The Protevangelium of James

Nativity of Mary, Revelation of James

Protevangelium of James (PJ) is the title given by the Latin translator Postel in 1552. The manuscript tradition offers a wide variety of titles. The oldest manuscript is titled “Nativity of Mary, Revelation of James.” The attribution to James the brother of the Lord is universal, but almost certainly pseudonymous. The PJ is widely regarded as the earliest and most influential of the apocryphal Nativity books. Thomas’ “Nativity of Mary” is the only account that may predate the PJ, but this is the minority opinion.


The PJ is generally dated to the middle of the second century. The earliest surviving manuscript is the Bodmar Papyrus V from the early 4th century. The PJ is noted or used in 3rd century writings of Origen (Matt. Comm.10.17), Clement of Alexandria (Strom 7.16.93) and Justin Martyr (Dial. 78.5). The latest date proposed is 178-204 AD based on the theory that the PJ is a response to Celsus’ “True Doctrine.”


The closing of the PJ ascribes the book to James in Jerusalem. However, the extensive use of the canonical Gospels combined with the mid-second century dating of the work make this impossible to reconcile with the death of James in the mid-first century. The work is almost certainly pseudonymous. Much effort has been expended to discern details about the author behind this claim, but the opinions are mixed and contradictory.

James, the brother of the Lord, was chosen as the author of attribution for a number of reasons. As a relative of Jesus his name lends authority to the family information contained in the PJ. The PJ explains the family relationship of the brothers & sisters of the Lord as children of Joseph to a prior marriage. James being one of those children, he makes a natural source for the information. James is also well known in Jerusalem for his devotion and the vow he took as a Nazerite, hence his nickname of camel-kneed because he was constantly at prayer. While most took this on as a temporary affair, James seems to have been a lifelong Nazerite and celibate. This makes him the perfect candidate to discuss the purity and virginity of Mary as sketched in the PJ.

In addition to the source dating problems that prevent the PJ from being the direct work of James, there are a number of other issues. Chief among them is the errors in the geography of Palestine that mean the author almost certainly did not live anywhere near Jerusalem. The desert is too close to Jerusalem in the PJ. The mountains and desert are made synonymous.

The majority opinions of scholars posit Syria as the local of the author. Syria is the source of the known Gospel harmony. There is a definite element of Gospel harmonization in the PJ. Strycker suggests Egypt because he sees coptic elements in the language and the deserts & mountains are treated the same in the PJ as they are in Egypt. Others have proposed Asia minor or Rome. In short, the local of origin is not clear.

The profile of the author of the PJ is a matter without consensus. Some assert the author is a Jewish Christian (Quasten) living in the diaspora, others say a Greek Christian (Brown) with an interest in Jewish culture. For the former see the LXX Greek style and quotations throughout the PJ and the interest in Jewish Law and liturgical life as indications of a Jewish convert to Christianity. The errors in geography and temple details place this Jewish Christian in the diaspora. Those arguing for a Greek Christian see a refined rhetorical style and integrity of the composition. The LXX usage and language demonstrate their interest in Jewish culture and the elemental errors in Jewish temple procedure and law reinforces the view. The infancy narratives show amble evidence of late and folkloric elements that suggest secular models making Greek rather than Jewish composition seem more likely.


The PJ is preserved in over 130 Greek manuscripts and in early translations to Syriac, Armenian, Church Slavonic, & Coptic. There are no Latin manuscripts discovered to date. The first printed text is the Latin translation of Postel in 1552 with the first Greek printed edition by Neander in 1563.

The standard critical text is by Tischendorf (1853) with an important update and expansion for newly discovered manuscripts by Strycker (1961). There is a wide variety of text critical issues with the PJ. There are entire sections of the work that are possibly editorial expansions of the original text with a variety of minor issues as well. These are well documented in the literature.

Form & Structure

The PJ is a composite document taking in multiple sources both oral and written. The canonical infancy narratives of Matthew & Luke are joined with legendary material, Jewish Septuagint sources. But the PJ is a unified literary work as it now stands. The Greek text shows evidence of classical training in rhetoric and generally good style, while there is a distinct Jewish flavor by the weaving of LXX images, language and forms at the same time.

