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You Won’t Find *This* in the New Testament!

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 inspection, to see if her hymen is still intact.  (If it is, then in ancient thinking Mary not only conceived while still a virgin; since she remains intact, she is *still* a “virgin” – that is physically unaltered by anything involving sex or childbirth).

It’s an amazing passage, that everyone should know about.  (The first bit is given in the first-person, with Joseph himself talking).  Here it is:


(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?”  I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.”  She asked me, “Are you from Israel?”  I said to her, “Yes.”  She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?”  I replied, “My betrothed.”  She said to me, “Is she not your wife?”  I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s Temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife.  She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.”  The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?”  Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.”  And the midwife went with him.

(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it.  The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.”  Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it.  Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen.  It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother.  The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”

(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her.  And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you.  A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.”  Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”


(1) The midwife went in and said to Mary, “Brace yourself.  For there is no small controversy concerning you.”  Then Salome inserted her finger in order to examine her condition, and she cried out, “Woe to me for my sin and faithlessness.  For I have put the living God to the test, and see, my hand is burning, falling away from me.”    (2)  She kneeled before the Master and said, “O God of my fathers, remember that I am a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Do not make me an example to the sons of Israel, but deliver me over to the poor.  For you know, O Master, that I have performed my services in your name and have received my wages from you.”

(3) And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Salome, Salome, the Master of all has heard your prayer.  Bring your hand to the child and lift him up; and you will find salvation and joy.” (4) Salome joyfully came and lifted the child, saying, “I will worship him, for he has been born as a great king to Israel.”  Salome was immediately cured, and she went out of the cave justified.  And behold a voice came saying, “Salome, Salome, do not report all the miraculous deeds you have seen until the child enters Jerusalem.”

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  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 29, 2013

    Great story! Am I correct in thinking that in an earlier passage, while Joseph is rushing to find a midwife, everything around him suddenly *stops* – like birds flying through the air, stopped in one place, immobile? The inference being that this is when the child is born?

    I know you’ve mentioned the terms “virgin conception” and “virgin birth” – used in connection with Mary – as referring to two different things. Raised Roman Catholic, the *only* term I ever heard used was “virgin birth.” But it definitely *meant* what you refer to as “virgin conception.” I doubt any modern Catholics would think Mary’s hymen was intact after giving birth. I think most people today, at least in our Western culture, define “virginity” in terms of one’s never had sex, whatever the condition of a hymen. (So in the unlikely event a woman who’d never had sex chose to have herself artificially inseminated, she could call herself a “virgin” even after giving birth!)

  2. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  September 29, 2013

    So, according to Protevangelium Jacobi (yeah, that does sound cooler :)), immaculately conceived baby Mary was abandoned on the church steps (so to speak)? And preteen Mary was cloistered within the women’s section, where she was fed daily by a kindly (nun-like, or angel-like) caregiver, and all the while being indoctrinated in the ways and beliefs of a sanctified, young, Jewish woman? And never had sex with Joseph or any other man?

    If anyone seriously believes that, I’ll be happy to negotiate my asking price on a some prime swampland near me 😀

  3. Avatar
    jebib  September 29, 2013

    Considering the strength of the Marian movement in the Roman Catholic Church why didn’t this make the cut?

  4. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  September 29, 2013

    Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”

    Oh, doubting Salome! because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 29, 2013

    It is an “amazing passage” indeed. Thanks for explaining the meaning of “Proto-“.

  6. Avatar
    toejam  September 29, 2013

    “Brace yourself!” LOL!!!

  7. Avatar
    Pofarmer  September 30, 2013

    At some point, you have to conclude, christianity is just weird.

  8. Avatar
    Alfred  September 30, 2013

    Greatly enjoyed the unintended reference in the last paragraph before the quotation! Amazon delivered The Bible today. Looks wonderful!

  9. talitakum
    talitakum  September 30, 2013

    What I find interesting here is how these first Christians addressed the “issue” of the Jesus’ brothers: Joseph was an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage. This means that the traditional accounts of Jesus’ brothers weren’t interpreted as they were “cousins” (like even modern apology sometimes claims).

