Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha

The birth of Jesus in the apocryphal gospels

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
naples-presepio-rome

The presepio (nativity scene) is a centuries-old craft and one of Naples’s best-known traditions. This Neapolitan presepio was displayed in Rome. Photo: Howard Hudson / Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most familiar images of the Christmas season is the nativity scene—the well-known depiction of Jesus’ birth—displayed in an array of public and private settings, including churches, parks, store windows and on fireplace mantles. The scene, first assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, is iconographic, meaning its various elements are intended primarily to depict theological—not historical, nor even literary—truths. It harmonizes two very distinct stories: Luke’s birth of Jesus in a stable, visited by shepherds, and attended by an angelic host and Matthew’s Magi, who are led by a star to the home of Jesus’ family sometime before Jesus’ second birthday.

To most people viewing the nativity scene, it depicts the birth of Jesus as it happened, with farm animals, shepherds, angels and Magi crowding the Bethlehem stable. But the combination is apocryphal, in the wide sense that the complete scene is not an accurate reflection of what the Biblical texts say about Jesus’ birth and in the narrow sense that such harmonization of Matthew and Luke is a common feature of noncanonical Christian infancy gospels. Actually, these gospels not only combine the Biblical stories, they enhance them, with additional traditions about the birth of Jesus that circulated in antiquity. Of course most Christians throughout history were unaware of this distinction; before widespread literacy, Christians told the story of Jesus’ birth without awareness of which elements were based on Scripture and which were not.

The Christian Apocrypha are rich with tales of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and most well-known of these are the stories found in the Protevangelium (or “Proto-Gospel”) of James. Composed in the late second century, this text combines the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke with other traditions, including stories of the Virgin Mary’s own birth and upbringing. The Protevangelium was exceptionally popular—hundreds of manuscripts of the text exist today in a variety of languages, and it has profoundly influenced Christian liturgy and teachings about Mary. The Protevangelium was transmitted in the West as part of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which added to it tales of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt and, in some manuscripts, stories of Jesus’ childhood taken from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Other Pseudo-Matthew manuscripts incorporate a different telling of Jesus’ birth from an otherwise lost gospel that scholars call the Book about the Birth of the Savior. In the East, the Protevangelium was translated into Syriac and expanded with a different set of stories set in Egypt to form the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was later translated into Arabic as the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Another Syriac reworking of the Protevangelium lies behind the Armenian Infancy Gospel. Christians in the East also expanded on Matthew’s Magi traditions creating the Revelation of the Magi, the Legend of Aphroditianus, and On the Star (erroneously attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea), each of which in their own way narrates how the Magi became aware that the star heralded the birth of a king.
 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
maesta-duccio

This small tripartite painting, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, is part of a massive altarpiece known as the Maestà. Composed of many individual paintings, the Maestà was commissioned by the Italian city of Siena in 1308 from the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. It contains elements of the birth of Jesus from Christian Apocrypha, including the cave, the ox, the ass and the midwife. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

If readers of these apocryphal texts could see the modern nativity scenes, they would be surprised to find the baby Jesus in a stable: In the infancy gospels, the birth takes place in a cave outside of Bethlehem, the same location given also by Justin Martyr (in his Dialogue with Trypho 78), who died around 165 C.E. They might have expected also to see a midwife in the scene; indeed, she does appear regularly in Eastern Orthodox depictions of the nativity, helping Mary bathe the newborn. As the Protevangelium tells it, Joseph left Mary in the cave and went into Bethlehem to find a midwife. But as Joseph and the midwife approached the cave, they saw a bright cloud overshadowing it. The cloud then disappeared into the cave and a great light appeared, which withdrew and revealed the baby Jesus. Each of the later expansions of the Protevangelium narrate this scene in their own unique way, but they all endeavor to show that Jesus was not born in a natural manner, thus allowing Mary to remain physically a virgin after the birth. So superhuman is Jesus that some texts report that he could be perceived in multiple forms. The Armenian Infancy Gospel, for example, reports that the Magi each saw him in a different way: as the Son of God on a throne, as the Son of Man surrounded by armies, and as a man tortured, dead and resurrected.

The apocryphal accounts agree with Luke that the shepherds visited the Holy Family shortly after Jesus’ birth. In the Western texts, the family then moves from the cave to a stable and places the baby in a manger. There an ox and an ass bend their knees and worship him, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows it owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” (see Pseudo-Matthew 14 and Birth of the Savior 86). Though an apocryphal embellishment, the animals became a common ingredient in subsequent depictions of the nativity and may be observable in nativity scenes today.
 


