Protevangelium: An Alternative Nativity

Here is a fascinating and extraordinary look at the nativity story, a three-week class that discusses the most impressive collection of traditions concerning the birth of Jesus, especially those that circulated in the name of James, his brother. Its purpose, audience, content, and influence will astound you.




The Protevangelium (“first gospel”) is divided into three main sections: 1) the report of Mary’s unique birth as well as her early childhood and dedication to the Temple, 2) a story when at the age of twelve, through the direction of an angel, Joseph was selected as her husband, and 3) the nativity of Jesus, the arrival of midwives, and the hiding of both Jesus and John from Herod the Great. Numerous legends regarding Mary either originated in this account or were drawn from the same sources. Included among them are the names of her parents, her childhood in the Temple, Mary Presented in Templeher perpetual virginity, and the martyrdom of Zacharias (father of John the Baptist). Moreover, the widespread tradition that Joseph was an aged widower and obtained Mary by lot likely first circulated in this work.

It was certainly distributed after both Luke and Matthew composed their gospels, since the writer incorporates large sections from both canonical accounts, to which he introduced popular, likely oral, traditions. Included among them were widespread notions, such as Jesus was born in a cave and was of Davidic descent through Mary. The narrative reads like a composite text composed for the intent of exalting her honor, most likely the result of malicious rumors at her expense, such as those preserved in Celsus. This critic of the faith claimed to receive these “truths” from prominent Jewish leaders. Regardless, this gospel became the foundational document upon which eight layers of Marian legends were later based. It also contains the most extensive collection of traditions regarding the nativity of Jesus.

The Protevangelium is the most recent name applied to a text that also circulated as “The Book of James.” This particular title was not used prior to the sixteenth century, when its Latin version was published (1552). Its subtitle is, “The History of James concerning the Birth of Mary,” as found in the majority of these editions. Its popularity is demonstrated in over one hundred and fifty Greek manuscripts that survived antiquity. The earliest is preserved on papyrus dating to the third century. The account was, furthermore, translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin. The original form is generally assigned between the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135) and the close of the second century.

Don’t miss this chance to learn an alternative nativity, one that many second-century believers embraced, since it established the basis for most Marian traditions to follow.