The Birth of the Immaculate Conception: Mary, Apostolic Tradition, and the Protevangelium of James

Recently, First Things published a short but intriguing article on Mary, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the apocryphal book known as the Protevangelium of James. In this helpful primer, Daniel P. Moloney proposes that the Protevangelium offers very early evidence of widespread Christian belief in Mary’s preservation from original sin. In the story, the reader finds extracanonical details about Mary’s biography and particularly the crucial episode of Christ’s birth:

In chapters 19–20 of the story, just as a midwife comes to Mary, a cloud and light surround her, after which the baby Jesus appears in her arms. The midwife tells a second midwife, named Salome, about Mary’s miraculous and labor-free birth after her miraculous virginal conception of the child. The skeptical Salome insists on examining Mary to prove that she was still a physical virgin—and discovers that she was.[1]

Because Mary passes this gynecological exam (where the Greek intentionally echoes Thomas touching Christ’s wounds in John 20:25), it implies that she was spared from the curses of Genesis 3:16, which would in turn indicate that she escaped the grasp of original sin. Thus, this early, non-gnostic text might supply evidence for the apostolicity of the Immaculate Conception, which was not officially defined as dogma until the nineteenth century. Nor is the article’s author alone in perceiving the Protevangelium to offer validation to Marian beliefs we typically associate with a later medieval period. Some prominent scholars use the text on just those grounds: an ancient and proto-orthodox Christianity exalting the mother of Christ.[2]

The Protevangelium and Its Critics

To be sure, the Protevangelium is a fascinating text, not least in its reception history. Of course, looking to apocryphal texts to reconstruct early Christian belief can be a tricky game, even when contemporary Christians think a given book is basically “orthodox” (i.e. non-sectarian and especially non-gnostic) in its general theological outlines. One could use other ancient apocrypha to, say, insist on the primacy of Jerusalem’s bishop over against Rome’s. Caveat lector. Indeed, many premodern authorities said this about the Protevangelium specifically. Jerome mocked the text as ridiculous and the midwife episode particularly.[3] Augustine warned that the story directly contradicted the canonical gospels in certain facts.[4] A (probably fifth-century) Greek text called the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila called the Protevangelium “apocryphal” and declined to defend the story because using apocrypha in one place obliged one to heed them across the board.[5] Later, the enigmatic medieval document called the Gelasian Decretal, which sorted books by their doctrinal acceptability and had significant influence in the Carolingian world, lists both a “gospel in the name of James the younger” and a “book of the nativity of the saviour and of Mary or the midwife” as productions of schismatics and heretics, and these almost certainly refer to the Protevangelium tradition.[6] It was probably for these reasons that the Protevangelium was later re-edited, given a pseudepigraphic preface supposedly written by Jerome, and republished with much popularity in the Middle Ages, as a text we now call the “Gospel of Ps. Matthew.”

Even today, the Protevangelium on its face contradicts Roman Catholic teaching at certain points, such as the identity of the siblings of Jesus. Here, the Protevangelium would have them to be Joseph’s children from a prior marriage. Loathing this apocryphon but still needing to explain the siblings in such a way as to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity, Jerome identified them as cousins. That interpretation dominated Latin theology, and in the Roman Catholic catechism, it still appears as the official explanation.[7] This rather raises the stakes of the Protevangelium’s reliability: if it is early and robust evidence for the Immaculate Conception, what does that mean for the Roman Catholic teaching on Jesus’ “siblings”?

Virginitas in Partu: Proof of the Immaculate Conception, or the Mark of Docetism?

Implications for the Immaculate Conception aside, it is certainly true that other early Christians shared the belief that Mary maintained her gynecological integrity through the act of delivering Jesus. The technical Latin phrase for this, virginitas in partu means “virginity in giving birth,” and scholars debate what exactly this would have signified anatomically to an ancient audience.[8] In any case, it bears asking whether most ancient Christians believed this idea about Mary. David Hunter’s Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity considers this question at some length (readers should refer especially to pages 171–204).[9] Writing around the turn of the third century (several decades after the Protevangelium was written), Clement of Alexandria knew and believed the tradition, but he himself admits “most people” in fact believe Mary ceased to be a virgin after giving birth, whereas only “some” cite the midwife story.[10] Meanwhile and further west, Tertullian explicitly denied that Mary remained a virgin through the act of childbirth (non virgo quantum a partu).[11] Other scholars have pointed out that the question of Mary’s “birth pains” continued to evoke different answers for centuries among Christian writers and theologians.[12]

Tertullian’s broader argument is especially interesting. The reason he repeatedly stressed the normality of Jesus’ birth is because, in his view, anything less constituted docetism: Christ only seemed to have a body. On the same grounds, he also strongly insisted that Jesus’ siblings were real “blood” siblings, while also suggesting Mary and Joseph had a normal marriage after Christ’s birth.[13] Tertullian himself probably did not know of the Protevangelium per se, but if he had, there seems to be a good case that he would have accused it of docetism, which was thought to have been a common feature of the Syrian Christianity which produced this and similar apocrypha, such as the Ascension of Isaiah and the Odes of Solomon.

