The Ark: Infancy Gospel of James

In our previous post, we diverged into a discussion of what typology is and why it matters. Here we return to the topic at hand, the Ark of the Covenant. Both this and the next post in this series will consider works that are sometimes called “apocrypha.” The Orthodox Church does not attach the same stigma to apocryphal works that many protestant traditions have, and while not part of the canon of scripture, many are still considered worthy of study.

The Infancy Gospel of James (this link to the work itself is a quick and interesting read), sometimes called the Protoevangelion of James, is an apocryphal gospel, likely from the second century, that was never accorded canonical status;1 which is not to say that it isn’t a document that has been valued in the Orthodox Church up until the present. This gospel demonstrates that the events celebrated by the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos were present in a very early tradition. We will discuss this feast, which continues to be celebrated annually by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, in a later post.

This gospel tells the story of the infancy and childhood of Mary the Mother of God. Of importance to the topic at hand are some allusions to her entrance into the Holy of Holies in the temple. The gospel tells how, at the age of three, her parents, Joachim and Anna, took her to the temple to be dedicated as a virgin to the service of God just as Hannah took the Prophet Samuel to the temple. The high priest received her, recognizing that the Lord would reveal His redemption through her. He placed her on the third step of the altar where she “danced with her feet.” In the gospel Mary is said to have been, “nurtured in the Holy of Holies, and received food from the hand of an angel.”2

(Some might wonder about having a girl in the temple, but the Scriptures themselves tell of the prophetess Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” Luke 2:37 OSB).

What is striking is that, as we saw earlier, the Ark of the Covenant was no longer in the temple at this time, so the Holy of Holies was essentially empty when Mary entered it. Given this sequence of events, it would be unremarkable if readers of this gospel were to infer that the Holy Virgin had come at the appropriate time to replace the Ark of the Covenant as the dwelling place of God. While this gospel is certainly not explicit about such typology, it is compatible with the hypothetical existence of such a tradition in the second century, just as we found previously that there was enough potential allusion in the New Testament to allow for the theoretical existence of such an early tradition.

In the next post we will discuss the Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the Infancy Gospel, you can certainly follow the link above, but Frederica Matthewes-Greene has published a rather nice edition with her own commentary entitled, The Lost Gospel of Mary.

1 George Reid, Apocrypha, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907).

2 Frederica Matthewes-Greene, The Lost Gospel of Mary, (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), P. 55.

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