The title “Protevangelium” or First Gospel was given to this document by the Frenchman Guillaume Postel, who first published it in Latin in 1552.
The author identifies himself as James — presumably the kinsman of Jesus — and claims to have written shortly after the death of Herod in 4 B.C. This dating is unlikely, however, as the work shows the influence of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. An early boundary is set by the use of Matthew and Luke; a late boundary is set by Origen’s referring to the work, and by its inclusion in the Bodmer papyri. Within this range, a dating in the middle of the second century is accepted by most scholars.
The majority of the work is devoted to the life of Mary, the mother of Christ. She is portrayed not only as a virgin but as an example of purity her entire life. Its popularity is attested to by the numerous surviving ancient translations, the earliest dating back to the third century. It confirms the antiquity of such traditions as Joseph’s being a widower with several children, who is appointed Mary’s guardian; the birth of Jesus in a cave; and the martyrdom of John the Baptist’s father Zechariah during the slaughter of the infants.
Over 140 manuscripts containing the Greek text of the Infancy Gospel of James have been recovered. We have the book in the original Greek and in several oriental versions, the oldest of which is the Syriac. But, oddly enough, there is no Latin version. The matter is found in an expanded and altered form in the ‘Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew’, but we have yet to find an old Latin translation of the present text. Such a thing seems to have existed, since the work is condemned in the Gelasian Decree.
Though the Protevangelium has never been considered Scripture, it is well worth reading to see what early Christians accepted as normal. Within living memory of the last of the apostles, the Protevangelium was being copied, translated and distributed among the churches, who found it both profitable and familiar.