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How Was Jesus *Really* Born? The Proto-Gospel of James

In my last post I mentioned the Proto-Gospel of James in relation to a textual variant (in Luke) that indicates that Mary gave birth not *in* Bethlehem but *en route* there.   That made me think it would be a good time to say something about what else is in this intriguing book.  You can find my recent translation of it in the collection of non-canonical Gospels that I edited, translated, and introduced with my colleague Zlatko Plese, called The Other Gospels.   Here is what I said about the Proto-Gospel many years ago now on the blog, with an excerpt from the translation of one of the most amazing sections, to whet your appetite.




In my graduate course last week, we analyzed 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 composed in the second Christian century.   There are a number of intriguing passages, none of which is more famous than the one I translate here (the original language is Greek).   In this striking narrative, when Mary is about ready to give birth in a cave just outside of Bethlehem, Joseph runs off to find a midwife who can help.  They arrive too late.  The child appears without any human help or intervention (is the child really a newborn?  Jesus appears to walk over to his mother to take her breast; and he performs a healing miracle!).

The midwife is astounded and is convinced that Mary has given birth as a virgin.  She goes out and fetches a colleague of hers, Salome, and informs her of the miracle.  Salome won’t believe it unless she gives Mary a postpartum ….

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  1. Avatar
    ddecker54  February 9, 2018

    Wow! And i thought that the Gospel of Peter with the walking, talking cross was outlandish!! Interesting (and sad) that the concept of physical sex being fundamentally sinful was (and remains) so predominate, not to mention the abject fear of God’s punishment for doubting such an unbelievable tale. Interesting that the legend of Mary grew so strongly so quickly (2nd century CE).

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    jhague  February 9, 2018

    Is it correct that the ancient church (Catholic Church) expected its members to believe some if not all of this story?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      It was a very popular text, but I don’t think there was ever a concerted effort by the hierarchy to compel belief in it.

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        AlbertHodges  February 9, 2018

        It became popular in the Middle Ages. It was regarded in the first few centuries as pious writing but was rejected along with other texts like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, etc. as NOT being authentic or worthy of belief. However, some elements of this writing like others were recognized as being true and certainly accepted by the Christian Church and her leadership.

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    RonaldTaska  February 9, 2018

    I hope it is fair to ask if this story is so farfetched what other stories, maybe even Gospel stories, are also farfetched? It makes me wonder how often ancient writers wrote legendary material and how often they wrote historical material.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2018

      Stories always seem far less far-fetched when they are the ones you grew up with!

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        HawksJ  February 9, 2018

        Indeed. That story is no more ‘far-fetched’ than the claim that dead people rose from their graves at Jesus’ death (and yet that incredible event went unrecorded anywhere else).

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          Tempo1936  February 12, 2018

          How about Jesus walking about Jerusalem 40 days with the disciples. You would think that would be noticed by Roman and Jewish leaders.

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    Seeker1952  February 9, 2018

    What strikes me is that Salome was punished by God for doubting and wanting to see for herself whether Mary was still a virgin–without God even being the one making the claim. Is that a strong, recurrent theme in the Bible as a whole? Is Salome’s punishment meant to be understood literally? Or is it more of a rhetorical device to emphasize how important faith is? Or maybe it’s advice to the audience who can’t check for themselves? Or all of the above?

    I think the notion that honest doubt leads to punishment is one of the things that first led me to doubt Christianity. What an irrational idea! So much for trying to reconcile faith and reason. There’s such a strong presumption against reason. No wonder so many people see religion as dangerous!

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    fishician  February 9, 2018

    Funny how Jesus’ family saw these miraculous things (as also in Matthew and Luke) but seemed to forget about them by the time he was an adult (Mark 3:21 in particular). Thinking of your recent posts, I think this is an example of how the Jesus stories were changed in a significant way in the Gospels. Mark has Jesus’ family being as clueless as anybody else about who Jesus was, but by Matthew and Luke they had angels telling them in advance about Jesus and all kinds of miracles around his birth, and the omission of the Mark 3:21 incident. I’d say the virgin birth is a big doctrine for most Christians and it’s pretty clear the stories about Jesus and his family evolved with each gospel.

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      HawksJ  February 9, 2018

      The last sentence in that passage is an attempt to explain this very phenomenon (that none of the miraculous events of Jesus’ birth and childhood were known – or at least remembered – until the very end of his life (and, in reality, much later than that)).

