A few months ago, I picked up a book called Lost Books of the Bible by William Hone on the clearance rack at Barnes and Noble. It is one of the coolest books I have ever picked up. There are 26 ancient books included in the compilation, dating to the earliest centuries after Christ. These ancient writings include books such as The Gospel of Nicodemus, The Apostle’s Creed, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, the Letters of Herod and Pilate, to name just a few.
The first 4 books deal with the childhood of Jesus. With the Christmas season approaching, I wanted to share some of these really cool stories about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I think you’ll enjoy learning some of the extra-biblical stories. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve read so much cool stuff about the life of Jesus. I want to start with the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and discuss some of these other ancient writings in coming weeks. Some of these stories overlap, and I think it will be interesting to see the different, sometimes conflicting accounts over the coming weeks.
Before I get into the actual gospel, I want to give some background on this particular document. This gospel has been attributed to Matthew, and the version in the book dates to the 4th century. The book was found in the works of St. Jerome. Some of his contemporaries mentioned the gospel as well, such as Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, and Austin. Some of the ancient copies differed from Jerome’s version (I will quote from Jerome’s version).
The book states that Mary was from the house of David, but Faustus, Bishop of Riez disagreed, saying Mary was from Levi. We know that Mary and Elizabeth were cousins. Elizabeth was with wife of Zacharias, priest in the temple, and therefore of the Tribe of Levi. Jesus went to John the Baptist who held the proper authority, so a good case can be made that Mary might have been from Levi. Apparently Muslims believe Mary was from Levi. This gospel clearly states Mary was a descendant of David, who was the tribe of Judah.
The ancient group Collyridians imagined that both Mary and Jesus were the result of an “immaculate conception”, both being born of a virgin. This gospel seems to show that Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, had fertility problems just like Abraham and Sarah and Rachel and Jacob. (I snipped that out of my excerpts below, but the angel clearly mentions this to Anna.) Collyridians are an interesting group, and are considered heretical Christians. Some believe they thought Mary was a goddess. This Wikipedia article says that Mohammad believed that Mary was the 3rd member of the Trinity. That’s an interesting idea, but the gospel states that “the Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, without any of the heats of lust.” I’ve heard of a Father, Mother, and Son being part of the Trinity— kind of a “holy family” and that makes some logical sense. But the references to the Holy Ghost in the Bible seem to be quite separate from Mary (such as when the Holy Ghost descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism), so I think it’s a bit of a stretch to put Mary in the Godhead or Trinity, despite how appealing that might be.
So, let’s look at Jerome’s copy. So that this isn’t too long, I will only cite the parts I find particularly interesting, and will reference chapters and verses.
1 The blessed and ever glorious Virgin Mary, sprung from the royal race and family of David, was born in the city of Nazareth, and educated at Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord.
2 Her father’s name was Joachim, and her mother’s Anna. The family of her father was of Galilee and the city of Nazareth. The family of her mother was of Bethlehem.
7 And it came to pass when the feast of the dedication drew near, Joachim, with some others of his tribe, went up to Jerusalem, and at that time, Issachar was high priest;
8 Who, when he saw Joachim along with the rest of his neighbors, bringing his offering, despised both him and his offeringsâ€¦
…[priest is especially cruel]
11 But Joachim being much confounded with shame, retired to the shepherds, who were with cattle in their pastures;
12 For he was not inclined to return home, lest his neighbors, who were present and heard all this from the high priest, should publicly reproach him in the same manner.
1 But when he had been there for some time, on a certain day when he was alone, the angel of the Lord stood by him with a prodigious light.
2 To whom, being troubled at the appearance, the angel who had appeared to him, endeavoring to compose him said;
3 Be not afraid, Joachim, nor troubled at the sight of me, for I am an angel of the Lord sent by him to you, that I might inform you, that your prayers are heard, and your alms are ascended in the sight of God.
4 For He hath surely seen your shame, and heard you unjustly reproached for not having children: for God is the avenger of sin; and not of nature;
5 And so when he shuts up the womb of any person, he does it for this reason, that he may in a more wonderful manner again open it and that which is born appear to be not the product of lust, but the gift of God.
