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A Very Odd Story about the Baby Jesus

Over the past few days I have been working on my syllabus for the graduate seminar I will be teaching this term, on Early Christian Apocrypha — that is, other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses that did not become part of the New Testament.  As chance would have it, I was also just now browsing through some old blog posts, and came across this one, posted on this date seven years ago.  It is about one of the most historically influential and downright interesting Gospels from outside the New Testament.  In the Middle Ages, this book was sometimes *treated* as Scripture:  it inspired a good deal of Christian art, for example, and provided people with “information” about Jesus’ birth and what happened before it.

So I thought I should post it again.  Here it is:

 

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In my graduate class on non-canonical Gospels, we typically analyze the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….).  It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels.  Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was.  Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God?  What made her so special?  How did she come into the world?  What made her more holy than any other woman?  Etc.  These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary.  On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition.  Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified); her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).

The book was originally ….

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What is the Gospel of Judas About?
Seeing the Gospel of Judas for the First Time

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  July 29, 2020

    I recall reading that the Protoevangelion may have been an influence on the Qur’an depiction of Mary. I’d like to know your thoughts on this.

  2. Avatar
    fishician  July 29, 2020

    Unrelated question: In Mark 8:27f Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ.”

    Luke keeps it almost the same, although he adds “the Christ of God.” (Was there another kind of Christ?!)

    Matthew however has Jesus ask, “Who do people say that *the Son of Man* is?” Usual answer, although Jeremiah is added in. “But who do you say that *I* am?” “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

    So, was Matthew having Jesus ask two different questions: who is the Son of Man, and who am I? Or is Matthew trying to have Jesus refer to himself in this passage as the Son of Man? In fact, is Matthew equating Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God as all the same person in this passage? Or is he differentiating between Jesus and the Son of Man? He obviously tweaked the passage for some purpose.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2020

      Great questions. I was writing out a reply, and it was getting way too long: so I’ll address it in a couple of days in a full length post.

  3. Avatar
    Eskil  July 29, 2020

    I have understood that in addition to Book of Revelation there where to two other disputed books that proto-orthodox Christians nearly accepted into NT: The Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas. Have you ever speculated how Christianity could look today if one of these had been chosen instead of Revelation?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2020

      Yup, a good deal. Christainity would have become a lot *more* anti-Jewish than it did (even thoguh it was very badly that way as it was), because of Barnabas (which is very nasty toward Jews who don’t believe in Jesus); and their Bible would be enormously longer. The Shepherd is a very, very long text, and rather monotonous for most readers.. I’m not sure it would have changed Christainity much otherwise though….

  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  July 29, 2020

    Seems to me this book was quite influential. Christians today often believe that John’s father Zechariah was the “high priest.” This text seems to be the source of that idea [which is certainly untrue]. It’s in ch. 8.5-6
    ‘And they said to the high priest, “Go in and pray about her [Mary].” …. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah…”
    The present work is also the apparent source of the idea that Zechariah was killed by Herod I. [See 23.7] I think this misconception results from an interpretation of Matthew 23:35 — “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” This gets convoluted, because Matthew confuses the prophet who wrote the Book of Zechariah [the son of Berekiah] with the prophet who died as a martyr [the son of Jehoiada] centuries earlier. And then the author of Proto-James confuses them both with the father of John the Baptist.

  5. Avatar
    thebigskyguy  July 29, 2020

    And yet it never makes it into any Christmas pageants!

  6. Avatar
    MichaelBrainerd  July 29, 2020

    Well now that is interesting! How long have we had this book? How old is the oldest copy? I am assuming the council at Nicea wasn’t about to add this to the Bible? Thanks for sharing.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2020

      Fourth century. Actually, the Council of Nicaea did not discuss which books would be in the Bible, contrary to popular opinion.

