Apocryphal texts used in Seminar Three (17th Dec) – The Nativity after the New Testament

The third of the 2014 Newman Advent Seminars explored the traditions concerning the nativity that developed following the the New Testament accounts.

Byzantine Nativity fresco
Byzantine Fresco (ca. 1175). Church of Karamlik Kilise, Cappadocia. Clearly showing features from the apocryphal tradition. Salome (far right), ox and ass at the manger from Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

During the session we were introduced to extracts from three apocryphal (non biblical) accounts of the nativity. For those who wanted more information and to read the texts further, you will find below some links to online editions of them.

Texts used:

 The Protevangelium of James (also known as the Infancy Gospel of James)

  • Dated mid to late second century.
  • The first reference to it is by Origen (Commentary of Matthew 10:17) in the early third century.
  • Earliest surviving manuscript: 3-4th century, Papyrus Bodmer V (Syriac)

 Online texthttp://www.asu.edu/courses/rel376/total-readings/james.pdf

Mark Goodacre has done an excellent introduction to this text in one of his NT Pod podcasts

See also the wordcloud and introductory discussion of the Protevangelium of James posted earlier.

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (sometimes known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew)

  • Variously dated to between 7-9th century, but also 600-625 (see   Gijsel  and R. Beyers, 1997)
  • Prefaced by a letter purported to be written by Jerome (though unlikely)
  • Earliest surviving manuscript 11th century (Latin)

Online texthttp://gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm

The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy (also known as the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ)

  • Dated to 5-6th century
  • Earliest surviving manuscripts: Early medieval (Arabic)

Online texthttp://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vii.xi.html

Further information:

Nativty by Guido of Siena
Nativity by Guido da Siena (1270s). Louvre Museum. This painting includes a number of later apocryphal developments; cave (with light), midwife and Salome bathing Jesus , ox at the manger

This is a helpful non-specialist introduction to the infancy narratives (both New Testament and apocryphal) written by  John Gayford (St Mary, East Grinstead).

For fuller information, including more up to date translations, refer to J.K. Elliott’s The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in English Translation Based on M.R. James

The characters and themes developed in the apocryphal tradition continue to this day…

Icon with cave
Modern Orthodox Icon of the Nativity
Christmas card
Christmas Card (artist uncredited) demonstrating a harmonisation of canonical and apocryphal nativity accounts.

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).

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Virgin Birth and What It Means

The Bible Odyssey site is a beautifully presented rich resource. Run by the main guild of biblical scholars (Society of Biblical Literature), it offers a wonderful array of short articles and videos written and presented by some of the foremost scholars in the field.

Just in time for the beginning of our seminar series looking at the nativity story, Mary Foskett (Wake Forest University) has discussed the meaning behind what is commonly called ‘the virgin birth.’

Virgin Birth and What It Means.