More Christian Apocrypha Updates 1: Legend of Aphroditianus

Over the next few weeks I will be doing final edits of the contributions to the collection I am editing with Brent Landau called New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. At the same time, I have to prepare a bibliography on Christian Apocrypha for the Oxford Online Bibliographies project. I thought I could combine those efforts with updates to my More Christian Apocrypha page and, to top it all off, throw in some blog posts on the texts as a preview to the volume.

The first text in the collection is the Legend of Aphroditianus (aka “The Narrative of Events Happening in Persia on the Birth of Christ,” erroneously attributed to Julius Africanus) prepared for us by Katharina Heyden who has worked previously on the text for her monograph, Die “Erzählung des Aphroditian.” Thema und Variationen einer Legende im Spannungsfeld von Christentum und Heidentum (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 53; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009). A previous English translation of the text is available in ANF 6:127-30 (online text).

The sources for the Legend are quite extensive. It is embedded in multiple Greek manuscripts of De gestis in Perside, an anonymous 5th/6th-century fictional account of a dispute between Pagans, Christians, and Jews set in Persia. In addition, it is incorporated in John Damas­cene’s Homily on the Incarnation of Christ (also Greek; 8th cent.), and available in two Slavonic recensions translated from Greek (one of these has been translated into Romanian), and an Armenian version (unedited).

The Legend is as follows: at the moment of Christ’s birth, the statues in the temple of Hera in Persia dance and sing, announcing that Hera (meaning Mary) has become pregnant by Zeus (God) and will give birth to a child. A star appears above the statue of Hera and all the other statues bow down in worship to her. The wise men of the land interpret this as a sign of the birth of the Messiah. So the Magi follow the star to Judah with gifts for the child. The Magi return to Persia and inscribe on golden plates what they encountered (incorporating as in Matthew 2:1-12). They tell of their meeting with leaders in Jerusalem and their arrival in Bethlehem. They describe Mary and Jesus and child and reveal that one of their number painted an image of mother and child which they deposited in Hera’s temple. Their story finishes with a report of an angel warning the Magi to return home.

Two aspects of the tale I find particularly interesting are the description of Mary ("For she was small in stature even when she stood upright, and had a delicate body, wheat-colored; and she had her hair bound with a simple, very beautiful hair-style," 8:4), the only one in early Christian literature, and that the text seems to be intended to compete with the Doctrine of Addai, which also features the removal to Syria of an image of Christ. Noteworthy also is that the text is one of several examples of pseudo-pagan literature validating Christianity.

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