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      ardeare  February 10, 2018

      In Mark 3:21, it’s unclear whether his *family* was saying he’s out of his mind or the *people* were saying he is out of his mind. If we accept the version of his family saying that he is out of his mind, we can reasonably argue a couple of things. First, the Messianic Secret of Mark’s gospel remains intact. Since Mark largely leaves Mary out of the entire gospel, she may have been aware of who Jesus was but was simply protecting him from the crowd. Indeed this is a twist on popular conventional thinking. Mark seems unsure exactly what Mary does know. This is why I hypothesize that he was aware of the virgin birth narrative but chose to leave it out. Secular and Christian scholars give this idea (Mark willingly omitting the birth narrative) no credence at all but I’m sticking to it.

      Secondly, an observer may have viewed it this way which doesn’t make it so. Many times things are said between family that an outsider will not fully grasp. If it was the people who made the claim, it becomes nothing more than another accusation to add to the list they were accumulating. The differences in the NRSV and NIV only add to the mystery.

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        godspell  February 12, 2018

        Mark may have had very little information about Jesus’ mother, and since he clearly doesn’t want to get into the whole Virgin Birth thing (assuming he’d heard those stories, and they probably were being disseminated by then), it seems prudent of him to mainly leave her out. She seems to have played no significant role in his ministry, whereas other women, like Mary Magdalene, did. His mother may, in fact, have been a formidable person in her own right, and might have been a strong influence on her son (what mother isn’t?) but we’ll never know very much about her.

        I see no indication Mark thinks she fully understands her son’s true nature and mission. What’s more, we have a very clear indication that Jesus places small value on blood family ties–was that true? What we can say for sure is that Mark believed it was true. That he believed for Jesus, blood ties were secondary to spiritual ones, and that all men and women were part of one family, under God. And this might have made him behave towards his family in a way that seems rude and dismissive. And this might have made them question his sanity.

        There’s some reason to think members of Jesus’ family tried to assert themselves in a leadership role in the growing cult, after Jesus’ death. So early skepticism and wariness of his mission may have been replaced by belief in it–certainly with James. However, it seems like there was strong resistance to any kind of dynastic role for them, and Mark’s story about Jesus refusing to see his family could reflect that. Using things Jesus was known to have said to argue that Jesus’ family members were no more important than anyone else.

        And perhaps exaggerating that, in order to get the point across.

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    jdub3125  February 9, 2018

    While skimming through the Professor’s opening for this post, I read the sentence “On the legends found here was built an entire superstition of Marian tradition.” But then I realized my misreading of the word “superstructure.”

    Or perhaps, instead, I read the sentence correctly but the Professor miswrote the word. 😀

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    jdh5879  February 9, 2018

    I think it is interesting that in the legendary account of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), he also could walk and talk as a newborn.

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  February 9, 2018

    Excuse my ignorance on this detail of the birth narrative in the Gospels, but aren’t Joseph & Mary already married when she gives Birth to Jesus? Also, I have read speculations on the historical Jesus that he was illegitimate. Is this narrative in the proto-Gospel of James a source for that speculation, or could this narrative be an example how the early church dealt with the stories/knowledge of the illegitimacy of Jesus that already existed at the time?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      No, they are betrothed, not married. And I supposed it depends on what one means by illegitimate.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  February 11, 2018

        The hypothesis is that Joseph wasn’t the biological father of the historical Jesus. Thus he was illegitimate.

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    4Erudite  February 9, 2018

    Been catching up on reading the Blog…my question is not realted to today’s blog but in general to recent blogs regarding Paul. Since Paul was not one of the original followers of Jesus, nor did he ever meet Jesus (other than when he got knocked off his horse)…and…since he, it seems more than others, was a main figure in establishing, or at least laying the early foundation for, the early church…who taught Paul on all things related to the teachings of Jesus? Does anything anywhere address this…if so, either I have forgotten or missed it or need to read more…whatever the case, appreciate some guidance on this.

    • Avatar
      4Erudite  February 9, 2018

      I just read the Jan 29th blog and postings…somewhat addressed my posted question…should have finished catching up on my blog reading before posting questions. Sounds like Paul was teaching, or preaching, his interpretation of Jews law, of the time, as it should be understood after the coming of Jesus and his (Jesus) death and resurection. If my assumption is close to right, seems he (Paul) would have been in a lot of conflict with the actual followers of Jesus…I think I have read somewhere over the years that there were disagreements, or conflicts, between Paul and Peter, and maybe James…assume related to how, and/or what, Paul was teaching? What do scholars know about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      He scarcely ever says anything about or quotes the sayings of Jesus, so it’s not clear that anyone taught him about them.

