Lately I have been asked by more than a few people to explain, in plain terms, what precisely my dissertation is about. The exercise is a good one, yet difficult.
The object of my study is the Protevangelium of James, an “infancy gospel” that was likely composed in the second half of the second century (150-200). It tells the story of Mary’s birth, her betrothal to Joseph and the birth of Christ, among other things. The text was banned in the West, presumably because certain aspects of it were deemed heretical (or something along those lines).
My approach to the text is one that examines its relationship to the New Testament. Many in the past have noted the ways in which the Protevangelium uses material from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke to tell its story. My interest in the text is in the ways that it changes one’s reading of the New Testament. This is where I end up having to explain myself.
At the heart of my project is the notion that it is difficult to “unread” something once you have read it. In the age of Gmail, “unreading” is simple enough. You read something, and then you click “unread.” This is not exactly what I have in mind, however. I’m certain that at some point in your life you have had someone perform the following “experiment” on you: you are told that, for the next minute, you may think of anything that you like, as long as you don’t think about an elephant. When faced with this exercise, most will have difficulty thinking of anything but an elephant. Even when you think of “not an elephant,” you are thinking of an elephant. Perhaps this is a strange example, but it is fitting nonetheless.
I first read the Protevangelium in the Spring of 2010. Like many, I was fascinated by the story. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of its simplicity, something about it stuck with me. Shortly after I had read the text, Ellen and I decided to start reading the Bible together a couple of times a week (cute, right?). We started with Luke, and we took turns reading the gospel aloud, one paragraph at a time. To her
amusement dismay, I started saying things like, “Well you know, in this text I just read, this actually means that.” Or, “Hey, in this text I just read, there is a character named X and they do Y.” I remember thinking to myself how silly this was, as Luke was much older than the Protevangelium. What use could this newer text be to interpreting the older? The answer, of course, is complicated, and my dissertation is an attempt to answer it.
This example serves to illustrate the idea that it is difficult to unread that which you have read. Narratives have a way of sticking with us and altering the way that we perceive reality (and texts, for that matter). Even those narratives that we try to “unread” crop up from time to time when they are triggered by various elements we encounter. So, one who reads the canonical gospels after having read and internalized the Protevangelium will see certain things that the evangelists themselves may not intended or foreseen. The goal of my dissertation is to articulate what such reading might look like.