Fictionality and the Protevangelium of James

I recently had the honor of participating in a Primary Text Lab on the Protevangelium of James hosted by The Brane Collective. It was a great seasonally appropriate event and a lot of fun to think about the Protevangelium in a way I haven’t before. So I decided to post here what I presented at the event. These are speculative and not altogether formal ideas, but I enjoyed exploring them for the text lab.

First, I want to say thank you to Elizabeth Corsar for originating and curating this event, and to Julia Lindenlaub for organizing behind the scenes. I’m grateful to all at the BRANE Collective for their great work with events like these. And thanks for the chance to talk about the Protevangelium of James when I’m usually more likely to go on about the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

I’m going to spend my time today expanding on some ideas that I previously posed in a short article about “Apocrypha and Fictionality” in the journal New Literary History.[1] In turning to fictionality, I follow recent scholarship on the topic that chooses to trouble definitions for ideas like “fiction” and “truth claims” for more nuanced interpretive speculation. Specifically, I embrace Julie Orlemanski’s suggestion for “a hermeneutic conception of fictionality” that encourages close examinations of literary works with local contexts in mind, not based on universalizing or essentializing definitions and assumptions.[2]

At the start, I want to clarify that my goal is not to argue that the Protevangelium was intentionally composed as “fiction” explicitly (although that is a possibility I’m willing to entertain). I’m not particularly interested in trying to understand if the early Christian author thought of their work as “fiction” or “history” or something else, or in reifying the binaries inherent in that question. Obviously discourse about the complex interplays between such narrative modes is prevalent in scholarship about early Christian literature, but I’m sidestepping that approach.[3] Instead, I want to consider the Protevangelium through the framework of “fictionality” in order to think about how literary devices of fiction are used rhetorically to craft the narrative elements of this apocryphon—regardless of its intended or perceived status as “fiction” or otherwise.

I will focus mainly on the start of the Protevangelium, on the mention of “the Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” (“ταῖς ἱστορίαις τῶν δώδεκα φυλῶν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ”) in verse 1. The title rests on the Greek term ἱστορία, which has been rendered into English as either “records” or, probably preferable, “histories.”[4] Incidentally, although the title of the work we call the Protevangelium in the surviving manuscripts is a tricky issue that I won’t address directly here, many iterations of the title use the same term, ἱστορία, or variants. And, also tangential but significant, the epilogue that names James as the author in the first person uses the term ἱστορία for the account, too.

After his offering is rejected, Joachim consults the same work, called in 1:6 “the Twelve Tribes of the People” (“τὴν δωδεκάφυλον τοῦ λαοῦ”) and “the Twelve Tribes of Israel” (“τὴν δωδεκάφυλον τοῦ Ἰσραήλ”)—and even though no such noun appears in the Greek text, most translations include what is presumed to be an implied phrase as part of the title, including terms like “registries of,” “record of,” “record-book of,” “genealogy of,” or “Book of.” Here we find one of what Liv Lied and her research team have investigated as “Books Known Only by Title,” often associated in some way with apocryphal literature, and possibly a “lost” source of some sort. Eric Vanden Eykel and Lily Vuong both suggest that this work might be something like the so-called Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah or Book of the Wars of YHWH mentioned in 2 Chronicles and Numbers.

I want to pose a few possibilities for these references, emerging from some big questions that I have. Could audiences have recognized a work titled “the Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel,” or could they have seen this reference as a literary construction? How can fictionality help us to consider these references and their place in the Protevangelium? What do we gain from considering these references with the framework of fictionality for understanding the Protevangelium more generally?

The first interpretive possibility is that mention of the so-called “Histories” is meant to link Joachim and his genealogy to Israel as represented in the Hebrew Bible. For now, I set aside the probably unanswerable question of whether this potentially “lost” source was a genuine composition or not (though I’ll return to related questions in a minute). From this perspective, references to this unidentified “source” seem to legitimate the Protevangelium in relation to other Jewish sources, and to link Joachim, Anna, and Mary to Israelite lineage. B. Harris Cowper notes that, “The author might have more properly said ‘genealogies’ or ‘records,’ as his object is simply to imitate the purely Israelitish descent of Mary’s parents.”[5] But use of the term ἱστορία might actually do more work to legitimize the narrative, as it reminds audiences of the biblical history on which the narrative rests and with which the characters are associated. With references to the “Histories,” the Protevangelium outdoes the canonical gospels, which only evoke general genealogies. This seems to be the way that many scholars have regularly interpreted these references. This explanation is where I started, too.