 
Tony Burke challenges the assertion that Christian apocrypha were truly rejected, suppressed and destroyed throughout Christian history. Read more >>
 

 
Most often, the cave remains the scene of subsequent events, including the circumcision (from Luke 2:21) and the visit of the Magi. The Magi are typically depicted in art and iconography as three richly-adorned Persian kings. However, Matthew calls them only “magi from the East” (Matthew 2:1) and does not say how many there were. The writers of the apocryphal texts did their best to clarify these matters. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are at least twelve Magi—the same number is given in other Syriac traditions—and they came to Bethlehem in April (not December) from a land in the Far East called “Shir,” perhaps meant to be understood as China. The Armenian Infancy Gospel says there were three kings, and they were accompanied by 12 commanders, each with an army of 1,000 men, which would make for a very crowded stable indeed. Many of the texts continue the story of the Magi and tell what happened when they returned to their home country: In the Life of the Blessed Virgin (=Arabic Infancy Gospel) they bring back one of Jesus’ swaddling bands, which they worship because it has miraculous properties; in the Revelation of the Magi they share the vision-inducing food (some kind of magic mushrooms?) given to them by the star; and in the Legend of Aphroditianus they return with a painting of Jesus and his mother. None of these apocryphal Magi traditions are featured in nativity scenes today, but some of them influenced medieval art and literature.

Christians of all times and places have delighted in the story of Jesus’ birth, so much that they have yearned to learn more about the first Christmas than is found in the Biblical accounts. The Christmas nativity scene is the outcome of efforts by creative and pious writers to fill in blanks left by Matthew and Luke and to combine multiple traditions, Biblical and non-Biblical, into one enduring image. The nativity scene is a timeless representation of when God became man; it is also a testament to human imagination and the art of storytelling.


This Bible History Daily article was originally published on December 10, 2014.
 


 
The BAS DVD Animating Christian Apocrypha is an exploration of the Gospel accounts that did not make it into the New Testament. Join Prof. Mark Goodacre as he thoroughly and carefully examines their historicity for a better understanding of Jesus and his contemporaries. Learn more >>
 

 
tony-burkeTony Burke is an associate professor in the Department of the Humanities at York University and the author of Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (London: SPCK, 2013). Burke’s research interests include the study of Christian biographical literature of the second century (infancy gospels), children and the family in Roman antiquity, curses and non-canonical Jewish and Christian writings. Follow his work at www.tonyburke.ca.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible: Lawrence Mykytiuk’s full article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes

How December 25 Became Christmas: Andrew McGowan’s full article from the December 2002 issue of Bible Review

Witnessing the Divine: The magi in art and literature: Robin M. Jensen’s full article from the December 2001 issue of Bible Review.

Where Was Jesus Born?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

Has the Childhood Home of Jesus Been Found?
 


 

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  1. Nate says

    The apocryphal accounts though disagree with Luke (and Micah) on the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and where Jesus was born. Luke 2:6 says, “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.” While they were where? This verse points back to verses 3 and 4, denoting that Joseph and Mary were already at the house of David with their families. The word “inn” in Greek means guest chambers (homes), and does not denote a hotel/brothel. They were at the ancestral home of David to be assessed, and Mary had to leave because of what Leviticus 12:2-4 and 15:20-23 say. A woman giving birth is unclean, and wherever/whomever she touches is unclean. To prevent the house of David from being unclean, she left the guest chambers.

    Micah 4:8 and 5:2 tell us the place where the Messiah will be revealed. Micah 4:8 says it will be the Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock), and connected with 5:2, which says in Bethlehem-Ephrathah. So it wasn’t some obscure “cave”, it was the Tower of the Flock in Bethlehem-Ephrathah where David tended his father’s sheep, and where (after the Temple was built) the sacrificial lambs/goats were born and raised. So Christ was born where the sacrificial lambs/goats were born, and he was inspected by Levitical shepherds. In fact, the angel that spoke to the shepherds in Luke 2:11 and said, “…in the city of David there has been born for you a savior, Christ the Lord.” We have this tranlsated from Greek, but the angel would have spoken Hebrew to the shepherds. The literal name given was, Yeshua (savior, and the Hebrew name of Jesus) HaMassiach (Messiah) Yahweh (LORD). So it should be translated and read as, “…in the city of David there has been born for you Jesus, the Messiah of Yahweh.”

    Let’s also not forget that these apocryphal stories were told and written by those trying to prove that Jesus wasn’t completely human during the Arian controversies, and had a secret message as taught by the Gnostics. Though there may be some early oral traditions of the church, there is also numerous misinformation about the events written to fit the theology of the Arians and Gnostics, and contradictory to what the Apostles themselves taught and spoke.

