apocryphal Gospels