Our first stretch of text will be the initial 4 chapters of the PJ, covering the introduction of Mary’s barren parents to the conception of Mary.
“The Protoevangelium of James.
The Birth of Mary the Holy Mother of God,
and Very Glorious Mother of Jesus Christ.
In the records of the Twelve Tribes of Israel was Joachim, a man rich exceedingly; and he brought his offerings double, saying: There shall be of my superabundance to all the people, and there shall be the offering for my forgiveness to the Lord for a propitiation for me. For the great day of the Lord was at hand, and the sons of Israel were bringing their offerings. And there stood over against him Rubim, saying: It is not meet for thee first to bring thine offerings, because thou hast not made seed in Israel. And Joachim was exceedingly grieved, and went away to the registers of the twelve tribes of the people, saying: I shall see the registers of the twelve tribes of Israel, as to whether I alone have not made seed in Israel. And he searched, and found that all the righteous had raised up seed in Israel. And he called to mind the patriach Abraham, that in the last day God gave him a son Isaac. And Joachim was exceedingly grieved, and did not come into the presence of his wife; but he retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying in himself: I will not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God shall look upon me, and prayer shall be my food and drink.”
Our first difficulty is with the title. The text above is from Roberts-Donaldson, and seems to indicate that the text is a late one. The kind of language about Mary is not to be found in the NT, but in later literature and hymns. Yet the Greek text actually reads Γένεσις Μαρίας. Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰακώβ, which means “The Birth of Mary. The Apocalypse of Jacob.” This should not be confused with the other two texts with the title Apocalypse of James. The translations by James and Matthews there is no title given. It is a strange translation that Roberts-Donaldson impose on the text, and it appears that it should be discarded as stemming from later manuscripts, if reflected in the Greek at all.
The other aspect of the title that is worth noting is that the author (or a later scribe) casts the text in terms of a “genesis” and “apocalypse.” Yet the text is today cast as a “Protoevangelium” or a “pre-Gospel.” This confusion of genres deceives the reader into thinking that they are reading a “gospel” when they are reading an apocalypse (a revealing). It is like reading the Apocalypse of John as gospel text, something that is against the wishes of the author and/or early interpreters and purveyors of the text. So the modern reader should keep in mind, despite of the misleading modern title, that they are reading an apocalypse that the author thanks God for giving him the grace to write this “history.” This mention of a “history” serves as an inclusion, or bookends, in the text. The title introduces the text as an apocalypse, and then the story itself begins with the “histories” of the twelve tribes being consulted. The story ends with the author thanking God for the wisdom to write a “history.” So while the text is a “revealing” or “revelation,” it is also a genesis and a history. The meaning of “history” in this context is not to be confused with our modern notions of history, but an origin story. This is confirmed by the records of the righteous in Israel dealing with lineage rather than actions writ large. The history deals with procreation, the main focus of Genesis and the meaning of the word “genesis.”
The upshot of this is that the text should be read as a prophetic revelation, dealing with the “beginning” of Mary and then of Jesus. It is a historical text in that it relates the history of these events, but in the genre of a revealed wisdom text.
The book starts in a somewhat similar manner to the Epistle of James:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.”
On the other hand, the twelve tribes (found only 5 times in the NT) is the only point of commonality. PJ does not address the twelve tribes per se, but mentions that Joachim was “in the records” (Ἐν ταῖς ἱστορίαις) of the tribes. The common feature of the twelve tribes in the opening of both documents attributed to James seems to be a small coincidence, but suggestive nonetheless. It seems too subtle for a forger, and too rare to be entirely coincidental. The twelve tribes are mentioned 3 times in chapter 1 and once in chapter 6.
We should also note that the setting of the story begins with the Temple, and the theme of the Temple runs throughout the entire text. All of the righteous in Israel had raised up seed, and Joachim’s guilt is obvious since he has produced no children. But Joachim still has faith that he can be redeemed, since he remembers the example of Abraham.
The name of “Reuben” is significant in this context. The name is rendered “Reubim” by Roberts-Donaldson, but the Greek is actually Ῥουβὴλ, a spelling variant for “Reuben” the Patriarch. While the LXX and NT do not have this variation, the Greek text of Deuteronomy 29:7 in Codex Sinaiticus has this spelling, as does Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews in Book 5, sections 3 and 100, as well as in Book 1 section 307. This indicates that the translation should be “Reuben” since this would have been understood by the reader in the 1st century.
But who was Reuben? Just before the 12 sons of Israel are listed in Genesis 35 we read a story about Reuben. He has already been mentioned in Genesis as the firstborn son of Israel, and his mother was Leah. He sleeps with his father’s concubine, an offense worthy of death and quite shameful. This concubine (Bilhah) was the mother of the Patriarchs Dan and Napthali. Reuben literally had sex with the mother of his brothers and the “woman” of Israel. To add injury to insult, this changes Bilhah from a woman who bears Israel sons to a woman whom Israel will not sleep with.