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    Hume  February 10, 2018

    What’s you position on free will? Are you a determinist or a compatibalist?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      Are those my only two choices? Actually, I’ve never worked through all the options seriously. I’m afraid my free will hasn’t driven me in that direction!

  11. Avatar
    Hume  February 10, 2018

    Do you wish religion was true?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know what that question means.

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    mwbaugh  February 10, 2018

    This is the text that moves on to the story of the miraculous diaper, isn’t it?

    The Qura’n repeats some of this, as well as some of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. My understanding is that Muslims believe that this is the correct version of the story and consider the canonical Gospel accounts corrupted.

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    Stephen  February 10, 2018

    Is the thinking among scholars that the author of Proto-James knew the canonical gospel Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke? If so what do you make of the fact that in the middle of the second century the author still felt the liberty to take the story and modify it to his own use? Obviously he wasn’t a fundamentalist !


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    jamal12  February 10, 2018

    Professor Ehrman how old was Mary, i have read in may Christian traditions that she was only 12 years old. some Christians deny say she would not be able to offer sacrifices until she was 20 but most of the places i have read point to 12.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      We don’t know. It appears the custom was for young teenage girls to get married. But we don’t know how old she was.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  February 16, 2018

        Certainly she was older than 12.

        • Avatar
          jamal12  March 31, 2018

          llamensdor most of the Jewish literature that i read concerning marriage say that the tradition was 12 years old. I read something interesting from the Gills commentary of Exodus 21:7

          And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant
          That is, if an Israelite, as the Targum of Jonathan, sells his little daughter, as the same Targum, and so Jarchi and Aben Ezra, one that is under age, that is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day, and this through poverty; he not being able to support himself and his family, puts his daughter out to service, or rather sells her to be a servant (https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/exodus-21-7.html🙂

          This refers to a man selling his daughter into slavery because he could not support her due to poverty, and mentions that she is under age and as not arrived to twelve years and a day, So if it was allowed to sell a girl into slavery at twelve or even before twelve years old. It can be said also that the age for marriage then would be twelve years old. Professor Ehrman you are the expert at this.

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    anthonygale  February 11, 2018

    “I received the lot”? Is Joseph just a lucky guy here? All of these stories and legends are interesting. Are there more fanciful ones about Joseph as well? Or more background story at least?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      he saw himself as *unlucky* in the story — didn’t want to have to marry her!

      • Avatar
        FredLyon  February 11, 2018

        A question occurred to me on Saturday at your Smithsonian lecture on your new book, The Triumph of Christianity. I did not ask it at the time, as it was not relevant to the topic of your new book; however, it is relevant to your previous book, How Jesus Became God. Regarding the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, Leslie Weatherhead, in his book, The Christian Agnostic (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965, p. 102-105) mentions one explanation of Mary’s pregnancy put forth by Mr. G.A. Wainwright from his research at Oxford. He writes of the “sacred marriage” ceremony which was an ancient and widespread custom in the Near East, as well as in certain Hindu practices.

        In the “sacred marriage,” either the high priest or the king played the part of a divine messenger. he was “married” to a virgin with whom he co-habited. The offspring of such a union was regarded as a son of god, or a divine king, a divine personage or an “avatar” who incarnated god.

        Zacharias was the priest on duty in the temple at the relevant time for Mary (Luke 1:8). We are told that, though old, he was not impotent, for he impregnated his wife Elizabeth with the future John the Baptist. We are also told that after Mary’s visitation from the angel who told her that she was to bear Jesus, she asked, “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?” The reply was that, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God.” Dr. Barclay (The Gospel of Luke, St. Andrew Press, 1957, p. 7) notes that, in Jewish tradition, every birth was regarded as “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit, even if a human father took part. The Talmud confirms this. We are then told that Mary entered the house of Zacharias (Luke 1:39-40), stayed there 3 months, and returned to her home.

        In a “sacred marriage,” a stay of 3 months was required in the house of the priest, or in the sacred precincts, to make sure that pregnancy was established. Jewish law required a period of 3 months to certify the parentage of a child about to be born, e.g., a divorced woman could not marry for 3 months so as to assure the origin of any child subsequently born to her. This would explain why Mary stayed in the home of Zacharias before returning to her own home. Indeed, says Dr. Weatherhead, what an otherwise strange reaction to Gabriel’s message was her hurried journey into Zacharias’ house! “Mary arose and went with haste and entered the house of Zacharias” (Luke 1:39).