    A lot of “tradition” about the birth of Christ comes through apocryphal writing, but at the neglect of understanding what the Old Testament (Isaiah, Micah, and others) combined with the Gospel of Luke paints for us, and tells us (as seen above). We should seek to understand the story given in the Scriptures first (as a whole), and use other writings to understand what was being said/believed in other areas of the world. The Gospel of Luke is the most complete account from resources and witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), and it may be that Luke spoke and heard the account surrounding the birth of Christ from Mary. It is a powerful story that when we understand it to the culture of the time, with the Laws that were followed in that day, we shall see the fulfillment of Messiah coming to mankind in the birth of a child (Isaiah 9:6-7).

  2. Kurt says

    How Are the Apocryphal Writings Different?
    The apocryphal writings are quite different from the canonical writings. These apocryphal books date from about the middle of the second century, much later than the canonical writings. They paint a picture of Jesus and Christianity that is not in harmony with the inspired Scriptures.
    For example, the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas ascribes a number of strange utterances to Jesus, such as saying that he would transform Mary into a male to make it possible for her to enter into the Kingdom of heaven. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas describes young Jesus as a mean-spirited child who deliberately caused another child’s death. The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Acts of Peter emphasize complete abstinence from sexual relations and even depict the apostles as urging women to separate from their husbands. The Gospel of Judas depicts Jesus as laughing at his disciples for praying to God in connection with a meal. Such notions are at odds with what is found in the canonical books.—Mark 14:22; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5; Galatians 3:28; Hebrews 7:26.
    Many of the apocryphal writings reflect beliefs of the Gnostics, who held that the Creator, Jehovah, is not a good God. They also believed that the resurrection is not literal, that all physical matter is evil, and that Satan was the source of marriage and procreation.
    A number of the apocryphal books are attributed to Bible characters but falsely so. Did some dark conspiracy exclude these books from the Bible? One expert on the apocrypha, M. R. James, said: “There is no question of any one’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.”
    Bible Writers Warned About an Apostasy to Come
    In the canonical writings, we find a number of warnings about an imminent apostasy that would corrupt the Christian congregation. In fact, this apostasy had already started in the first century, but the apostles restrained its spread. (Acts 20:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 6, 7; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:18, 19; 4:1-3) Such warnings shed light on writings that began to crop up after the death of the apostles, writings that contradicted Jesus’ teachings.
    Granted, such documents may appear old and venerable to some scholars and historians. But consider: What if scholars were to collect a pile of dubious writings printed today, perhaps gleaning them from gossip magazines and the publications of radical religious cults, and then were to seal the papers in a vault? Would the passage of time render those writings truthful and reliable? After 1,700 years, would the lies and nonsense in those papers become true simply because the documents were very old?
    Of course not! It is similar with claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and other outlandish statements from the apocryphal books. Why trust such unreliable sources, especially when reliable ones are at hand? Everything that God wants us to know about his Son is right there in the Bible—a record we can count on.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200270408

  3. Paul says

    I’d like to thank the author of this article for making reference to the “Revelation of the Magi,” and for having the guts to suggest the Magi possessed a magic mushroom in this alternative gospel. The word “mag” in Hebrew is derived from the Assyrian word for soothsayer or diviner and as commentator Nate noted this is an example of how the gospel was interpreted in eastern cultures. The same with “The Protoevangelium of James” which may have been influenced by gnosticism from Mesopotamia with its light vs.darkness dualism such as we find in the gospel of John 1:5; “The light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it.” The savior is the light in the dark cave, a theme also expressed in Isaiah 9:2 with the birth of Immanuel (with us is the divine). The context here as in the gospels is the darkness symbolizing the northern tribes being under the domination of a foreign power, hence Jesus’ association with “Galilee of the (Gentile) Nations” (Isaiah 8:23).
    Nate also pointed out that Jesus was a “Messiah of Yahweh” and the child in Isaiah 9:5 appears to have been given epithets modeled after battle standards aligned with the four “corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12): Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Divinity, Dwelling Perpetually, and Prince of Peace. This is not unlike the division of the camps of the twelve tribes in Numbers 2 aligned with the four cardinal points.Thus the tetragrammaton YHVH is referred to as Lord of Hosts, or “Yahweh Zeboath,” which is the name the Gnostics use in reference to the ignorant creator-god, Yaltaboath, having stole power from his mother, Sophia or “Wisdom,” who was a Hellenized Egyptian version of Wisdom in creation from Proverbs 8:22-31).As disgusting as this may sound to some people, I can’t help see in this convoluted myth some similarity to the origins of Egyptian civilization when the unification of upper and lower Egypt began with King Narmer who is depicted on a ceremonial palette (used for grinding up cosmetics) in carvings celebrating his victories accompanied by his royal retinue and four standard-bearers, and above these scenes are two representations of the ancient cow-goddess Hathor.
    “This is the first archon who took a great power from his mother. And he removed himself from her and moved way from the places in which he was born” (The Apocryphon of John 11:20).