This is detailed in the expansion of the Genesis narrative found in the Book of Jubilees. The account takes up the majority of chapter 33.
“1 And Jacob went and dwelt to the south of Magdaladra’ef. And he went to his father Isaac, he 2 and Leah his wife, on the new moon of the tenth month. And Reuben saw Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, 3 the concubine of his father, bathing in water in a secret place, and he loved her. And he hid himself at night, and he entered the house of Bilhah [at night], and he found her sleeping alone on a bed in 4 her house. And he lay with her, and she awoke and saw, and behold Reuben was lying with her in the bed, and she uncovered the border of her covering and seized him, and cried out, and discovered 5 that it was Reuben. And she was ashamed because of him, and released her hand from him, and he 6,7 fled. And she lamented because of this thing exceedingly, and did not tell it to any one. And when Jacob returned and sought her, she said unto him: ‘I am not clean for thee, for I have been defiled as regards thee; for Reuben has defiled me, and has lain with me in the night, and I was 8 asleep, and did not discover until he uncovered my skirt and slept with me.’ And Jacob was exceedingly wroth with Reuben because he had lain with Bilhah, because he had uncovered his 9 father’s skirt. And Jacob did not approach her again because Reuben had defiled her. And as for any man who uncovers his father’s skirt his deed is wicked exceedingly, for he is abominable before 10 the Lord. For this reason it is written and ordained on the heavenly tablets that a man should not lie with his father’s wife, and should not uncover his father’s skirt, for this is unclean: they shall surely die together, the man who lies with his father’s wife and the woman also, for they have 11 wrought uncleanness on the earth. And there shall be nothing unclean before our God in the nation 12 which He has chosen for Himself as a possession. And again, it is written a second time: ‘Cursed be he who lieth with the wife of his father, for he hath uncovered his father’s shame’; and all the 13 holy ones of the Lord said ‘So be it; so be it.’ And do thou, Moses, command the children of Israel that they observe this word; for it (entails) a punishment of death; and it is unclean, and there is no atonement for ever to atone for the man who has committed this, but he is to be put to death and slain, and stoned with stones, and rooted out from the midst of the people of our God. 14 For to no man who does so in Israel is it permitted to remain alive a single day on the earth, for he 15 is abominable and unclean. And let them not say: to Reuben was granted life and forgiveness after he had lain with his father’s concubine, and to her also though she had a husband, and her husband 16 Jacob, his father, was still alive. For until that time there had not been revealed the ordinance and judgment and law in its completeness for all, but in thy days (it has been revealed) as a law of 17 seasons and of days, and an everlasting law for the everlasting generations. And for this law there is no consummation of days, and no atonement for it, but they must both be rooted out in the midst 18 of the nation: on the day whereon they committed it they shall slay them. And do thou, Moses, write (it) down for Israel that they may observe it, and do according to these words, and not commit a sin unto death; for the Lord our God is judge, who respects not persons and accepts not gifts. And tell them these words of the covenant, that they may hear and observe, and be on their guard with respect to them, and not be destroyed and rooted out of the land; for an uncleanness, and an abomination, and a contamination, and a pollution are all they who commit it on the earth before 20 our God. And there is no greater sin than the fornication which they commit on earth; for Israel is a holy nation unto the Lord its God, and a nation of inheritance, and a priestly and royal nation and for (His own) possession; and there shall no such uncleanness appear in the midst of the holy 21 nation.“
Reuben is excused from the proper punishment for this sin on the grounds that the commandments against it had not been given by God. Yet the author of Jubilees makes an example out of him and takes away any excuse the reader could give based on the Reuben not being killed for the act.
Reuben’s action renders a man cursed, and this like him are to be killed immediately as are their victims! This is because the “Israel is a holy nation,” priestly and royal. This focus on purity and Temple service (before the Temple was built) applies directly to the PJ. Fornication is the worst sin, and the later suspicions of Joseph fornicating are given a strong emphasis.
The actions of Reuben also effectively turn Bilhah into a barren woman since Israel would no longer “approach” her because of Reuben. This shame is not forgotten, but reiterated in Israel’s blessings in Genesis 49.
“And Jacob called his sons, and said to them, 2 Assemble yourselves, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in the last days. Gather yourselves together, and hear me, sons of Jacob; hear Israel, hear your father.”
The reader awaits the blessings of the Patriarchs by Israel, and at least the modern reader expects the foretelling of a glorious future for the Patriarchs, who are assumed to be virtuous by many today.
“3 Ruben, thou [art] my first-born, thou my strength, and the first of my children, hard to be endured, [hard and] self-willed. 4 Thou wast insolent like water, burst not forth with violence, for thou wentest up to the bed of thy father; then thou defiledst the couch, whereupon thou wentest up.”
The final blessing of Reuben by Israel starts with praise and quickly moves to something like a curse. This sin defines the Patriarch Reuben in Scripture, but we will add that he does have a positive portrayal in Genesis in the Joseph story. He alone intercedes for the life of Joseph, with the result that Joseph was sold instead of killed. Even so, he is envious in the story and is complicit in the selling of Joseph to traders, another capital offense.