    I also have a question: although we’re clearly dealing with non-historical accounts, where could this tradition about Mary (perpetual virginity) may have arisen from? Do you know any similar greek-roman or jewish precedent?
    Or is it just a creative (indeed!) theologumena to take the purity of Mary to the extreme?
    Thank you

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      Yes, that’s why the book was not successful in western Christendom (it’s views of Jesus’ “brothers”). As to the importance of virginity to an increasingly ascetic form of Christianity, that’s a very BIG question, too long for a response here!

  10. Avatar
    Rosekeister  September 30, 2013

    You’ve said the problem of suffering led to your current agnostic leaning toward atheist stance but did your studies of non-canonical early Christian writings including the Ante-Nicene Fathers contribute in any way? I’m thinking in terms of the realization that both canon and non-canon are the product of the human imagination and not divine inspiration. Just as there were questions about the virgin birth and the Proto-Gospel of James is written to answer these questions and others, so were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John written to answer questions and proclaim the beliefs of their individual communities. The NT is just a part of the world of early Christianity and Lost Scriptures is a constant reminder that the NT could have been very different.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      Those issues helped lead me away from a belief in the inspiration of the Bible, but not to agnosticism (since such matters are irrelevant to the question of whether God exists or not)

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  October 1, 2013

        When you say you are agnostic are you referring specifically to the Judeo-Christian or personal God? Do you think as a human concept God can be defined in other ways or is the point that you don’t believe God language is a useful way of discussing meaning and purpose?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2013

          No, I’m an atheist in respect to the traditional Judeo-Christian God (I don’t think he exists). I’m agnostic as to whether there is some kind of greater spiritual power in the universe.

          • Avatar
            Rosekeister  October 3, 2013

            Despite agnosticism, I suspect you have thoughts and beliefs on the concept of God or a greater power but in a provisional flexible framework that you will cheerfully change as you live longer and think, learn and study more more. Do you have any thoughts on the various interpretations of the greater power as the universal process or serendipitous creativity? I think it’s clear that any concept of God cannot be a personal one due to the problem of suffering but sometimes I think perhaps the personal in God would be found in your parents, siblings, spouse and children who are the result of 13.7 billion years of evolution.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2013

            I have no special thoughts on God as process or creativity — other than I don’t believe it but don’t know!

          • Avatar
            Simeon  August 15, 2015

            Prof Ehrman
            The things of God come in twos’
            It is not as simple a division as theism and atheism, it is more a division of Gnosis and Agnosis, atheism cannot argue what it does not believe it can only disparage.
            Scripture says “All things are twofold, one opposite the other,
            and he has made nothing incomplete.
            One confirms the good things of the other,
            and who can have enough of beholding his glory?
            Sirach 42:24-26.
            Again it says
            “As iron sharpens iron,
            so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

            The balance though is that authority does trump personal faith.


  11. Avatar
    EricBrown  September 30, 2013

    I had no idea the Marian cult was so early.

  12. Avatar
    stephena  September 30, 2013

    And I am so glad this nonsense didn’t make it into the New Testament! It’s too bad the ‘virgin birth’ made it in, too!

    Is there a more precise dating for this Gospel other than simply ‘Second Century’? Did Mariology develop in the early or late Second Century – or even later? And does this and other writings signal the beginning of the veneration of Mary, or did that come later on? (Obviously I’m not Catholic!)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      As with all things, scholars debate the date. But second half of second century makes good sense.

  13. Avatar
    timber84  September 30, 2013

    Some of the ideas from the Proto-Gospel of James must have impacted Catholic theology. Don’t Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      That’s the traditional belief.

      • Avatar
        ktn3654  October 2, 2013

        Unless I am much mistaken, it is not merely a traditional belief–it remains an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, even today.

  14. Avatar
    Mikail78  October 1, 2013

    Bart, very quick question. I sent you an email about this, but I didn’t hear back from you. I assume you’re VERY busy right now. I know this is off the subject, but have you considered reviewing Bill O’Reilly’s book on Jesus on this blog? We know O’Reilly isn’t a scholar on the historical Jesus, but a lot of people take him seriously. I’m not saying this is a good thing. Ha! But seriously, have you considered reviewing his new book, “Killing Jesus”.

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