A nativity wordcloud for the Protevangelium of James

This week’s seminar (Wednesday, 17th December) and wordcloud explore how the story of the nativity developed after Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts. It is within these later writings that we can begin to see the beginning of a merging together (or harmonising) of Matthew and Luke’s stories, an emphasising of certain themes and also the introduction of some of the elements that are so familiar to us from our Christmas cards and nativity plays.

This week’s wordcloud is of a piece of early Christian writing that many may not have heard about: the Protevangelium of James (Prot. Jas.), sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James.

Prot. of James wordle
Wordcloud for Protevangelium of James 11-22 (click to enlarge)

The text has been taken from Chapter 11 (the Annunciation to Mary) to chapter 22 (the Slaughter of the Innocents). It is 2,476 words long and so is roughly the same length as Luke’s account. The text is based on the Roberts-Donaldson translation which can be found on the Early Christian Writings site.

Luke wordle
Luke’s account of the Nativity (click to enlarge)
Wordle for Matthew
Matthew’s account of the Nativity (click to enlarge)

Cick here to view wordclouds in Worcloud Gallery


In previous weeks we have explored how both Matthew and Luke use their accounts of Jesus’ birth to provide important narrative and theological/Christological cues for the reader. In other words, they are telling us this story so that we might better understand and be prepared for what is coming next. It is fair to say that the later or apocryphal writings (like the Prot. Jas.) tend to do the reverse. They assume that the reader is familiar with New Testament Gospels and seek to look backward, answering the questions that the earlier accounts raised… and, if our seminars are any reflection on this, are still being raised!

Comparing this week’s wordcloud with those of Matthew and Luke, one of the most immediate features is the prominence given to both Mary and Joseph in the Prot. Jas., underlining the way this text harmonises the New Testament accounts. Although Elizabeth still appears (much smaller) there is no sign of Zechariah whose importance to the story is more concerned with his role as high priest and who is killed by Herod following the birth of Jesus (ch. 23).

A further sign of harmonisation is the appearance of both royal terminology (Matthew) and that of the temple (Luke). The text retains Matthew’s story of Herod, the Magi, the star and the slaughter. However, it is Luke’s account of the annunciation to Mary by Gabriel (who is now also described as an archangel) that is included, rather than Matthew’s version featuring Joseph. In fact, Joseph doesn’t discover Mary’s pregnancy until she is in her sixth month (ch. 13).

There are a couple of words which some readers might be surprised about; Salome, midwife and cave (more about them later!). We can also note the first introduction of the perennial nativity play favourite, the donkey (top left).


The Prot. Jas. is one of the first pieces of Christian writing that sought to expand the story of the nativity. It is thought to have been written around the late second century; although it might possibly be as early as 150 C.E.. Later, many of these so-called ‘Gospels’ would develop still further these various traditions whilst also providing extra information about Jesus and his life (particularly his childhood). Unfortunately for Dan Brown aficionados, these works appear to have been written primarily for entertainment and were read as fictional accounts rather than propounding some lost or suppressed form of Christian belief.

 Nativity by Guido Da Siena
Featuring the cave and Salome – The Nativity by Guido Da Siena (c.1270): Louvre Museum

One of the main issues that the Prot. Jas. addresses concerns the person of Mary. It can be argued that the text is as much about Mary as it is about Jesus. The miraculous birth including divine annunciation of Mary to her parents Joachim and Anna is described in full (chs. 1-4), as well as her sinless childhood. What the Prot. Jas. appears to be doing is countering the criticisms being raised by the opponents to the early Church about the reputation of Mary (some of which we explored in our previous post). Joseph’s horrified reaction to the news of Mary’s pregnancy is described in detail (chs. 13-14) as well as the reaction of the midwife and Salome (chs. 19-20). Both are attended with divine messages or miraculous events. For example, before meeting Mary, the midwife sees a ‘luminous cloud’ resting over the place where Mary is waiting (ch. 19). Needing assurance that Mary truly is a virgin and reflecting the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29), Salome states (ch. 19):

As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.

Having done so and finding that Mary’s claims are true, her hand burns as if on fire and she repents of her unbelief (ch. 20).

The Prot. Jas. therefore explores and seeks to answer those questions raised by the New Testament nativity stories concerning Mary (and Joseph) and providing the reader with additional details and ‘proofs’ that this story is true.


The Prot. Jas. follows Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph travelling down to Bethlehem. However, it includes much more background detail. The purpose of their journey is to register Joseph’s sons (ch. 17). It also tells us that their mode of transport was an ass. Interestingly, the text omits the account of Luke’s shepherds, even though their presence in nearby fields are mentioned. What is retained of Luke’s account – and it could be argued is emphasised more strongly – is Luke’s reference to the humble circumstances in which Jesus was born. Prot. Jas. describes how Jesus is born in a cave. This not only avoids the ambiguity of Luke’s  κατάλυμα (translated in most English Bibles as ‘inn’), but powerfully foregrounds the rough and primitive surroundings of this birth.

The text initially follows Luke’s account of the census (Lk 2:1-5). Perhaps being aware of the problems raised by the apparent inhospitality of Joseph’s kin, it then departs from Luke and describes (ch. 17) how Mary’s labour begins whilst still on the road (in the desert – though apparently also in the region of Bethlehem), forcing Joseph to find a place for Mary to give birth. The only suitable place that Joseph can find is a cave by the side of the road. He then goes off to find a midwife (ch. 18).

The text here (chs. 17-18) reads:

And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.

18. And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem.

The tradition of Mary giving birth in a cave was also known by a near contemporary to the Prot. Jas.: Justin Martyr (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.78.2243)

But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you,” I continued, “what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us to-day, I shall again remind you of the passage.

This tradition of Jesus’ birth in a cave appears to remain particularly strongly within orthodox iconography.

Icon with cave
Modern Icon of the Nativity: Featured on Michael Marsh’s blog Interrupting the Silence

After the birth, the natal star leads the magi to the cave (ch. 21). However, no mention is made of any manger until the threat of Herod’s rage is made known and Mary hides the swaddled baby in an ox-stall (ch. 22). This detail might be an attempt to explain why Jesus was lain in a manger. By so doing, it also serves to emphasise the Matthean allusion to the birth of Moses (Ex 2:2-3).

Prot. Jas (ch. 22):

And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall.

The Protevanegelium of James is a wonderful example of how texts can develop and adapt. We see in it the beginnings of harmonisation – still incomplete as the shepherds and heavenly host are not yet included. We are also given extra detail and the beginnings of the nativity story of school/church plays is beginning to take shape… although we still have to wait another five hundred or so years for the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew before the ox and ass appear at the manger!!

For the full text of the Protevangelium of James click here

For the text of the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew click here

Wordcloud produced using wordle

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