The Effects of the Infancy Gospel of James on the Interpretation of St. Joseph in Christian Literature and Art, Part I

As we acknowledged in the first three lectures, the beginnings of many modern perceptions of Joseph can be traced to ideas born outside the Bible to a second century Christian narrative created several decades after the earliest Christian Gospels to the so called Infancy Gospel of James also known as a Protoevangelium of James.  A page from a fourth century manuscript of this text known as a Bodmer papyrus is featured here created in part as a defense against attacks upon the character of Mary.  The infancy gospel of James was one of the most significant response is created by early Christian writers and theologians to these attacks mounted by those who questioned the credibility of the Christian claims that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin named Mary and was the Son of God.

The aim of these attacks was to counter both claims as a result these writers appear to assault to accomplish two goals: to demean the character of the mother of Jesus and subsequently to dismiss the prospect that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God.  Serious in character evidence of the attacks can be found in the apologetic literature of anti-Christian writers.  The scholar Raymond Brown summarizes these attacks in a reconstruction he created based upon the writings of the late 2nd century pagan philosopher, Celsus, who participated in these attacks upon the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary. Brown writes it was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin in fact however this mother was a poor country woman, who had earned her living by spinning.  She had been driven out by her carpenter husband when she was convicted of adultery with the soldier named Panthera.  She then wandered about and secretly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, Jesus hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical powers.  Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God.

From a Christian perspective, this characterization consisted of false accusations and fanciful fiction. Thus, not surprisingly, Christian writers responded to these attacks in a variety of ways one of the most notable is found in this later narrative of the Infancy Gospel of James.  However, from the perspective of most scholars, there are at least three major differences between the infancy gospel of James and the earlier Christian Gospels.

First, the Infancy Gospel of James claims to be authored by James, the brother of Jesus, an impossible claim in light of the narrative’s later second century date. Second, this gospel of James has a very different focus from earlier Christian texts for its primary focus is upon the life, virtue, and virginity of Mary.  Third, this narrative also claims to present many new facts and details about the lives of Joseph and Mary.  Proof of this can be found by the numerous times these new facts and details are incorporated and represented in both artistic compositions that focus upon Mary’s childhood and youth, and in images of her marriage or association with Joseph.  As a result, the details of Mary’s birth can be found in numerous artistic positions.

This is certainly the case in this first painting, a creation of the Florentine master Giotto.  This late 15th century portrayal is part of his series on the life of the Virgin found in the Scrovegni Chapel. 

It is also the case in this next portrayal of the birth of the Virgin Mary, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in the mid 14th century. In turn, the subject of Mary’s entrance into the temple in Israel can be seen in a second painting also part of Giotto’s series of the Life of the Virgin. It includes images of both Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, who have accompanied her on this momentous occasion.

Likewise, Mary’s entrance to the temple is also vividly and beautifully portrayed by the 16th century artist, Titian.  Created by the Venetian master, it features the child Mary boldly ascending the stairs to the temple by herself without the aid of those who are observing her thus it leaves the viewer with the impression that this young child is to become a person of amazing greatness.

Further evidence of the influence of the Infancy Gospel of James and its effect on the perception that Joseph was considerably older than Mary is also seen in many paintings and images that recount the spiritual marriage of Joseph and Mary at the beginning of Mary’s relationship with Joseph. 

One example is found in the work of the late 15th century German artist, The Master of the Life of the Virgin.  Here, the painter, a part of the school of Cologne, draws a clear distinction between the age of Mary and Joseph.

Another example is found in the wood engraving of the married of the Virgin created by the German painter and print maker, Albert Durer. Created around 1504 it also conveys as the prior piece the significant difference in age between Joseph and Mary.  A very popular image, it is one of 17 woodcuts created by Durer for a series on the Life of the Virgin.  Each of these six images which are representative of innumerable similar compositions, indicate the influence exerted by the narrative of the Infancy Gospel of James, and its numerous literary errors they substantiate that while all of the new facts and details that the author of James provides make for a much larger portrait of Mary and a much smaller portrait of Joseph. 

