In my graduate course last week, we analyzed the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary. On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition. Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified; her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).
The book was originally composed in the second Christian century. There are a number of intriguing passages, none of which is more famous than the one I translate here (the original language is Greek). In this striking narrative, when Mary is about ready to give birth in a cave just outside of Bethlehem, Joseph runs off to find a midwife who can help. They arrive too late. The child appears without any human help or intervention (is the child really a newborn? Jesus appears to walk over to his mother to take her breast; and he performs a healing miracle!).
It’s an amazing passage, that everyone should know about. (The first bit is given in the first-person, with Joseph himself talking). Here it is:
(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s Temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.
(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”
(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”
(1) The midwife went in and said to Mary, “Brace yourself. For there is no small controversy concerning you.” Then Salome inserted her finger in order to examine her condition, and she cried out, “Woe to me for my sin and faithlessness. For I have put the living God to the test, and see, my hand is burning, falling away from me.” (2) She kneeled before the Master and said, “O God of my fathers, remember that I am a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not make me an example to the sons of Israel, but deliver me over to the poor. For you know, O Master, that I have performed my services in your name and have received my wages from you.”
(3) And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Salome, Salome, the Master of all has heard your prayer. Bring your hand to the child and lift him up; and you will find salvation and joy.” (4) Salome joyfully came and lifted the child, saying, “I will worship him, for he has been born as a great king to Israel.” Salome was immediately cured, and she went out of the cave justified. And behold a voice came saying, “Salome, Salome, do not report all the miraculous deeds you have seen until the child enters Jerusalem.”
— Bart Ehrman, The Bart Ehrman Blog, How was Jesus *Really* Born?
Bart Ehrman’s latest book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, is now available.