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Apocryphal gospels: flights of fact or fantasy?

Kieran210508.jpg What are the names of Mary’s parents? Did you know that St Joseph was an elderly widower with several children? That when Mary was a child her feet did not touch the floor as she walked? That the Christ child worked miracles to cover up his mischief?
Many of these stories are told in a book called The Secret Life of Jesus. Although they seem far-fetched to anyone versed in the canonical texts, the author found the stories in a group of ancient apocryphal gospels.
The term apocrypha means ‘fictitious, spurious, adulterated’, and comes from the Greek apocrypto ‘to hide or conceal’. Early Christians used the term to describe gospels that were not accepted into the New Testament canon and not inspired by God. The books themselves grew as attempts to fill in the gaps about the life of Jesus left by the four official gospels: details about Our Lord, especially his infancy and childhood, Mary, her early years, the apostles and other characters in the New Testament.

Attributed to renowned persons
In the early years, these gospels circulated freely among the faithful. They were often read publicly, but in time were prohibited because of the ridiculous and childish anecdotes in them. The term apocryphal then came to mean ‘prohibited, not for everyone’. Yet they remained in use through the centuries and at least 30 of them are still in existence. All are attributed to some renowned personality in antiquity such as James, Peter, Thomas and Mary, giving the books greater authority. That they were written in Greek, then translated into Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Latin show how widespread they became.

Some stories
Some begin with Mary’s miraculous birth; her mother, Anne, was barren and in anguish; Joachim, her father, goes to fast in the desert for 40 days, to pray for a son. There an angel announces the birth of a daughter who would be honoured over the whole world. Mary is described as being inclined to purity from her early years. At six months, her mother wanted to put her on the floor to teach her to walk, but Mary did not want to. Thus a special platform had to be made where she could walk without touching the floor. At three years of age, her parents took her to the Temple where she stayed, being fed by angels from heaven. She interpreted the scriptures with extraordinary wisdom, healing ailments with her touch.

Dove from Joseph’s staff
When she was 12, the high priest wished Mary to marry a young lad, but she had made a vow of perpetual virginity (the non-Jewish nature of this material is clear in the fact that such a vow would negate any Jewish marriage). So the high priest placed her in the custody of an old man (hence the many unfortunate pictures of an elderly Joseph) of 91 years of age and father of several children from his first marriage (the brothers and sisters of Jesus). The high priest took the staffs of all the prospective partners to God, asking for a sign and a dove emerged from Joseph’s staff. Mary was then delivered into elderly Joseph’s care.

Less edifying tales
The accusation of infidelity on the part of Mary led to the water ritual of drinking from a polluted stream (Numbers 5:11-31). Joseph was included in this test because an accusation of infidelity to the promise of celibacy had been levelled against him, too. The couple were proved innocent. The midwife who tested Mary’s virginity after birth has her hand turn black as coal, but her stroking of the child led to her healing.

The unmanageable child
Jesus grew to become a whimsical, ill-mannered and hot-tempered child. One Sabbath, as a five-year-old, while playing with clay, he fashioned 12 doves. When Joseph scolded him for breaking the Sabbath, Jesus clapped his hands and, to the humiliation of Joseph, the doves flew up into the air. When a play companion destroyed Jesus’ sand castle, Jesus angrily cursed the boy and turned him into a dried-up tree. Another time, when a boy bumped into him, Jesus cursed him and the boy dropped dead, slightly more drastic than turning a group into goats because he did not want to play with them.
Jesus’ school years were just as stormy, for the child was just too bright and the teacher sent him home. Other teachers tried and one, who struck the child, was himself struck dead. Other incidents involve the child breaking the water jar he was carrying home, but then bringing the water folded in his mantle. In another story, a length of wood was cut short by Joseph and his son stretched to its right length. Such stories were accepted by many, and some may even have a touch of historicity about them, such as the names of Mary’s parents.

Surviving Apocrypha
Many beliefs have actually come into the Christian memory through these gospels: Mary on a donkey on the way to Bethlehem, with Joseph leading the animal, that she was heavily pregnant (Luke actually suggests she arrived with a few months to spare), the three magi with their names (Matthew wrote that they arrived two years after the birth). The belief that Mary suffered no pain during childbirth is taken from apocrypha, while the canonical gospels suggest the birth was quite normal, as with most women. Knowing a little of the contents of these gospels helps us appreciate the official gospels better, and distinguishes their teachings from the tales that have entered the faith through false doors.

Reference: Valdes, Ariel A.The Bible: Questions People Ask.