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Early Additions of Color to the Nativity Story
By Rita Bocher
In the early centuries after his death, Christians sought answers for their questions about the life of Jesus. The period of his ministry was covered by the so-called synoptic Gospels. They were written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and called synoptic as they tended to tell the same story in similar ways. The synoptic authors: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. were Apostles or those associated with them. Matthew was one of the Apostles; Mark was a friend to the Apostle Peter, and Luke was a friend to Paul. John’s Gospel, more theological in nature, initially was thought to have been written directly by the “beloved Apostle,” but now instead is considered to be based on his testimonies and teaching.
Given that those Gospels were rooted in what the authors saw and heard from Jesus, the Church considered those writings divinely inspired and authentic, and included them as part of its canon or laws.
The young life of Jesus did not have the same level of detail as his ministry. Early writers sought to address that.
Early on, other so-called gospels written by individuals not associated with Jesus or the Apostles began to circulate. Called apocrypha, they originally meant “secret,” as they were meant for special groups of initiates. Those writings done by anonymous individuals were not considered authentic by the Church and hence were not included in its laws. Despite their lack of authenticity, and their lack of any real association with Jesus, those writings addressed questions early Christians had about the early years of Jesus, and of Mary and Joseph. In addressing such questions, despite their inauthenticity and the lack of their authors’ connection with Jesus, they achieved a level of popularity among artists and in legends.
Two of the apocrypha gospels were especially interesting about the Nativity to artists and to legend creators: the Protoevangelium of James, (the first gospel of James) (PJ); and the Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ (IJC). A third so-called infancy gospel—the infancy gospel of Thomas starts Jesus at age five.
Where the Gospel of Luke talks of Jesus being born in a manger “because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged,” both the PJ and IJC talk about his being born in a cave--a venue often used by Renaissance artists. Joseph is often shown as an old man in paintings; that was due to the PJ describing him as a widower with grown sons. Luke and Matthew make no mention of age.
In Matthew and Luke, we first meet Mary when she is betrothed to Joseph. In contrast, the PJ starts with Mary’s parents, a rich couple, who are given names: Joachim and Anna. The couple had been unable to conceive until a messenger of the Lord changed that. Mary was their child. Anna permitted only the purest surroundings for Mary, and at age three, she was presented to the Temple and lived there.
When Mary got to be twelve, the priests were concerned about Mary’s presence in the Temple. It was feared her menstrual period would contaminate the Temple as a woman was considered unclean at that time.
The High Priest prayed for guidance about Mary. He was advised to assemble the widowers of the area with each one bringing a staff. Mary was to marry the man whose staff showed a sign. Joseph left with his staff for the meeting. The High Priest collected all the staffs. When Joseph’s staff was returned to him, a dove came out of this staff and perched on his head. Sometimes, Joseph’s staff is shown with a lily—a sign of his purity. The High Priest declared Joseph to be Mary’s caretaker and protector. Joseph protested he was an old man. Hence, paintings showing Joseph as an old man derive from the PJ.
As in the Gospel of Matthew, the PJ states that Mary had found favor with the Lord and would conceive. On the trip to Bethlehem, the PJ states that Joseph put Mary on a donkey; neither Luke nor Matthew mention a donkey. It is in the PJ and the IJC that we also learn about midwives for Mary. Those are not mentioned in the synoptic Gospels, but many paintings show them..
Luke and Matthew tell a story of the Nativity for all ages. The apocrypha add only color and interesting details ,but do not change the initial facts.
*Image from University of Dayton at Last Friends of the Creche gathering there is 2018