Gospel of the Birth of Mary

By: Mormon Heretic
November 29, 2010

Joachim, Mary, and Anna

A few months ago, I picked up a book called Lost Books of the Bible by William Hone on the clearance rack at Barnes and Noble.  It is one of the coolest books I have ever picked up.  There are 26 ancient books included in the compilation, dating to the earliest centuries after Christ.  These ancient writings include books such as The Gospel of Nicodemus, The Apostle’s Creed, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Letters of Herod and Pilate, to name just a few.

The first 4 books deal with the childhood of Jesus.  With the Christmas season approaching, I wanted to share some of these really cool stories about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  I think you’ll enjoy learning some of the extra-biblical stories.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve read so much cool stuff about the life of Jesus.  I want to start with the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and discuss some of these other ancient writings in coming weeks.  Some of these stories overlap, and I think it will be interesting to see the different, sometimes conflicting accounts over the coming weeks.

Before I get into the actual gospel, I want to give some background on this particular document.  This gospel has been attributed to Matthew, and the version in the book dates to the 4th century.  The book was found in the works of St. Jerome.  Some of his contemporaries mentioned the gospel as well, such as Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, and Austin.  Some of the ancient copies differed from Jerome’s version (I will quote from Jerome’s version).

The book states that Mary was from the house of David (tribe of Judah), but Faustus, Bishop of Riez disagreed, saying Mary was from Levi.  We know that Mary and Elizabeth were cousins.  Elizabeth was with wife of Zacharias, priest in the temple, and therefore of the Tribe of Levi.  Jesus went to John the Baptist who held the proper authority, so a good case can be made that Mary might have been from Levi.  Apparently Muslims believe Mary was from Levi.  This gospel clearly states Mary was a descendant of David, who was the tribe of Judah.

The ancient group Collyridians imagined that both Mary and Jesus were the result of a miraculous conception, both being born of a virgin.  This gospel seems to show that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, had fertility problems just like Abraham and Sarah and Rachel and Jacob.  (I snipped that out of my excerpts below, but the angel clearly mentions this to Anna.)  Collyridians are an interesting group, and are considered heretical Christians.  Some believe they thought Mary was a goddess.

This Wikipedia article says that Mohammad believed that Christians thought that Mary was the 3rd member of the Trinity.  That’s an interesting idea, but this gospel states that “the Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, without any of the heats of lust.”  I’ve heard of a Father, Mother, and Son being part of the Trinity—kind of a “holy family” and that makes some logical sense.  But the references to the Holy Ghost in the Bible seem to be quite separate from Mary (such as when the Holy Ghost descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism), so I think it’s a bit of a stretch to put Mary in the Godhead or Trinity, despite how appealing that might be.  It’s an interesting idea that the Holy Ghost could be feminine, even if it’s not Mary.

So, let’s look at Jerome’s copy.  So that this isn’t too long, I will only cite the parts I find particularly interesting, and will reference chapters and verses.

Chapter 1

1 – The blessed and ever glorious Virgin Mary, sprung from the royal race and family of David, was born in the city of Nazareth, and educated at Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord.

2 – Her father’s name was Joachim, and her mother’s Anna.  The family of her father was of Galilee and the city of Nazareth.  The family of her mother was of Bethlehem.

Chapter 2

1 – But when he had been there for some time, on a certain day when he was alone, the angel of the Lord stood by him with a prodigious light.

2 – To whom, being troubled at the appearance, the angel who had appeared to him, endeavoring to compose him said;

3 – Be not afraid, Joachim, nor troubled at the sight of me, for I am an angel of the Lord sent by him to you, that I might inform you, that your prayers are heard, and your alms are ascended in the sight of God.

…[Angel discusses Sarah, Rachel as barren women as well]

9 – …Anna your wife shall bring you a daughter and you shall call her name Mary;

10 – She shall, according to your vow, be devoted to the Lord from her infancy, and be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother’s womb;

11 – She shall neither eat nor drink anything which is unclean; nor shall her conversation be without among the common people, but in the temple of the Lord; that so she may not fall under suspicion of what is bad.

Chapter 3

1 – Afterwards the angel appeared unto Anna his wife saying: Fear not, neither think that which ye see is a spirit.

2 – For I am the angel who hath offered up your prayers and alms before God, and am now sent to you, that I may inform you that a daughter will be born unto you, who shall be called Mary, and shall be blessed above all women.

3 – She shall be, immediately upon her birth, full of grace of the Lord, and shall continue the three years of her weaning in her father’s house, and afterwards, being devoted to the service of the Lord, shall not depart from the temple, till she arrives at the years of discretion.

