The biblical account of the interactions between Joseph and Mary is very small. To me, it almost makes Joseph and Mary appear 2-dimensional, and I never feel like I know them very well. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant before their wedding, we know that he considered cancelling the betrothal. An angel intervened, and Joseph decided to continue with the wedding. Many of us have imagined that this must have been very tough to deal with, but the details in the Bible of the interactions between Mary and Joseph have been quite sparse.
The Protevangelion fills in many of these details. The subtitle of the book is quite long: An Historical Account of the BIRTH of CHRIST, and the Perpetual VIRGIN MARY, his Mother, by JAMES THE LESSER, Cousin and Brother of the Lord Jesus, chief Apostle and first Bishop of the Christians. Now this is the same James that I blogged about previously as the leader of ancient Christians (rather than the traditional Peter.)
Apparently this gospel was considered canonical among eastern Christians, but generates some controversy because it states that Joseph was a much older widower before marrying Mary. Some ancient church fathers disputes this and state that Joseph was a virgin as well. It is believed this manuscript was originally composed in Hebrew. Postellus translated it into Latin. This version I will quote below was printed in 1552 in Zurich.
The first few chapters are similar to the gospel of the birth of Mary, discussing Joachim and Anna’s failure to conceive a child. In this gospel, Anna complains that even the birds can conceive. I won’t reference that part of the story since it is similar, but there are some interesting facts about Mary’s childhood. For example, she walks 9 steps at 9 months of age, and dances in the temple at age 3. But since I discussed her childhood previously, I’ll leave that for now.
I want to discuss some interesting events about John the Baptist, his father Zacharias, and the more detailed account of discord between Mary and Joseph at her unexpected pregnancy. As you remember from my previous post, there was some Jewish custom about rods for the betrothal of the virgins at the temple. Zacharias plays a prominent role in this story, as he helps Mary find a husband.
6 And behold the angel of the Lord came to him and said, Zacharias, Zacharias, Go forth and call together all the widowers of the people, and let every one of them bring his rod, and he by whom the Lord shall shew a sign shall be the husband of Mary.
7 And the criers went out through all Judaea, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all the people ran and met together.
8 Joseph also, throwing away the hatchet, went out to meet them; and when they were met, they went to the high-priest, taking every man his rod.
9 After the high-priest had received their rods, he went into the temple to pray;
10 And when he had finished his prayer, he took the rods, and went forth and distributed them, and there was no miracle attended them.
11 The last rod was taken by Joseph, and behold a dove proceeded out of the rod, and flew upon the head of Joseph.
12 And the high-priest said, Joseph, Thou art the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him;
13 But Joseph refused, saying, I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear lest I should appear ridiculous in Israel.
14 Then the high-priest replied, Joseph, fear the Lord they God, and remember how God dealt with Dathan, Korah, and Abiram, how the earth opened and swallowed them up, because of their contradiction.
15 Now therefore, Joseph, fear God, lest the like things should happen in your family.
16 Joseph then being afraid, took her into his house, and Joseph said unto Mary, Behold, I have taken thee from the temple of the Lord, and now I must go to mind my trade of building. The Lord be with thee.
Chapter 9 [Mary meets with angel, learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zacharias can’t speak]
23 But perceiving herself daily to grow big, and being afraid, she went home and hid herself from the children of Israel; and was fourteen years old when all these things happened.
1 And when her sixth month was come, Joseph returned home from his building houses abroad, which was his trade, and entering into the house, found the Virgin grown big:
2 Then smiting upon his face, he said, With what face can I look up to the Lord my God? Or, what shall I say concerning this young woman?
3 For I received her a Virgin out of the temple of the Lord my god, and have not preserved her such!
4 Who has thus deceived me? Who has committed this evil in my house, and seducing the Virgin from me, hath defiled her?
5 Is not the history of Adam exactly accomplished in me?
6 For in the very instant of his glory, the serpent came and found Even, and seduced her.
7 Just after the same manner it has happened to her.
8 Then Joseph arising from the ground, called her, and said, O thou who hast been so favored by God, why hast thou done this?
9 Why hast thou thus debased thy soul, who wast educated in the Holy of Holies, and received thy food from the hand of angels?
10 But she, with a flood of tears, replied, I am innocent, and have known no man.
11 Then said Joseph, How comes it to pass that you are with child?
12 Mary answered, As the Lord my God liveth, I know not by what means.
13 Then Joseph was exceedingly afraid, and went away from her, considering what he should do with her, considering what he should do with her; and he thus reasoned with himself;
14 If I conceal her crime, I shall be found guilty by the law of the Lord;
15 And if I discover her to the children of Israel, I fear, lest she being with child by an angel, I shall be found to betray the life of an innocent person;
16 What therefore shall I do? I will privately dismiss her.
17 Then the night was come upon him, when behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said,
18 Be not afraid to take that young woman, for that which is within her is of the Holy Ghost;
19 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.
