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Protevangelium of St. James


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#1 Aaron C.

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 04:43 AM

I would like to delve into some of the background concerning how the Orthodox Church accepts the Protevangelium, also known as the Infancy Gospel, of St. James. How are we to accept this writing in the Tradition of the Church? That is to say,

1. What is its authority (or perhaps lack thereof) in the life of the Church in informing us about the early life of the Mother of God and the Lord?

2. Though it was not accepted as canonical, New Testament scripture by the early Church, why do so many of its elements appear in the Synaxarion?

3. What Church texts can speak authoritatively within the tradition of the Church and her teachings on the early life of the Mother of God?

Any help in understanding the Protevangelium in the life of the Church and the Holy Fathers would be much appreciated.

Thank you.

#2 Kusanagi

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 02:01 PM

If i remember correctly some of the Epistles in the NT refers to the Protoevangelium, i do not have access to my information at the moment but can do so later if someone else doesnt do so before me.
I think authority wise it is accepted as most icons of Joachim and Anna when they were shamed because they do not have children yet and the birth of the Mother of God etc are available. The Greek church I frequent has a lot of scenes from the Protoevangelium.

#3 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 02:58 PM

Just because the Protoevangelion has not been elevated to the Canon of Scripture does not mean it is "uncanonical". It simply means it does not have the same authority as Holy Scripture. If something in the Protoevangelion is found to "conflict" with the Canon of Scripture, then the Canon takes precedence. But if there is no conflict, then it merely "fills in the gaps" in information that was not included within the Canon. The writings of St. John Chrysostom are not part of the Canon, but that does not make them "uncanonical". We are not subject to the mindset of Protestantism that teaches that if it isn't explicitly part of Scripture, it is of no value.

#4 Aaron C.

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 04:43 PM

Just because the Protoevangelion has not been elevated to the Canon of Scripture does not mean it is "uncanonical". It simply means it does not have the same authority as Holy Scripture. If something in the Protoevangelion is found to "conflict" with the Canon of Scripture, then the Canon takes precedence. But if there is no conflict, then it merely "fills in the gaps" in information that was not included within the Canon. The writings of St. John Chrysostom are not part of the Canon, but that does not make them "uncanonical". We are not subject to the mindset of Protestantism that teaches that if it isn't explicitly part of Scripture, it is of no value.


This was actually close to my understanding of it. If the Protevangelion was to be understood as anything, it was perhaps the first "lives of the saints" account. Certainly not in the form of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, but rather preserving the early life of the Theotokos.

#5 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 08:09 PM

There are a few things in the Protoevangelium of James that are clearly wrong. For instance, it suggests that St Joseph was subjected to the Jewish ritual of the Bitter Waters (Numbers 5). This is absurd because the ritual is clearly for Women alone, all Jews knew this, and it casts serious doubt on the authorship, and indeed the intention of the author.

I prefer to rely on the Church's Tradition for the story of the birth and upbringing of the Theotokos, and not on some writing, well known to the Fathers, who none the less did not count it Apostolic.

InXC Richard.

#6 Anthony Stokes

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 08:27 PM

As far as your third question goes, you can look at the texts of the services themselves. The texts for the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple contain much of the material from the Protovangelium, just like the texts from the Dormition contain material from the "Death of Mary," a book similar to the Protovangelium. If you have a copy of the Festal Menaion you can read these texts for yourself and compare them to the "apocryphal" books.

Sbdn. Anthony

#7 Olga

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Posted 17 February 2010 - 09:54 PM

Richard, you wrote:

There are a few things in the Protoevangelium of James that are clearly wrong. For instance, it suggests that St Joseph was subjected to the Jewish ritual of the Bitter Waters (Numbers 5). This is absurd because the ritual is clearly for Women alone, all Jews knew this, and it casts serious doubt on the authorship, and indeed the intention of the author.

I prefer to rely on the Church's Tradition for the story of the birth and upbringing of the Theotokos, and not on some writing, well known to the Fathers, who none the less did not count it Apostolic.


It is more correct to refer to the writings such as the Protoevangelion not included in canonical scripture, but accepted as useful and consistent with Orthodox doctrine as deuterocanonical ("of the second canon"), rather than apocryphal.

The Church has seen it fit to draw from the Protoevangelion to provide liturgical material for most of the feasts of the Mother of God, particularly those of her Nativity and Entrance into the Temple, as well as to inform its iconographic tradition. It is worth remembering that the only feasts directly connected to the Mother of God which are mentioned in the New Testament are the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ, and the Meeting of the Lord. Does this mean that the Church has been in error in celebrating the other feasts dedicated to the Virgin?

Regarding your mention of St Joseph and the Bitter Waters ritual, the Church has just celebrated the feast of the Meeting of the Lord. According to Jewish tradition, it was the father of the 40-day-old child who presented the babe to the Temple priests. Yet, in the Vigil service of the Meeting, and in the iconography of this feast, it is not Joseph who presents the Christ-child, but His Mother. This may seem contrary with the Jewish praxis of the time, but this is the tradition the Orthodox Church espouses, for all sorts of theological and doctrinal reasons.

