Apocryphal writings good source of information on Mary, her parents

Published: December 2, 2006

By Sister Cabrini Schmitz, OSB

The Church celebrates many feasts of Mary, the Mother of God, in the course of the liturgical year. Some of Mary’s feasts have definite ties with the Gospels while others have no reference in Scripture. For example, no hint of the two feasts in the fall — the Nativity of Mary on Sept. 8 and the Presentation of Mary on Nov. 21 — are found in the New Testament.

However, from ancient times both Mary’s birth and her presentation were celebrated in the Eastern Church. As far back as the fifth century a church was built on the traditional site of Mary’s birth in Jerusalem. However, the feast of the Nativity of Mary first appeared in the Roman calendar in the eighth century.

As for the feast of the Presentation of Mary, it too had been a festive day in Jerusalem as early as the sixth century when a church was built there to honor this significant event in Mary’s life. Five centuries later this feast appeared in the Western Church. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the feast was extended to the whole Catholic world.

So how did the early Eastern Christians know the names of Mary’s parents and the information about her birth and presentation? The historical documents that reveal this information are called apocryphal literature. These are writings that were not included with the 27 books that make up the official canon of the New Testament.

“The Protoevangelium of James,” the “Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew,” and the “Gospel of the Nativity of Mary” are just a few of the apocryphal writings that include the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, and the details of her birth and her presentation in the Temple when she was three years old. (They presented Mary in the Temple to fulfill the vow each had made when God gave them a child.)

Here is a sample passage from the “Protoevangelium of James,” which gives both the parental names and the background for the Temple presentation of Mary:

“And behold an angel of the Lord appeared, saying unto her: Anna, Anna, the Lord hath hearkened unto thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive and bear, and thy seed shall be spoken of in the whole world. And Anna said: As the Lord my God liveth, if I bring forth either male or female, I will bring it for a gift unto the Lord my God, and it shall be ministering unto him all the days of its life.” An angel had also appeared to Joachim with the promise of a child. It is recorded they named the child Mary.

It is interesting to note that the story about how Joseph was chosen from among the eligible men to be Mary’s husband also derives from the protoevangelium. When Mary arrived at the marriageable age of 12, the selection of a suitable husband was made by a testing of the rods of the men. A dove emerged from Joseph’s rod as a sign he was the chosen one.

The age difference between Joseph and Mary depicted in many paintings and statues also came from these apocryphal writings. The ancient Christian writer noted that Joseph, when selected, protested he was too old for her.

Sister Cabrini Schmitz, OSB, is prioress of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith.