What Are the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Story of Thomas?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

During the second through ninth centuries, a large body of Christian literature was produced that claimed (falsely) to be produced by apostles of Jesus or those close to the apostles. These works, rejected by the Church as authentic, came to be known as the New Testament Apocrypha.

One of the most interesting genres of the Apocrypha is the “infancy gospel.” Biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, describes two of the most studied “infancy gospels,” the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Story of Thomas.

The Protevangelium of James, better known in the ancient world by the more accurate title “The Birth of Mary,” is a second century work by a Gentile Christian author. Widely popular in ancient and medieval Christianity for its piety and literary beauty, it survives in many manuscripts in the original Greek and subsequent versions in eight different languages.

It tells the story of Mary the mother of Jesus: her parents Joachim and Anne, her miraculous (but not yet “immaculate”) conception and birth, her childhood upbringing in the temple, her betrothal by lot to the aging widower Joseph and her continuing virginity, and finally her bearing of Jesus. The Protevangelium of James uses the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, extending and supplementing them for its own purposes.

The main theme of this work is the praise of virginity, important in the rising ascetic and monastic movements in Christianity. Because it focuses on the Virgin Mary, using legendary embellishments to tell her story, and draws what it says about the birth of Jesus from the canonical Gospels and popular legend, it has little or no significance for our study of the historical Jesus (emphasis added).

What about the Infancy Story of Thomas?

The Infancy Story of Thomas originated in the late second century, and relates the miracles of the child Jesus between the ages of five and twelve as told by Jesus’ disciple Thomas. It exists today in a Greek original and five other language versions.

Not as literarily or theologically sophisticated as the Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Story of Thomas features a crude emphasis on miracles. Jesus possesses even as a boy an omniscience and omnipotence that the canonical Gospels do not attribute to the adult Jesus during his ministry.

The boy Jesus does some good with his miraculous power, but he often uses it cruelly, as for example when he kills another boy who knocked against his shoulder (4:12), causes those who accuse him to go blind (5:1), and even issues a veiled threat to Joseph when he disciplines him (5:2). The contents of this document are so oriented to later popular piety that they offer no glimpse into first-century traditions about Jesus (emphasis added).

As Van Voorst notes, although these works may give us insight into what some second century Christians were thinking about, they are virtually worthless for telling us anything about the historical Jesus. They were written far too long after Jesus and his disciples lived.

  • sean

    “They were written far too long after Jesus and his disciples lived.”

    I would agree that there exists a time-frame for which we, in part, lend credibility to the authenticity of accounts. I also understand that you cannot give a hard number of years before authenticity is not granted. But I do want to know what your thoughts are in terms of a time-frame for lending credibility to accounts. I’m not looking for exact years, just a (rough) rating of authenticity you’d give based on the gap between the event’s occurrence and the event’s transcription to paper.

  • I would re-frame the question. Oral history and tradition can accurately maintain historical truths for many generations, so it isn’t necessary for something to be written down to ensure historical accuracy.

    What is more important is whether the oral tradition, or the written record in question, can be traced back to eyewitnesses of the events.

    The problem with these infancy gospels is that they cannot trace their contents back to any reliable eyewitness testimony. Since they were written well into the second century, the eyewitnesses were obviously dead.

    So, in order for us to have confidence in them, we need to see that they are connected through a chain of transmission to oral traditions or written documents that were produced when the eyewitnesses were alive. These documents largely fail to meet this challenge.

  • darrellboan

    The Protoevangelium of James, while not accepted as Scripture in the Eastern Church, does provide an additional witness insight into the early life of the Theotokos. Some of the stories shared within it are also found in the Liturgical Life of the Church that has been preserved and handed down to us. Their meaning and theological depth is actually quite profound.

  • sean

    I think I understand. It’s less about a written time-frame per se, and more about accounting that points to eyewitnesses. That about right?