Therefore, your statement of "I prefer to rely on the Church's Tradition for the story of the birth and upbringing of the Theotokos, and not on some writing, well known to the Fathers, who none the less did not count it Apostolic" makes little sense. The Protoevangelion is indeed an important part of Orthodox tradition, and has added much to its traditions.

More on the Protoevangelion and St Joseph can be found on this thread:

http://www.monachos....Betrothed/page2

Edited by Olga, 18 February 2010 - 08:01 PM.


#8 Anthony Stokes

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Posted 18 February 2010 - 05:37 PM

I think I was the only person that said "apocryphal," and I did it only because I thought someone else had, and that's why I put it in quotes, but now I see that in fact, no one else used that word. So it was just me. Not really important, I've just been misreading and making things up a lot lately.

Sbdn. Anthony

#9 Kusanagi

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Posted 18 February 2010 - 06:14 PM

In the book the life of Mary by the Holy Apostles Convent it mentions that the 4 major feasts of the Virgin Mary plus of her parents are derived from the Protoevangelium plus the other books listed as Apocrypha.
St Andrew of Crete, St Germanos, St Gregory the Wonder Worker and St George of Nicomedia in their sermons have drawn from the Protoevangelium. I cant find the references of the Epistles that makes references to the Protoevangelium nor can I find in any translations on google about Joseph being subjected to the ritual of the bitter waters. But hopefully what has been provided here is useful for you.

#10 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 18 February 2010 - 09:02 PM

There are many things in the life of our Lord and His earthly family that were not wholly in accordance with Jewish customs as practiced at the time. The trial of bitter waters seems like a relatively minor "discrepancy" if it is, in fact, in error. But such "inconsistencies" can be found throughout the Bible, so I think something a bit more substantial would be required to cause this particular Pooh any major concern or doubt. If you are looking for doubt, you can always find it.

#11 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 18 February 2010 - 10:03 PM

It is more correct to refer to the writings such as the Protoevangelion not included in canonical scripture, but accepted as useful and consistent with Orthodox doctrine as deuterocanonical ("of the second canon"), rather than apocryphal.


I'm sorry to have to disagree with this analysis. My understanding of the word 'apocrypha' is that it just means 'Left Out'. Which it clearly was. I didn't use it, by the way.
My source is Prof. Eugenia Constantinou, a well respected Orthodox biblical scholar.

But in any case I am too new here to engage in this sort of discussion, so I bow to your superior knowledge of The Tradition, and apologise for injecting my own views.

Please forgive me,
In Christ, Richard (An Orthodox Catechumen, and no longer Anglican)

#12 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 19 February 2010 - 12:56 AM

The term Apocrypha is used with various meanings, including "hidden", "esoteric", "spurious", "of questionable authenticity". The word is originally Greek (ἀπόκρυφα) and I believe it literally means "those having been hidden away". The word took on the more negative meaning in the 16th century when the Protestants questioned the (until then) accepted canon of Scripture.

#13 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 19 February 2010 - 03:05 PM

I googled "deuterocanonical" along with "protoevangelium" and the only site that immediately came up describing the Protoevangelium of James as deuterocanonical was this thread. It seems that the word deuterocanonical universally refers to books of the Old Testament that were not included in the Protestant Bible, and that the Protoevangelium of James is universally classed as "apocrypha," as in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. Does anyone know of an Orthodox authority that does not do so?

I'm afraid some of us here might be claiming too much for the Protoevangelium — more than we can reasonably defend from within our own tradition. Many early saints regarded the Protoevangelium of James as spurious. The Church itself declined to include it in its canon of sacred scripture and only later began to borrow selections from it for largely liturgical purposes. As Orthodox Christians, we are not obliged to believe that everything in it is true. It certainly does not stand on the level of the Old and New Testaments. I think this quote from another Orthodox discussion site pretty much sums up what we should say about it:

"Is it Scripture? No. Is it infallible? No. Is it accurate in all its details? Probably not. Is it worthless? No. Does it preserve the earliest thoughts about the family life of Christ? Yes. Does it seem to be based on the early Church's traditions? Yes. Is it the earliest coherent source on the Theotokos? Yes."


In Christ, Dn. Patrick

#14 Olga

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Posted 19 February 2010 - 08:17 PM

Many early saints regarded the Protoevangelium of James as spurious.


Individual saints are not infallible, it is the Church as a whole which is the arbiter of which writings are accepted and which are not.

The Church itself declined to include it in its canon of sacred scripture and only later began to borrow selections from it for largely liturgical purposes.


Borrowing for "liturgical purposes" is hardly an afterthought or a minor matter. The liturgical and iconographic deposit is the core and essence of what the whole Church proclaims and espouses.

