Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 7 (chapters 21-24)

We have only the final four chapters left to examine.

Chapter 21

“And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judaea. And there was a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judaea, for Magi came, saying: Where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod heard, he was much disturbed, and sent officers to the Magi. And he sent for the priests, and examined them, saying: How is it written about the Christ? where is He to be born? And they said: In Bethlehem of Judaea, for so it is written. And he sent them away. And he examined the Magi, saying to them: What sign have you seen in reference to the king that has been born? And the Magi said: We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him. And Herod said: Go and seek him; and if you find him, let me know, in order that I also may go and worship him. And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judaea, they went into their own country by another road.”

Ch. 21 is the story of the Magi, retold in a fairly straightforward manner but with some small differences. For the time being we will let the text speak for itself and simply move on.


Chapter 22

“And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”

Here Mary places Jesus in a stall not because there was no room at the inn, but because Herod was searching for the child. This recalls the placing of Moses in the “ark” to protect him from Pharaoh.



Chapter 23

“And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where hast thou hid thy son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.”

Herod assumes that the Magi are looking for John the Baptist (simply “John” here, since he had yet to start his baptismal ministry). Zacharias tells Herod that as a priest he is always in the Temple, recalling Mary being always in “the Temple” even before her formal dedication in the Temple. Like Mary, Elizabeth is not with a male protector, and like Mary she has a holy child. Zachary’s is martyred and recalled by Jesus in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 (although this interpretation is hotly contested by scholars).


Chapter 24

“But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom. And the priests stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most High. And he still delaying, they were all afraid. But one of them ventured to go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying: Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his avenger come. And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it to the priests. And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from the top even to the bottom. And they found not his body, but they found his blood turned into stone. And they were afraid, and went out and reported to the people that Zacharias had been murdered. And all the tribes of the people heard, and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights. And after the three days, the priests consulted as to whom they should put in his place; and the lot fell upon Simeon. For it was he who had been warned by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh.

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.””

Zacharias is in the Holy of Holies for too long in Luke, when an angel a[[eared to him and he became mute. Here he lingers because he has been murdered. A voice is heard, and it is assumed to be the voice of God, since it is in the “dabir” (word, oracle) the Jewish name for the Holy of Holies since it functions as the mouthpiece for God.

The fear, fleeing, and returning is both natural and in parallel to the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospels, but here they do find the body. Finally Simeon is elected as the replacement for Zacharias, and he is connected with the Simeon the God-Receiver we read about it Luke 3.

The priests rent their clothes in disobedience to the law that forbade priests from doing so (see Lev. 10:6), showing their absolute grief.

The final paragraph is the only mention of James by name in the entire text. He does not say that he was one of the sons of Joseph, nor the brother of Jesus. The connection between the commotion, the writing, and the retreat to the desert is unclear. The commotion could have to do with the death of Herod (4 BCE), after which James would have left Jerusalem for the desert, then returned to Jerusalem to write the text. He thanks God for granting him the gift of wisdom to write the account, implying that it was not a mundane text but a prophetic one.

The most reasonable explanation is that the author is claiming to be James, the brother of Jesus. He has no need to tell this to the reader since he can assume that they might know him and would then understand that he is in the narrator (and therefor is a (partial) “eye-witness” account), and a family tradition. He nowhere mentions the life of Jesus, indicating that the story is meant to be understood as composed after the death of Herod the Great.

James would have been older than Jesus, but would he have been old enough to write this history? It certainly seems plausible that James could be up to 20 years older than Jesus (he died in 62 CE as an old man). If James was 20 years older, then he would have been 25 when he wrote this account.

While this seems highly unusual (especially if James was only 10-15 years older than Jesus) we should remember that James was portrayed in the NT and elsewhere as extraordinary. Many see him in the NT as a rather mundane figure, in contrast to the more exotic details from later Christian writing. While the NT might not mention that he was a Nazarite, it does mention quite a few things about James that point to him being exceptional. He was the son of Joseph, a righteous man. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church. His Epistle is an example of wisdom literature, not dry ethics. It is entirely plausible, even to be expected, that the son of an exceptionally pious Jew would be a Nazarite, even from birth. The story of Anna and Joachim shows that such a dedication to God was not implausible, and had happened in the OT with Samuel and Samson. If we were to look for a likely Nazarite in the NT, it would be James. He even had Paul pay for the services associated with Nazarite vows.

It is significant that the author does not identify himself as a Christian, or a leader, or he does not mention that Jesus rose from the dead. He does call Jesus “Lord” and “Christ,” but strangely this is only at the end of the text. This could be a later addition, possibly by James himself. It is significant that the ending is in contrast to the rest of the text, both in calling Jesus Lord and Messiah (not mentioned elsewhere) and identifying himself as James (presumably a character in the story never named). It seems a forger would have had the titles of Jesus in the main body of the text, and also made clear that James was the son of Joseph, yet he seems unconcerned with these issues.


Our next post will give a final reflection on some of the issues raised by the text.


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