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Time Stood Still, and It Was Sublime (Proto-Gospel of James 18)

Patrick Glauthier

Dartmouth College

The Proto-Gospel of James (2nd century) exerted an enormous influence on late antique and medieval theology and culture (Cothenet 1988, Ehrman and Pleše 2011: 31–8). A crucial passage, however, has not been properly understood. When Mary goes into labor, Joseph leaves to find a midwife. Suddenly, the narrative switches to the first-person: “But I, Joseph, was walking and was not walking, and I looked up toward the vault of heaven and saw that it stood still, and [I looked up] toward the air and saw that it was amazed and that the birds of heaven were fixed in place…” (ch. 18). Moments later, everything starts to move again, the narrative returns to the third-person, and we learn that Mary has given birth.

Most critics agree, without substantive analysis, that in this passage time stands still. Although some invoke Hebrew scripture or non-Judeo-Christian religious texts to make sense of this event (Smid 1965: 128, Bovon 1992: 399, Frey 1997), the supposed parallels are not close. In addition, Joseph’s psychological state, which contributes significantly to the passage’s symbolic value, has not been adequately explained. In this paper, I attempt to remedy these two related problems.

First, I establish the relevant philosophical background for time standing still. A long tradition equates time with the movements of the heavenly bodies or the universe as a whole. The idea appears already in Plato (Ti. 38b–e) and is a topic of debate among Christian authors (Callahan 1958). The imagery of our text fits into this tradition and brings its logical consequences to life—when Joseph sees the vault of heaven standing still (τὸν πόλον τοῦ οὐρανοῦἑστῶτα), the reader knows that time stands still. Moreover, cessation of the movement of the cosmos can indicate a change in cosmic epochs (e.g. Pl. Plt. 273e). In our passage, the cessation of time coincides with the birth of Christ and thereby inaugurates a new phase in cosmic history (cf. Bovon 1992: 403).

Next, I argue that Joseph’s experience is programmatically sublime. Doran 2015 defines the sublime as an experience of affective intensity that both overwhelms and uplifts; it is regularly labelled wonder or amazement. In the ancient world, contemplation of celestial and meteorological phenomena and the sudden realization of philosophical truth are quintessential triggers of sublimity (Porter 2016). When Joseph stares upward at the heavens (ἀνέβλεψα εἰς τὸν πόλον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), he plays a role that traditionally leads to the sublime, and when he perceives that the atmosphere itself is amazed (τὸν ἀέραἔκθαμβον), the reader understands the proper reaction to his narrative is a feeling of sublimity. Joseph, then, is exalted, not terrified (pace Bovon 1992: 403). His story dramatizes the psychological experience of Christian revelation and belief through the language of philosophical discovery and enlightenment. Collectively, the cessation of time and the history of the sublime provide a framework that allows the well-educated Greek reader to grasp the significance of Christ’s birth, and Joseph’s first-person narration invites that reader to share his feeling of transcendence.

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Second Century CE Prose

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