Five secret stories of Jesus’s birth

The Gospels in the New Testament only tell part of the story of how the earliest Christians envisioned Jesus’s birth.

Dr Meredith Warren from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) reveals lesser known stories from books left out of the Bible which feature in ancient texts called ’Apocrypha’.

Mary’s virginity was tested with a potion

We’re familiar with Matthew’s version of how an angel explains Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph (Matthew 2:20-25), but Luke only depicts Mary as being in on the plan. Joseph seems happy without an explanation!

A second century AD text, Proto-Gospel of James, an early Christian gospel, describes a test Mary had to undergo when her pregnancy was discovered by the local authorities.

Both Joseph and Mary are made to drink a potion (a test also described in Numbers 5:11-31) to reveal whether they have committed adultery. If they have, they will develop all sorts of physical ailments and pain. Joseph and Mary return unscathed, and their examiner believes their story.

Later, after Jesus is born, a midwife verifies that Mary retained her virginity even after giving birth.

Mary had a pain-free labour

With no proper birthing room, let alone an epidural, one might think Mary had a tough time during labour. Matthew and Luke skip over the birth, mentioning it only off-handedly (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:6-7), but some Christians were curious about the labour.

As opposed to Luke’s manger (2:7), Matthew doesn’t say where the birth took place on their way to Bethlehem. The Proto-Gospel of James, describes how Mary gives birth in a cave.

As soon as Mary enters the cave, it shines with bright light. A midwife, arriving too late to help, is shocked when she sees the minutes-old Jesus standing on his own two feet, with no blood on him!

Mary is said to have experienced no pain at all.

Following a star can take a while

In the New Testament, only Matthew includes the story of the ’magi’ (we often call them wise men or kings, but the word doesn’t imply royalty or even anything about gender) who follow a star to Jerusalem, looking to worship the King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2-12).

Matthew isn’t specific on when the magi arrived, but traditionally people see them arriving after Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, from the seventh century AD, says it was two years later when they finally arrived to give their gifts to Jesus, who was by then a toddler!

A text written before the fifth century AD called The Revelation of the Magi, tells the story of the star from the perspective of the magi themselves. After expecting the star for many years, it finally comes down from the sky and takes the form of a human being,

The magi follow the star-child, making progress across an enormous distance; they don’t become tired or run out of food, since the star’s light causes their supply to always replenish.

There weren’t three wise men

Matthew doesn’t say how many magi came to give gifts, only that there were more than one. Possibly because three specific gifts are named (gold, frankincense, myrrh), tradition settled on three as an appropriate number.

The magi don’t have names in Matthew, either. They get names around 500 AD: the Western churches call them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. But in many early churches, especially in Syria, there were twelve magi visiting Jesus and bringing him gifts.

The donkey, the sheep - and the dragons?

Today Christians sing carols describing how the animals around the manger recognised Jesus and worshipped him, even though the New Testament doesn’t mention it. But we rarely hear songs about Jesus and dragons.

In Pseudo-Matthew: while resting from their travels, Mary, Joseph, and a two-year-old Jesus are surrounded by dragons. Jesus, unafraid, walks over and stands in front of them. The dragons worship him and then leave in peace.

Pseudo-Matthew finds this event prophesied in the Bible in Psalm 148:7: "Praise the Lord from the earth, O dragons and all the places of the abyss."

Dr Meredith J. C. Warren, 33, is a Canadian biblical scholar and a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. She is also a member of a major research institute at the university, the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS).

Dr Warren leads the Embodied Religion research theme, which is exploring the ways in which religion is experienced in and on the body including what people wear and what they touch, smell, and taste. A fan of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, she first went into biblical studies to find out what else she didn’t know about the life and times of Jesus. You can find her on Twitter @DrMJCWarren or @UniShefSIIBS