That these representations stand in sharp contrast to the portrayals of Joseph and Mary in the canonical Gospels and are in reality virtual reinventions of Joseph and Mary further the attention the author of the Infancy gospel of James gave Mary in contrast to Joseph.  The way in which he offered praise in veneration to Mary and the dramatic spiritual and even physical division he drew between Joseph and Mary in his narrative largely muted and negated the earlier portraits of Joseph found in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, and unfortunately, it was this new and more illustrious to portrait of Joseph in the Infancy Gospel of James that informed and inspired many of the later artistic, literary, theatrical, liturgical, and theological portrayals of the earthly father of Jesus and the husband of Mary.

This is evident among other places in the first words readers encounter about Joseph in the Infancy Gospel of James where they are told that Joseph has been married, is a widower, has sons, and is an old man by the time he first meets Mary.  Further, the readers also learned that Joseph has been chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord into his care and protection and has only reluctantly agreed to take her as a result of a sense of spiritual obligation and fear.  Thus by implication, and by the clarification of the high priests, and the narrator, it has suggested that Joseph has no real personal or romantic interest in Mary, and for this reason will not become her husband in a traditional way. These first details about Joseph place him in sharp juxtaposition to what the readers are told about Mary that she is also unmarried, is a very young woman, and a very special person, a virgin of the Lord. Similarly, the detail that Joseph’s primary responsibility is to take the Virgin of the Lord and to his care and protection further distinguishes him from the Virgin, illuminates his character, and suggests roles and actions, he will take with respect to Mary in the forthcoming child.  Thus early on the readers of James learn that the Joseph of this narrative is not the younger Joseph of the early Christian Gospels, rather he is a very elderly man who in his lifetime has fathered several children, all of whom were older than Mary, with a woman with whom he was married for decades, subsequently having had years of a conjugal relationship with another woman, and familial relationships with her and the children they created. He appears as a strikingly different figure from the Joseph of the earliest Gospels.

At the same time, James, story about Joseph’s relationship with the wife of his children stands in sharp contrast with the way the narrator of the Infancy Gospel of James portrays Joseph’s relationship with Mary according to the snare they do not unite with the express name of becoming a couple or establishing Joseph’s role as the father and protector of Jesus. Instead in James, Joseph enters into relationship with Mary so that he may protect her purity and physical virginity indeed their union in the narrative of the gospel of James. It’s largely functional rather than relational and familial, that is for the purpose of Mary’s protection and in the process the protection of her child. A child that is not in any way recognized as in the earliest Gospels as a child Mary shared with Joseph; it is also a union as the writer of James repeatedly demonstrates that does not require significant contact between Joseph and Mary. Thus, they are found apart as much as they are found together, and it is repeatedly suggested that there is little indication that Mary needs Joseph beyond his role as a witness to her purity and virginity.

Consequently, the substantial effect of the narrative of the Infancy Gospel of James upon the image and perception of Joseph must be acknowledged, for it significantly changes in alters Joseph’s canonical portrayal as particular details found in the narrative suggests these include, once again, among others, new information about Joseph’s age that he was a very old man who felt embarrassed to be associated with such a young girl, and his marital and familial history that he had been previously married had lost his wife to death and already had two sons. They also include new information about the history of Joseph’s relationship with Mary that he had known her since she was 12 and had taken her from the temple and been responsible for her care and protection, and was her caretaker and guardian, not her husband. They also indicate that from the perspective of this narrator Joseph’s primary roles with respect to Mary and the child are those of caretaker, protector, and witness as was highlighted at the time of Joseph reception of Mary. At those times Joseph’s presence, observation, and response confirmed Mary’s key characteristics especially her purity and virginity.

Thus, the narrator of the infancy gospel of James distinguishes his portrayal of Joseph from Joseph’s representations in the canonical Gospels by among other things drawing very significant distinctions between Joseph and Mary this is ultimately demonstrated by the fact that the outline organization, and content of the Infancy Gospel of James with its heavy emphasis on the birth and childhood of Mary and her virginity and purity, suggests that the primary concern of the narrator is to offer veneration to Mary. Thus, he is not very concerned with the character of Joseph and seeks to ensure that Joseph’s presence, which they know is necessary and his role, which has kept subsidiary in most scenes, in the narrative do nothing to detract from Mary or to diminish his portrait of her as a holy, pure, and virginal individual.  Consequently, the kind contrast between the portrayal of Joseph in the earliest Gospels and that found in the Infancy Gospel of James is striking.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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