In The Gospel of the Birth of Mary, the author opens his work by labeling Mary as “blessed and ever glorious.” He introduces Mary’s parents as Joachim and Anna who are described as particularly devoted to the temple and “faultless before men.” Issachar, the high-priest, wondered why Joachim offered sacrifices in the temple with the other men who had children. Issachar mentions that his offering would not be acceptable to God due to him being cursed for not having a male child. Joachim’s wife, Anna, was barren. While he thought of the words of the high-priest, he was visited by an angel and was told Anna would give birth to a daughter, Mary. An angel then appears to both Joachim and Anna individually.
The angel gave Joachim these specific details and instructions about Mary:
- She would be devoted to the Lord.
- She would be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother’s womb.
- She would not drink anything unclean.
- She should not speak to the common people.
- She would bring forth the Son of the Most High while still being a virgin.
When appearing to Anna, the angel tells her that her prayers have been heard and gives her the following details:
- Mary would be blessed above all women and full of grace of the Lord.
- She should continue in her father’s house from birth and during the three years of her weaning.
- Then Mary would live in the temple till she arrives to the years of discretion which would be at age 14.
- She would abstain from any unclean thing and serve the Lord in fasting and prayer night and day.
- She would never know any man.
- Lastly, Mary would give birth to the Savior of the world while being a virgin.
Mary is born and taken to the temple at the age of 3. The writer mentions that Mary is put on the step as her parents are taking their coats off when she goes up the steps without their help. This act apparently is considered an “extraordinary work” of the Lord and a “miracle.” Mary increased in “perfections” and “every day had the conversation of angels.” The time came for all virgins to be given in marriage but Mary refused because she “had vowed her virginity to the Lord.” The high priest sought council because he knew Mary was special due to her going up the steps at the age of 3. According to the text, a voice was heard from the ark and the mercy seat telling the priest that she would be betrothed to the man who had a flower spring out of his rod. When the unmarried men bring forward their rod, a dove comes from heaven and sits on top of the rod. According to tradition, Joseph goes home to make things ready for his bride and Mary goes home to her parents.
While at her parents’ home, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and is told she will bring forth the Son of God and his kingdom shall have no end. According to the text, Mary was not afraid or astonished by the angel’s apparition since it was a common occurrence to her but was troubled by his words.
Joseph and Mary see each other when Mary is 3 months pregnant. Joseph is troubled that Mary is pregnant but does not want to expose her because he was a pious man. An angel appears to him when Joseph decides to end the engagement privately. The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife because she is innocent and this was the work of the Holy Ghost. Joseph is directed to name the child Jesus because he will save the people from their sins. The text ends with Joseph not sleeping with Mary and Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
There is very minimal information on the origin of this text. I read this text from the book The Lost Books of the Bible by Solomon J. Schepps. He states that the Gospel of the Birth of Mary is attributed to Matthew. He also comments that it is found in the works on Jerome who flourished in the 4th century. The other source I was able to find was the Wesley Center for Applied Theology which states in the website that the author is unknown and the text was written in the 2nd or 3rd century.
I seriously doubt that Matthew is the author of the text. When comparing the Gospel of Matthew and this text, I see that they are very different. When Matthew tells the nativity story, he seems to focus on Joseph as the focal point, as he begins with his lineage, and portrays him as the leader of his family who has tremendous responsibility. In this text, the focal point is Mary and her extraordinary willingness to yield herself to what God wants to do through her. If Matthew had written this text, I believe it would have read as an extension on the nativity story in his gospel.
The gospels in the canon do not give any information of the parents of Mary. According to www.catholic.org, by tradition Joachim and Anne are considered to be the names of the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. Any stories about Mary’s father and mother come to us through legend and tradition.
The first six chapters of this text are new information that one is not familiar with by reading either one of the canonized gospels. Once we see the angel Gabriel’s announcement about the birth of Jesus, one is more familiar with the story. There are some contrasts I noticed between this text and occurrences noted in the gospels:
- In chapter II, an angel tells Anna that Mary would be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother’s womb. In Luke 1:15, John the Baptist is the only one described as being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.
- In Chapter VI, a dove descends from heaven and stands on Joseph’s rod. In Mark 1:10, the Holy Ghost descends like a dove on Jesus.
I wonder if the writer of this text wrote these words after he read the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark and thought there would be ideal references to make to make a point.
- In Chapter III, the angel tells Anna that Mary will “never know any man.” There are no other conditions given. Matthew states that Joseph waited until Jesus was born to sleep with Mary (1:25). So, Mary did know a man eventually. The word never means never, right?
- In Chapter V, the high-priest heard a voice from the ark and the mercy seat giving him instructions on what to do about Mary’s vow to the Lord. How did he have the ark? The ark’s location has been unknown since the Babylonian Captivity long before that time.
Chapter VII and VIII gives the account that we are familiar with because the details coincide with the gospels in the canon. These are the similarities between the text and the canonized gospels particularly Matthew and Luke:
- Gabriel appears to Mary and announces her bringing forth the Son of God while yet being a virgin.
- Joseph is portrayed as a just man who does not want to publicly put Mary to shame but end the engagement quietly.
- An angel appears to Joseph and confirms that the child is from the Holy Ghost and should take Mary as his wife.
- Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
- Jesus is portrayed as the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
This text was probably not included in the New Testament canon because of the lack of information about its origin. What if Jerome made it up since this is the earliest manuscript known? Also, there are no other works which give any information on the parents of Mary much less give so much detail. Should there be more witnesses to this story? Are oral tradition and one text enough to validate it as apt to be in the canon?
As I was reading this text, I was reminded of how Mary has been put on a pedestal in some religions. Growing up in Mexico, I was surrounded by Catholicism. I was always amazed at the reverence and faith people have in the Virgin Mary as if she was still alive today and was involved in people’s lives. I noticed that just as like people talk to and pray to God, they do to the Virgin Mary. I can see why this is the case if this text is considered authentic and God inspired by the Catholic Church. The writer was definitely trying to place Mary in the same or higher status than the canonized gospels do Jesus. Now, the writer’s audience did not probably consider themselves Catholic at that time but this audience was definitely one who was familiar with the story of Jesus. Perhaps, his intent was to portray Mary as this super holy woman to try to authenticate the divinity of Jesus even more. What if this text did not make it into the canon because it was elevating Mary too much? So, Jesus’ mom has got it goin’ on? Maybe so according to this text, but not enough for this text to be included in the canon.