The Infancy Gospel of James

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The infancy Gospel of Thomas gives an account of the births of both Mary and Jesus, and includes an interesting account of how Mary and Joseph end up together. The Gospel narrative does not extend beyond Jesus' infancy and focuses considerable attention on Mary, in particular her virginity. Although this gospel never appeared as a part of the canon, it was never officially declared to be heretical.

This gospel differs from the canonical gospels in several notable ways. For instance, Joseph is described as a widower who was chosen to be Mary's guardian (not husband), Jesus is born in a cave, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is martyred. Also, James is described as Joseph's son from his previous marriage, making James Jesus' half-brother and Mary's stepson. The gospel also states that Mary was a virgin

This gospel was well known by the church fathers, who claimed it had recently appeared on the scene. It was translated into many languages and declared to be apocryphal in the fourth or fifth century. Even thought James probably didn't write it, that doesn't mean that people took exception to its doctrine. In fact, much of the doctrine of Mariology, the theology and study of Mary, is rooted in this book.

Author and Date
The author identifies himself as "James," presumably the son of Joseph, at the end of the gospel. He also claims that the Lord God gave him the gift and the wisdom to write this history and that he withdrew into the wilderness until the commotion surrounding the death of Zacharias ceased. However, few scholars believe that it was really written by James, mainly because of the supposed date of the gospel.

James was put to death in 62 CE. However, some of the passages in this gospel are very similar to passages in Matthew and Luke, which were probably written in the 80s CE. Thus, it's likely that this gospel was composed much later. Most scholars think this infancy narrative was written sometime during the second or third century. There are several references to this gospel in Greek manuscripts, but most of these references occur after the tenth century.

The story begins with Mary's father, Joachim, who is an exceedingly rich man. When he brings his offerings to the Lord, he is told that his offerings are not welcome because he hasn't made "seed" in Israel, meaning he has no children. Saddened, he checks the records to see who else has no children and finds that he is the only righteous man without descendants. This makes him really sad, and he goes into the desert to pray for forty days and forty nights.

Apparently, he neglected to inform his wife, Anna, about his journey. Believing he is dead, she begins to mourn both her widowhood and her childlessness. While praying one day, she sees a sparrow's nest. It seems to her to mock her – even a lowly bird can easily reproduce. She redoubles her efforts to pray. Shortly, an angel stands before her and calls her by name. The angel tells her that the Lord has heard her prayer and that soon she will conceive and that the whole world will know about her child.

Anna promises to give the child as a gift to the Lord, whether it's male or female. Her child will minister to the Lord all the days of its life. At this point, the angel directs her attention to the arrival of her husband, who has been summoned to return home. He also was told that his wife would conceive. Needless to say, they have a happy reunion.

Within nine months, Anna has a girl child they name Mary. She is very precocious, and is walking by six months of age. When his daughter was a year old, Joachim has a great feast and invites all the priests, scribes, and elders. The priests blessed Mary.

When she was three, the "undefiled" daughters of the Hebrews accompanied her to the Temple. The high priest receives her and blesses her. He says, "The Lord has magnified her name in all generations…and the Lord God sent grace upon her." He sits her down on the third step of the Temple and she dances. All of Israel loves her. Mary remains in the Temple receiving food from "the hand of an angel."

When she was twelve, the priests gather to discuss what they should do with her. They are fearful that she will some day defile the Temple by having "relations" with someone. So, they gather all the widowers and ask the Lord to choose one among them to be husband to Mary.

Joseph is at that assembly. The high priest takes the rods of all the men and prays mightily. When he finishes, he returns the rods to their owners. As soon as Joseph takes his rod, a dove flies out of it and lands on top of Joseph's head. The high priest decrees that Joseph has been chosen to take "into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord."

Joseph protests by saying that he is old and already has children. But the priest convinces him to take her. He takes her home, but then leaves to return to his work building homes.

When Mary is sixteen she receives the vision of the angel and is told that she is "blessed among women." She will conceive according to the word of the Lord and she will call the child's name Jesus, "for he shall save his people from their sins." Mary then goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is already pregnant.

When she was six months along, Joseph comes back home. He is not happy that she is pregnant and dresses himself in sackcloth, a sign of repentance. Mary insists to him that she is still a virgin. Joseph leaves her alone while he thinks over his options. That night he has a dream that affirms everything Mary told him. Then he glorifies God, who has given him such grace.

When the priests discover that Mary was "great with child," they bring her and Joseph before the tribunal. Joseph was given charge over Mary on the condition that he would not "touch" Mary and would not allow anyone else to touch her either.

Despite the obvious pregnancy, Joseph maintains his innocence and the counsel gives him "treated" water to test him. He drinks the water with no ill effects, so they give Mary the water, too. She is also unharmed. Since God has not punished either of them, the priests end the inquiry. Mary and Joseph return home together, cleared of all charges.

When it comes time for the census, Joseph knows that he has to go to Bethlehem to enroll his sons. He worries what to say about Mary – is she his wife or his daughter? One of Joseph's sons leads the donkey upon which Mary sits, while Joseph follows behind them.

Mary knows that her time has come, but Joseph can only find a cave for her to birth the child and searches for a midwife from Bethlehem. As he walks along, he noticed that the birds were suspended in mid-air. Then he notices that everything is frozen in time – people, children, fish, animals, everything – and they are all looking up. It last for just a moment and things return to normal.

Just when things return to normal, a woman comes walking along. Joseph askes if she knows of a midwife. As luck would have it, that's exactly who she is. She accompanies Joseph to Mary, and the baby is born.

After the child is born the midwife examines and confirms that Mary is, indeed, still a virgin. The midwife understands the significance of such a momentous occasion and gives "glory to the Lord." Another midwife named Salome is also a witness. They both pray that the living God would forgive any doubts they might have had. An angel comforts them.

The gospel then tells the story of the Magi in a way that is very similar to Luke's description, including Herod's anger that the Magi have not returned to tell him where Jesus was born. In anger, Herod then orders the slaughter all children under the age of two. Upon hearing this, Mary put Jesus into an ox stall and Elizabeth takes her son, John, up into the hill country. Unable to find a hiding place, Elizabeth prays to the Lord and a cleft in the mountain opens up for her and the child.

When officers come to Zacharias searching for the infant John the Baptist, he denies knowing the whereabouts of his son and the officers murder him at daybreak. A voice in the Temple informs the priests at the Temple alter of Zacharias' murder. All bewailed his death. They never found his body, but his blood had turned to stone. Simeon is chosen to be his successor – the same Simeon who was told that he would not see death before the Messiah would appear (Luke 2:25-35).

Thus ends the Infancy Gospel of James.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha