Saturday, October 3, 2015

How Should We Read the Apocrypha?

             The Golden Legend is the latest document we have read and de Voragine is the author least likely to have any special insight into the events of the Virgin’s life, but I submit that he provides the key to understanding the Protoevangelium and “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.” In recounting the birth of Mary, de Voragine describes how he has gathered the information. Some comes directly from the Gospels, such as the lineage of Joseph, whereas other bits are derived inferentially from scripture. He considers the Davidic descent of Mary to be definitive “because, as Scripture often testifies, Christ was born of the seed of David,” and Mary is Christ’s sole human parent (149). For much of the narrative, de Voragine does not make explicit his source material, but he is clearly piecing together information, drawing from authorities such as John Damascene and Jerome. He is attempting to draw as much information as he can out of the facts he has – he is not just repeating a story. He ultimately attempts to show how that information is meaningful and how it concords with other significant truths of faith. For example, he connects Mary’s lineage to 1 Peter and the ‘kingly priesthood.’
            While the authors of the Protoevangelium and “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” lived closer to the events of Mary’s life, they were not contemporaries or eyewitnesses. Much like de Voragine, they were people who were removed from the events in space and time but connected by some sort of tradition and a deep sense of the events’ significance. They depended on authorities much like de Voragine – the difference is that we have no access to their sources. Pseudo-Matthew begins with a (probably inauthentic) correspondence that shows the document’s context: “the birth of the Virgin Mary, and the nativity and infancy of our Lord Jesus Christ, we find in apocryphal books. But considering that in them many things contrary to our faith are written we judged that they all ought to be rejected” (91). The author understands there to be an authentic tradition in opposition to an inauthentic one, and the tradition judges the stories, not the other way around. Although the text was likely contrived by someone with minimal factual knowledge of the Virgin’s life, its central ideas and goals are aligned with a tradition. Rather than dismiss the Apocrypha for what seems fantastic about it, we should focus on the authors’ coherent claims and their significance.
            Pseudo-Matthew’s primary goal is to make clear who Christ is. The term may be slightly anachronistic, but I think he is trying to illuminate the incarnation. In the text, the Child Jesus poses the problem: “How much better are the beasts than you, seeing that they recognize their Lord and glorify him; while you men, who have been made in the image and likeness of God, do not know him! Beasts know me and are tame; men see me and do not acknowledge me” (97). Man has not recognized his savior, and Pseudo-Matthew is attempting to fix that. He shows the child Jesus to have healing power because “he is the Saviour of the world and of all that hope in him” (94).” When Mary and Joseph fear for Christ’s safety from dragons, he says,  “do not consider me to be a child, for I am and always have been perfect” (95). The point of the story is not the actual encounter with the dragons as an event of particular significance. The dragons connect Christ to Old Testament prophecy, reveal him to be lord through their obedience, and give him the opportunity to explain his nature. While the Gospels convey information about Jesus through his preaching and adult ministry, Pseudo-Matthew turns to his infancy to show Christ’s identity.
            The Protoevangelium has no introduction to make its goals explicit, but the text seems to, like Pseudo-Matthew, focus on fighting heresy. It has a lot to say about who Christ is and who the Virgin is, as we discussed in class and as some peers have already commented on in their blog posts. The aspect I found particularly interesting and noteworthy was the extended emphasis on Mary’s virginity. Again and again the author seemed to go out of his way to defend and justify it, suggesting that was one of the goals of the text. This was especially obvious in the explanation of Joseph’s prior marriage and in the story of Salome physically confirming Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ. I have sometimes heard people ask what difference it really makes whether Mary was a virgin. Clearly it made a great deal of difference to early Christians.
            Professor Fulton Brown made it very clear on Thursday that our goal is not to discover the historical Mary. By trying to show that the Protoevangelium and “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” are more than just invented stories, I am not trying to break that rule. Instead, I am trying to break through modern prejudices and the conceit that we are smarter than the people writing and receiving the apocryphal texts. It seems that they had some idea what they were doing, that they were trying to convey specific claims which were in line with some sort of tradition, and that to discount those claims because of the unbelievable aspects of the stories (or confirmed historical errors, such as the description of Simeon as High Priest) is to miss the point entirely. Taking the texts seriously, then, I am left with a few questions I will be keeping in mind as the course goes on. First, what is the significance of Mary’s virginity after giving birth? I understand the analogy to the temple, but what about that is so powerful that early Christians put emphasis on a question that seems very peripheral to the story of Christ. Second, why is Christ’s infancy a lens on who he is as the incarnation? Where did interest in his human origins come from?



  1. We might indeed see the whole of our class, or at least a very large chunk of it, as grappling with how people have done precisely what you describe Jacobus, ps. James, and ps. Matthew as doing: drawing from a scattered tradition in order to "show how that information is meaningful and how it concords with other significant truths of faith" with Mary as the linchpin of that effort. The idea of Mary as linchpin in turn, I think, speaks to some of the questions you raise at the end of your post. Mary is the connection between Christ and humanity, the means by which human and divine were joined. Her role, Christ's human origins, is thus vital to understanding who Christ is in the first place, and since Christianity itself turns on the question of Christ, it is vital for those attempting to make sense of the faith. The focus on infancy also points to this, Christ in the Gospels can strike us as imposing and mysterious, but what's more human than a child? What can speak more of Christ's connection to humanity, and thus to us than how he was at his weakest and most new and how his mother links him to us?

  2. Exactly! We are trying to make sense of the tradition in its own terms: why do the authors of our ancient texts give the details that they do about Mary and her Son? This is very much what I hope we are able to do in our discussions this quarter! RLFB