Apostolic Tradition

So: does the Protevangelium reflect an early apostolic tradition? If yes, then we have to explain why early proto-orthodox Christians like Tertullian and Clement’s “most people” seem to have missed the memo. Tertullian certainly believed he (along with the universal church) had received the fullness of apostolic tradition.[14] Moreover, one of Tertullian’s influences on this point, the older Irenaeus of Lyons, had specifically listed the items that the apostles taught, insisting they were publicly known, “manifested throughout the whole world” by the universal church.[15] Irenaeus’ elements of faith look like an early version of Apostles’ Creed: a very mere Christianity. Tertullian echoed Irenaeus in his “rule of faith,” and warned that while some Christians understood more than others, it was wrong and dangerous to insist on the necessity of pursuing finer points of theological speculation and curiosity.[16]

One way to explain the patchy reception would be to posit (as some later medieval Christians occasionally did) a special oral tradition.[17] Thus, the traditions of the Protevangelium were only preserved by a select few, not widely taught or fully understood in the second- and third-century church—and perhaps not until the nineteenth century. While possible, such an argument would seem to put us crosswise of Irenaeus and Tertullian: the gnostic sectarians they criticized argued precisely for recondite oral traditions, which is why early patristic sources strongly insist that Christianity’s dogma was a matter of public record. This also explains why the patristic record is packed with sharp criticism of apocryphal texts. About a century after Irenaeus and Tertullian, Eusebius of Caesarius referred to books like the Protevangelium as notha, a technical term of Hellenistic literary criticism that translates as “bastards,” so-called because they could almost pass themselves off as the product of the apostles.[18] Although he did not mention the Protevangelium specifically, Eusebius did note the Gospel of Peter here, which was considered a sister-text of sorts to the Protevangelium on the matter of Mary’s virginity, and one which had been accused of docetism by earlier Christian authorities.[19]

Conclusion

In the end, the Protevangelium is such a fascinating text because it so thoroughly demonstrates why later Christians have fought as much as they have about their earliest institutions and essential doctrines: the history is (and always has been) complex and fragmented. For that reason, many of the Church Fathers insisted on the necessity of establishing ecclesiastical history. Particularly on the pressing question of what literature Christians could heed and apply to theology, there is a noticeable contrast here between how ancient Christianity and medieval Christianity generally operated. Whereas the latter could often look to established institutions, the former were themselves thrown back on the sources.


  1. Daniel P. Moloney, “Mary and the Midwife,” First Things, Dec. 8 2022 https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/12/mary-and-the-midwife
  2. Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016). Shoemaker’s work in this book and elsewhere is essential reading for this topic.
  3. Esp. Adversus Helvidium 10.
  4. Augustine, Contra Faustum 23.9.
  5. Dialogus Timothei et Aquilae 3.23 (on citing apocrypha generally) and 18.4 (on Marian apocrypha specifically). R. G. Robertson, “The Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila: A Critical Text, Introduction to the Manuscript Evidence, and an Inquiry into the Sources and Literary Relationships” (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 1986).
  6. See text here https://www.tertullian.org/decretum_eng.htm based on Ernst von Dobschütz, Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis; (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1912), http://archive.org/details/dasdecretumgelas00dobs.
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2019), 126-7.
  8. Julia Kelto Lillis, “No Hymen Required: Reconstructing Origen’s View on Mary’s Virginity,” Church History 89, no. 2 (June 2020): 249–67.
  9. David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  10. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity, 179.
  11. Ibid., 181–4. Hunter also believes Origen likewise denied Mary’s virginitas in partu but cf. Lillis above.
  12. See Michael Beshay, “The Virgin Mary in Ritual in Late Antique Egypt: Origins, Practice, and Legacy” (Columbus, OH, The Ohio State University, 2020), esp. 93–100. Beshay also notes that Coptic spells frequently invoked Mary’s labor pains.
  13. See De Monogamia 8, De Carne Christi 23, Adversus Marcionem 4.19.
  14. De Praescriptione Haereticorum 20–3.
  15. Against Heresies 1.10.1 for his rule of faith and 3.3.1–3 on the publicly-available nature of the tradition.
  16. De Praescriptione Haereticorum 12–13.
  17. The much later Byzantine author called Ps. Germanos made something very close to this argument in the case of Mary’s Dormition, in his Homilia de Dormitione 5. A. Wenger, “Un nouveau témoin de l’Assomption: une homélie attribuée à saint Germain de Constantinople,” Revue des études byzantines 16 (1958): 48-53.
  18. Ecclesiastical History 3.25.
  19. On the relation between the Protevangelium and the Gospel of Peter, see Origen’s Commentarium in evangelium Matthaei 10.17. On the charge of docetism, see Ecclesiastical History 6.12.1-5.

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