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The Gospel of James is also sometimes known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protevangelium of James. The document presents itself as written by James, traditionally associated with James the Just, the brother of Jesus Christ. Most scholars believe that, based on their literary criticism, the work is pseudonymous and was composed some time in the second century A.D. Its content, emphasizing the continued virginity of Mary, would seem to make it an unlikely document to have been written by a brother of Jesus.
The Gospel of James is one of several surviving Infancy gospels that give an idea of the miracle literature that was created to satisfy the hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of their Savior. In Greek an infancy gospel was termed a protevangelion, a "pre-Gospel" narrating events of Jesus' life before those recorded in the four canonical gospels. The literary genre that these works represent shows stylistic features that suggest dates in the second century and later. Other "infancy gospels" in this tradition include The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, The Infancy Gospel of Mark, and the so-called Arabic Infancy Gospel, all apocryphal.
The contents of this gospel describe the birth and childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, her coming of age and betrothal to Joseph the Betrothed, and the birth and early childhood of Jesus. One of its high points is the Lament of Anna. One of the primary themes is the work and grace of God in Mary's life, Mary's personal purity, and her perpetual virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, as confirmed by the midwives after she gave birth. It is one of the earliest documents attesting the veneration of Mary.
It is in three equal parts, the first eight chapters containing the story of Mary's own unique birth and childhood, the second eight chapters concerning the crisis posed by Mary's becoming a woman and thus her imminent pollution of the temple, her assignment to Joseph as guardian, and the tests of her virginity, and the last eight chapters relating the Nativity, with the visit of midwifes, the hiding of Jesus from Herod in a feeding trough, and even the parallel hiding of John from Herod in the hills with his mother Elizabeth. These legends are embellishments upon the stories given in Matthew and Luke.
While the Gospel of James has never been an accepted part of the New Testament canon, it does provide the basis for many of the hymns used in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and for much of their teachings concerning Mary.
Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing it have survived. As with the canonical gospels, the vast majority of these come from the tenth century or later. The earliest known manuscript of the text, a papyrus dating to the 3rd century, was found in 1958; it is kept in the Bodmer Library, Geneva.
Among extracanonical traditions recorded in this protevangelion are the introduction of Joseph as a widower with several children who is merely Mary's guardian, the birth of Jesus in a cave, and the martyrdom of John the Baptist's father Zechariah during the slaughter of the infants. The Nativity reported as taking place in a cave, with its Mithraic overtones, remained in the popular imagination; many Sienese and Florentine paintings of the Nativity show such a chthonic setting.
See also Sources about Jesus Christ