  7. Avatar
    jeffmd90  July 29, 2020

    On the subject of the infant Jesus, Away In a Manger – “But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”. Hmm, so Baby Jesus didn’t cry? Sounds like docetism to me…

  8. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  July 29, 2020

    Great post. It’s curious that so much Christian (particularly Catholic) tradition comes from this non-canonical gospel. Furthermore, it sounds like it fails the criterion of contextual credibility on more than one occasion. For instance, would Mary (a girl) be allowed to live in the temple, which I imagine was probably a building site at that time?

  9. Avatar
    Ruven  July 29, 2020

    I always loved the story from when you talk about it in your public appearances, but never read the whole thing. Now that I have, here are three questions about it:
    What tone should I read “O man” in?
    How exactly would one determine if a woman is still a virgin of said woman just gave birth?
    Why is Joseph specifying that he’s looking for a Hebrew midwife? Does he need her to be familiar with the Law?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2020

      1. I don’t know what you mean; 2. You check to see if her hymen is still intacdt 3. Yup.

  10. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 30, 2020

    Seems the story was revised and given a G rating and softer consequence — blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.

  11. Avatar
    Bennett  July 30, 2020

    I am very interested in the historical timeline of the development of both canonical and non-canonical Christian texts. Can you provide a reference that lists the texts and their most likely origin dates from an objective standpoint? Most of what I have seen on the ‘net seems to carry some agenda so that the dates are suspect to me. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2020

      That would be too much for a comment, but maybe I can make a post out of it.

      • Avatar
        Bennett  August 3, 2020

        Could you please comment on the usefulness of the list found here: earlychristianwritings.com

        It’s the most complete list I have found, but I am somewhat suspect of the timelines.

  12. Avatar
    tom.hennell  July 30, 2020

    Bart; Bart; you should have started a verse earlier. This is the best bit of all:

    “18.

    And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.”

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 30, 2020

    Back in the day, when I was in a Catholic Parochial school, Mary “adoration” was a very, very, big deal. We heard any number of stories about her perpetual virginity, her freedom from original sin, miracles, apparitions, and her bodily assumption into heaven. We were urged to pray to her, to intercede on our behalf, to heal this, and heal that, but most of all to convert Russia! Mary was the supreme weapon against Soviet Communism. We were shown how the rosary was effectively a slingshot, like David’s against Goliath. A priest even demonstrated, holding his rosary like a slingshot. It went on and on. I think we heard more about Mary and Marian Apparitions than Jesus. Those were the days. I wonder whether that sort of thing still goes on. With the fall of the old Soviet Union, some of the wind might have gone out of those sails. It was quite an experience, to be Catholic in the fifties.

  14. Avatar
    DavidJM  July 30, 2020

    Hi, Professor. I was wondering your view concerning the infancy narratives, especially in Luke. How did they come to be integrated in the gospel’s narrative? Are they from the same author or are these later additions? Especially the psalms in the beginning of Luke seem to be independent units.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2020

      I’ve long argued that they were added after a first edition of the Gospel was put into circulation. I posted on that long ago: I think I’ll repost it! I think they are probably from a different author, and yes, the “psalms”/hymns or whatever we call tehm may have existed independently.

      • Avatar
        DavidJM  August 1, 2020

        Yes, i would love to read that post, i’m new here, so i might have missed it. Thank you so much!

  15. Avatar
    mikemacstl  July 30, 2020

    Well, that’s pretty weird!

  16. Avatar
    Smithfio  July 31, 2020

    Bart,
    I am new to your blog (love it) and am doing a lot of catch-up on old posts. I find it particularly intriguing when something seems to be of special interest or amazement to you. Are there other examples of this type of writing/passage/book, etc. that have been especially important or compelling to you? Something that you find impossible to adequately analyze to your satisfaction and that lingers in your thoughts. Thank you.
    Elizabeth

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2020

      Tons! I talk about this kind of thing all the time on the blog, as you’ll see. (Little in early Christianity is “suprising” to me these days — though occasionally! — since I’ve been studying it for 45 years; but a *lot* of it is amazing!)