11 – So Anna conceived, and brought forth a daughter, and according to the angel’s command, the parents called her name Mary.

Chapter 4

1 – And when the three years were expired, and the time of her weaning complete, they brought the Virgin to the temple of the Lord with offerings.

8 – But the parents having offered up their sacrifice, according to the custom of the law, left the Virgin with other virgins in the apartments of the temple, who were brought up there, and they returned home.

Chapter 5

1 – But the Virgin of the Lord, as she advanced in years, increased also in perfections, and according to the Psalmist, her father and mother forsook her, but the Lord took care of her.

2 – For she every day had the conversation of angels, and every day received visitors from God, which preserved her from all sorts of evil, and caused her to abound with all good things;

3 – So that when at length she arrived to her fourteenth year, as the wicked could not lay anything to her charge worthy of reproof, so all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her life and conversation.

4 – At that time the high-priest made a public order.  That all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home, and as they were now of a proper maturity, should according to the custom of their country, endeavor to be married.

5 – To which command, though all the other virgins readily yielded obedience, Mary the Virgin of the Lord alone answered, that she could not comply with it.

6 – Assigning these reasons, that both she and her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord; and besides, that she had vowed virginity to the Lord, which vow she was resolved never to break through by lying with a man.

7 – The high priest being herby brought into a difficulty,

12 – And when they were all engaged in prayer, the high-priest, according to the usual way, went to consult God.

13 – And immediately there was a voice from the ark, and the mercy seat, which all present heard, that it must be inquired or sought out by a prophecy of Isaiah to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed;

16 – Then according to this prophecy, he appointed that all the men of the house and family of David, who were marriageable, and not married, should bring their several rods to the altar,

17 – And out of whatsoever person’s rod after it was brought, a flower should bud forth, and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be betrothed.

Chapter 6

1 – Among the rest there was a man named Joseph, of the house and family of David, and a person very far advanced in years, who drew back his rod, when every one besides presented his.

2 – So that when nothing appeared agreeable to the heavenly voice, the high-priest judged it proper to consult God again.

3 – Who answered that he whom the virgin was to be betrothed was the only person of those who were brought together, who had not brought his rod.

4 – Joseph therefore was betrayed.

5 – For when he did bring his rod, and a dove coming from Heaven pitched upon the top of it, every one plainly saw, that the Virgin was to be betrothed to him;

6 – According to the usual ceremonies of betrothing being over, he returned to his own city of Bethlehem, to set his house in order, and make the needful provisions for the marriage.

7 – But the Virgin of the Lord, Mary with seven other virgins of the same age, who had been weaned at the same time, and who had been appointed to attend her by the priest, returned to her parent’s house in Galilee.

Chapter 7

…[angel appears to Mary]

8 – Fear not Mary, as though I intended anything inconsistent with your chastity in this salutation;

9 – For you have found favour with the Lord, because you made virginity your choice.

10 – Therefore while you are a Virgin, you shall conceive without sin, and bring forth a son.

11 – He shall be great, because he shall reign from sea to the sea, and from the rivers to the ends of the earth

….

16 – She said, How can that be?  For seeing, according to my vow, I have never known any man, how can I bear a child without the addition of a man’s seed?

17 – To this the angel replied and said, Think not Mary, that you shall conceive in the ordinary way.

18 – For without lying with a man, while a Virgin, you shall conceive; while a Virgin, you shall bring forth; and while a Virgin shall give suck.

19 – For the Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, without any of the heats of lust.

20 – So that which shall be born of you shall be only holy, because it only is conceived without sin, and being born, shall be called the Son of God.

21 – Then Mary stretching forth her hands and lifting her eyes to heaven, said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord!  Let it be unto me according to thy word.

Chapter 8

1 – Joseph therefore went from Judaea to Galilee, with intention to marry the Virgin who was betrothed to him:

2 – For it was now near three months since she was betrothed to him.

3 – At length it plainly appeared she was with child, and it could not be hid from Joseph:

4 – For going to the Virgin in a free manner, as one espoused, and talking familiarly with her, he perceived her to be with child.

5 – And thereupon began to be uneasy and doubtful, not knowing what course it would be best to take;

8 – But while he was meditating these things, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, and said Joseph, son of David, fear not;

9 – Be not willing to entertain any suspicion of the Virgin’s being guilty of fornication, or to think any thing amiss of her, neither be afraid to take her to wife;

10 – For that which is begotten in her and now distresses your mind, is not the work of man, but the Holy Ghost.

11 – For she of all women is that only Virgin who shall bring forth the Son of God, and you shall call his name Jesus, that is, Saviour: for he will save his people from their sins.