…[Angel discusses Sarah, Rachel as barren women as well]
9 Anna your wife shall bring you a daughter and you shall call her name Mary;
10 She shall, according to your vow, be devoted to the Lord from her infancy, and be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother’s womb;
11 She shall neither eat nor drink anything which is unclean; nor shall her conversation be without among the common people, but in the temple of the Lord; that so she may not fall under suspicion of what is bad.
12 So in the process of her years, as she shall be in a miraculous manner be born to one that is barren, so she shall, while yet a virgin, in a way unparalleled, bring forth the Son of the Most High God, who shall be called Jesus, and according to the signification of his name, be the Savior of all nations.
1 Afterwards the angel appeared unto Anna his wife saying: Fear not, neither think that which ye see is a spirit.
2 For I am the angel who hath offered up your prayers and alms before God, and am now sent to you, that I may inform you that a daughter will be born unto you, who shall be called Mary, and shall be blessed above all women.
3 She shall be, immediately upon her birth, full of grace of the Lord, and shall continue the three years of her weaning in her father’s house, and afterwards, being devoted to the service of the Lord, shall not depart from the temple, till she arrives at the years of discretion.
4 But, being an unparalleled instance without any pollution or defilement, and a virgin not knowing any man shall bring forth a son, and a maid shall bring forth the Lord, who both by grace and the name of his works, shall be the Savior of the world.
11 So Anna conceived, and brought forth a daughter, and according to the angel’s command, the parents called her name Mary.
1 And when the three years were expired, and the time of her weaning complete, they brought the Virgin to the temple of the Lord with offerings.
2 And there were about the temple, according to the Psalms of degrees, fifteen stairs to ascend.
4 The parents of the blessed Virgin and infant Mary put her upon one of the stairs;
5 But while they were putting off their clothes–
6 the Virgin of the Lord in such a manner went up all the stairs one after another, without the help of any to lead or lift her, that one would have judged from hence that she was of perfect age.
7 Thus the Lord did, in the infancy of his Virgin, work this extraordinary work
8 But the parent having offered up their sacrifice, according to the custom of the law, left the Virgin with other virgins in the apartments of the temple, who were brought up there, and they returned home.
1 But the Virgin of the Lord, as she advanced in years, increased also in perfections, and according to the Psalmist, her father and mother forsook her, but the Lord took care of her.
2 For she every day had the conversation of angels, and every day received visitors from God, which preserved her from all sorts of evil, and caused her to abound with all good things;
3 So that when at length she arrived to her fourteenth year, as the wicked could not lay anything to her charge worthy of reproof, so all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her life and conversation.
4 At that time the high-priest made a public order. That all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home, and as they were now of a proper maturity, should according to the custom of their country, endeavor to be married.
5 To which command, though all the other virgins readily yielded obedience, Mary the Virgin of the Lord alone answered, that she could not comply with it.
6 Assigning these reasons, that both she and her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord; and besides, that she had vowed virginity to the Lord, which vow she was resolved never to break through by lying with a man.
7 The high priest being hereby brought into a difficulty,
8 Seeing he durst neither on the one hand dissolve the vow, and disobey the Scripture, which says, Vow and pay,
9 Nor on the other hand introduce a custom, to which the people were strangers commanded,
10 That at the approaching feast all the principal persons both of Jerusalem and the neighbouring places should meet together, that he might have their advice, how he had best proceed in so difficult a case.
12 And when they were all engaged in prayer, the high-priest, according to the usual way, went to consult God.
13 And immediately there was a voice from the ark, and the mercy seat, which all present heard, that it must be inquired or sought out by a prophecy of Isaiah to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed;
16 Then according to this prophecy, he appointed that all the men of the house and family of David, who were marriageable, and not married, should bring their several rods to the altar,
17 And out of whatsoever person’s rod after it was brought, a flower should bud forth, and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be betrothed.
1 Among the rest there was a man named Joseph, of the house and family of David, and a person very far advanced in years, who drew back his rod, when every one besides presented his.
2 So that when nothing appeared agreeable to the heavenly voice, the high-priest judged it proper to consult God again.
3 Who answered that he whom the virgin was to be betrothed was the only person of those who were brought together, who had not brought his rod.
