The Protevangelium of James (AKA Gospel of James) is a particularly controversial apocrypha for anyone who knows anything about history or Catholicism. This is because a lot of Catholic doctrine hinges on this being taken as truth. This work whole-cloth makes up Mary's backstory. I am not even exaggerating a little. It was a propaganda piece written to exalt Mary after the accusation by Early-Christianity opponent, Celsus, that Jesus was not fathered by God, but by a roman soldier named Pantera, and it is the reason why the Catholic church has the doctrine of perpetual virginity.

Perpetual Virginity

The doctrine of perpetual virginity, for those who may not know, is the Catholic doctrine stating that Mary was always a virgin. Protestants tend to have a problem with this as-- though nobody is arguing the miraculous virgin nature of Jesus' birth-- the Bible outright lists his four younger brothers (and mentions his sisters, who aren't named or numbered) several times. Defenders of the doctrine have two routes they take with this that are (as far as i can tell) determined by what kind of Catholicism you're looking at.

The first route followed by the Roman Catholics is that there is no Aramaic word for "cousin" and that "brother" (or sister) was a broad term used in order to describe anyone in the family, thus Jesus' brothers were not actually brothers (despite everyone calling them his brothers), they were just cousins.

The second route followed by the Orthodox is the one that sprouts from the Protevangelium and other works written in the same period (but all notably after the Protevangelium was published) is that they are his half-siblings fathered by Joseph from a previous marriage.

A third but less-often used route is to claim that the words "brother" and "sister" were only being used metaphorically, but even the people who spout this know it's pretty weaksauce.

Historical Context

Celsus was a 2nd century Greek, Pagan, anti-Christian philosopher who, among other things, wrote a book denouncing Christianity called The True Word. We no longer have this book by itself, but we do have the majority of it saved by a guy named Origen.

Origen did not agree with Celsus. Origen thought Celsus was full of shit, and Origen felt so strongly about this that in his rebuttal to Celsus's text, he wrote down the entire thing (or at least a whole lot of it) and then basically did what the kids today called "sporked" it. He riffed it; he went paragraph by paragraph and annotated the text with why he thought Celsus was wrong in a work called Contra Celsum-- "Against Celsus." The reason scholars consider Origen to be a reliable source as to the contents of The True Word is because in order to properly refute the text, he'dve had to been as accurate as possible when relating it.

I tell you that because that is how we know this text ever existed.

For context: Psilanthropism was the idea held by some early Christians and late Jews (during that odd wibbly wobbly transitional period where Judaism and Chrisitanity hadn't entirely split and people still considered themselves Jewish, even as they believed in the teachings of Christ) that Jesus, wonderful though he was, was not divine. People went back on forth with this until 325 when the Nicene council put an end to that kind of talk, but that gives you an idea of the uncertainty the religion was going through in the second century; Celsus had an audience. Apparently Celsus's ideas were fairly popular, and someone evidently thought they were popular enough to be a threat.

In The True Word, Celsus claimed that the aforementioned Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera either raped or wooed Mary, and Jesus was the result. Historically speaking this guy did exist (or at least someone with the same name). However, while it's possible that he was in the same area as Mary at the time, it's not particularly likely and there aren't any records specifically showing him to be stationed there. It also doesn't help that his name was fairly common among the Roman soldiers.

Now, after all that kerfuffle, someone (we don't know who) got upset enough that they felt they had to defend Mary's good name. That's where the Protevangelium comes in (and also the Gospel of Peter, which was written around the same time and also claims Mary to have been a perpetual virgin, but not as much as the Protevangelium which is entirely dedicated to that cause).

The Text Itself

The Protevangelium was written around 150CE by someone claiming to be James the Just, brother of Christ, but whom scholars have agreed is not James and instead is a big fat phony. Reasons include the seeming lack of knowledge of Judaic tradition-- for instance a big thing is that they think Jewish temples had vestal virgins, which of course they did not as women were icky. No, really. Period blood was considered unclean as fuck and if a women were to live in the temple full time, they would have to fucking scour the place with all kinds of cleansing rituals on a monthly basis. She would unholy the temple, and nobody would stand for that. Another reason being that this is from the 2nd century while James died sometime between 62-69CE (it varies on whether or not you believe Josephus and Jerome or Clement and Eusebius.

This is also the first text that claims Joseph to have children from another marriage, that claims Joseph was an old man (rather than roughly the same age as Mary since the tradition at the time was for families engage them when they were both 12-13, wait a few years, then let them get married in their mid teens), and the first to claim pretty much anything about Mary's family save for the fact that she must be related to King David somehow (because part of Jesus claim to the throne was that he was a direct descendant of David). In fact there is a suspicious amount of "firsts" in this text.

Origen actually mentions this text, too. He doubted its legitimacy due to the fact that it popped up out of seemingly nowhere.

The Protevangelium contains:

--Mary and Joseph getting married when Mary is a little girl and Joseph is an old man with children from a past marriage (which is supposed to explain away why Jesus has siblings in the Bible).

---Mary's own miraculous birth and her subsequent consecration to the temple.

---Twelve year old Mary being visited by an angel (which she completely forgets happens when she's visited by that other, Biblically canonical angel).

--Joseph and other old holy men at the temple drawing straws to see who has to marry Mary.

--Jesus being born in a cave.

-- A flock of midwives being present at the birth who all confirm that Mary is still a virgin.

Despite the oddly convenient nature of this text, it became popular by those wishing to defend both Mary and the virgin birth, and was later established in Catholic doctrine, as well as becoming the backbone to Marian tradition. Marian tradition is basically a whole lot of books about or significantly featuring Mary as a key-- if not powerful-- character. These include:

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Original, 160 C.E.; Catholicized, 500-550 C.E.

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
Catholicized, 450-500 C.E.

Assumption of Mary
Original, 450 C.E.; Catholicized, 500 C.E.

History of Joseph
Original, 400-500 C.E.; Catholicized, 500-600 C.E.

Arabic Gospel of the Infancy
600-700 C.E.

Apocalypse of Mary
700-800 C.E.

I think what really bothers me about this text is the doctrine it produced. I completely understand wanting to defend Mary and the miraculous birth of Christ. But by denying the role of his siblings, the doctrine of perpetual virginity is single-handedly responsible for the lack of recognition for his brothers (and most likely sisters, though we have no record on them) and their significance in the early church. James the Just was the church leader, dangit! When Paul and Peter were arguing about whether or not to let gentiles into the club, James was the one who had the final word, and everybody shut up because James was the boss.

I'll just leave these here:

MATTHEW 13:54-56—And coming into his native town he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said: From where comes this man's wisdom and the powerful deeds? Is this man not the son of the carpenter? Is not his mother called Mary and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? and are not all his sisters with us?

MARK 6:3—Is not this man the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? and are not his sister here with us?

1 CORINTHIANS 9:5—Have we not authority to lead about a sister as a wife, as also the remaining apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

GALATIANS 1:18-19—The after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days; but I saw no other of the apostles, except James the brother of the Lord.


Contra Celsus by Origen
The Protevangelium by ????
Old School notes
The site that shall not be named.
The fucking Bible