THE GOSPEL OF THE NATIVITY OF MARY
B. H. Cowper
[Extracted from his Apocryphal Gospels, pp. 84-98. ]
As Bishop Ellicott has said, "This Gospel is usually found among the works of Jerome, and has been edited separately by Fabricius, Thilo, and after them by Tischendorf. It has gained no little celebrity from having been admitted nearly entire into the Aurea Legenda. Judging from the style, it would seem to be less a translation than a Latin recension of the popular story respecting the birth and childhood of Mary. The writer uses the Latin Vulgate, and therefore wrote after that was published. It is far less extravagant, and in a better style, than some other compilations of its class, both earlier and later. Mary is represented as being fourteen years of age before she was espoused to Joseph, who afterwards went into Galilee to take her as his wife. The birth of Jesus is simply said to have occurred at Bethlehem, as the holy evangelists have taught, and the book concludes with a doxology to the Holy Trinity.
THE GOSPEL OF THE NATIVITY OF MARY
The blessed and glorious Mary ever virgin, sprung of the royal stock and family of David, and born in the city of Nazareth, was brought up at Jerusalem in the temple of the Lord. Her father was called Joachim and her mother Anna. Her father's house was of Galilee and the city of Nazareth, and her mother's race was of Bethlehem. Their life was simple and upright before the Lord, and pious and blameless before men. For they divided all their substance into three parts; one part they gave to the temple and the servants of the temple, another they devoted to strangers and the poor, the third they reserved for the use of their family and for themselves. Thus these persons, dear to God, and good to men, passed about twenty years in chaste matrimony at home without producing children. But they vowed, that if God perchance should give them offspring they would yield it to the service of the Lord; for which cause they were wont to frequent the temple of the Lord at every festival in the year.
Now it came to pass that the feast of the dedication drew on; wherefore Joachim also with some of his kindred went up to Jerusalem. Now at that time Issachar was chief priest there. And when among his other fellow townsmen he also saw Joachim with his offering, he despised him and spurned his gifts, asking why he who was childless should presume to stand among those who had children; saying that his gifts could not at all seem worthy to God, seeing that He had judged him unworthy of offspring, when the scripture saith, that every one is accursed who hath not begotten male or female in Israel.1 He said therefore that he must first be released from this curse by having offspring, and then at length he was to come before the Lord with his offerings. Joachim being covered with much shame by this reproach cast upon him, withdrew to the shepherds who were with the flocks in their pastures; for he would not return home, lest he should be stigmatised with the same reproach by his kinsmen, who were also present and heard this from the priest.
But when he had been there some time, on a cer- [p.87] tain day when he was alone, the angel of the Lord stood by him with a very great light. He being troubled at the sight of him, the angel who appeared to him allayed his fear, saying, Fear not, Joachim, nor be troubled at the sight of me; for I am an angel of the Lord, sent by Him to thee to tell thee that thy prayers are heard, and that thy alms have come up in His sight. For He hath truly seen thy shame and heard the reproach of barrenness not rightly cast upon thee. For God is the avenger of sin, not of nature, and therefore when He maketh any childless. He doth it for this cause, that He may the more wonderfully afford relief, and that that which is born may be known not to be of concupiscense but of the divine gift. For was not Sarah .the first mother of your race unfruitful till her eightieth year? and yet in the last period of old age she bore Isaac, to whom was promised the blessing of all nations.2 Rachel also, so pleasant to the Lord and so loved by holy Jacob, was long barren, and yet bore Joseph, not only lord of Egypt, but the deliverer of many nations who were about to perish of hunger. Who among the princes was stronger than Samson, or holier than Samuel? and yet both of them had barren mothers. If then reason persuadeth thee not by my words, believe in fact, that conceptions long delayed and barren births are wont [p.88] to be more wonderful. Therefore Anna thy wife shall bear thee a daughter, and thou shalt call her name Mary; she shall be, as you have vowed, consecrated to the Lord from her infancy, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from her mother's womb.3 She shall neither eat nor drink anything impure, nor shall her conversation be among public crowds out of doors, but in the temple of the Lord, that nothing evil may be said or so much as suspected of her. Therefore with advancing age, as she shall be marvellously born of one barren, so she who is incomparably a virgin shall conceive the son of the Most High who shall be called Jesus, and according to the etymology of his name shall be the Saviour of all nations. And this shall be to thee a sign of what I announce: when thou comest to the Golden Gate at Jerusalem,4 thou shalt have there to meet thee Anna thy wife, who now being anxious through the delay of thy return, will then rejoice in seeing thee. This said, the angel departed from him.