        Dr. Weatherhead allows that among contemporary Scribes and Pharisees of the Temple in Jerusalem, and among the ecclesiastical authorities, the idea of this “sacred marriage” had disappeared and was disapproved of. But in the “hill country,” to which Mary went to seek out Zacharias and Elizabeth, decadent forms of religion, as we think of them, continued, just as Hindu practices like Suttee still win approval in rural areas of India, though enlightened Hindus and the law of the land have sought to abolish them.

        My question is whether or not you’ve heard this theory, and is it a plausible explanation of Jesus’ birth (given that, as you’ve said before, historians are concerned with determining the “most plausible” explanation, since “certainty” is not possible with regard to history)? In other words, could John the Baptist have been Jesus’ half-brother, instead of cousin?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 12, 2018

          I’ve never heard that theory and I’ve never seen any suggestion of such a practice in any of the sources from antiquity that I read. I wonder what evidence he is thinking of. Can’t imagine what it would be!

          • Avatar
            FredLyon  February 13, 2018

            Yes, it certainly seems to be a fringe theory, but not completely without its adherents. A simple google search on the topic, “Zacharias father of Jesus” returns several articles: some thought-provoking, most wildly fantastical. Discounting the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, Joseph, or a rape by the Roman centurion Panthera, the question of Jesus’ parentage still remains open. It is one topic on which Dr. Weatherhead remained agnostic.

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  February 16, 2018

            It’s an utter absurdity.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  February 16, 2018

        ! personally think it was the reverse. Joseph and Mary were betrothed. She was raped–damaged goods in that era–regardless of fault–and pregnant. Joseph was not an old man and had no prior children, but he loved Mary and married her anyway. A really good guy.

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    jamal12  March 31, 2018

    Professor Ehrman I have a question about this and many other texts of the Apocrypha. You mentioned that you translated this text The Proto-Gospel of James right. It must have been in Greek right? But the fact that if it was written by James it must have been written in Hebrew or aramaic originally. Did you translate from the Greek to English or the Hebrew or Aramaic more likely and also if it was in Greek then it means it was a copy of the original because Yakov zadeek did not speak or write Greek. Now they say it is a later document thus they don’t consider it as authentic. Now if the copy was say 2nd or third century in Greek it means that there must have the original written by James in Aramaic which is the original earlier manuscript that the copyist took to write this Greek copy. Can you comment on that and other later documents from the Nag hammadi that were taken as unauthentic because they were written later. Bearing in mind the language of the copies found in the nag hammadi. Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2018

      It wasn’t really written by James. The author simply claims to have been James. It was written by someone else, and it’s original language was Greek, the anonymous author’s native tongue.

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    dagrote  April 8, 2018

    I have a couple of issues with bringing the later accounts of the biblical narratives into a discussion of the 1st century events of Jesus’s life. One is that the first couple of generations of Christians knew about them but didn’t consider them to be of the same order of importance as the texts that eventually crystallized as the New Testament. There were probably reasons for that. Another is that there’s no way we can tell whether they were based on earlier, now lost sources, or just made up out of thin air to fill in some blanks, along the lines of “curious minds want to know.” In this instance, why is this Proto-Gospel of James, assigned any more significance than the completely fanciful Acts of Paul and Thecla? It just seems kind of arbitrary to me to find some importance in one of these later sources and not in others or in all.

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    Seeker  December 15, 2019

    I’m enjoying reading the blog. What is your read on the independence or dependence of the Protoevangelium with the birth narratives in Mt & Lk? There are similarities to Mt & Lk, yet many unique differences found in the Protoevangelium. As Mt & Lk are independent, and used Mark & “Q”, plus “M” & “L”, would that not suggest the birth narrative in the Proto-James used Mt, Lk and a now unknown “source” for the unique elements?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 15, 2019

      Clearly dependent on Luke. It re-narrates the story of Jesus as a 12 year old in the temple.

  19. Avatar
    ManuelNaujoks  June 12, 2020

    In the Gospel of James Mary’s parents are Joachim and Anna. What do you think about the (alleged by some) genealogy of Mary in Luke 3, where Eli would be the father-in-law of Joseph? When was the idea that Luke’s genealogy is actually Mary’s instead of Joseph’s first postulated?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 14, 2020

      It would solve a lot of problems. But the problem with that solution is that it’s precisely what Luke does not say. I’m not sure when that solution first arose, actually, even though it’s very common today. But reading the texts themselves is the best cure for it! 🙂

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