The Untold Story of Joseph and Mary

December 6, 2010

The biblical account of the interactions between Joseph and Mary is very small.  To me, it almost makes Joseph and Mary appear 2-dimensional, and I never feel like I know them very well.  When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant before their wedding, we know that he considered cancelling the betrothal.  An angel intervened, and Joseph decided to continue with the wedding.  Many of us have imagined that this must have been very tough to deal with, but the details in the Bible of the interactions between Mary and Joseph have been quite sparse.

The Protevangelion fills in many of these details.  The subtitle of the book is quite long: An Historical Account of the BIRTH of CHRIST, and the Perpetual VIRGIN MARY, his Mother, by JAMES THE LESSER, Cousin and Brother of the Lord Jesus, chief Apostle and first Bishop of the Christians.  Now this is the same James that I blogged about previously as the leader of ancient Christians (rather than the traditional Peter.)

Apparently this gospel was considered canonical among eastern Christians, but generates some controversy because it states that Joseph was a much older widower before marrying Mary.  Some ancient church fathers disputes this and state that Joseph was a virgin as well.  It is believed this manuscript was originally composed in Hebrew.  Postellus translated it into Latin.  This version I will quote below was printed in 1552 in Zurich.

The first few chapters are similar to the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, discussing Joachim and Anna’s failure to conceive a child.  In this gospel, Anna complains that even the birds can conceive.  I won’t reference that part of the story since it is similar, but there are some interesting facts about Mary’s childhood.  For example, she walks 9 steps at 9 months of age, and dances in the temple at age 3.

I want to discuss some interesting events about John the Baptist, his father Zacharias, and the more detailed account of discord between Mary and Joseph at her unexpected pregnancy.  As you remember from my previous post, there was some Jewish custom about rods for the betrothal of the virgins at the temple.  Zacharias plays a prominent role in this story, as he helps Mary find a husband.  Here’s a synopsis of the chapters.  If you’d like to see more details, here is a longer version of this post with quotes from the Protevangelion.

  • Chapter 1 – Joachim, a rich man, fasts 40 days and nights to ask for a child.
  • Chapter 2 – His wife mourns her barrenness.
  • Chapter 3 – Even the birds can conceive, yet Anna cannot.
  • Chapter 4 – Angel appears to Anna announcing her pregnancy.
  • Chapter 5 – Joachim sacrifices, and Anna births birth to Mary.
  • Chapter 6 – Mary walks 9 steps at 9 months
  • Chapter 7 – Parents take Mary to temple at age 3; Mary dances
  • Chapter 8 – Mary fed by angels.  Zacharias calls widowers together for marriage to Mary.  Joseph is chosen (dove lands on his head), but refuses because he is an old man.  He is compelled and leaves after betrothal to finish construction.
  • Chapter 9 – Mary chosen to weave purple part of temple veil.  Zacharias struck dumb as angel announces birth of John the Baptist.  Angel appears to Mary announcing Jesus birth.  She visits with Elizabeth.
  • Chapter 10 – Joseph returns after 6  months and finds Mary big with child.  He becomes angry and they argue.  He decides to put her away privately.  He has a dream and decides to stay with Mary.
  • Chapter 11- Jewish priests discover Mary’s pregnancy, and put Joseph and Mary on trial.  Both protest their innocence.  Joseph forced to drink the water of the Lord as an ordeal and does not get sick.  Joseph and Mary acquitted on the charges.
  • Chapter 12 – Augustus taxes the Jews.  Joseph not sure whether to claim Mary as a wife or as a child.  They find a cave for Jesus birth.
  • Chapter 13 – Joseph seeks Hebrew midwife.  Miraculously, everyone and everything in world stops moving.
  • Chapter 14 – Joseph finds midwife and admits Mary is not his wife.  At Christ’s birth, cave is filled with light.  Midwife believes Jesus is son of God.  Another woman, Salome, refuses to believe and her hand withers.  She prays to God, holds Jesus, believes, and is cured.
  • Chapter 15 – Wise men come from the east to the cave of Jesus, and do not return to Herod.
  • Chapter 16 – Herod irate at Wise Men.  Jesus hidden in ox-manger.  John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth miraculously saved in the mountain.  Zacharias killed at temple altar for refusing to disclose John’s location.

It was really interesting to hear the dialogue between Joseph and Mary when her pregnancy was discovered.  In chapter 10 verse 2,

2 – Then smiting upon his face he said, With what face can I look up to the Lord my God?  or, what shall I say concerning this young woman?

3 – For I received her a Virgin out of the temple of the Lord my God, and have not preserved her such!

4 – Who has thus deceived me?  Who has committed this evil in my house, and seducing the Virgin from me, hath defiled her?

And that’s just a small part of his rant.  Mary,

with a flood of tears, replied I am innocent and have known no man.

I mean it’s a really vivid portrayal of what happened, and how difficult it was for both of them.  And then to be brought to trial—WOW!  I mean I can really relate to the story.  It was also interesting to see some of the slight variations of the story: How they found a cave for Jesus birth, and the ox-manger didn’t come into the story until they were hiding from Herod.  And the part of the story discussing Elizabeth and John escaping from Herod, starting Chapter 16 verse 3:

3 – Elizabeth also, hearing that her son John was about to be searched for, took him and went up uno the mountains, and looked around for a place to hide him;

4 – And there was no secret place to be found.

5 – Then she groaned within herself, and said, O Mountain of the Lord, receive the mother with the child.

6 – For Elizabeth could not climb up.

7 – And instantly the mountain was divided and received them.

8 – And there appeared to them an angel of the Lord, to preserve them.

I mean these are really cool stories.  So what do you make of these stories?  How much weight to you put into their historicity?  Do these stories add to your Christmas experience?

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12 Responses to The Untold Story of Joseph and Mary

  1. Course Correction on December 6, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    They are great stories and probably as historically accurate as the rest of the Christmas stories we tell.

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  2. Mike S on December 6, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    I like this story as it adds to the human dimension of the story. I can imagine it would have been very difficult to be in Joseph’s position.

    The whole idea of “lost books” is also interesting to me. At the time the New Testament was formally assembled nearly 400 AD, we know there were dozens and dozens of other books that were not chosen. At the time the books were chosen, there were different sects, etc. And I am sure the men compiling everything followed a similar precept to what our Church does today – don’t tell something because it’s true, but because it’s faith-promoting. The Book of Mormon talks about doing this as well – that the “history” was kept on other plates, etc.

    So, as far as “historicity”? I don’t know. In early writings, that wasn’t necessarily the point as it may be today. Even within the canonized NT there are inconsistencies. But they don’t detract from the message. I look at this book the same way. It may or may not be any more historically accurate than some of Paul Dunn’s talks, but there are still messages and points I can get from them.

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  3. Duke of Earl Grey on December 6, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    I heard that story of Zacharias being killed told by a BYU religion professor, but he didn’t say what the source was. Very cool.

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  4. mh on December 6, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    I absolutely love these stories. the gospel definitely dates to the time of constantine, but perhaps not earlier.

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  5. Heber13 on December 6, 2010 at 4:33 PM

    Pretty interesting. I think to myself…it is not canonized scripture, so it might not be accurate. The mountain dividing and an angel carrying up the mother of John may not be accurate.

    But the Lord dividing the Red Sea…that’s canonized.

    Canonized or not, I find them interesting. MH: did you find it taught you any gospel message?

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  6. Dan on December 6, 2010 at 8:17 PM

    This is written by those who espouse a belief that Mary was a virgin for life. The problem they have is that the scriptures indicate that Jesus had brothers and sisters (as many as seven in total). Since Mary has to be a virgin for life, those brothers and sisters cannot simply be written off as “cousins” or as family friends, but Joseph must be made into an older man, a widower with seven children from a previous marriage. Since the canonized scriptures are silent as to when Joseph died (he’s not in the picture at all in Jesus’ adult life), it’s very easy for someone one or two hundred years later to embellish and say Joseph must have been older and thus died of old age (they put his age at 111 or something, which is rather odd).

