The dogma of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception “by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race.” This was solemnly proclaimed as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, after consultation with theologians and the bishops of the world. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there had been a liturgical feast celebrating the Immaculate Conception since the Middle Ages, several popes had articulated and defended the doctrine, and it had become widely accepted in the Church. At the time of its proclamation, the doctrine obviously met the standard of catholicity (being held by the whole Church)—one of the marks of revealed truth. But it’s less clear that it meets the standard of apostolicity (being part of the deposit of faith handed down from before the death of the last apostle). And non-Catholic Christians often object to the dogma on that ground.
That the language of the dogma is not found in Scripture doesn’t count against its truth—the Church had long been explaining its doctrines in technical theological language (as in the Nicene Creed’s key term homoousios, “consubstantial”). While the theology of the Immaculate Conception was not formulated until the Middle Ages, it was widely believed from the earliest days of the Church that Mary was spared from the consequences of the Fall—as an apocryphal gynecological exam testifies.
The Protoevangelium of James is one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature, written perhaps by the year 150 or even earlier, telling the stories of the birth of Mary, her marriage to St. Joseph, and the birth of Jesus. It appears to be the source for the traditional names of Mary’s parents, and the reason why typical Nativity scenes will be in a cave and include the Magi and the star they followed (despite St. Matthew telling us that happened when Jesus was about two). In chapters 19–20 of the story, just as a midwife comes to Mary, a cloud and light surround her, after which the baby Jesus appears in her arms. The midwife tells a second midwife, named Salome, about Mary’s miraculous and labor-free birth after her miraculous virginal conception of the child. The skeptical Salome insists on examining Mary to prove that she was still a physical virgin—and discovers that she was.
The Protoevangelium is often dismissed as apocryphal writing, to distinguish it from the canonical writings of the New Testament. And I don’t believe for a second that the above scene actually happened. But unlike other apocryphal writings such as the Gnostic imitations of the Gospels, the Protoevangelium is trying to be orthodox. It is perhaps best understood as pious fiction, like the series The Chosen, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which reshape and even add to the historical materials while dramatizing parts of the Christian story. The authors of these “apocrypha” hoped to strengthen the faith and feed the imaginations of Christians, not undermine it by their changes and inaccuracies. And the same is clearly the purpose of the anonymous author of the Protoevangelium.
The weird story of Salome was included to show that Mary was not subject to original sin. After the Fall, God punishes Eve and her descendants with two specific curses. First, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Second, “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The story of the midwife is meant to give expert testimony that Mary was a virgin before her pregnancy (implying that she was not overcome by desire for Joseph, and thus not subject to curse #2) and that she was a physical virgin even in childbirth (implying that for her, childbearing had zero pain, and thus that she was not subject to curse #1).
St. Irenaeus, writing around the year 200, talks about Mary as the New Eve, just as St. Paul describes Jesus as the New Adam (1 Cor. 15:45); the Protoevangelium, written perhaps decades earlier, portrays Mary as an uncursed Eve. The Protoevangelium’s purpose in showing Mary’s pain-free childbirth seems to have been to distinguish her case from that of all other women, suggesting that she was not for an instant subject to original sin.
The Protoevangelium is thus not without value as historical testimony: The stories assume and build upon Christian traditions and the Scriptures. Its value is as testimony to what sort of unwritten traditions about Mary had already become widespread a few decades after she lived, one of which was that Mary was not subject to the curse of Eve. This idea, which would develop into the fully articulated dogma of the Immaculate Conception, was clearly present in one of the earliest surviving works of Christian writing after the New Testament period.
Fr. Daniel P. Moloney is assistant professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.
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