  4. Paul says

    The existence of The Apocryphon of John was known to the 2nd century heresy expert Irenaeus, but it wasn’t until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library that we have access to this and other gnostic writings that expound Sethian beliefs. It is thought that the son of Adam, Seth, represented a divine mortal prior to the belief in the resurrected Jesus. Josephus gives us some insight about Seth and his progeny (Antiquities 2:69):
    “All these proved to be of good dispositions. They also inhabited the same country without dissensions, and in a happy condition, without any misfortunes falling upon them til they died. They were also the inventors of that peculiar sort of wisdom which is concerned with the heavenly bodies, and their order.”
    On the Wikipage for “Nubia” it mentions that the Nile region south of Aswan was called “Ta-Seti,” or “Land of the Bow.” The first cataract at Aswan became the border between Egypt and Ta-Seti, also referred to as Cush, as it is written; “Cush became the father of Nimrod (Narmer). He made the start in becoming a mighty one in the earth” (Genesis 10:8):
    http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-places/researchers-find-earliest-depiction-of-egyptian-pharaoh/
    At the second cataract are the temples of Abu Simbel, built by Rameses II and this portion of the Nile to the third cataract was rich in gold deposits. To the west of Abu Simbel is an ancient lake bed at Nabta Playa where in prehistoric times (ca.5000 B.C.E.) megalithic stone circles were used to to determine the arrival of the summer solstice and the arrival of rainfall for the nomadic cattle-herders who also used grinding stones to process wild grains. This was a thriving culture that prior to 4000 B.C.E. extended into the Sahara and in the area where the borders of Egypt, Libya and Sudan meet there a remote plateau known as Gilf Kebar that is rich in prehistoric rock art. Scenes depicting herds of cattle are contemporaneous with the culture at Nabta Playa and it is thought that the cow-goddess Hathor originates with these semi-nomads prior to the development of the Nilotic cultures.
    It is also debated where the Pharaoh tradition originated since we have evidence from a royal pre-dynastic cemetery at Qustul found on the carvings of an incense burner that people known as the A-Group possessed the same symbols (white crown of Osiris, Horus-falcon-god, stylized palace facade) as the later early dynastic Pharaohs. The five descendants of Cush in Genesis 10:7 could represent the five-fold title of the Pharaoah, and the fifth son, Sabteca, was the brother and successor of the Nubian King Shabaka, who reportedly discovered an ancient inscription and copied it. Known as the Shabaka Stone, this mythology of the Memphite god Ptah is a description of the ancient division of Egypt into spheres of influence between the gods Seth and Horus. Ever since then, northern Egypt was represented as a papyrus plant and southern Egypt was represented by the water lily, or the Blue Lotus. Originally the title for “king” in Egyptian was “nesu” and the title “nsw,t” (king of upper Egypt) contained a hieroglyphic representation of a sedge-plant that was pronounced “sw.”
    Like the Byzantine Empire that succeeded in eradicating any writings deemed heretical, the Egyptian Empire would produce its own version of prehistory, like the exaggerated account of Rameses II within the temple at Abu Simbel concerning his single-handed victory over the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh, which proved to be erroneous when compared to the Hittite historical account. In “Egypt Before the Pharaoahs,” Michael Hoffman writes (p.239):
    “Unlike the Hittites, the despised desert dwellers did not write down accounts of their encounters with their Nilotic neighbors. If they had, then surely the history of northern Africa might be quite different. If the pen is mightier than the sword, it is also far mightier than silence.”

  5. Paul says

    “Pretty music I hear
    So happy and loud
    Blue flower echo from a cherry cloud”
    “Strawberry Letter 23,” written by Shuggie Otis and performed by The Brothers Johnson

  6. Del says

    It might be good to note these fictional stories were the foundation for 2,000 years of anti-semitism and killing of Jews,and are not just innocent ,creative lies.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. 5 W Questions for the Story of "The Birth of Jesus" From Luke Two | When is Jesus Coming Back? linked to this post on January 24, 2015

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