In Part One of Joseph and Mariamne, I discussed, at a very high level, the background of Herod the Great’s rise to power and his marriage to a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne I. His turbulent relationship with the Hasmoneans and Mariamne led to his trial in Rome, which catalyzed the relationship between his wife Mariamne and Herod’s uncle, Joseph (who seemed to have a role as a treasurer).
In this post, I will begin discuss the background that contributes to my assumption that Joseph and Mariamne were the historical characters leveraged by Christian writers to construct the infancy story, particularly the tradition found in the Infancy Gospel of James (which was later infused into a more Docetic Matthew).
Background on Christianity, pre-Birth Story
In my model of early Christian development, the birth story was not original to the Synoptic narrative; this is *not* a terribly radical idea. Of course, Mark and John completely omit the birth story; but even Matthew, which borrows heavily from Mark while injecting an anti-Paul polemic, did not originally have this birth story.
Therefore, in the earliest versions, Joseph and Mary were not terribly important players in the Gospel. It was specifically because of the virgin birth that Joseph gained any importance at all (though his role was arguably still marginal); Mary had a slight role absent the virgin birth; her role became much more prominent with the virgin birth and Jesus’ inherent divinity.
I believe the birth story was a later addition by a sect (somewhat) generically referred to as the Nazarenes, which had split from the Ebionites over various theological differences; the contribution the Nazarenes made was to add a birth story to the Gospel their Ebionite predecessors had reworked. My speculation is that it was the Cerinthians who were some of the earliest users of Mark…perhaps they, or someone like them, wrote it.
The Nazarenes might very well have had members in Samaria, as they might have been partially derivative of the Netzarim of Samaria, as described in Jeremiah 31:5-6. The reason why this detail is important is because Mariamne I seems to have had some attachment to Samaria; she and Herod were married in Samaria, as well.
The birth story in the earlier Marcan version of Christianity was not only wholly unnecessary and omitted, but it also would have obfuscated the theology, because the whole idea behind Mark’s version of Docetism was that the thing that made Jesus so special was that the Christ was embodied by him. In other words, Jesus was not divine by birth; such a concept precluded the ability for the Christ to inhabit anyone else – that was problematic because the current leader of a sect would have had less claim to a Spirit encapsulation, which seems to be inherent in Acts of the Apostles, where the apostles were endowed with the Spirit to heal the sick, and to perform other magic tricks.
In the Marcan version of Christianity, we see early inklings of an antipathy towards the material realm, which manifested more blatantly in Gnostic Christianities. Certainly, Mark’s writer(s) had some sort of philosophical dichotomy between the divine realm and the material realm, as would any educated Jew, but the fact that a separate spirit was necessary, and descended onto a regular human was (in my opinion) indicative of a theology that believed it was a God higher than Yahweh who sent the Spirit.* The implication here is that Yahweh did not have the ability or the motivation to fix the problems Christianity’s earliest practitioners suffered: wars, enslavement, political marginalization, etc.
*Note: Of course, the Ebionites retained the notion of the dove descending onto Jesus. In other words, the Ebionites saw Jesus and the Christ separate as well; however, Matthew’s reliance on Mark leads me to suspect this view originated with the Cerinthians, who proposed that the Earth was created by inferior angels, and that it was a higher God who sent the Christ. I do not rule out alternatives to this trajectory, but this is my current hypothesis
Irenaeus makes it clear that the Ebionites, who were some of the earliest consumers of a Matthew-like Gospel, had views similar to Cerinthus and Carpocrates, who I propose used proto-versions of Mark and Luke, respectively. The Ebionites were also said to hate the Apostle Paul; their specific gripe was his advocacy of alterations to and rejection of Jewish law.
It might not be surprising then that Irenaeus made reference to Carpocrates’ use of Paul’s epistle to the Romans in AH i.25. This detail, coupled with their use of Luke and their similarity to Cerinthus (who I suggest used a proto-Mark), makes the Carpocratians clear relatives to the Marcionites. Indeed, Stephan Huller has proposed that a Carpocratian named Marcellina was the person who Marcion was based on. This speculation is entirely plausible in my mind.
As far as I can tell, the first reliably dated text which makes reference to the virgin birth was Justin Martyr’s 1st Apology. In it, Justin reminds Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) that his worldview allowed for virgin births – after all, Perseus was born under similar circumstances. Likewise, it was no alien concept that a savior should suffer; the sons of Jupiter also suffered. Justin also linked the Johannine notion of the Logos (which might very well have originated with the Valentinians – see AH iii.11.7) to Mercury, who played a similar role as Hermes and Anubis as a messenger between the Gods and transporter between the divine and material realms.
In his First Apology, Justin expresses familiarity with both a Synoptic Gospel-looking version which integrated the virgin birth, and the Logos, which is almost exclusively found in John (one might argue that the introduction of Luke is aware of the Logos, but this would also seem to be a later addition to the Gospel).
Justin’s First Apology would seem to be one of the first instances where someone leveraged multiple dissonant theologies. Considering the fact that the official 4-Gospel formulation was not canonized until decades later (C 180), coupled with the fact that it was (claimed that) Justin’s student Tatian who (after Justin died) became a Valentinian and attempted a harmony Gospel known as the Diatessaron, it stands to reason that Justin was also familiar with the Diatessaron. The implication I make here is that Justin Martyr might very well have been a Valentinian.
Considering the fact that Irenaeus makes reference to Justin as an Orthodox actor (AH i.28), and that the Diatessaron was later deemed heretical, this authorship attribution was probably a lie invented by Irenaeus. One can only speculate Irenaeus’ motivation to save Justin’s legacy, but my suspicion, aside from staunch anti-Valentinian polemic in Against Heresies, is that the core of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies was actually authored by Justin. This is supported by Justin’s passage in his First Apology:
But I have a treatise against all the heresies that have existed already composed, which, if you wish to read it, I will give it to you.
The virgin birth was clearly introduced in order to fulfill the prophesy in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
The subtext that the birth story was considerate of Isaiah is that its writer was still, in some meaningful way, attached to their Judaism, and felt that Christianity ought to fulfill prophesies put forward in the “Old Testament”. This profile evidently contrasts the Cerinthians and the Carpocratians, who had shown obvious signs of increasing antipathy towards Judaism via their proposals that the highest God was not the creator of Earth (AH i.25-i.26.1).
Given this matrix of data, the virgin birth seems to have been injected into Christianity sometime between 120 and 155.