LXX Influence

The influence of the LXX can be seen in the PJ use of Old Testament figures as models for characters in the current story. Anne the mother of Mary in the PJ to Hanna and Sarah in the LXX. Joseph has literary parallels with Dathan, Abiron and Kore of Genesis and Numbers. Joseph has obvious parallels to Adam and Mary to Eve in the creation accounts. The LXX is also the source for the legal struggle that plays out around Mary’s pregnancy in the PJ.

Influence of Secular Literature

There also seems to be some Greek cultural influence in some elements of the PJ narrative. The popular Greek myths on Dionysos and Mithras and Greek romance stories. For example, ne’s lament in 3:2-8 is similar in form and content to the lament of Daphnis in “Daphnis & Chloe.” The PJ episode of the Lord’s drink in 16:3-6 is similar to the water test in Leucippe’s purity in “Leucippe & Clitopphon.” In addition, a common theme in Greek Romances is sexual purity. There may also be some parallels in the birth scene with Dionysos son of Zeus, born in a cave with a midwife Semele (Salome in PJ).

Literary Unity

There is some debate on the literary unity of the PJ, but the majority opinion sees a unified story built from multiple sources. Harnack developed an extensive source theory for the PJ identifying the various streams of tradition that the PJ edited together into this final form. The clearest example of this type of compilation is the shift into first person as Joseph describes his vision of the world stopping during Christ’s birth (18:3-19). The narrative shifts at the same time from a focus on Mary to Joseph, all clues to a seam in sources being stitched together. Another example is the story of the death of Zacharias in 22:1-25. Here even the manuscripts show evidence of later editorial additions.

However, today most do accept much of Harnack’s identification of sources, but see them as largely oral sources that are rewritten into the PJ narrative. The consensus is that the consistency of vocabulary and syntax argue for the literary unity of the PJ rather than a compilation of prior written sources.

In addition to the literary unity, the PJ shows a thematic unity around Mary’s purity. The PJ is not a theological treatise on Mary’s purity, but the narrative is constructed around this consistent unifying theme.


Another possible structure for the PJ is the megkwmion. This is a rhetorical form of praise that is part of the standard Greek schools of the period. The student manuals (progymnasmata) of the time show a graded series of fourteen exercises with the structure and style appropriate for each. The megkwmion is defined as a composition that sets forth the excellent qualities of its subject, there are subdivisions for people, things, animals, plants and places.

megkwmion Structure

  • Introduction
  • Family Background Include their birth and the marvels around it
  • Upbringing Details on childhood
  • Adult pursuits Deeds that illustrate the person’s virtues
  • Comparisons to people of equal virtue
  • Conclusion Prayer with doxology

There are a number of obvious parallels here with the PJ. But there are some shortcomings as well. The PJ is not in the strictest of format and not in an oral form as a speech (these were exercises in rhetoric, not writing). The PJ calls itself a istoria and the relationship of these two forms is not obvious. The genre istoria is in development as this is composed and shares many features with the egkwmion.

Relationship to Canonical Gospels

The infancy narratives in both the canonical Gospels and later apocrypha fill both a theological and human curiosity need for the faithful. The earliest narratives concentrate on issues surrounding Jesus himself. As time goes on the circle of interest, both in theology and personal information widens. The PJ narrative is only the second step in that process of expansion over time.

Motives for the Canonical Narratives

The canonical narratives fill a natural curiosity about the early life and birth of Jesus. There are a number of parallels noted between them and other ANE literature, and even the traditions of India & Persia (Boslooper). But clearly the focus of the narratives is theological. The infancy narratives serve to firmly place Jesus in the necessary tradition of Jewish law and Davidic descent while explaining his relationship to John the Baptist.

Motives for the Apocryphal Narratives

With the PJ the primary theological interest is the purity and virginity of Mary. The narrative supports this theological goal while filling in more of the early life of Jesus’ family. The PJ sticks pretty close to the overall goal in the narrative, while later apocrypha range fuller afield with interesting side bar stories about the holy family. The Infancy Gospel form also proves popular with Gnostic sects. The miraculous nature of the narratives tends to increase in each of the later writings as does the prominence of the “human touch” in the details of the story.


Clearly the demonstration of the perpetual virginity and purity of Mary is the central theme of the PJ narrative. Several broad categories have been suggested for the purpose of this demonstration: Apologetic discourse, Christian Midrash, and Devotional commentary. These categories are overlapping to some degree in their scope, so they may not be mutually exclusive in nature.


Contemporary with the PJ are the charges of adultery against Mary in both the Talmud and heretical Christian communities. In this context the PJ could well be an apologetic narrative organizing the existing infancy traditions as a defense for these charges. In addition, there may be an anti-docetic element by emphasis of the human aspects of Christ’s birth against the adoptionist cults. In the PJ we have the testing by God and the definitive witness of the midwife to Mary’s viraginity. Mary is show living in a temple “bedroom” at home even before her presentation. Celsus also charges Mary with spinning cloth. This would make her a low class person of low moral values. The PJ seems to answer this charge by having Mary spin the cloth as a temple virgin for liturgical use.

Christian Midrash

Midrash is a form of Jewish commentary on scripture. Daras is a Hebrew verb meaning to seek or inquire thus Midrash would be the object of that inquiry. Pesher chains would be a specific form of midrash. A number of commentators see the PJ as a Christian midrash on the canonical Infancy Narratives. The PJ takes and harmonizes and expands the two scriptural narratives in a midrashic style. The point of the midrash is a demonstration of Mary’s purity.

Matthew’s account seems to mirror an earlier midrash on the birth of Moses. The PJ treats the canonical infancy narratives in a midrashic way. But Brown notes that there are midrashic elements in both Matthews Infancy account and the PJ, but neither could be considered strictly a midrash in the traditional style. Kattenbusch suggests that the PJ is a haggadaic style account of the infancy accounts. But this opinion does not have much support.

Devotional Life

The PJ could also be a devotional reflection on the Matthean comment “and she was with child by the Holy Spirit.” This one line comment, begs the questions of both history and future for that moment in time. The PJ provides the Christian community with the model of Mary for the first time. This model became the standard reflection on Mary for the Church and is embedded into our liturgical life and theological thought. This narrative is the counter point to the alternative claims and the grounding of Marian example against excessive speculation on the dubious miracles in later accounts.

Use in the life of the Church

The PJ has had an extensive influence in liturgy, devotional life and theology in the Christian Church. The effect of the PJ was more extensive in the east and somewhat checkered in the west. The chief difficulty in the west is the age of Joseph at the birth of Christ and his being a widower with children. Legends of latter ages affirm the virginity of Joseph, Jerome being a chief advocate of this position. But Epiphanius, Hilary, Chrysostom, Cyril, Euthymius, Theophylact, Oecumenius, and all the Latins Fathers till Ambrose and the Greek fathers afterwards, maintain the opinions in the PJ. As noted above, the PJ was taken up in the second & third centuries for apologetic use by Clement, Origen and Justin. The further use and spread of the PJ is a veritable “Who’s who” of the fathers. Three feasts come from the PJ, the Conception of Anne (December 9), the Nativity of Mary (September 8 )an d Presentation of Mary in the Temple (November 21). The central role and praise of virginity in the PJ makes this a favorite source during the rise of monasticism in the fourth to fifth centuries.

Eastern Church

The Eastern Church embraced the PJ and its message on the virginity of Mary. The PJ forms the foundation on which the Marian devotions of the east are built that ultimately result in the fifth century council of Ephesus defining Mary as Theotokos. The liturgical influence is even stronger than the theological one. The PJ is the source for liturgical poets in these three Marian feasts.

The Nativity of Mary is well established by 500 AD by the Church of St. Anne built on the site of Mary’s birth home. This was originally a local festival of a patronal feast that spread from here throughout the eastern empire than on to the west. The Presentation of Mary in the Temple is clearly established by 543 by the Church dedicated to Mary in Jerusalem. From here the feast is found in Constantinople sources of the eleventh century. Finally, the Conception of Anne was instituted by the monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem by the middle of the seventh century. Andrew of Crete mentions in his journals that the feast is still new to the monastery when he was living there at this time. From here it was accepted throughout the east by the middle of the eighth century.

Western Church

In the west the Gelasium Decree of the sixth century condemns the PJ as a spurious work of no value to the Church. This seems to stop the widespread use of the PJ itself in the Latin world. But this decree does not prevent the introduction of the Feasts of Mary based on the PJ’s account of events.

The Nativity of Mary entered the Latin calendar in the seventh century based on contact with the eastern celebration of the feast. Latin hymnography of the feast concentrates on the future role of Mary as mother of Christ and not her birth itself. The reading for the feast is the genealogy of Christ in Matthew. Pope Sergius attached a procession to the feast and numbered this among the four great feasts of Mary.

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple entered Rome from the east in the twelveth century moving west from there. Pius V disliked the celebration and removed it from the calendar along with the feast of Joachim prior to his death in 1572. Pius knew the source of these feasts was the PJ, a discredited book. But the festival was restored by Sixtus V in 1585 by popular demand.

The Conception of Anne came to southern Italy via the Greek communities settled there, but the first introduction into the Latin calendar was in England via the effort of these Greek monks working in England around 1020. The festival was abolished by the Normans when they took England but reestablished by Anselm in 1140. The feast was hotly debated in the west. Thomas Aquinas did not approve of the festival because it appears to deny Mary’s need to be saved. But Sixtus IV added it to the universal Roman calendar in 1476. This ultimately becomes the central celebration of Mary in the west with the renaming of the feast Immaculate Conception and moving it to December 8 in 1856.

In the Middle ages in the west Popes Damasus, Innocent I and Gelasius all try to reassert the rejection of the PJ, but the stories are too deeply rooted. Despite the rejection of the PJ itself, the western Church still followed the liturgical lead of the east in establishing the Marian festivals described in the book. The PJ figured prominently in the Christian art and devotion to Mary throughout the west as well.


This is a select bibliography of works readily available in Pittsburgh. However, the Slavic interest section I pull from Charlesworth the publications about the Protevangelium of James from Slavic lands. These are not held in libraries locally. Charlesworth has a section with 167 items from 1568 to 1987 on the Protevangelium of James.

Charlesworth, James H. “Protevangelium of James.” In The New Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha: A Guide to Publications, with Excursuses on Apocalypses, ATLA Bibliography Series. Vol. 17, 218-28. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987.

Texts & Commentaries

The Apocryphal New Testament : being all the Gospels, Epistles, and other pieces now extant attributed, in the first four centuries, to Jesus Christ, his apostles, and their companions, and not included in the New Testament by its compilers. Boston, MA: Bazin & Ellsworth, 1821. A popular English translation with a very short introduction to each apocryphal book.

Amann, Emile. le Protévangile de Jacques et ses remaniements latins: introduction, textes, traduction et commentaire Les Apocryphes du Nouveau Testament. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1910. Primarily a text critical study of the relationship of various versions of the Protevangelium of James. There is an introduction to the texts and a chapter on the doctrinal content as well. There is an extensive chronological review of the use of the Protevangelium in the Greek fathers pp. 108-137.

Birch, A. “Auctarium codicis apocrphi N. T. Fabriciani.” Vol. 1, 197-242. Copenhagen, 1804. Greek Text.

Boslooper, T. “Jesus’ virgin birth and non-Christian parallels.” Religion and Life 26 (1955-57): 87-97. Seminal work that everyone cites, but not available in Pittsburgh.

Brown, Raymond. The birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1977. Extensive research into the nature of the canonical nativity narratives including their relationship to the apocryphal accounts.

Cameron, Ron. The other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel texts. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982. A translation and commentary on the Gospel form through the apocrypha Gospel accounts. There is an introduction for each Gospel included in the collection, including the Protevangelium of James.

