We have been reading the nativity story out of my daughter’s Storybook Bible non-stop these days, it was already her favorite before the advent season kicked in. After reading it for the 3rd time today I decided to do a little more research into the details around Jesus’ birth.
Of course I looked at the versions in Mathew and Luke. But did you know there is another ancient and famous version of this story packed full of juicy details?
This story can be found in a document referred to as, The Infancy Gospel of James.
Nowadays we have an overwhelming number Christian books which are not part of Holy Scripture, but are widely read and seen as tools which can enhance our faith. Many of these books have been read and tested by different groups or Christians for generations and have been found to be truthful and consistent with historic Christianity.
Well it turns out that this isn’t a new concept. In fact there are many ancient documents that were written around the same time as our Bible. Throughout history they have been used along with Holy Scripture to learn about the Christian life.
If you aren’t familiar with it, The Apocrypha, refers to a set of books written in between the Old and New Testament (these books remain part of the Catholic Bible but has been removed from the Protestants’). Recently, reading these books has fallen out of favor. The Apocrypha has somehow gained a reputation among contemporary Christians as being perhaps heretical or at least suspicious.
But historically, it has never been understood this way. When our Bible was being assembled at the first council of Constantinople in 381 AD, there was controversy over these books. But those in attendance and most throughout Christian history have understood them to be valuable, just not foundational or verifiable enough to use as a basis for Christian doctrine and so they were left out of the Holy Scripture.
While the Infancy Gospel of James doesn’t fall into the time period of the Apocrypha it is understood in a similar way. It was written around 150 AD (and wasn’t actually written by James, he was dead by then) but the Church fathers, (who at this point were only a couple generations removed from the apostles themselves) accepted this story and the beliefs it implied.
It is a gem for sure, in it you will read about Mary’s parents and their miraculous conception in their old age, as well as Mary being fed by angels in the temple. You will find out about Joseph who was not so happy about being chosen as the husband of this young virgin. And finally about Jesus’ birth including the midwife who checked Mary afterwards and reported her to still be a virgin after her delivery.
This story endorses some of the controversial ideas around Mary, for example that she remained a virgin throughout her life. Of course, this has always been the belief of the Catholic and Orthodox and is an idea that even early reformers like Calvin and Luther agreed to, though it has recently become unpopular (as if believing in perpetual virginity is any odder than believing in a virgin birth at all).
This story isn’t part of our Holy Scripture for a reason. It may be that it is some combination of facts and folklore, truth with some artistic embellishment. Perhaps it was written down after being passed down orally for several generations. Even still, our folklore speaks powerfully about our history and this story is part of our Christian heritage. It is a good read and worth your time this advent. I hope it will make the re-telling of the nativity story with your family more vivid and meaningful even when you are reading it for the fourth or fifth time today. Check it out.
Thanks for reading friends and me know what you think.
To learn more about Liturgy of Life click here, or join us in our reading group, where we are currently reading, The Art of The Commonplace by Wendell Berry. Feel free to comment here or join in the discussion on facebook.