So the name of the character in the PJ can be seen as ironic. It is Reuben, the worst of the sons of Israel, especially regarding procreation and righteousness, is the hypocritical judge of Joachim. Reuben is unrighteous, yet he judges Joachim to be in his own position. Joachim considers himself cursed because of barrenness, but is justified just as the Publican was. Reuben considers himself better because he is not barren, while his namesake made Bilhah barren and was worthy of death rather than the privilege of offering sacrifices to God in the Temple. The elevation and humiliation is seen thought the story in the PE and in the NT, particularly Luke. Just as Luke wrote of the humble being exalted and the exalted being humbled, “James” writes of the repeatedly humbled Joachim, Anna, and Mary as being “exalted.” We will revisit this theme in later chapters.
“And his wife Anna mourned in two mournings, and lamented in two lamentations, saying: I shall bewail my widowhood; I shall bewail my childlessness. And the great day of the Lord was at hand; and Judith her maid-servant said: How long dost thou humiliate thy soul? Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand, and it is unlawful for thee to mourn. But take this head-band, which the woman that made it gave to me; for it is not proper that I should wear it, because I am a maid-servant, and it has a royal appearance. And Anna said: Depart from me; for I have not done such things, and the Lord has brought me very low. I fear that some wicked person has given it to thee, and thou hast come to make me a sharer in thy sin. And Judith said: Why should I curse thee, seeing that the Lord hath shut thy womb, so as not to give thee fruit in Israel? And Anna was grieved exceedingly, and put off her garments of mourning, and cleaned her head, and put on her wedding garments, and about the ninth hour went down to the garden to walk. And she saw a laurel, and sat under it, and prayed to the Lord, saying: O God of our fathers, bless me and hear my prayer, as Thou didst bless the womb of Sarah, and didst give her a son Isaac.”
Judith tells Anna that she should stop mourning because such an action is forbidden on the Day of the Lord. The word for “humiliate” and “brought low” is the same in Greek (ταπεινοῖς). This word will repeat later on in the story in chapters 13 and 15 and we will address that theme then. For now Anna says that she has been brought “low” by God because of her childlessness. Her grief is transformed when she thinks of the example of Sarah, just as Joachim thought of Abraham.
“And gazing towards the heaven, she saw a sparrow’s nest in the laurel, and made a lamentation in herself, saying: Alas! who begot me? and what womb produced me? because I have become a curse in the presence of the sons of Israel, and I have been reproached, and they have driven me in derision out of the temple of the Lord. Alas! to what have I been likened? I am not like the fowls of the heaven, because even the fowls of the heaven are productive before Thee, O Lord. Alas! to what have I been likened? I am not like the beasts of the earth, because even the beasts of the earth are productive before Thee, O Lord. Alas! to what have I been likened? I am not like these waters, because even these waters are productive before Thee, O Lord. Alas! to what have I been likened? I am not like this earth, because even the earth bringeth forth its fruits in season, and blesseth Thee, O Lord.”
Anna ponders her relative wretchedness in comparison to the natural world which is productive, while she alone is barren. This is the other aspect of childlessness, a universal shame rather than one that was merely human (as seen with Joachim being rebuffed from the Temple). Here not only the Temple shows the deficiency of the couple, but also the birds, beasts, waters, and earth.
“And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world. And Anna said: As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life. And, behold, two angels came, saying to her: Behold, Joachim thy husband is coming with his flocks. For an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying: Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive. And Joachim went down and called his shepherds, saying: Bring me hither ten she-lambs without spot or blemish, and they shall be for the Lord my God; and bring me twelve tender calves, and they shall be for the priests and the elders; and a hundred goats for all the people. And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran anti hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God hath blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive. And Joachim rested the first day in his house.”
An angelic message comes to Anna that she will conceive a child “and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world.” Joachim also had an angelic encounter that gave the same information. Anna declares that she will dedicate the child to God, not knowing the gender of the child.
A further point of interest is the last sentence. Joachim “rests” on “the first day.” Surely this implies that when Joachim reunited with Anna they slept together at the first opportunity. But this also recalls Genesis 2, where after God rests from creating on the 7th day (2:1-2) he goes on to create Eve for Adam. While “male and female” were created in Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 it is Adam who is created and then after it is evident that he needs a “helper,” Eve is produced from him. That is not to say that Eve was created “on the first day,” but rather that Genesis 2 has her being created after the Sabbath rest, and in Jewish usage Sunday is “the first day” because it is the first day after the Sabbath. So when Joachim “rested the first day” a reader in the 1st century would hear “rested on Sunday,” the day after the “Day of Rest.” This suggests a new Sabbath, a theme that early Christians would develop. Just as Eve was made following the first Sabbath, Mary is made following the Sabbath, on the First Day, Sunday, the Day of the Lord.
The theme of the barren woman conceiving is to be found a number of places in the OT, but since many have commented on this before, we will not treat it here.