Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 6 (chapters 17-20)

Chapter 17

“And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enrol her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting. And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.”

Ch. 17 is the story of the census and traveling to Bethlehem. Of note is that Mary is about to give birth in a “desert.” Also of note is that a son of Joseph accompanies them on their journey. We can assume that this is James, but it is noteworthy that the author never writes as if he is in the story. This is rather strange, and almost inexplicable if the author is only pretending to be James.


Chapter 18

“And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a widwife in the district of Bethlehem. And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.”

Here we read that Joseph’s two sons were with the couple, one of which we assume to be James. They were in a cave roughly three miles (ch. 17) from Bethlehem. The early accounts of Jesus’ birth (outside of the NT) also speak of a cave rather than a barn or house.

What is most striking to me about this chapter is the mystical experience of Joseph. If this experience was made up by the author, it seems strange that it is so unique in Jewish and Christian literature. If it is conveyed from a confidant (James) then the portrayal becomes rather intuitive. Joseph’s perception slows down to a stop (it seems) just as most people experience when a momentous event takes place. Here time seems to stand still, and James likely included this aspect of the story to stress the paradox of the Virgin giving birth. All of nature both does and does not act as it always has.


Chapter 19

“And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither art thou going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”

Ch. 19 has Joseph meet a midwife, to whom he explains the situation. A cloud fills the cave in exactly the same way that it filled the Temple when it was dedicated or “born.” (see 1 Kings 8:10-11) When a certain Salome is notified of the event, she says “As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” This is rather transparent parallel to the Thomas episode, with the exception that Salome is punished while Thomas is not. It seems to me that Thomas never actually touched Jesus, since the text does not tell us that he did. Instead he took Jesus at his word, and made a confession of faith. Salome lacks that faith and is punished and restored, as we see in the next chapter. This Salome is likely to be understood as Salome the Myrrhbearer, found in Mark 15:40 and 16:1.


Chapter 20

“And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee. Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.”

Ch. 20 recounts how Salome dares to inspect Mary, has her hand burned, and then is healed. This is very close to the traditional account f the Formation of Mary, where a Jewish opponent attempts to overturn the bier that Mary’s body is being transported on. An angel cuts off his hand, and then it is restored through prayer and repentance. This is almost certainly a later tradition than the PJ.

She then “went forth out of the cave justified” just as Joachim had “went down from the temple of the Lord justified,” in ch. 5. The locus of divine communication here is now the cave, not the Temple. Salome is sworn to secrecy, a theme found throughout the Gospels.


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