Then he appeared to Anna his wife, saying. Fear not, Anna, nor think it is a fantasm which thou [p.89] seest. For I am that angel which hath offered your prayers and alms in the sight of God, and am now sent to you to announce that a daughter shall be born to you, who shall be called Mary and be blessed above all women. She, being full of the grace of the Lord from her very birth, shall remain in the house of her parents the three years of her suckling5 afterwards being given up to the service of the Lord, she shall not leave the temple till her years of understanding; there in fine, serving God night and day in fastings and prayers, she shall abstain from everything unclean, she shall never know man, but alone, without example, without spot, without corruption, without intercourse with man, as a virgin shall conceive a son, and as a handmaid (shall conceive) the Lord who by grace and name and work shall be the Saviour of the world. Therefore arise, go up to Jerusalem, and when thou comest to the gate, which is called Golden, because it is gilded, there for a sign shalt thou meet thy husband for whose safety and welfare thou art anxious. Therefore when these things fall out thus, know that what I tell thee will be without doubt accomplished.6
Therefore according to the precept of the angel, [p.90] both, of them leaving the places in which they were, went up to Jerusalem; and when they had come to the place indicated by the angelic prediction, there they met together. Then rejoicing at the sight of one another, and certainly sure of the promised offspring, they gave due thanks to the Lord the exalter of the humble. Therefore, having adored the Lord, they returned home sure of the divine promise; and they cheerfully waited. Therefore Anna conceived and bore a daughter, and according to the angel's bidding, her parents called her name Mary.
And when the course of three years had rolled round, and the time for weaning was accomplished, they brought the virgin to the temple of the Lord with their offerings. Now there were around the temple, according to the fifteen psalms of degrees, fifteen steps to go up: for since the temple was set upon a mount, the altar of burnt offering, which was outside, could not be approached except by steps. Upon one of these, therefore, her parents set the blessed little Virgin Mary. And while they took off the garments which they had worn on the journey, and arrayed themselves, according to custom, in vesture more gay and clean, the virgin of the Lord went up all the steps in order, without the hand of [p.91] anyone to lead and lift her; so that, in this case, you might suppose she came nothing short of perfect age. Already then, the Lord wrought something great in the infancy of his virgin, and showed beforehand, by the indication of this miracle, how great she should be. Therefore, when the sacrifice was accomplished, according to the custom of the law, and their vow performed, they left the virgin with other virgins within the precincts of the temple to be brought up there; but they themselves returned home.7
Now the virgin of the Lord, with advancing age, also made progress in virtue; and, according to the Psalmist, Father and mother had left her, but the Lord took her up.8 For she was daily attended by angels, and daily she enjoyed the divine vision, which kept her from all evil, and caused her to abound in all good. She came, therefore, to her fourteenth year, and not only could they devise against her no evil, nor anything worthy of blame, but all good men who knew her judged her life and conversation worthy of admiration. Then the chief priest publicly announced that the virgins who were publicly placed in the temple, and had arrived at this time of life, [p.92] should return home and seek to be married, according to the custom of the nation, and the maturity of their age. But when the others had promptly obeyed this command, Mary alone, the virgin of the Lord, answered that she could not do this, saying that her parents had given her up to the service of the Lord; and that moreover she had herself vowed her virginity to the Lord, and would never violate it by any carnal association with man. Now the chief priest, being perplexed in mind, because he did not think the vow should be broken against the Scripture, which saith, Vow and pay;9 neither dared he introduce a custom unusual with the nation: so he gave order that, at the impending festival all the chief men of Jerusalem and the neighbouring places should attend, with whose counsel he might know what was to be done in so doubtful a matter. When this took place, it pleased them all alike, that the Lord should be consulted in this affair. And while they all bowed down in prayer, the chief priest went to consult God, according to custom: nor was there any delay, for in the hearing of all, there came a voice from the oracle and the place of the mercy-seat, that, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, inquiry must be made, to whom that virgin ought to be commended and espoused. For it is clear that Isaiah saith, A rod shall go forth from the root of Jesse, [p.93] and a flower shall arise from his root, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a Spirit of wisdom and understanding, a Spirit of counsel and might, a Spirit of knowledge and piety, and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him.10 According to this prophecy therefore, he foretold that all of the house and family of David who were fit to be married but not married, should bring their rods to the altar; and he whose rod, after it was brought should produce a flower, while on its top the Spirit of the Lord sat in the form of a dove, he it was to whom the virgin ought to be commended and espoused.11
