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?