20 Then Joseph arose from his sleep, and glorified the God of Israel, who had shown him such favour, and preserved the Virgin.
1 Then came Annas the scribe, and said to Joseph, Wherefore have we not seen you since your return?
2 And Joseph replied, Because I was weary after my journey, and rested the first day.
3 But Annas turning about perceived the Virgin big with child.
4 And went away to the priest, and hold him, Joseph in whom you placed so much confidence, is guilty of a notorious crime, in that he hath defiled the Virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord, and hath privately married her, not discovering it to the children of Israel.
5 Then said the priest, Hath Joseph done this?
6 Annas replied, If you send any of your servants, you will find that she is with child.
7 And the servants went, and found it as he said.
8 Upon this both she and Joseph were brought to their trial, and the priest said unto her, Mary what hast thou done?
9 Why hast thou debased thy soul, and forgot they God, seeing thou wast brought up in the Holy of Holies, and didst receive thy food from the hands of angels, and heardest their songs?
10 Why hast thou done this?
11 To which with a flood of tears she answered, As the Lord my God liveth, I am innocent in his sight, seeing I know no man.
12 Then the priest said to Joseph, Why hast thou done this?
13 And Joseph answered, As the Lord my God liveth, I have not been concerned with her
14 But the priest said, Lie not, but declare the truth; thou hast privately married her, and not discovered it to the children of Israel, and humbled thyself under the mighty hand (of God), that they seed might be blessed.
15 And Joseph was silent.
16 Then said the priest (to Joseph), You must restore to the temple of the Lord the Virgin which you took thence.
17 But he wept bitterly, and the priest added, I will cause you both to drink the water of the Lord, which is for trial, and so your iniquity shall be laid open before you.
18 Then the priest took the water, and made Joseph drink, and sent him to a mountainous place.
19 And he returned perfectly well, and all the people wondered that his guilt was not discovered.
20 So the priest said, Since the Lord hath not made your sins evident, neither do I condemn you.
21 So he sent them away.
22 Then Joseph took Mary and went to his house, rejoicing and praising the God of Israel.
1 And it came to pass, that there went forth a decree from the Emporer Augustus, that all the Jews should be taxed, who were of Bethlehem in Judaea;
2 And Joseph said, I will take care that my children be taxed; but what shall I do with this young woman?
3 To have her taxed as my wife I am ashamed; and if I tax her as my daughter, all Israel knows she is not my daughter.
4 When the time of the Lord’s appointment shall come, let him do as seems good to him.
5 And he saddled the ass, and put her upon it, and Joseph and Simon followed after her, and arrived at Bethlehem within three miles.
6 Then Joseph turning about saw Mary sorrowful, and said within himself, Perhaps she is in pain through that which is within her.
7 But when he turned about again he saw her laughing, and said to her,
8 Mary, how happens it that sometimes I see sorrow, and sometimes I see laughter and joy in thy countenance?
9 And Mary replied to him, I see two people with mine eyes, the one weeping and mourning, and other laughing and rejoicing.
10 And he went again across the way, and Mary said to Joseph, Take me down from the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth.
11 But Joseph replied, Whither shall I take thee? For the place is a desert.
12 Then said Mary again to Joseph, take me down, for that which is within me mightily presses me.
13 And Joseph took her down.
14 And he found there was a cave, and let her into it.
1 And leaving her and his sons in the cave, Joseph went forth to seek a Hebrew midwife in the village in Bethlehem…
3 She replied to me, Where is the woman that is to be delivered?
4 And I answered, In the cave, and she is betrothed to me.
5 Then said the midwife, Is she not thy wife?
6 Joseph answered, It is Mary, who was educated in the Holy of Holies, in the house of the Lord, and she fell to my lot, and it not my wife, but has conceived by the Holy Ghost.
7 The midwife said, Is this true?
8 He answered, Come and see.
9 And the midwife went along with him, and stood in the cave.
10 Then a bright cloud overshadowed the cave, and the midwife said, This day my soul is magnified, for mine eyes have seen surprising things, and salvation is brought forth to Israel.
11 But on a sudden the cloud became a great light in the cave, so that their eyes could not bear it.
12 But the light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and sucked the breast of his mother Mary.
13 Then the midwife cried out, and said, How glorious a day is this, wherein mine eyes have seen this extraordinary sight!
14 And the midwife went out from the cave, and Salome met her.
15 And the midwife said to her, Salome, Salome, I will tell you a most surprising thing which I saw,
16 A virgin hath brought forth, which is a thing contrary to nature.
17 To which Salome replied, As the Lord my God liveth, unless I receive particular proof of this matter, I will not believe that a virgin hath brought forth.
18 Then Salome went in, and the midwife said, Mary, shew thyself, for a great controversy is risen concerning thee.
19 And Salome received satisfaction.
20 But her hand was withered, and she groaned bitterly.
21 And said, Woe to me, because of mine iniquity; for I have tempted the living God, and my hand is ready to drop off.
22 Then Salome made her supplication to the Lord, and said, O God of my fathers, remember me, for I am of the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.