Now among others was Joseph, an aged man of the house and family of David; but when all of them brought their rods in order, he alone withdrew his. Therefore, when nothing appeared agreeable to the divine voice, the chief priest thought that God should be consulted again; and He answered that of those who were designated, he alone to whom He must espouse the virgin had not brought his rod. Joseph therefore was betrayed; for when he brought his rod, and a dove came from heaven and sat on the top of it, it was plainly apparent to [p.94] all that the virgin was to be espoused to him. When, therefore, the betrothal had been celebrated in the wonted manner, he retired to the city of Bethlehem to set his house in order, and to procure what was required by his marriage. But Mary, the virgin of the Lord, with seven other virgins of like age, and brought up with her, whom she had received from the priest, returned to the house of her parents in Galilee.12
Now in those days, namely, at the time when she first came into Galilee, the
angel Gabriel was sent to her from God, to make known to her the Lord's
conception, and to explain to her the method or order of the conception. At
length, having entered unto her, he filled the chamber where she abode with an
immense light, and saluting her most courteously, he said, Hail, Mary! most
acceptable virgin of the Lord! Virgin, full of grace, the Lord be with thee;
blessed art thou before all women; blessed art thou before all men hitherto
born. But the virgin, who already well knew the countenances of angels, and was
not unused to heavenly light, was neither terrified by the angelic vision, nor
stupefied by the greatness of the light, but was troubled at his word alone; and
[p.95] began to think what that salutation, so unwonted, could be, or what it
portended, or what end it would have. But the angel, divinely inspired,
counteracting this thought, said. Fear not, Mary, as though I meant something
contrary to thy chastity by this salutation; for thou hast found grace with the
Lord, because thou hast chosen chastity; therefore, thou, as a virgin, shalt
conceive without sin, and shalt bear a son. He shall be great, for he shall rule
from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the world; and he shall be
called the Son of the Most High, for he who is born humble on earth, reigneth
exalted in heaven: and the Lord God shall give to him the seat of his father
David, and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom
shall be no end; since he is himself King of kings, and Lord of Lords, and his
throne for ever and ever.13
The virgin, not incredulous at these words of the angel, but wishing to know the mode of their accomplishment, answered. How can this be? For since according to my vow I never knew man, how can I bring forth without human seed? To this the angel replied. Think not, Mary, that thou wilt conceive in human manner, for without intercourse with man, as a virgin thou shalt conceive, as a virgin thou shalt bring forth, as a virgin thou shalt nourish: for the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of [p.96] the Most High shall overshadow thee contrary to all fire of concupiscence; therefore, what is born of thee will be alone holy, because alone conceived and born without sin, and shall be called the Son of God. Then Mary, with outspread hands and eyes lifted up to heaven, said. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, for I am unworthy of the name of lady ; let it be unto me according to thy word.
It would perhaps be long and tedious to some, if we wished to insert, in this little work, all that we read preceded or followed the Lord's nativity; wherefore, omitting those things which are more fully written in the Gospel, let us come to the narration of those things which are less detailed.14
Joseph, therefore, having come from Judea into Galilee, intended to take as wife the virgin who was espoused to him; for three months had now elapsed, and the fourth approached from the time when she had been espoused to him. Meanwhile her pregnancy began gradually to show itself, and it could not be hidden from Joseph; for entering freely to the virgin in the manner of a spouse, and talking [p.97] familiarly with her, he perceived her to be with child. Therefore, he began to be disturbed and troubled in mind, because he knew not what it was best for him to do; for he neither wished to expose her, because he was a just man, nor to defame her by a suspicion of unchastity, because he was a good man. Therefore, he thought to dissolve his marriage privately, and to put her away secretly. But while he thought thus, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, fear not: that is, cherish no suspicion of unchastity against the virgin, nor think anything bad, nor fear to take her to wife ; for that which she hath conceived and now vexeth thy mind, is not the work of man, but of the Holy Spirit. For she alone, of all, as a virgin, shall bear the Son of God; and thou shalt call his name Jesus, that is, a Saviour; for he shall save his people from their sins. Therefore, Joseph, according to the command of the angel, took the virgin to wife, yet knew her not, but kept her carefully under his protection in chastity.15 And now the ninth month from her conception drew near, when Joseph, having taking his wife, with what else was necessary, went to the city of Bethlehem, whence he was. And it came to pass while they were there, her days were accomplished that she should bring forth, and, as the holy Evangelists have taught, she [p.98] brought forth her first born Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth God for over and ever.16
1 I find no text in which any such statement is made.
2 Gen. xvii. 17. Sarah was ninety years old at the time referred to.
3 This promise is a mere paraphrase of Luke i. 11-15, which relates to the birth of John the Baptist.
4 As already observed, the Golden-Gate was not a gate of the city, but of the Temple.
5 Literally, weaning.
6 This annunciation to Anna seems invented as a counterpart to the one recorded of Mary in the Gospels.
7 Comp. Pseudo-Matthew, iv., notes.
8 Ibid., xxvii. 10.
9 Deut. xxiii. 21; Ps. xxvi. 4; Eccles. v. 4.
10 Is. xi. 1-2.
11 Comp. Pseudo-Matthew, vi.-viii.
12 Cf. Pseudo-Matthew, viii.
13 Ps. lxxii. 8; Luke i. 33.
14 This last paragraph reads like an addition, but is not such of necessity. Comp. Pseudo-Matthew ix.
15 Matt. 1. 11-24.
16 Matt. i. 25; ii. 1; Luke ii. 4-7. The concluding doxology looks as if taken from some liturgical formula. Compare Pseudo-Matthew x.