12 – Joseph thereupon according to the command of the angel, married the Virgin, and did not know her, but kept her in chastity.

13 – And now the ninth month from her conception drew near, when Joseph took his wife and what other things were necessary to Bethlehem, the city from whence he came.

14 – And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her bringing forth her first-born son, as the holy Evangelists have taught, even our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, lives and reigns to everlasting ages.

{The End}

So what do you make of this gospel?  Some have claimed that the biblical use of the word “virgin” simply meant young woman, but this gospel makes specific mention of Mary’s virginity and chastity.  On the other hand, there must have been quite some rumors about Mary’s out of wedlock pregnancy.  My next post will discuss another book called the Protevangelion.  It gives a lot more detail about Joseph’s concern about Mary’s pregnancy.  (If you thought this gospel was cool, the Protevangelion is even better!)  If you’re interested in viewing a few more of this gospel, see the longer version of this post.

Here are some questions to consider.

  • Have you ever heard that Mary’s birth was miraculous?  What do you make of this story of her birth?
  • Did you have any idea Mary grew up in the temple?
  • Did you know Joseph didn’t want to marry Mary even before she appeared pregnant?  I’m sure it is because Joseph was “far advanced in years” – perhaps Joseph was old enough to be her father (grandfather?)  (The Protevangelion really emphasizes the age difference.)
  • What do you think of her conversations with angels “every day”?
  • How historically accurate do you think some of these events are from the life of Mary?
  • While I don’t expect Mormons to have very much of an issue with Mary’s lineage, what do you make of the dispute about her ancestry (Judah or Levi)?
  • What do you make of the emphasis in this gospel of her chastity?  Do you see any “original sin” overtones (“heats of lust”)?
  • Do you think Mary’s role and miraculous experiences are under-emphasized (undervalued) in the biblical gospels?
  • Do you think it would have been nice if this gospel had been included in the biblical canon?

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5 Responses to Gospel of the Birth of Mary

  1. Jon Miranda on November 29, 2010 at 6:08 AM

    Mary had to come from somewhere good. Can you imagine being chosen to bear Christ?

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  2. Badger on November 29, 2010 at 9:13 PM

    It sounds very Catholic to me. I had not known that some of these ideas about Mary were so well articulated that early.

    Is there any reason to believe it is historically accurate at all? My “favorite” from that period is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, from which we learn such plain but un-precious untruths as the story of the boy Jesus cursing another boy to death for bumping into him. These stories about Mary are certainly a cut above that!

    I think the Immaculate Conception might be regarded as a miracle associated with Mary’s birth, although it is of a rather different kind.

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  3. Mormon Heretic on November 30, 2010 at 8:11 AM

    Yes, I agree it sounds very Catholic. I have no idea if there are any grains of history in here, but I love the stories. i’ll be discussing some infancy gospels soon and there is a story of Jesus killing a teacher because the teacher wanted Jesus to recite the alphabet.

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  4. FireTag on November 30, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    I appreciate this, although I don’t think the stories reflect more than the later views of an ascetic age that the physical body was sinful, alien to the Spirit, and therefore Holy persons should be as far from sex — even in marriage — as possible. Even Joseph.

    (However, breastfeeding until the age of three was perfectly normal. Go figure cultural differences.

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  5. Badger on November 30, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    [I]’ll be discussing some infancy gospels soon

    Good. Rereading your post I can see you at least implied this, but I missed it the first time through. I look forward to the discussion.

    I haven’t seen the entire text, but there is obviously some similarity between Mary’s birth, and John the Baptist’s. Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

    Something else that this brought to mind is the Tannhäuser legend, which has both a blooming staff (no dove, though), and a similar emphasis on the idea of impurity of sensual love. At least in Wagner’s version, Tannhäuser frees himself from the Venusberg by invoking the name of Mary. The theme has certainly proven durable. At the time this Gospel was written, Venus was not the antiquity she is today. I wonder how much Mary was thought of as “the anti-Venus” at that time.

    Choosing a husband by means of a “rod contest” has a pretty obvious and un-solemn sexual implication, one that seems incongruous given the overt message. It’s a little hard for me to imagine what, if anything, to make of it. Is there an allegorical comparison between the carnality of the pool of potential husbands and Mary’s virginity? After all, Joseph was the one who “failed to perform” in the contest, which is consistent with the description of the ensuing marriage. If so, there is a contrast between the extraordinarily exalted view of Mary’s female virginity, and the implicit equation of Joseph’s male abstinence with impotence. It won’t be the last time the world hears that message, either.

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