Recently I read the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, in the translation by Alexander Roberts, Ian Donaldson, and Cleveland Coze. It is an “infancy narrative,” purporting like the Protoevangelium of James to tell stories that occur during the youths of Mary and Jesus. Protoevangelium takes itself seriously, was written at an early time, and speaks to the depths of the human experience
Then, Joachim was extremely frustrated and did not appear to his wife, but gave himself to the desert and pitched his tent there. He fasted forty days and forty nights. All the while, Joachim was saying to himself, “I will not go down for food or drink until the Lord my God visits me; prayer will be my food and drink.”
Then, his wife Anna mourned and lamented,
“I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I am childless.”
Pseudo-Matthew — doesn’t:
And having come to a certain cave, and wishing to rest in it, the blessed Mary dismounted from her beast, and sat down with the child Jesus in her bosom. And there were with Joseph three boys, and with Mary a girl, going on the journey along with them. And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired. Then was fulfilled that which was said by David the prophet, saying: Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons; ye dragons, and all ye deeps. And the young child Jesus, walking before them, commanded them to hurt no man. But Mary and Joseph were very much afraid lest the child should be hurt by the dragons.
And Jesus said to them: Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me. Pseudo-Matthew 18
And it’s not just the cool adventures of dragons and lions and such, but even in the introduction by “Jerome” where the author is assured that this book is not canonical:
An arduous task is enjoined upon me, since what your Blessedness has commanded me, the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew himself did not write for the purpose of publishing. For if he had not done it somewhat secretly, he would have added it also to his Gospel which he published. But he composed this book in Hebrew; and so little did he publish it, that at this day the book written in Hebrew by his own hand is in the possession of very religious men, to whom in successive periods of time it has been handed down by those that were before them. And this book they never at any time gave to any one to translate.
Pseudo-Matthew: “Reply to Their Letter by Jerome”
Later in the “introduction,” it’s made explicit that the story is doubtful, but at least it contains nothing harmful. Pseudo-Matthew is the King of Kings or Greatest Story Ever Told is the early Middle Ages:
Whether this be true or not, I leave to the author of the preface and the trustworthiness of the writer: as for myself, I pronounce them doubtful; I do not affirm that they are clearly false. But this I say freely—and I think none of the faithful will deny it—that, whether these stories be true or inventions, the sacred nativity of St. Mary was preceded by great miracles, and succeeded by the greatest; and so by those who believe that God can do these things, they can be believed and read without damaging their faith or imperiling their souls.
Pseudo-Matthew: “Reply to Their Letter by Jerome”
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is Christian fan fiction, maybe to a heretical extent, but in doing so emphasizes the importance of Mary as a mediatrix between sinners and Jesus. Pseudo-Matthew is also referenced in the Qur’an, in its chapter on Mary.
Cool Fan Fiction
There’s lots of cool stuff that one would expect from Christian fan fic.
Jesus creates birds from clay.
And it came to pass, after these things, that in the sight of all Jesus took clay froth the pools which He had made, and of it made twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when Jesus did this, and there were very many children with Him. When, therefore, one of the Jews had seen Him doing this, he said to Joseph: Joseph, dost thou not see the child
Jesus working on the Sabbath at what it is not lawful for him to do? for he has made twelve sparrows of clay.
Mary was teased as a teenager, and her living arrangement with Joseph early on sounds like a sitcom:
Then Joseph received Mary, with the other five virgins who were to be with her in Joseph’s house. These virgins were Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea, and Cael; to whom the high priest gave the silk, and the blue, and the fine linen, and the scarlet, and the purple, and the fine flax. For they cast lots among themselves what each virgin should do, and the purple for the veil of the temple of the Lord fell to the lot of Mary. And when she had got it, those virgins said to her: Since thou art the last, and humble, and younger than all, thou hast deserved to receive and obtain the purple. And thus saying, as it were in words of annoyance, they began to call her queen of virgins. While, however, they were so doing, the angel of the Lord appeared in the midst of them, saying: These words shall not have been uttered by way of annoyance, but prophesied as a prophecy most true. They trembled, therefore, at the sight of the angel, and at his words, and asked her to pardon them, and pray for them.
And Joseph said to the blessed Mary: I have brought thee two midwives–Zelomi and Salome; and they are standing outside before the entrance to the cave, not daring to come in hither, because of the exceeding brightness.
There’s plenty of fun stuff like that.
The Perfect Son
In the canonical gospel we only have one vignette of Jesus’s life between infancy and being a man, the finding in the Temple:
His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.
So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”
And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.
Recently, Pope Francis was attacked by some Catholics for saying Jesus was corrected by Joseph and Mary when he was young:
At the end of that pilgrimage, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents (cf. Lk 2:51). This image also contains a beautiful teaching about our families. A pilgrimage does not end when we arrive at our destination, but when we return home and resume our everyday lives, putting into practice the spiritual fruits of our experience. We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, causing great distress to Mary and Joseph who were unable to find him. For this little “escapade”, Jesus probably had to beg forgiveness of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it. Mary’s question, moreover, contains a certain reproach, revealing the concern and anguish which she and Joseph felt. Returning home, Jesus surely remained close to them, as a sign of his complete affection and obedience. Moments like these become part of the pilgrimage of each family; the Lord transforms the moments into opportunities to grow, to ask for and to receive forgiveness, to show love and obedience.
Pope Francis, “Holy Mass for Families, 2015
It is certain that, to a soul which loves God, there can be no greater pain than the fear of having displeased Him. Therefore in this sorrow alone did Mary complain, lovingly expostulating with Jesus, after she had found Him: “Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing” [Lk 2:48]. By these words, she had no idea of reproving Jesus, as heretics blasphemously assert, but only meant to express to Him the grief proceeding from the greatest love she bore Him, which she had experienced during His absence: ‘It was not a rebuke,’ says Denis the Carthusian, ‘but a loving complaint.’
