The book we now call the Bible is an edited collection of books – a library if you like, which has been compiled over time. For a long time there was no single collection of books, and instead there were a multitude of books which belonged to different traditions. Even today different branches of Christianity use different Bibles, with different books in, and favour different translations of individual texts.
So the books which make it in to the Bible, as you may already know, are called the ‘canon’ (from a Latin term meaning, according to rule). They have been accepted over time as being particularly special. But there are other books too, which date from Old and New Testament times, which fall outside of the canon (precisely what the canon is depends somewhat on your tradition, but there y’go). These extra-canonical books are known as ‘apocryphal’, and one of the oldest of the New Testament era apocryphal books is the gospel of James, also known as the protoevangelium of James (click through to read a version of it.)
It’s a short book, and to be fair it’s quite a good read, short sentences, lots going on. It is also very old, best guesses seem to have it pegged to the middle of the second century of the Common Era. It is written in the name of James, the brother of Jesus. That is to say a half-brother, being a son of Joseph by a former wife. There’s no particular reason to think it was written by the same person, or people who wrote the epistle of James (which, incidentally, was one of the least favourite books of monk-bothering anti-semite and reformer in chief Martin Luther, he called it a ‘right strawy epistle’).
James’ gospel tells the story of the birth of Mary, her upbringing in the Temple, her betrothal to Joseph and Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. Key to it is the establishment of the purity (virginity) of Mary, as checked upon by a midwife. Among other interesting factors, the book contains the story of Jesus being born in a cave, which remains a popular trope to be found here and there, particularly in paintings.
It also seems to have directly influenced the writing of the Quran, containing as it does, details of Mary’s upbringing in the temple, including her angelic visitations. Mary is of course very highly regarded in Islam, and is the only woman named in the Quran. Early Islamic writers certainly seem to have been familiar with the tradition found in James’ Gospel, as well as the Gospel of Thomas, another non-canonical book, demonstrating that it was well known in the early Christian world.
Like many of the apocryphal books, James’ Gospel has some unusual details, which somehow make the book all the more fascinating. One can’t help but wonder if they rather went against it’s inclusion in the eventual canon though. The fact that there are also mentions of breasts, menstrual flows and internal examinations, with the midwife giving Mary and understated warning: “position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place”, probably didn’t help make its case.
If I were a literature-of-the-Bible teacher, I would call the idea of reading James’ gospel, ‘reading around the text’, or ‘wider reading’. And there is a lot to be gained, I think, by reading these texts. As another example, wider reading around the Old Testament Canon gives us the books of the Maccabees which, among other things, explain the origins of Hannukah. All these readings provide an amount of context to the stories with which we are so familiar. I’m not making an argument for them to be given some sort of different status to that which they currently have. But they do cast the Bible in a slightly different light, making it seem more like the kind of living dynamic text it certainly once was.