Donehoo, James. The apocraphal and legendary life of Christ: being the whole body of the Apocryphal gospels and other extra canonical literature which pretends to tell of the life and words of Jesus Christ, including much matter which has not before appeared in English. In continuous narrative form, with notes, Scriptural references, prolegomena, and indices. H & S dollar library. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1903. Popular translation of apocryphal books with brief introduction to each work.

Eisenman, Robert. James the brother of Jesus: The key to unlocking the secrets of early Chrisitianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York: Penquin, 1996. Primarily an historical study on James and his influence in the early Christian community. There is scattered references to the various literature ascribed to James.

Fuchs, Albert. Konkordanz zum Protevangelium des Jakobus Vol. Serie B ; Bd. 3 Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt, ed. Mitarbeit von Ch. Eckmair. Freistadt: F. Plöchl, 1979. This is primarily an linguistic word study tool. The foward is a mere two pages. The Concordance is organized alphabetically listing that includes the context phrase of each word in the Greek text. There are three indexes: Greek word page references; Greek word frequency alphabetically; & Greek words in order of frequency.

Harnack, Von A., Die Chronologie der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius. 2 Vols; Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1897-1904. Extensive source critical study on the PJ in the style of the four source theory for the Pentatuch. Most agree with the identification of streams in the tradition, but see a more unified final composition than Harnack does. For Harnack the streams are written sources copied verbatim into the PJ.

Hennecke, Edgar, and Wilhelm Schneemelcher. New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and related works. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963. The standard reference work for NT apocryphal literature.

Hock, Ronald F. The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas Vol. 2 The Scholar’s Bible, ed. Robert W Funk. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1995. Strycker’s Greek text on facing pages with English translation and a running commentary on the bottom half of the page. Introduction to both James & Thomas with a bibliography for each.

Hoffmann, R. Joseph. The secret Gospels: a harmony of Apocryphal Jesus traditions Westminster College critical studies in religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996. A besh translation and ended harmony of the apocryphal Gospel traditions with an introduction on the source and ancient usage of the texts.

Kattenbusch, F. “Die Geburtsgeschichte Jesu als Haggada der Urchristologie, Th” eologische Studien und Kritiken, 102, 1930, p. 470. Labels the PJ a Haggadic style service on the Nativity accounts.

Lapham, Fred. An introduction to the New Testament apocrypha. New York: T & T Clark, 2003. An introduction on NT apocrapha organized by the regions where the books are produced.

Mayer, J. B. “James.” In A dictionary of the Bible dealing with its language, literature, and contents including the Biblical theology, ed. James Hastings. Vol. II, 540-543. New York: T & T Clark, 1899. Reprint, 1942.

Orr, James. New Testament apocryphal writings. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1903. A translation with introduction and notes on NT apocrapha.

Quasten, Johannes. Patrology: The beginnings of Patristic literature Vol. 1. Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1962. p 118-22 commentary on Protevangelium of James.

Smid, Harm Reinder. Protevangelium Jacobi: a commentary. Translated by G. E. van Baaren-Pape. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1965. This includes the Greek text from Bodmer V and Strycker in parallel columns along with a section by section commentary. The commentary includes text critical notes from both Tischendorf and Stryckerreferences to the LXX, parallels from other religions and later apcrapha.

Strycker, Hans de. La forme la plus ancienne du Protévangile de Jacques; recherches sur le papyrus Bodmer 5 avec une édition critique de texte grec et une traduction annotée Vol. 33 Subsidia hagiographica. Bruxelles: Société des Bollandistes, 1961. This is a text critical edition that significantly updates the work of Tischendorf from the previous century and is not the standard critical edition for the Protevangelium of James. This three part study is Part 1: extensive introduction and discussion. Part 2: The Greek text on left page with facing French translation and extensive critical apparatus is provided. Part 3: Research review on the state of the text and redactions. There is also an Appendix on the Armenian and Latin versions.

Tischendorf, Constantine. “Protevangelium Iacobi.” In Evangelia Apocrypha, xii-xxii, 1-49. Leipzig, 1853. Critical Greek Text. This is a composite text from 18 manuscripts with an extensive critical apparatus. In his “Evangelia Apocrypha” of 1876 this is revised, but the number of manuscripts is not changed. Most modern translations are based on this text. This is not held in Pittsburgh.

Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus outside the New Testament: an introduction to the ancient evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

Mary in the Early Church

Brown, Raymond, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, eds. Mary in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978. A careful study of each appearance of Mary in the NT with an overview of second century literature and a chapter of conclusions.

Buby, Bertrand. Mary of Galilee Vol. III The Marian Heritage of the Early Church. New York: Alba House, 1996. In the volume three of this careful study we have Marian theology organized by Patristic school and author. There is a chapter on Mary in the Apocryphal literature.

Crichton, JD. Our Lady in the Liturgy. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997. A brief look at the Marian feasts in the Latin calendar, including a brief history of each.

Gambero, Luigi. Mary and the Fathers of the Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999. A commentary on Patristic thought on Mary supported with excerpts from various original texts.

O’Donnell, Christopher. At Worship with Mary. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988. A reflection on the various feasts and devotions to Mary from a Latin perspective with occasional reference to Byzantine practice. This includes a brief history of each feast.

Slavic Interest

Archeografiãeskaja, Kommissija. “Sept. 1-13.” In Daily Readings of the Great Menaea, Cols. 278-81, 1868. In Russian

Demina, E.I. The Tichonravov Collection Vol. 1 102-04 Vol. 2 151-55. 2 vols. Sofia, 1968. In Russian

Franko, I. Apocrypha and Legends. L’vov, 1898. Pp. 36-59, 146-49, 153-59. In Russian.

Gjaurov, C. “Protevangelium of James.” Godi‰nik na Sofijskija Universitet Bogosl. Fak., no. 7 (1930): 125-401. In Russian.

Istrin, V.M. On the question about the Slavo-Russian redactions of the first Gosple of James. Odessa, 1900. In Russian.

Jacimirskij, A.I. “Apocrypha and Legends Protevangelium of James IV.” IzvORJS, no. 14.2 (1909): 294-311. In Russian.

Jagic, V. “Critical notes Protevangelium of James.” IzvORJS 3.2 (1898): 315-38.

________. “Analecta romana.” Archiv für Slavische Philogie 25 (1903): 36-47. In Russian.

Lavrov, P.A. “Apocryphal Texts Protevangelium of James.” SbORJS 67 (1899): 52-69. In Russian.

________. “Ochrid Manuscript of the First Gospel of James.” IzvORJS 6.1 (1901): 9-36. In Russian.

Novakovic, S. “The Apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James.” Starine 10 (1878): 61-71. In Russian.

Popov, A.N. “Bibliographical Materials Protevangelium of James.” ãoidr 20 (1889): 7-24. In Russian.

Porfiryev, I.Y. “Apocryphal Sayings About New Testament People and Events in Manuscripts of the Solovetski Library.” SbORJS 52 (1890): 10-13, 136-48. In Russian.

Pypin, A.N. False and dismissed books of Ancient Russia. St. Petersburg, 1862. Protevangelium of James on 78-80. Commentary in Russian text in Slavonic.

Smereka, W. “The oldest legend about the Mother of God.” RuBi 16 (1963): 29-36. In Polish.

Speranskij, M.N. “Variations on the first Gospel of James.” ãoidr (1889): I-XIV. In Russian.

________. “Slavic Apocryphal Gospels.” In The work of the eigth archaeological conference in Moscow 1890. Vol. 2, 56-73, 156-60. Moscow, 1895. In Russian.

________. The history of ancient Russsian literature Vol. 1. Moscow, 1920. p 260 In Russian.

Stefanic, V. Croation literature. Zagreb, 1969. p 142-45. In Serbo-Croation.

Strohal, R. Old Croationa apocryphal tales and legends, collected from Old Croation Glagolithic manuscripts from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Bjelovar, 1917. p 6-11. In Serbo-Croation.

Sumcov, N.F. “Essays on the history of South Russian apocryphal sayings and songs.” Kievskaja Starina 19 (1887): 1-21. In Russian.

Originally Posted March 20, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010