St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The Glories of Mary“
Here the author of Pseudo-Matthew would agree with St. Liguori over Pope Francis. In The Boy-God corrects (six years before being found in the Temple! at age six!) his teachers:
And the master Levi said one letter to Jesus, and, beginning from the first letter Aleph, said to Him: Answer.
But Jesus was silent, and answered nothing.
Wherefore the preceptor Levi was angry, and seized his storax-tree road, and struck Him on the head.
And Jesus said to the teacher Levi, “Why dost thou strike me? Thou shalt know in truth, that He who is struck can teach him who strikes Him more than He can be taught by him. For I can reach you those very things that you are saying. But all these are blind who speak and hear, like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, in which there is no perception of those things which are meant by their sound.”
And Jesus in addition said to Zachyas, “Every letter from Aleph even to Thet is known by its arrangement. Say thou first, therefore, what Thet is, and I will tell you what Aleph is.”
And Jesus said to them, “Those who do not know Aleph, how can they say Thet, the hypocrites? Tell me what the first one, Aleph, is; and I shall then believe you when you have said Beth.”
and is declared to be unlike a human being — the closest this document comes to heresy, bordering on docetism, the heresy that Jesus was “truly” God but not “truly” man.
I tell you of certainty, I am not lying, that to my eyes the proceedings of this boy, the commencement of his conversation, and the upshot of his intentions, seem to have nothing in common with mortal man. Here I do not know whether he be a wizard or a god; or at least an angel of God speaks in him. Whence he is, or where he comes from, or who he will turn out to be, I know not.
The Intercession of Mary
The lack of the young Jesus’ familiarity with human experience in Pseudo-Matthew makes Mary more important as an intercessor. For instance, in one episode the young Jesus strikes down another for meddling in his work:
And it came to pass, after Jesus had returned out of Egypt, when He was in Galilee, and entering on the fourth year of His age, that on a Sabbath-day He was playing with some children at the bed of the Jordan. And as He sat there, Jesus made to Himself seven pools of clay, and to each of them He made passages, through which at His command He brought water from the torrent into the pool, and took it back again. Then one of those children, a son of the devil, moved with envy, shut the passages which supplied the pools of water, and overthrew what Jesus had built up.
Then Jesus said to him, “Woe unto thee, thou son of death, thou son of Satan! Dost thou destroy the works which I have wrought?”
And immediately he who had done this died.
Then with a great uproar the parents of the dead boy cried out against Mary and Joseph, saying to them: “Your son has cursed our son, and he is dead!”
And when Joseph and Mary heard this, they came forthwith to Jesus, on account of the outcry of the parents of the boy, and gathering together of the Jews.
It is Joseph and Mary who has a passion, a passivity, in the face of this chaos:
But Joseph said privately to Mary, “I dare not speak to Him; but do thou admonish Him, and say, ‘Why has Thou raised against us the hatred of the people, and why must the troublesome hatred of men be borne by us?'” Pseudo-Matthew 26
And Mary intercedes for the woe-begotten youth with Jesus:
Then His mother asked Him, saying: “Do not so, my Lord, because all men rise up against us.” But He, not wishing to grieve His mother, with His right foot kicked the hinderparts of the dead boy, and said to him: “Rise, thou son of iniquity, for thou art not worthy to enter into the rest of my Father, because thou didst destroy the works which I had made.”
Then he had had been dead rose up, and went away. And Jesus, by the word of His power, brought water in to the pools by the aqueduct. Pseudo-Matthew 26
Links to the Qur’an
The nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an, “Mary,” includes an episode about a palm tree:
Thus she conceived him, then withdrew with him to a distance place. The birth pangs brought her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “I wish I had died before this and become a forgotten thing, beyond recall.”
Thereupon he called her from below: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has made a spring to flow at your feet. Shake the trunk of a palm tree, freshly picked dates will drop upon you. Eat, drink, and be comforted. Then if you see any human, say, “I have indeed vowed a fast to the All-beneficent, so I will not speak to any human today.”
While there’s certainly an Old Testament type to this:
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar…
When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, were very many trees on one side and the other. Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; they will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds as the fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many.
The episode more clearly reflects the Pseudo-Matthew:
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm tree, O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down at the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father ; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling.
The site of this location is at Kithisma, the long-destroyed Church of the Seat of Saint Mary. Built in 456, then a site of joint Christian-Islamic Marian devotion, then a mosque… and possibly the model for the Dome of the Rock.
In this Pseudo-Matthew reminded me of Jubilees, which is also a bridge between Christianity and Islam. Jubilees shares the narrative structure of the Qur’an — Angels telling a Prophet about past events — and Pseudo-Matthew contains some of those novel past events.
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a popular work of Christian fiction, dating to the early period of the Dark Ages. It is Christian fan fiction. Jesus’ greatness is emphasized (at the expense of his Humanity), His power is emphasized (at the expense of His mercy), and cool tricks are emphasized (at the expense of His discretion). Plenty of well-meaning Christian movies do worse than the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in making the world of the gospels come alive. Think King of Kings, or (erring in a different direction) The Last Temptation of Christ.
Like much of the Qur’an, (the “Night Journey” after the Last Supper, or the Book of Jubilees, or “Ta Ha” about the Golden Calf), Pseudo-Matthew extends the Biblical narrative in ways that aren’t quite Christian. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, the full text of Pseudo-Matthew is categorized under “Church Fathers.” I think this is because it provides, like The Shepherd of Hermas, the testimony of what Christians thought Christians were at an earlier time in Church history.