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In the spirit of the season, I wanted to peruse some nativity accounts in ante-Nicene or near-post-Nicene literature. I've read the Gospel of James of course, but I don't really know of any other non-canonical nativity accounts.

This would include non-canonical Gospels or Acts, or accounts given in passing in the works of the ante-Nicene fathers, e.g. Irenaeus, Clement, Hippolytus, and so forth. Or even something from the fourth century like Augustine would be interesting.

Any suggestions?

Thank you!

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Are there any other early non-canonical nativity accounts besides the Gospel of James?

There are not many non-canonical nativity accounts from the Early Church, but a few do exist other the the Gospel of James.

Apocryphal Sources for the Nativity

Even with the information in the two Gospels combined, Matthew and Luke provide us with relatively few details about the Nativity event. A curious reader—or an artist wishing to create a Nativity—is left with many unanswered questions. For example, from Luke we learn that there was no room for the family in the “inn” (Greek = kataluma, sometimes translated “guest house”), so the baby was laid in a manger. But was the manger located in a stable, a cave, or perhaps on the ground floor of a house? Since a manger is a trough for feeding livestock, what kinds of animals might have been nearby? How many wise men (Greek = magoi) came to present gifts to Jesus? And what adventures might the family have faced during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution?

Answers to questions like these can be found in a group of texts written during the first thousand or so years of Christianity known as the New Testament Apocrypha. As the word apocrypha (“hidden”) suggests, these writings have not been recognized by church authorities as being part of the official canon of the New Testament. In fact, due to their dubious historical content and fanciful tone, the early church often discouraged people from reading them. But the New Testament Apocrypha, some of which were written as early as the second century, maintain many of the essentials of the Christian message, while at the same time providing additional details, color, and drama. In fact, because people were eager for more information about the birth and early life of Jesus, a special genre of apocryphal literature developed, now called “infancy Gospels.” Many of the visual elements we associate with Nativity scenes today come from details provided in these early Christian writings.

For a long time the best known published source for the apocrypha in English was The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses with Other Narratives and Fragments by M.R. James (1924); this has now been updated by J.K. Elliott with The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (1993). In addition, some of the best known apocryphal texts with information about the Nativity and infancy of Christ are available on the Web in older English translation. Links to three of these are below:

There is also the Gospel of Thomas (130-180 AD).

The Gospel of Thomas (130-180 AD)

This late non-canonical text was first discovered in 1945 as part of a large collection of papyri excavated near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, written in the Coptic language, and attributed to a conversation recorded by “Didymos Judas Thomas”.

The History of Joseph the Carpenter (400-480 AD)

Like The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and The Infancy Gospel of James, The History of Joseph the Carpenter is another example of non-canonical legend that was created in order to answer questions about the life of Jesus. Many details of Jesus’ life prior to the age of twelve were left unaddressed in the canonical Gospels, and several late non-canonical works were created in order to satisfy the growing desire for additional information. This text is written as a message from Jesus on the Mount of Olives in which he talks about the life of His stepfather, Joseph. The text relies heavily on The Infancy Gospel of James for its content, but not much is known about the exact origin of The History of Joseph the Carpenter. Scholars believe that the text was written in Egypt (as late as the 5th century) and two versions of the text have survived, one written in Coptic and one written in Arabic. In addition to this the text seems to neatly address issues raised in other Nag Hammadi documents such as The First Apocalypse of James.

Apart from the Apocrypha, the Pagan Sibyls of old prophesied about the coming of Christ and his infancy.

The word Sibyl means Prophetess, and this word was originated from Greek. Here follows the five Sibyls in question:

  • Erythrean Sibyl appears as the one who has prophesied the Redemption in arts.
  • Persian Sibyl seems to be the priestess who occupied over Apollo Oracle.
  • Libyan Sibyl was priestess who was the presiding over Zeus Ammon Oracle.
  • Cumaean Sibyl was the pristess who were the head of the Apollo Oracle at Cumae.
  • Delphic Sibyl was a figure who made prophecies at Delphi.
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