As Orthodox Christians, we are not obliged to believe that everything in it is true. It certainly does not stand on the level of the Old and New Testaments.


No-one here has claimed the Protoevangelion to be on the same level as the OT and NT. However, as I wrote before, this document has been accepted as safe and useful by the Church. Our liturgical and iconographic deposit would be the poorer without it.

#15 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 19 February 2010 - 09:53 PM

The liturgical and iconographic deposit is the core and essence of what the whole Church proclaims and espouses.


All parts of the Church's liturgical and iconographic deposit are not of equal value. The Church insists that Orthodox Christians believe some things; other things it leaves up to the believer. The Church insists that Orthodox Christian believe in the historicity of Christ's life as accounted in the Gospels; it does not insist that Orthodox Christians believe in the historicity of the Virgin Mary's life as accounted in the Protoevangelium of James. It does not do the latter because the events accounted in the Protoevangelium, however useful, are not essential to the Gospel.

No-one here has claimed the Protoevangelion to be on the same level as the OT and NT.


It was claimed here that the Protoevangelium was "deuterocanonical." I can't find an Orthodox authority that accords it that status, and doing so appears to be a misuse of the word, inasmuch as the word is broadly understood as referring only to certain Old Testament scriptures. Maybe the Orthodox differ on its usage, but so far I haven't seen that established by any authority.

However, as I wrote before, this document has been accepted as safe and useful by the Church. Our liturgical and iconographic deposit would be the poorer without it.


I agree, as long as we keep things in proper perspective.

In Christ, Dn. Patrick

#16 Herman Blaydoe

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Posted 19 February 2010 - 11:21 PM

The term deuterocanonical, as I understand it, specifically refers to the OT books like Maccabees that ARE considered part of Scripture but not generally read as part of liturgical worship. New Testament period writings that are not part of Scripture are not usually considered as part of the deuterocanonical books, so I do believe it is not technically correct to include the Protoevangelion as deuterocanonical. However, it is certainly the source of many of our teachings and certainly our prayers and hymnody concerning the Theotokos. If we believe as we pray and pray as we believe, I would be very reluctant to say that any formal prayers of the Church are "optional". As a cantor I am not going to tell my priest that I can't sing those particular stichts because I don't believe them and I would be a hypocrite if I did sing them and not believe them.

Are we saying it is OK to sing hymns we don't actually believe? That makes the very little brain of this particular pooh hurt very much!

Herman the cantor Pooh

#17 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 04:37 AM

If we believe as we pray and pray as we believe, I would be very reluctant to say that any formal prayers of the Church are "optional". As a cantor I am not going to tell my priest that I can't sing those particular stichts because I don't believe them and I would be a hypocrite if I did sing them and not believe them.


The issue is, what meaning, what truth do we assign to these particular parts of our worship. Do we understand them as expressing a historical truth or a spiritual truth? The safer answer is a spiritual truth.

In his four volume catechism of the Orthodox faith, Fr. Thomas Hopko mentions the so-called "apocryphal" books of the Old Testament as appropriately part of the "Orthodox Bible," but he does not mention of the Protoevangelium of James at all. In his volume on worship, about the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Hopko writes:

The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary's birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated by the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it "for us men and for our salvation" is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.



So you see, the point of our use of the Protoevangelium is the true and certain historicity of Christ's birth and upbringing, not the dubious circumstances of His mother's birth and upbringing.

In Christ, Dn. Patrick

#18 Ben Johnson

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 06:03 AM

Can anyone recommend a good English translation of the Protoevangelium of James? I have not had to opportunity yet to read it but would like to.

#19 Kusanagi

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 09:40 AM

http://www.earlychri...es-mrjames.html

#20 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 20 February 2010 - 09:47 AM

The term deuterocanonical, as I understand it, specifically refers to the OT books like Maccabees that ARE considered part of Scripture but not generally read as part of liturgical worship.


I thought that the term deuterocanonical was a Roman Catholic one.

I'm quite surprised to find it being used here. Am I right in thinking, then, that we are supposed to see several levels to the collection of books that make up the canon? I didn't expect this. To my simple mind there is the Holy Tradition, and some of this was documented by the Church in the early years, The Gospels with Acts, and The Apostolic Epistles becoming the New Testament by the middle 300s or so. At the same time there were quite a lot of heretical works being written and some of these were proscribed as pseudepigrapha (lit: false writing) since they were found not to be written by the purported author - very many of them being written with the intent of harming the Church.

As an almost completely separate process, the later Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Maccabees) were also being assembled into a canon, which together with the undisputed Pentateuch became the old testament. The various strands of quite how this came to be are complex as both Christian and Jewish authorities were at work in the same time period.

I'm asking for guidance here, not trying to state facts. I'm a newbie. I have to say that for me, many of the modern Orthodox writers are a darned-sight more accessible, Fr Schmemann, or Archimandrite Sophrony, for instance, but it would be good to get this issue straight in the head.

Love in Christ,
Richard.




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