Joseph in the Matrix

Are you familiar with the movie The Matrix? I’m not so worried about the plot of the movie here; instead, I’m wondering about a particular effect created in the film: time essentially stopped or slowed incredibly, but the main character (“Neo,” played by Keanu Reeves) appeared conscious in the midst of the slowdown. Do you think this was a new technique? I remember watching it, thinking that it wasn’t just cool, it was innovative.

What if I told you about a noncanonical story of Jesus’ mother, Mary, circulated among early Christians—one that used a similar technique? And what if I told you it happened right at the point when Jesus was born? Well, it did, and that story is also known as the Protevangelium (or “Proto-Gospel”) of James (though in all likelihood, James, Jesus’ brother, had nothing to do with it). It tells a story of Mary’s parents, her birth, how she was raised, how Joseph came into the picture, and—of course—the birth of Jesus.

The Protevangelium of James is found in a group of writings usually called “apocryphal gospels” or “New Testament apocrypha” or sometimes even simply “noncanonical gospels.” I’ve been working on a version of the apocryphal gospel material available in Greek. We recently expanded it to a two-volume collection. One volume includes “Texts and Transcriptions”; this is the Greek material with morphological analysis. The second volume includes “Introductions and Translations”—newly written introductions to each document, fragment, or excerpt, as well as newly compiled bibliographies, and translations of all the material. It’s pretty cool (at least I think so); check it out if you’re interested. Most of the work is done, and we hope to release it early in 2013.

Anyway, back to Joseph in the Matrix. Here’s the setting: Joseph and Mary are traveling to Bethlehem for the census. Mary is at pretty much full-term pregnancy. On the way, though, Mary says to Joseph, “Take me down from the donkey, for that which is within me presses hard to come out.” (Prot. James 17.3) Now, any father-to-be can identify with Joseph here. His task is to find a place for Mary, and quick. So, according to this version of the story, Joseph finds a cave, drops Mary off there, and immediately goes to find a Hebrew midwife to assist with the birth.

And here is where the shift happens. The story was in the third person, but in Prot. James 18.2, it shifts to the first person singular, with Joseph as speaker.

“Now I, Joseph, was walking, yet I did not walk. And I looked up to the air and saw that the air was astonished. And I looked up unto the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and the birds of the sky at rest. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish laid out, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish. And they that were chewing did not chew, and they that were lifting food did not lift it, and they that put it to their mouth had not put it there. And behold, there were sheep being driven, and they did not go forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to strike them with his staff, yet his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the goats upon the water, yet they did not drink. And suddenly all things were restored to their course.”

Joseph notes, “I was walking, yet I did not walk.” Other people and objects are described in a similar state of being, but not moving; essentially stuck: “there were sheep being driven, and they did not go forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to strike them with his staff, yet his hand remained up.” The picture is of a moment, frozen in time. Joseph is caught in that moment, similarly frozen, but consciously aware of it. And then, as suddenly as the moment comes, it leaves: “And suddenly all things were restored to their course.”

After this experience, Joseph conveniently and immediately locates a Hebrew midwife, and returns to the cave with her. Joseph and the midwife then find out that Jesus had already been born.

So why even mention this story at Christmastime? Not because it is canonical (it isn’t) or because it accurately supplements the story of Jesus’ birth (it probably doesn’t). But this is another way that some early Christians—particularly those who were struggling with the concept of the virgin birth—told that story. They told it in a way that allowed them to believe the virgin birth actually happened.

Not only that, it’s a good story, though I do like Luke’s version better.

Pick up your copy of Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha today.

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Comments

  1. gregory allen says:

    Gee, I wonder what other pagan gospels Logos will decide to digitize next. Maybe it’ll be the “Gospel According to Dan Brown “as told to Tom Hanks,” or “The Gospel According to Cameron’s Avatar,” or “Oprah.” I’d suggest thinking about the biblical illiteracy out there ladies and gentlemen. Could we stick to the Gospels please? I know “Christians” who already think Neo is a picture of Christ because of the “savior” idea that he portrays in the film. Jesus didn’t have to have someone else abduct and save Him to make Him realize who he was. In reality, Neo’s the false Messiah, a picture of the Antichrist duping the world into thinking he’s come to save them all. That was the agenda behind the film, and it’s hardly worthy of drawing illustration and comparisons from. He is the “NEO-Christ.” (Matt.24:3; 2Thess 2:3-12). The only value in these stories is that they represent the historicity of Jesus birth, life and death, illustrating that even the pagans new of Him. We’re living in a time when people are seeking mystic experiences to “enhance” their faith. But if faith comes by hearing of the Word of God (Rom.10:17), nobody’s going to “enhance” anything genuine here. This is spiritual junk food. It’s “another gospel” and it’s not good news. I find it a departure from your calling to advance this as an enhancement to the nativity story. What’s next? The “Gospel According to Spiderman?”