23 Make me not a reproach among the children of Israel, but restore me sound to my parents.
24 For thou well knowest, O Lord, that I have performed many offices of charity in thy name, and have received my reward from thee.
25 Upon this an angel of the Lord stood by Salome, and said, The Lord God hath heard they prayer, reach forth thy hand to the child, and carry him, and by that means thou shalt be restored.
26 Salome, filled with exceeding joy, went to the child, and said, I will touch him;
27 And she purposed to worship him, for she said, This is a great king which is born in Israel.
28 And straightway Salome was cured.
29 Then the midwife went out of the cave, being approved by God.
30 And Lo! A voice come to Salome, Declare not the strange things which thou hast seen, till the child come to Jerusalem.
31 So Salome also departed, approved by God.
1 Then Joseph was preparing to go away, because there arose a great disorder in Bethlehem by the coming of some wise men from the east,
2 Who said, Where is the king of the Jews born? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod heard this, he was exceedingly troubled, and sent messengers to the wise men, and to the priests, and inquired of them in the town-hall,
4 And said unto them, Where have you it written concerning Christ the king, or where should he be born?
5 Then they say unto him, In Bethlehem in Judaea; for this it is written: And thou Bethlehem in the land of Judah are not the least among the princes of Judah, for out of thee shall rule my people Israel.
6 And having sent away the chief priests, he inquired of the wise men in the town-hall, and said unto them, What sign was it ye saw concerning the king that is born?
7 They answered him, We saw an extraordinary large star shining among the stars of heaven, and so out-shined all the other stars, as that they became not visible, and we knew thereby that a great king was born in Israel, and therefore we are come to worship him.
8 Then said Herod to them, Go and make diligent inquiry; and if ye find the child, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 So the wise men went forth, and behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them, till it came and stood over the cave where the young child was with Mary his mother
10 Then they brought forth out of their treasures, and offered unto him gold and frankincense, and myrrh.
11 And being warned in a dream by an angel, that they should not return to Herod through Judaea, they departed into their own country by another way.
1 Then Herod perceiving that he was mocked by the wise men, and being very angry, commanded certain men to go and to kill all the children that were in Bethlehem, from two years old and under.
2 But Mary hearing that the children were to be killed, being under much fear, took the child, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in an ox-manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
3 Elizabeth also, hearing that her son John was about to be searched for, took him and went up unto the mountains, and looked for a place to hide him;
4 And there was no secret place to be found.
5 Then she groaned within herself and said, O mountain of the Lord, receive the mother with the child.
6 For Elizabeth could not climb up.
7 And instantly the mountain was divided and received them.
8 And there appeared to them an angel of the Lord, to preserve them.
9 But Herod made search after John, and sent servants to Zacharias, when he was (ministering) at the altar, and said unto him, Where hast thou hid thy son?
10 He replied to them, I am a minister of God, and a servant at the altar; how should I know where my son is?
11 So the servants went back, and told Herod the whole; at which he was incensed, and said, Is not this son of his like to be king in Israel?
12 He sent therefore again his servants to Zacharias, saying, Tell us the truth were is they son, for you know that your life is in my hand.
13 So the servants went and told him all this;
14 But Zacharias replied to them, I am a martyr for god, and if he shed my blood, the Lord will receive my soul.
15 Besides know that he shed innocent blood.
16 However Zacharias was murdered in the entrance of the temple and altar, and about the partition;
17 But the children of Israel knew not when he was killed.
18 Then at the hour of salutation the priests went into the temple, but Zacharias did not according to his custom meet them and bless them;
19 Yet they still continued waiting for him to salute them;
20 And when they found he did not in a long time come, one of them ventured into the holy place where the altar was, and he saw blood lying upon the ground congealed;
21 When, behold a voice from heaven said, Zacharias is murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped away, until the revenger of his blood come.
22 But when he heard this, he was afraid, and went forth and told the priests what he had seen and heard; and they all went in and saw the fact.
23 Then the roofs of the temple howled, and were rent from the top to the bottom;
24 And they could not find the body, but only blood made hard like stone.
25 And they went away, and told the people, that Zacharias of Israel heard thereof and mourned for him, and lamented three days.
26 Then the priests took counsel together concerning a person to succeed him.
27 And Simeon and the other priests cast lots, and the lot fell upon Simeon.
28 For he had been assured by the Holy Spirit, that he should not die, till he had seen Christ come in the flesh.
[I James wrote the History in Jerusalem; and when the disturbance was I retired into a desert place, until the death of Herod. And the disturbances ceased at Jerusalem. That which remains is, that I glorify God that he hath given me such wisdom to write unto you who are spiritual, and who love God; to whom (be ascribed) glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.]
So how much validity is there to this story? Do you think Zacharias may have been killed defending the location of John the Baptist? How real were the arguments between Joseph and Mary? Do you think Joseph was a much older widower than Mary? What problems do you see with this gospel?