Friday, July 26, 2013

The Church's Strange Relationship with Apocryphal Literature

Today is the feast day of Mary's parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne. Thinking of them reminds me of this icon I saw a while back in a blog post by Christopher West:

Source that TOB Institute credits
In the post, he talks about how this icon illustrates for him the beauty of chaste marital love. In this icon, you see the saints embracing and in the background is a bed. It is supposed to depict the great mystery which is Mary's Immaculate Conception.

What is that? Catholics believe that Mary, the virgin Mother of God, was conceived without original sin. Original sin is a stain that we are all born with from Adam and Eve's fall in the garden. Mary was conceived without this sin because she was destined to be the Mother of God. God cannot be in the presence of sin, so His earthly vessel, Mary, had to be without sin. This is also credited to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. As time is no barrier to God, Jesus' sacrifice made His mother's sinlessness possible. We are all redeemed through Christ including those who were born before He was.

Now, Joachim and Anne are not mentioned in the Bible. How do we know who they are? That is where this gets fun because I get to play Bible scholar again.

We are told in every other History Channel Bible special that the big, bad Catholic Church suppressed the wonderful literature found in the apocryphal gospels. This feast day is a prime example of how wrong that is.

Joachim and Anne's names and everything else we know about them comes from an apocryphal book. Yes, you read that correctly.

The book is called the Protoevangelium of James. "Protoevangelium" is just a fancy word for "pre-Gospel." The book is a "pre-Gospel" because most of it revolves around things that happened before Jesus' birth like the childhood of Mary and the events of Jesus' early life like running from Herod.

Ever seen a statue or a picture of St. Joseph holding a staff with a lily, like so?

That comes from the same book. At one point, it tells the story of how St. Joseph came to be betrothed to Mary. The story goes that St. Joseph and other widowers brought their staffs to the temple. St. Joseph's staff bloomed, indicating that he was the one chosen by God to take Mary as his wife.

So it seems that the Church didn't suppress the apocryphal gospels at all, but incorporated some of their legends into it's rich treasury.

So, how was the New Testament established if it wasn't some judgement pontificated from on high? (Pun completely intentional.)

It was an organic process over the first few centuries of Christianity. As Christianity grew, groups of Christians used a wide variety of texts based on what the group's views were and whatever was available in their time and place. Over time, it became apparent that if Christianity was to survive, they needed some kind of standard. They used a variety of standards to determine what would eventually become part of the New Testament canon:

1) There were several books that were widely used by most groups. Those books were mostly shoe-ins.

2) Preference was given to books that contained stories told by the apostles themselves.
3) Also, they stuck to books that were similar. Books that contained bizarre stories or doctrine not found anywhere else were thrown out.

But no books were suppressed. Over the first 4 centuries when these decisions were being made, Christianity itself was being suppressed and persecuted. No one Christian group had the power or the visibility to suppress another.

When Christianity did become institutionalized, certain groups that used these writings were suppressed, but the writings themselves were not.

In short, it wasn't ever about power, but about the need for standardization. But that isn't what we're taught because it isn't neat and tidy. It's much easier to blame the Church. Anything organic is messy and takes a lot longer to explain.

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