    Furthermore, this is also written to Catholic beliefs of the “defiling nature” of sex, which is rather odd, seeing that the Creator of the world (and thus the Creator of the process of procreation) is the one who calls the process of procreation defiling, just seems wrong. It does not jibe with the Master and his love of his creation.

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  7. MH on December 6, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    I don’t know that there is a lot of doctrine in these stories. To me, the interesting parts of the story were all the angelic visits. I mean to be associated with Jesus meant angelic visits: Joachim and Anna, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph. It makes you wonder where all the angelic visits are today, and in a way it seems a bit nostalgic to view all these cool heavenly visitations.

    Dan’s right that the writers definitely were trying to promote this idea of Mary’s virginity, though I hesitate to call it a Catholic idea. Certainly the Catholics claim this position, though Catholicism really didn’t exist when this book was first written. This idea of Mary’s virginity is obviously very ancient, but I don’t think we can blame the origin of the doctrine on the Catholics.

    I enjoyed the references to Anna, Sarah, Rachel, and other women who failed to conceive. I wonder if these stories could be a source of inspiration for those who want a child today, but can’t due to fertility problems. On the other hand, I wonder if seeing miracles in Anna’s life will properly translate to a couple that fails to conceive. “Even the birds conceive” seems like a true expression of anxiety, and unless a miracle happens to a couple, I don’t know that reading about others’ miracles is really a bright spot for the couple wanting to become parents.

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  8. Badger on December 7, 2010 at 9:17 PM

    Thanks for the look at another of these New Testament apocrypha. Again, the stories are fascinating. I doubt they are literally true, and absent other evidence I would regard them as tradition rather than history, something like the American story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

    It feels less “Catholic” to me than the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, although it is just as committed to her perpetual virginity. The stories overlap so much that I suspect one served as the source for the other, or they had a common source. I’ve only seen a date for the Protevangelion (mid 2nd cent.). Does anyone know if the G. of M. be placed definitely earlier or later?

    Speaking of common elements, it’s interesting to see the names Annas and Salome turn up.

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  9. MH on December 7, 2010 at 9:37 PM

    From what I can tell, the Protevangelion (~ 150 AD) seems to pre-date the Gospel of the Birth of Mary (~300-600 AD). Some people seem to believe the Protevangelion is a source for the Birth of Mary gospel.

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  10. Chris on December 9, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    I always think it’s interesting when people talk about the authority of canonized scripture. Who canonized it? These stories seem like a big departure from the ones we have had drilled in our heads our whole life so they may seem suspect simply because they are unfamiliar but where is the certainty founded in our New Testament? Who were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Friends and companions of people who witnessed these events? What about the fact that these books are only attributed to these second-hand witnesses only from tradition?

    The information we have seems to indicate that the canonized Gospels were just in the mix with all the rest of the stories and the only real criteria that could be used to justify the true from the false was how well it aligned doctrinally with the current state of the Orthodox church institution.

    The Gospels did not set the doctrine, the Orthodox church did after the fact. There were dozens of stories that had been written and many of these authors probably never intended them to be taken literally. The church had refined and established its structure and then weeded out everything that did not confirm its sole ownership of authority.

    To me these gnostic, apocryphal(?) gospels are just as valid as the NT in telling different sides of a fascinating myth. They don’t tell us about literal history but they tell us a lot about people and the evolution of religion.

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  11. SUMMER on November 29, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    I may not be a bible scholar. But I truly believe a lot of the accounts of Mary and Joseph are not completely accurate. I believe Mary and Joseph were created for each other (soul mates if you will). God had chosen Mary before she was born to be the mother of the savior just as he had chosen Joseph to be the earthly father. I do not believe that Mary stayed a virgin it takes 2 to create a child this was God’s plan of procreation all along . And to those who question where are the Angelic visits today. There are angelic visits, the same angel that appeared to Mother Mary is still delivering messages from god. Although I in no way claim to know everything or really much of anything but let’s just say I have had such visits and this is were my beliefs come from. Not from any book or bible that was written by man.

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  12. SUMMER on November 29, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    I looked into this website because I believe there is an amazing love story between two destined lovers. But you never hear or see anything written or said about the love that Mary and Joseph had for each. I was curious to see if anyone has ever tried uncovering that side of the story.

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