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Protoevangelion of James

The Protevangelion of James, also sometimes known as the Gospel of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, is generally dated to the 2nd century AD. It is an apocryphal gospel that was widely read but never accepted into the New Testament Canon.

The document presents itself as written by James: "I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem." Thus the purported author is James the Just, the brother of Jesus. Over one hundred and forty Greek manuscripts containing the Gospel of James have been discovered. The echoes and parallels of the Old Testament appear to derive from its use of Septuagint phraseology. As far as content, it dedicates a significant portion not to the circumstances of Jesus' birth, but to the birth and life of Mary. This is the earliest text that explicitly claims that Joseph was a widower, with children, at the time that Mary was entrusted to his care. The first mention of the Protoevangelion is by Origen, who refers to the work as the Book of James. Many critics feel that the work is a composite of other works or existing traditions.

The Gospel of James was translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish, and Latin. No early Latin versions are known, but it is relegated to the apocrypha in the Gelasian decretal. As with the canonical gospels, the vast majority of the manuscripts come from the tenth century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the third or early fourth century, was found in 1958; it is kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva (Papyrus Bodmer 5). Of the surviving Greek manuscripts, the fullest surviving text is a tenth century codex in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Paris 1454).


The contents of this gospel describe the birth and childhood of Mary, the mother of Jesus, her coming of age and betrothal to Joseph, and the birth and early childhood of Jesus. One of the work's high points is the Lament of Anna. A primary theme is the work and grace of God in Mary's life, Mary's personal purity, and her perpetual virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, as confirmed by the midwife after she gave birth and tested by "Salome" (perhaps Saint Salome, the disciple of Jesus mentioned at the Crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark). Though the book is not an official part of Christian canon and hence "apocryphal," the Gospel of James may be the earliest surviving document attesting the veneration of Mary and her continuing virginity (possible earlier ones being known only as quotes in later works.)

It is in three equal parts: the first eight chapters contain the story of Mary's own unique birth and childhood; the second eight chapters concern the crisis posed by Mary's becoming a woman and thus her imminent pollution of the temple, her assignment to Joseph as her guardian, and the tests of her virginity; and the last eight chapters relate to the Nativity, with the visit of midwives, the hiding of Jesus from Herod in a feeding trough, and even the parallel hiding of John the Baptist from Herod in the hills with his mother Elizabeth. These legends appear to be embellishments upon the stories given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Among the extracanonical traditions recorded in this protevangelion are the introduction of Joseph as a widower with several children who is Mary's guardian, the birth of Jesus in a cave, and the martyrdom of John the Baptist's father Zechariah during the slaughter of the infants.

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