Today, 26th July is the Saints’ day for Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary.
Very little is known about Anne and Joachim as they have no mention in the New Testament, as the female line is not mentioned in Matthew or Luke. however a little search on the Internet which show a vast amount of writing on and painting of Anne in particular. Down the centuries Christians have been very creative on Anne and other “saints”. It is easy to say from our perspective that those authors were being less than honest, but they sincerely thought they were doing the right thing and helping others to have a right understanding of St Anne, and, ultimately of Jesus Christ. The church tradition for Anne and Joachim is over-whelming but is not historical confirmation.
But what can we know about Anne and Joachim? And for a Christian, what can we learn from her?
As I said earlier the New Testament is silent, but Christian tradition for two thousand years is full writings and paintings of Anne, with Joachim in the shadows.
The earliest writing about Anne is from the Proto-gospel of James, which was written in about 150AD. It is one of a host of writings from 100 to 300AD which did not make it into the New Testament. A good compendium is in Lost Scriptures, in which the radical Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, collects together a large number. These vary from those which were nearly included in the New Testament or form part of the Apostolic Fathers. Others are much more variable and include a whole lot of other gospels, which by the standards of the Council of Nicaea are of varying orthodoxy. (I shall not discuss the pros and cons of that, except to say I do take a consevartive and Nicene line.) Most were used as devotional aids.
However The infancy gospel of Thomas was not, which presents the young Jesus as a ghastly little brat;
Somewhat later he [Jesus] was going through a village and a child ran up and hanged onto his shoulder. Jesus was aggravated and said to him, “You will go no further on your way.” And right away the child fell down and died. (Infancy gospel of Thomas ch4 vs 1)
I suppose this warped Jesus could be a model for gun-toting fundamentalists.
The infancy gospel of Thomas also dates from 150-200 and leaves all with a few questions. It is not surprising that it was never considered for inclusion in the New Testament Canon. It does show the great variety of ideas about Jesus in the 2nd century.
However to get back to the Proto-gospel of James. The writer focuses on the birth of Jesus and goes back to the birth and childhood of Mary and considers her parents, Anne and Joachim. It does not take much literary understanding to see that the writer took the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew and embellished them. The result is something far more fanciful than either of the two gospels and readers should note that even fairly conservative biblical scholars regard the birth narratives as less historical than the rest of the gospels. After all we can be pretty sure that the New Testament canticles i.e the Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in Luke’s Gospel were not said verbatim at the time, but were put into the speakers’ mouth by Luke. I am sure some will say my doctrine of biblical inspiration is rather lacking and heretical.
The result is that the proto-gospel is more hagiography than anything else, but that does not mean it is historically worthless. It was written less than a century after the Gospels and is partly based on Luke and Matthew., both of which most scholars see as al least largely historical, especially if like me you follow such scholars as Tom Wright, C F D Moule, Cranfield, and many others going back to Lightfoot in the 19th century, as I do. Much evidence a historian uses is unreliable. One good example is Darwin’s Autobiography, which contains many errors contradicted by his own letters. This I discovered when researching Darwin’s geological fieldtrip to North Wales in 1831. I once upset a devout Darwinist when I itemised the errors in Darwin’s Autobiography.
Another example of unreliable history is Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which some of us had to read in Latin while at school. I was not good at Latin partly because my Latin master expected me to be as bad as Latin as my brother. That master would be shocked to find me still reading a Greek New Testament. Gallic Wars was a thoroughly self-serving account and as it is the only account it is well-nigh impossible to check out all the details. Yet it is used as a historical source.
However I did enjoy the Gallic Wars and Caesars’s account around Martigny at the foot of the Great St Bernard, the scene of my most exhausting cycle ride.
This poor Gallic warrior was only to well-aware of the power of Caesar’s armies and no one will doubt the essential historicity of the Gallic Wars.
However the accounts of Joachim and Anna are not quite in the same league as even Caesar. There is simply no supporting evidence on even the existence of the happy pair, beyond that of saying that a Jewish preacher born 2000 years ago must have had maternal grandparents! (Unless………..) “James”‘s account must be treated as such.
The proto gospel begins with Anne and Joachims’s trials as a childless couple, and how Joachim went away and returned to find Anne pregnant, but seemed unphased. And so Mary grew, having been conceived without human agency! She was dedicated to God and seemed to serve in the temple as the equivalent of a Vestal Virgin, which is a historical error. Time passed and she was looked after by Joseph a widower. While Joseph was away Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph was not convinced on his return and comment (ch13 vs 1) “for just as Adam was singing praise to God, the serpent came, and led her astray. This too has now happened to me.” This shows how the early church linked sex and sin and this was enhanced by two things. First, some sects, especially Gnostics, were “flesh”-denying thus making sex bad and secondly there was a reaction to the standard mores, or lack of them, of the Roman Empire summed up by one of the Apostolic Fathers;
Christians share their possessions, Pagans share their wives.
And so Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey – I think the first time a donkey was mention and so Mary was born and we move into familiar gospel territory, but somewhat distorted.
Sadly James mentions Anne no more and thus fails to say whether Anne helped Mary with childcare, especially at bath-time!!
“James” concludes with a gory story of Zecharias being murdered in the temple shortly after Herod’s murder of the innocents. It beggars belief that IF this is historical Luke did not include it with his account of Zecharias. After three days Simeon was chosen by lot to succeed him. That does not ring true either.
We can end with Simeon, whose blessing of the baby Jesus in the temple is not mentioned (Luke 2 vs25-35). I find that baffling as that would bring the proto-gospel to a conclusion or rather an entry into Jesus’s ministry as Luke quotes Simeon as saying;
Mine eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared before all peoples
a light to lighten the gentiles
I can see how the Proto-gospel was written to encourage faith, but it raises many historical questions for us today, not only for its fancifulness but also its erroneous view of the Jewish faith of the time of Jesus.
To the sceptic “James” puts a limiting date on the writing of Matthew and Luke to 150AD at the very, very latest, but then few scholars go as late as 100AD and many argue for around 70AD. However it is more correct to see “James” as unreliable rather than totally fiction.
I would conclude that Anne and Joachim were the devout maternal grandparents of Jesus, and give a good example of godly living, with their actual existence being no more than probability. I am a lot more dogmatic about Jesus Christ, as the evidence is so much greater.
I will admit to find the four gospels as much more nutritious for my Christian faith