  17. Avatar
    Syahreza Ali  July 31, 2020

    Jesus is just a prophet right ? Then did he prophesying about incoming prophet in the future after him? And who was Moses prephecied about incoming future prophet of Israel if it doesn’t fit Jesus, because Jesus don’t have wife like Moses? Are Arabs people from Ismaelite? And is there any non Israelites prophet in the bible , that cames from Arab? And which one is more in number clear cut contradiction or contradiction that can be reconcilled?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2020

      Syrahreza, I’m happy to answer questions, but as spelled out in the comment protocol, I can do only one, at most two, questions per day per commenters. In my opinion, yes, Jesus was a prophet; for me he was not a divine being because I don’t believe ther are divine beings. And no, he was not prophecying about a future prophet to come. He did speak of a cosmic judge of the earth to come soon from heaven, that he called the Son of Man. After his death his followers began to say that *he* was the Son of Man, and was retunring now in judgment.

      • Avatar
        Syahreza Ali  August 2, 2020

        Dr ehrman so your view same as muslim taht said Jesus is just a prophet, and majority scholar say that? I know bible have mistake in them, but why don’t you believe in God ? Do you believe there is a devil? If devil exist then he try to attck us who gonna save human if god doesn’t exist

        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2020

          No, I don’t believe in any supernatural beings of any kind (God, gods, angels, Devil, demons, or anything else isn’t made of particle originating at the Big Bang). And so I don’t agree with the Qur’an either. When I say Jesus was a prophet I don’t mean he was literally speaking for God, since I don’t think there is a God; I mean that he was one who believed and portrayed himself to be a spokesperson for God.

          • Avatar
            Syahreza Ali  August 3, 2020

            But still, you agree that Jesus never claim to be God or claim divinity? Also he can’t ever be Yahweh too right?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2020

            Yes, I agree. And no, he cannot be Yahweh in my opinion because Yahweh does not exist in my opinion.

  18. Avatar
    Syahreza Ali  July 31, 2020

    And about historical error also scientific error , are there many of them ? I’m not talk about contradiction but historical and scientific error also geographical error, are there many of them? And is there a count on how many contradiction and error in the Bible as example?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2020

      There aren’t any reliable counts/figures, no, but yes, lots of historical and geographical errors. You may want to read my book Jesus Interrupted which is about that kind of thing.

      • Avatar
        Syahreza Ali  August 2, 2020

        How many forgery are there in the Bible ?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2020

          When I use the term “forgery” I mean something very technical by it. A forgery is a work that claims directly or indirectly to be produced by (a famous) person who in fact did *not* produce it. By that criterion there is one forgery inthe Old Testament (Ecclesiastes) and by my count — scholars disagree on this 14 in the New Testament (Luke, Acts, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude)

  19. Avatar
    Emmu  July 31, 2020

    Hi Sir,
    A silly type of question but asking out of curosity in one of your lecture you was talking about touring hell of Peter(Apocalypse of Peter).Sir is it a part of the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2020

      Not silly at all! No, it is not part of the Bible.

      • Avatar
        Emmu  August 3, 2020

        Sir you are just awesome you always clears doubts of every questioners.Thank you sir.

  20. Avatar
    royerd  July 31, 2020

    I just ran across your short discussion of this passage in Jesus Before the Gospels. I’ve read very little of these non-canonical texts, but it often seems that the writing style, the content of the narrative, or something about them (the genre?) doesn’t sound, well, canonical. Maybe it’s just because the passages are unfamiliar. Anyway, this passage is, as you say, interesting. Sometimes I imagine the discussion over the canon being along the lines of . . . .”naw, that one just sounds too far fetched, that’s out.” 🙂 –Dan

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2020

      Yes, my guess is that it is simply because they sound unfamiliar. If John’s Gospel were not in the Bible, anyone reading it would say “That doesn’t sound like Jesus!!”

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