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Having completed the books of the Bible, we are now featuring various books of the New Testament Apocrypha by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot. Unlike the Biblical canon, these have no special order. Still, we will use the outline of the Bible in our study of them.
This month, we will continue with the last of the infancy gospels. Most scholars think this one was written centuries after the others, perhaps as early as 600-625 CE or as late as the 8th or 9th centuries. Needless to say, the author of this gospel had access to the Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas, and has repeated stories from both of those. Indeed, this Gospel is an effective compilation of both, with additional new material. Attached to the gospel is a correspondence featuring letters purportedly written between St. Jerome (ca 340-420 CE) and two Bishops, Comatius and Heliodorus. The Bishops ask St. Jerome to translate a newly found Hebrew volume written by Matthew. However, few modern scholars think that this really is a work of Jerome or that this gospel was "newly found" in his time. Nonetheless, as the legend goes, Jerome took great care in his translation, giving it the honor and dignity that would have been appropriate for a sacred text written by Matthew.
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The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
This gospel has also been known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, but apparently its original title was "The Book about the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior." Now it is called the Pseudo Gospel because scholars are in agreement that its original author was not the evangelist known as Matthew. This text primarily repeats the earlier stories contained in the Infancy Gospel of James, which focused on the birth and dedication of Mary. To that is added the story of the flight to Egypt. Obviously, this gospel was very important to the Coptic [Egyptian] Church. It ends with repetition from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. One notable addition to the birth stories is the placement of the ox and donkey at the nativity. In Luke's version, there were only shepherds with the possibility of sheep in attendance. Yet, in many modern nativity sets, an ox and donkey are included. This is their source.
The two Bishops asked Jerome, the presbyter, to translate the Hebrew text into Latin. Apparently, they found out about the manuscript from two "holy men," who said Jerome had it in his possession. They wanted Jerome to translate it so that those who were preaching heretical notions about the birth of Christ would be silenced. Jerome replied that he did not think Matthew had written it – at least not with the intention of publishing it. This one was kept "secretly," apart from his original gospel. Jerome gives no reason why this might be the case, only that it had been preserved and handed down from one pious man to another. To date, it had never been translated. Then some heretics got hold of it and published it for nefarious reasons. That motivated Jerome to do his best to translate it, so that the falsehoods of heresy might be made plain. He does not, however, expand on how any of these heresies might have used this Gospel. Moreover, he has no intention of adding this book to the established canon.
Later on, there is another letter written to the Bishops that specifically addressed authorship of the text. Jerome claimed that one named Seleucus wrote the book. He was also the author of "The Sufferings of the Apostles," a book that is not extant. Seleucus, apparently, wrote about their powers and miracles, but added much that was considered to be "false" doctrine as well. Jerome claimed he invented it out of his own head. For this reason, Jerome would take extra special care to translate the text as it was written, neither adding nor subtracting anything on the off chance that Matthew really had authored it.
He refrained from making a final judgment about the authenticity of the text. But he felt strongly that, even if it were not true, it should have been, i.e., the birth of Mary should have been special because she was, after all, the mother of Christ.
The story begins with information about Mary's parents. Joachim was a devout man, fearing God and following the law in everything he did. Because of this, the Lord made him prosperous in every way, and he was renowned among the people of Israel. He married Anna when he was twenty; but, after twenty years, they still had no child.
When Ruben refused his sacrifice because he had no "seed," Joachim left weeping and did not return to his house. He gathered his sheep and shepherds, and went off for five months. (James says he fasted 40 days and nights in the wilderness). Anna was left at home distressed and depressed, mourning both the loss of her husband and her childlessness. In both stories, an angel was sent to comfort her and pronounce that she would soon have a child. In this version, she reacted with fear and dread, and threw herself on her bed where she stayed weeping and trembling.
That same angel, however, also appeared to Joachim, and told him his wife had conceived a daughter and that he needed to go home. The angel also told him that Mary would be in the temple of God, and that the Holy Spirit would abide in her. In the story by James, Joachim goes right back. Here, he lay face down in prayer until his servants thought he might be dead. They helped him up, and he told them the vision of the angel. They suggested he go back to his wife immediately. He still could not decide, so there was another angel vision that reassured him. When he awoke, he went back home – a journey that took another 30 days – where he was reconciled with a very happy Anna.