4 Joseph therefore was betrayed.
5 For when he did bring his rod, and a dove coming from Heaven pitched upon the top of it, every one plainly saw, that the Virgin was to be betrothed to him;
6 According to the usual ceremonies of betrothing being over, he returned to his own city of Bethlehem, to set his house in order, and make the needful provisions for the marriage.
7 But the Virgin of the Lord, Mary with seven other virgins of the same age, who had been weaned at the same time, and who had been appointed to attend her by the priest, returned to her parent’s house in Galilee.
…[angel appears to Mary]
8 Fear not Mary, as though I intended anything inconsistent with your chastity in this salutation;
9 For you have found favour with the Lord, because you made virginity your choice.
10 Therefore while you are a Virgin, you shall conceive without sin, and bring forth a son.
11 He shall be great, because he shall reign from sea to the sea, and from the rivers to the ends of the earth
16 She said, How can that be? For seeing, according to my vow, I have never known any man, how can I bear a child without the addition of a man’s seed?
17 To this the angel replied and said, Think not Mary, that you shall conceive in the ordinary way.
18 For without lying with a man, while a Virgin, you shall conceive; while a Virgin, you shall bring forth; and while a Virgin shall give suck.
19 For the Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you, without any of the heats of lust.
20 So that which shall be born of you shall be only holy, because it only is conceived without sin, and being born, shall be called the Son of God.
21 Then Mary stretching forth her hands and lifting her eyes to heaven, said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Let it be unto me according to thy word.
1 Joseph therefore went from Judaea to Galilee, with intention to marry the Virgin who was betrothed to him:
2 For it was now near three months since she was betrothed to him.
3 At length it plainly appeared she was with child, and it could not be hid from Joseph:
4 For going to the Virgin in a free manner, as one espoused, and talking familiarly with her, he perceived her to be with child.
5 And thereupon began to be uneasy and doubtful, not knowing what course it would be best to take;
6 For being a just man, he was not willing to expose her, nor defame her by the suspicion of being a whore, since he was a pious man.
7 He purposed therefore privately to put an end to their agreement, and as privately to put her away.
8 But while he was meditating these things, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, and said Joseph, son of David, fear not;
9 Be not willing to entertain any suspicion of the Virgin’s being guilty of fornication, or to think any thing amiss of her, neither be afraid to take her to wife;
10 For that which is begotten in her and now distresses your mind, is not the work of man, but the Holy Ghost.
11 For she of all women is that only Virgin who shall bring forth the Son of God, and you shall call his name Jesus, that is, Saviour: for he will save his people from their sins.
12 Joseph thereupon according to the command of the angel, married the Virgin, and did not know her, but kept her in chastity.
13 And now the ninth month from her conception drew near, when Joseph took his wife and what other things were necessary to Bethlehem, the city from whence he came.
14 And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled for her bringing forth her first-born son, as the holy Evangelists have taught, even our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, lives and reigns to everlasting ages.
So what do you make of this gospel? Some have claimed that the biblical use of the word “virgin” simply meant young woman, but this gospel makes specific mention of Mary’s virginity and chastity. On the other hand, there must have been quite some rumors about Mary’s out of wedlock pregnancy. My next post will discuss another book called the Protevangelion. It gives a lot more detail about Joseph’s concern about Mary’s pregnancy. (If you thought this gospel was cool, the Protevangelion is even better!) Here are some questions to consider.
- Have you ever heard that Mary’s birth was miraculous? What do you make of this story of her birth?
- Did you have any idea Mary grew up in the temple?
- Did you know Joseph didn’t want to marry Mary even before she appeared pregnant? I’m sure it is because Joseph was “far advanced in years” â€“ perhaps Joseph was old enough to be her father (That’s the take in the Protevangelion.)
- What do you think of her conversations with angels “every day”?
- How historically accurate do you think some of these events are from the life of Mary?
- While I don’t expect Mormons to have very much of an issue with Mary’s lineage, what do you make of the dispute about her ancestry (Judah or Levi)?
- What do you make of the emphasis in this gospel of her chastity?
- Do you think Mary’s role and miraculous experiences are under-emphasized (undervalued) in the biblical gospels? Do you think it would have been nice if this gospel had been included in the biblical canon?