Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 4 (chapters 9-12)

Chapters 9-12

Chapter 9

“And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, Thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee. The Lord will protect thee.”

(note: add that Num 17:23 has the budding of the rod of Aaron for Levi)

Joseph answers the summons to assemble, and strangely “throws away his axe.” While we might be tempted to see this as only an allusion to Joseph as a “carpenter” (he is more of a house-builder in this text, as well as in the NT) I think that there is more being said here by the author, who is very interested in Temple matters.

The “axe” that Joseph throws is a σκέπαρνον, which is a “carpenter’s axe” used for smoothing out large pieces of wood. It is a finishing tool rather than a tool for cutting down trees. So this is certainly in line with the idea of Joseph as a carpenter. But why allude to Joseph as a carpenter when it has no relevance to the story? I would contend that the relevence has very much to do with the status of the Temple as being made in a way that is different than how idols are made. The one occurrence of the carpenter’s axe in the LXX is found in Isaiah 44:12

“For the artificer sharpens the iron; he fashions [the idol] with an axe, and fixes it with an awl, and fashions it with the strength of his arm: and he will be hungry and weak, and will drink no water.”

This is from a long polemic against idolatry. We can add to that the reference of 1 Kings 6:7

“And the house was built in the construction of it with rough hewn stones: and there was not heard in the house in the building of it hammer or axe, or any iron tool.”

Idols are made with these finishing tools, while the tools used on the Temple stones were used in remote locations, and never at the site of the Temple. When Joseph throws away his tool, he is open to housing Mary. We will se that when he takes her home, he then leaves to go build! This leaves her alone in the house, and she weaves theTemple veil and then builds the Temple Jesus in herself. Joseph is not there to help her build by impregnating her, nor is he there to protect her. Both roles are fulfilled by God. Mary builds the Temple veil and then Jesus himself in isolation, and far away from the “tools” of men both metaphorically and literally.

Joseph is miraculously chosen to be the protector/husband of Mary, again with the symbol of a dove (is there a flood connection? spirit connection?). Mary is received “from the Temple of the Lord” rather than from her parents, who are not mentioned past ch. 7. We can add to this that the budding of Joseph’s staff recalls the budding of Aaron’s staff in Numbers 17:23. The tribe of Levi held the staff, and it budded in symbolic approval of Levi being the priestly tribe. Here Joseph’s staff blossoms not flowers, but a dove. This is both more miraculous and also recalls the dove sent by Noah (the Ark being a classic symbol of Israel/the Church). Most obviously it is a reference to Mary being fed in the Temple “as a dove.” Now Joseph shows that from him another “dove” can miraculously be produced.


Chapter 10

“And there was a council of the priests, saying: Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Call to me the undefiled virgins of the family of David. And the officers went away, and sought, and found seven virgins. And the priest remembered the child Mary, that she was of the family of David, and undefiled before God. And the officers went away and brought her. And they brought them into the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple. And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house. And at that time Zacharias was dumb, and Samuel was in his place until the time that Zacharias spake. And Mary took the scarlet (τὸ κόκκινον), and span it.”

As mentioned previously, this part of the narrative is not given a specific timeframe. Does the episode cover 6 months or 3 years? We cannot say for certain, but the 6 months seems more likely if we consider the internal evidence. We can also say that it was believed that the Temple veil was replaced every 6 months. The meeting to make a new veil would not be a novelty, but a semi-annual occurrence.


Chapter 11

“And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, thou who hast received grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple (τὴν πορφύραν), she sat down on her seat, and drew it out. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found grace before the Lord of all, and thou shalt conceive, according to His word. And she hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I bring forth as every woman brings forth? And the angel of the Lord said: Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of the Most High (Ὑψίστου). And thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. And Mary said: Behold, the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be unto me according to thy word.”

The Annunciation happen during the time that Mary was spinning the veil for the Temple. The child will be the Son of the Most High, an irony since Mary is both humiliated and exalted because of the child. At no point is there an intimation that the child will die or that he is the Messiah, which is strange of the author was writing after the Resurrection.


Chapter 12

“And she made the purple and the scarlet, and took them to the priest. And the priest blessed her, and said: Mary, the Lord God hath magnified (ἐμεγάλυνεν) thy name, and thou shall be blessed in all the generations of the earth. And Mary, with great joy, went away to Elizabeth her kinswoman, and knocked at the door. And when Elizabeth heard her, she threw away the scarlet, and ran to the door, and opened it; and seeing Mary, she blessed her, and said: Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? for, behold, that which is in me leaped and blessed thee. But Mary had forgotten the mysteries of which the archangel Gabriel had spoken, and gazed up into heaven, and said: Who am I, O Lord, that all the generations of the earth should bless me? And she remained three months with Elizabeth; and day by day she grew bigger. And Mary being afraid, went away to her own house, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. And she was sixteen years old when these mysteries happened.

Mary’s name is “magnified” by God. Her cousin Elizabeth seems to have been holding scarlet, which she throws away when Mary arrives. This is strange, in that it almost appears that Elizabeth is Temple virgin like Mary. Yet her husband Zacharias is one of the high priests (there were multiple high priests in this era) and so she could not have been a virgin. She is pregnant with a special child, and it is noteworthy that she lives a life of isolation like Mary did. Zacharias tells Herod later that he is always serving in the Temple, so he doesn’t know where his son is.

By the time Elizabeth greeted Mary, Mary had forgotten what the angel had said to her! This is a striking assertion, and one that in my mind is explicable only by bad writing or the lived experience of the author. It seems that only an intimate retelling would render this detail, one which would have been told to James.


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