True to the angel's word, in nine months Mary was born. There are some childhood moments in James that are absent here, but, in both cases, the parents take Mary to the temple when she was three years old. There she stayed in the community of the virgins, praising God day and night. At the age of three, Mary was admired by all the people. She was very mature and spoke perfectly. Indeed, she acted as though she was 30. Her day was filled with wool-working and prayer. Daily, an angel of the Lord appeared to her and gave her food. When people greeted her, she always responded, "Thanks be to God." She is credited with originating that saying. The sick were healed by simply touching her. Several notable men tried to "buy" her from the priests, but she refused all. Things changed, of course, when she turned 14 (James says 12). Basically, the same procedure was used to determine who would take her and be her guardian. Joseph was chosen by lot.
It is stressed quite strongly through the witness of two midwives that Mary was still a virgin after Jesus had been born. Although he was born in a cave, Jesus was taken to a stable on the third day – present was the ox and ass, which fulfilled a prophecy by Isaiah. The ox and ass constantly adored him (no description as to how this was done), which fulfilled another prophecy. They remained there for three more days.
Then they went to Bethlehem, presumably to fulfill the taxation requirement. From there they went to the temple, where Jesus was circumcised and adored by Simeon (who was already 112 years old). Anna was also there, and she, too, worshipped the child.
In the second year, Magi came from the east. This story follows the gospel of Matthew quite closely, including the giving of gifts and the hiding from Herod. When Herod realized he "had been made sport of," he ordered the killing of all male children two years and under. Of course, Joseph had been warned by an angel, and they were already safely on their way to Egypt.
Along the way, they stopped at a certain cave where they intended to rest. Three boys and a girl accompanied them. Suddenly, many dragons came out of the cave, obviously scaring the children to death. Jesus stood on his feet before the dragons, and they also adored him. Then they left peacefully. This also fulfilled a prophecy by David, though the source is not given. Likewise, all other animals adored Jesus, including lions, panthers, and wolves. Soon, they had a whole contingency of wild animals accompanying them into Egypt. They walked together with the lions and lambs in peace.
On the third day of their journey, Mary asked to rest under the shade of a tree. She sat under a palm tree, and wished to eat of its fruit. Jesus asked the palm tree to bend down so they could gather the fruit. It stayed down until they had filled themselves, and then Jesus gave it permission to stand back up. It also supplied them with water from its root. Nonetheless, the trip was getting long, and there were some complaints. Jesus was able to shorten the distance so that they traveled in one day what should have taken 30. Upon arriving in the city, Mary and Jesus went into the temple, and all the idols prostrated themselves before him. In the process, many of them broke into tiny pieces.
When the Egyptian official of the city heard about it, he went to the temple with his army. He intended to take vengeance upon them, but once he saw how the idols were lying on their faces before Jesus, he confessed Jesus as Lord. And all the people of the city believed in the Lord God through Jesus Christ.
The story then reverts to Jesus' life in Galilee with the repetition of the childhood stories recorded in Thomas. Unique to this gospel is one that involved Jesus when he was 8. He (and everyone else) knew that a lion had given birth to her cubs in a nearby cave. Jesus went into it, and the lioness and all her cubs adored him. The cubs played with him. People did not know what was happening inside the cave and were very sorrowful, thinking Jesus had been killed. Suddenly, he walked out of the cave with all the lions. The people did not come any closer. Jesus chastised them for not recognizing him when even lions knew who he was. Then Jesus and the lions crossed the Jordan, which parted for them. Jesus dismissed the lions, telling them to "Go in peace." With that, Jesus went home.
The final chapter recalls a family feast. Joseph and his four sons and two daughters (not by Mary) were there, along with Mary's sister (Mary of Cleophas). When they were all together, Jesus blessed them, and began to eat and drink. Then, they all joined in. Whenever Jesus slept, "the brightness of God shone upon him." "To whom be all praise and glory for ever and ever."