    • Hi Gregory.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      I agree that the non-canonical or apocryphal gospels have nothing canonical about them, and that they do not supplement the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth or any other material found in the Bible, and was careful to state that in the blog post.

      I also don’t think that the film “The Matrix” has anything do with the Bible. It’s a movie. I was using the time-slowing technique made popular for a time by the films as a segue into a similar episode found in a non-canonical gospel. And I still think it is a cool story though it contributes nothing to the Biblical account. I did not call it an enhancement to the nativity story (I actually said the opposite) and specifically said that I like the nativity account in Luke better.

      As to why such material would be useful for anyone — I agree that the gospel is primary. But if anyone has any interest in the church of the second century through, say the sixth century or so, then this non-canonical material becomes immediately valuable. Not because the people of those churches forsook the Bible we know today for this non-canonical material, but because through this material, we can see the sorts of issues and problems they were dealing with.

      The Protevangelium of James, which I referenced in the blog post, is the classic example. It is, essentially, a vigorous defense of the virgin birth of Christ — something well worth defending, though I might not agree with how they did it. The primary reason for its existence is that (surprise) folks even back then had problems with the virgin birth, and couldn’t accept it. This story helped them. For that, it is valuable. And I think it is also valuable for insight into the church of that era, its problems, and how they tried to solve them. They are not new problems, and we have problems similar to them. Understanding the problems they faced helps us think better about the problems we face, and thus more effectively proclaim the message of Christ.

  2. Timothy Smith says:

    Thank you for your respectful answer to Gregory, I don’t think I would have shown as much patience if I were responding to him.

    Is there any evidence that supports an Ante-Nicene date over a post-Nicene date or vice versa for the protevangelium of James. It seems to me more difficult to gain insight into the Christian Community in which the non-cannonical gospel was written with a broad timeline of 2nd to 6th century. Maybe more important was it written Ante Pacem or after the peace?

    If you lean to the earlier date, how might the Protevangelium relate to apologetic literature of the day, or to the pagan attacks against Christianity such as reflected in Contra Celsum or later The Passing of Peregrinus? If it is Nicene or Post Nicene how does it relate to the Christological controversies?

    Since you have been working with this text, I would be interested in your opinion.

    P.S. It seems to me that this work is much like popular Christian Literature of our day; i.e., like modern popular Christian fiction or light theoloy/ devotional works such as that of Philip Yancey. Gregory is a bit hyper in his reaction in my opinon. Thank you for your blog post which helps make Protevangelium more relevant to people who are not familiar with it. It makes me also wonder if Gregory celebrates Christmas, since much of the conceptions and images of Christmas that people have today have there origins in works like the Protevangelium and not in the text of Luke or Matthew.

  3. Thank you, Rick for this article on the Protevangelium!

    I get chuckles from comments such as many have made along the lines of “…if it’s not in the Bible, then it’s not to be read…” when the Holy Scriptures themselves state that not everything was written down. Further, they state that it would be impossible to do so (John 21:25).

    The Protevangelium was widely read & much respected in the early Church; ironically, it (along with many other early works) that came very close to being canonized while Hebrews & Revelation came very close to not being so.

    If one can learn about God by viewing creation (Romans 1:20), then why can we not read other writings in order to gain spiritual insight? If one is to restrict themselves to the canon of Holy Scripture, then why are books by the likes of Geisler, Peale, the Wesley brothers, Spurgeon, Strong, Tyndale, Calvin, Aquinas, Darby, Scofield, LaHaye/Jenkins (religious fiction), Finney, Tozer & innumerable others so widely read? Why are lexicons, dictionaries & concordances so popular? And ultimately, why buy Logos software with all of its non-canonical resources?

    If one has proper understanding of & solid grounding in spiritual truth, then there is no danger from doing so & one’s spiritual insight into the Holy Scriptures just might be deepened.

    Again, thank you, Rick & all of the Logos team for exposing us to resources outside of the Holy Scriptures that may enlighten & enrich our understanding of them :-)