Another possibility, though, is that references to the “Histories” are meant to signal some amount of fictionality at the start of the Protevangelium. Again, the author did not need to intend for the gospel to be read or understood as fictional, per se—and audiences do not need to perceive it as fictional. Yet the author could have created these references to a deliberately made-up “source” to signal some of the techniques of narrative fictionality that we see in other literature from antiquity. We find this sort of signaling, of course, in other works from antiquity—as in, for example, the book of Judith, which contains such inconsistencies in historical references as to be laughable to audiences close to its contemporary context, or to scholars who know their Near Eastern history. From this perspective, references to the “Histories” at the start of the Protevangelium seem to act as a wink and a nod to knowing audiences who can recognize the play of fictionality within a narrative.

So how do we reconcile these two interpretive possibilities that I’ve posed so far? In some ways, previous work on fictionality in early Christian literature helps. Recently, Éric Rebillard has considered this sort of literary element as a narrative topos used for referential reasons, and he spins out some of the implications for early Christian literature like martyr narratives.[6] As Rebillard remarks, “a type of fictional complicity can be established through the use and recognition of topoi” and “The topos works like a signal, marking the textuality of the narrative.”[7] At the same time, Rebillard points out, such an understanding of topoi can lead to interpretive anachronism: “We should not deduce that the establishment of fictional complicity implies that the audience would assess the entire narrative as fictitious and therefore false.”[8] Ultimately, Rebillard concludes, “The truth-claims need, therefore, to be understood at the level of the narration”;[9] and, in this, his ideas are strikingly similar to Orlemanski’s “hermeneutic conception of fictionality” that encourages examining literary the elements of each work locally.

To return to the Protevangelium and its evocation of “the Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” as topos, I want to consider how the two possibilities that I’ve posed need not be mutually exclusive. That is, I see the references to “the Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” as both legitimizing in associating the narrative and Joachim with biblical history as well as a wink and a nod to audiences who might recognize the literary trope of a Jewish “source.”

This is where the framework of fictionality helps to blur the lines between interpretations. The evocation of a work like the so-called “Histories” as a narrative topos does lend legitimacy to Joachim’s lineage and the narrative associations with biblical history even if the source in question is wholly constructed. At the same time, if the evocation is meant to be an explicit reference to an obviously fictionalized work and not a genuine “lost” source, even as a wink and a nod to audiences, as a topos it still creates the same literary and narrative associations. In other words, the referential value of the topos works on multiple levels for the narrative, and all of these levels signify the distinctive textuality of the Protevangelium at its very beginning.

By way of conclusion, I want to gesture toward just a few ways these ideas could be pushed forward. For example, the framework of fictionality might help to reconcile other difficult interpretive possibilities for details in the Protevangelium that pose paradoxical tensions for readers. One example is Mary and Joseph’s trial with the bitter water, which is based on an actual ritual in the Hebrew Bible but seems, in its details, not all that “accurate” compared to the description in Numbers. Another example is the topos of speech in the Protevangelium, which is often posed as both authentic speech and highly stylized. Through the lens of fictionality, scholars might be able to productively reconcile some of the interpretive tensions between the evocation of historia in the Protevangelium with the world of literary fictionality it engages in its narrative devices. Thank you!


[1] Brandon W. Hawk, “Apocrypha and Fictionality,” invited contribution to a forum on “Medieval Fictionalities,” New Literary History 51 (2020): 253–57. Read the full forum here, along with Julie Orlemanski’s piece (see next citation).

[2] Julie Orlemanski, “Who Has Fiction? Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages,” New Literary History 50 (2019): 145–70, quotation at 146. (See the previous note for a link where you can read this article.)

[3] For a recent discussion, see Eric Rebillard, The Early Martyr Narratives: Neither Authentic Accounts Nor Forgeries (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), esp. 59–84.

[4] The term is translated “records” by Walker and Hock; “histories” by Jones, Cowper, James, Cullmann in NTA, Elliott, Ehrman and Pleše, and Vuong.

[5] B. Harris Cowper, The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867), 3.

[6] See Rebillard, Early Martyr Narratives, 64. Rebillard draws on Jan Herman’s earlier conception of the topos in eighteenth-century novels.

[7] Rebillard, Early Martyr Narratives, 64.

[8] Rebillard, The Early Martyr Narratives, 64.

[9] Rebillard, The Early Martyr Narratives, 65. Rebillard’s full thoughts are helpful here: “In sum, when dealing with premodern texts, we need not assume that the establishment of fictional complicity implies a contract of shared ludic feint. A narrative that points to its textuality does not necessarily invite the audience to assume it is false. The blurring of fact and fiction and the centrality of verisimilitude make room for different types of verification. The audience acknowledges that many of the truth- claims of premodern texts are moral rather than factual. The truth-claims need, therefore, to be understood at the level of the narration…” (65).

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