Book Series Studia Traditionis Theologiae, vol. 41

'Lest She Pollute the Sanctuary'

The Influence of the Protevangelium Iacobi on Women's Status in Christianity

Patricia M. Rumsey

  • Pages: x + 243 p.
  • Size:156 x 234 mm
  • Illustrations:1 b/w, 1 maps b/w
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2020

  • ISBN: 978-2-503-59036-3
  • Paperback
  • Available
  • ISBN: 978-2-503-59037-0
  • E-book
  • Available

No text in Christian history has had such a profound influence on how Christians perceive women: this book explores the Protevangelium Iacobi, the most influential Christian text that most Christians have never heard of!


“The transmission and reception of apocryphal texts in late antique, medieval, and later Christian communities has often been underestimated by scholars; studies such as this remind us of their didactic and spiritual importance. (…) this is an important new study, which adopts a new and highly critical approach to an important early Christian text.” (Mary B. Cunningham, dans Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique, 116/3-4, 2021, p. 893-895)

"This is a most interesting book not least to those who, like the present reviewer, have an interest in a why/what/when/who cluster of questions about the possible commitment of women to their churches in their varied circumstances.” (Ann Loades, in Anaphora, 16.1, 2022, p. 83)


The abbess of a Poor Clare monastery with a PhD in liturgical theology, Patricia Rumsey is an authority on the implications of women's religious life today. She is an honorary associate professor at Nottingham University.


This work explores a second-century text, the Protevangelium Iacobi, and, by examining current scholarship on the subject, assesses the way it has influenced the Christian perception of women and the ordering of their lives through the centuries down to the present day. It demonstrates how Mary, as she is presented in this text with extreme and unreal emphasis on her purity, has been held up as an unattainable model for all Christian women and takes as a case study the lives of contemplative women in the Roman Catholic church, showing how the image of Mary impossibly secluded in the temple has been partly responsible for their enclosure. By exploring the way female biological processes have been allowed to intrude on the sacred, tracing this influence from the Old Testament, through this text and its connection with Mary to the present day, it argues that this has been a significant factor in the denial of presbyteral ordination to women in some Christian churches. One of the original features of this work is the tracing of art work depicting scenes from the text across the Christian world, thus demonstrating the breadth of its influence, right down to New Age writings today.


Part I: Questions of Influence

Chapter 1: Prolegomena: Locating ourselves and our Questions and the Protevangelium Jacobi: ‘Joachim searched the records of the twelve tribes of Israel’

Chapter 2: Introducing the Protevangelium Jacobi: authorship, genre, provenance, dating, sources, purpose: ‘All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history.’

Part II: Aspects of Influence

Chapter 3: The Influence of the Protevangelium on Mariology and Asceticism: ‘A virgin has given birth!’

Chapter 4: The Influence of the Protevangelium on the Concept of [Woman in the] Sacred Space: ‘her heart will never be led away from the temple of the Lord’

Chapter 5: The Influence of the Protevangelium on Concepts of Ritual Purity: ‘lest she defile the sanctuary of the Lord’

Part III: Means of Influence

Chapter 6: The Influence of the Protevangelium on the Sanctoral Cycle of the Church’s Liturgy: ‘thou shall not walk on this earth until I bring thee into the Temple of the Lord’.

Chapter 7: The Influence of the Protevangelium on the Artistic and Iconographic Tradition: ‘he set her down on the third step of the altar and she danced with her feet…’

Conclusion: Consequences of Influence:

Chapter 8: The Influence of the Protevangelium Jacobi on the lives of women: ’Anna, you will conceive and give birth, and your child will be talked about all over the world.’

Appendix I: The Influence of the Protevangelium on the Cult of Mary in the martyrological tradition: ‘and the Lord God poured grace upon her…and every house in Israel loved her.’

Appendix II: The Influence of the Protevangelium on the Popular Cult of Mary: ‘your child will be talked about all over the world.’

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