Some Catholic Traditions Come from Apocryphal Books

On November 21, the church celebrates the liturgical feast called the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast commemorates the event of Mary at the age of 3 being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and left there to be raised by holy women. It is a feast that shows Mary to have been totally dedicated to God from the beginning of her life.

Yet, you will not find this story in the Bible. Rather, it comes from a book called the “Protoevangelium of James,” or simply, the “Gospel of James.” Though it is not in the Bible, it is still valuable and important, not to mention ancient.

The “Gospel of James” was written around 150 AD with the express purpose of detailing the earlier events that took place before the Nativity stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The work claims, right in the text, to have been written by James, the solaced “brother of the Lord” from the Acts of the Apostles. The author refers to himself as the stepbrother of Jesus, the son of St. Joseph by a prior marriage. Despite this claim, we can be fairly certain it was written by someone else.

This sort of writing is called an apocryphal gospel. Apocryphal writings, along with Gnostic gospels, are ancient texts purportedly written by biblical figures but which are not inspired by the Holy Spirit as the books of the New Testament are. Although not inspired, some of them can give us a valuable window into the early church, and they are also the source of important stories and characters in Catholic tradition.

Along with the story of Mary being dedicated in the Temple, we also learn of her parents’ names, Anna and Joachim, in these non-inspired texts. The names of the three Magi, Melchior, Casper and Balthasar, come from a work called the “Acts of Thomas.” And the story of the reason why St. Joseph is always portrayed holding a staff blooming with lilies also comes from the “Gospel of James.”

The story of Joseph and the blooming staff is a very interesting one. The story goes like this: As the Virgin Mary was getting closer to the age of marriage, she attracted the attention of several men due to her beauty and purity. Since so many guys wanted to marry her, the high priest of the Temple decided to have all her suitors (including Joseph) leave their staffs in the Temple overnight, and God would give them a sign in the morning as to who was his choice to have the hand of Mary. The next morning all the staffs were unchanged except for Joseph’s; his bloomed with lilies. There are some portrayals of this event in art that show the other men so frustrated over not being chosen that they are breaking their staffs over their knees.

Apocrypha are texts that were written in the context of the early church. The name means, “things hidden”; they were never really considered to be inspired by the general church population.

The term for a segment of the apocrypha that has become more popular in recent novels and movies is “Gnostic.” The Gnostic works are a subsection of the apocrypha, comprising about 50 texts. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word, “gnosis,” which means knowledge. The Gnostics date from the second to the fourth centuries and have their origin in both pagan and Jewish groups of people who thought they were enlightened with a special knowledge either from God or, in the case of the pagans, from one of the many gods. So those who subscribed to a Gnostic text believed that they had a special and unique relationship to the deity, though again, the church never endorsed this sort of behavior.

Many of these non-inspired texts can still be purchased at your local bookstore, often with very intriguing titles like, “The Lost Books of the Bible” or, “The Hidden Books of the Bible.” The fact is they are not lost or hidden. They were books that were known to us from the earliest times. They were just determined by the church not to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But still, we as a church have been influenced by these texts, from the setting of our liturgical calendar as with the feast of the Presentation of Mary to the images of our statues like Joseph and the lilies. If you have the desire to read these letters and books, it is important always to keep in mind that they are not inspired and not in any way on par with canonical Scripture or even with the writing of the church fathers, like St. Clement or Justin Martyr. They are not nearly as important as the books in the Bible, and as such, those are the ones we should always read first.

Previously published November 2011