The fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary is often simply called the Presentation in the Temple, but at other times it is identified as “the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.” Why is this Rosary Mystery sometimes given a more specific name? The more precise title is helpful because the Church also celebrates the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, and it is not the same event!
Two Distinct Presentations
The Presentation of Jesus and the Presentation of Mary are actually more different than alike. The Gospel of Luke 2:22-39 recounts how Joseph and Mary presented the Baby Jesus in the Temple when He was forty days old, as the Jewish law in Exodus 13:12-16 required for a first-born male. Joseph and Mary also donated turtledoves as a ransom to enable the parents to take home their first-born child. With an explicit Biblical text, a liturgical feast on February 2 as the 40th day after Christmas, and as a mystery in the Rosary, Christ’s presentation in the Temple is well known and accepted by Christian scholars and the faithful.
However, the sources for Mary’s presentation in the Temple are some apocryphal gospels that tell how the parents of the Blessed Virgin presented her in the Temple when she was three years old to serve there full-time. The Presentation of Mary is commemorated by the Church on November 21; but without an explicit Scriptural account for this event, some scholars question the accuracy and the veracity of the event. After all, Pope St. Paul VI even wrote about feasts “which, apart from their apocryphal content, present lofty and exemplary values and carry on venerable traditions having their origin especially in the East.”
Is the feast of Mary’s Presentation only that—a parable or symbolic representation of her unique holiness to “signify Mary’s total dedication to God, in readiness for her future vocation as Mother of the Incarnate Lord” —or did it really happen? To propose a reasonable answer to this question, this article will explain and summarize narratives contained in some apocryphal gospels, and then review some additional Biblical texts, as well as refer to some Jewish and Roman accounts.
Sources: Apocryphal Gospels and Liturgy
An apocryphal gospel is a non-canonical document written in the first six centuries, A.D., in the style of a gospel and attributed to one of the Apostles. “Apocryphal” comes from the Greek word, apocryphos, meaning “hidden things,” because they were purported to be the secret, special knowledge of various heretical Gnostic groups. As such, this would not be the message of Christ that was preached openly for the salvation of all. “Non-canonical” means that it was not accepted by the Church Council of Carthage in 397 into the canon or “list” of the writings written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These apocryphal gospels were focused more on making doctrinal points and apparently filling in the details not given in the Gospels. However, although the apocryphal gospels were not written under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they are historical documents that contain elements of an earlier oral history that was respected by at least some Christians in its day, even though the Church had identified that not all information was correct. Perhaps some have imaginative embellishments like a “fish story.” Thus, the apocryphal gospels are an expression of popular piety with an admixture of truth and error.
For Mary’s Presentation in the Temple, an apocryphal gospel most often called the Protoevangelium of James, but also known as the Gospel of James, Book of James, The Nativity of Mary, Revelation of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, is the primary source for information about Mary’s life prior to the Annunciation. The Protoevangelium is attributed to the Apostle James, although it is not clear if the reference is to James, the relative of Jesus, or the other James. Although the true authorship and exact date of this historical document is unknown, its information may have been used by Justin Martyr who died in 165, Clement of Alexandria who died about 215, and Origen who died in 254.
The Protoevangelium has a checkered past with its rejection by St. Jerome for being incorrect in some aspects, such as its portrayal of St. Joseph as an older widower rather than a younger celibate, and its condemnation by Popes Damasus and Innocent I in the fourth and fifth centuries, respectively. Since the Protoevenglium was the primary basis for the liturgical celebrations of St. Joachim and the Presentation of Mary, Pope Pius V even cancelled these liturgies in the Catholic Reform after the Council of Trent! These feasts were later restored. Two later apocryphals—the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, as well as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas—seemed to use some of the material of the Protoevangelium of James. However, another possibility is that all of these sources are simply referring to the historic facts that were widely known by a long-standing oral tradition.
The Story of Mary’s Presentation
With this caveat, here is a summary of the story of Mary’s Presentation, as well as the background of Mary’s parents and Mary’s conception, as recounted in the first eight chapters of the twenty-five chapters of the Protoevangelium of James. Chapter 1 gives the context of Mary’s father, St. Joachim, who was a wealthy and righteous Jew who annually donated double the amount expected at the Temple. However, one year, the high priest at the Jewish Temple disgraced Joachim by publicly rejecting his offering because he was childless in his marriage. Discouraged, Joachim, not telling his wife where he was going, prayed and fasted for forty days and nights as he camped out with his flocks.
Chapter 2 provides the background for Mary’s mother, St. Anna, who was dispirited over their infertility and over the sudden disappearance of her husband, who could have been dead for all she knew. After Anna accused her maid of stealing, the maid, in turn, berated Anna’s infertility as a curse from God. Anna’s response was to lament and pray for a child, as recounted in Chapter 3.
Chapter 4 continues the drama with an angel’s annunciation to Anna that God will answer her prayer for a child, and—most pertinent to this topic—Anna’s promise to dedicate the child, male or female, to the service of the Lord! Then two angels alerted Anna to Joachim’s impending return, since he, too, had been told by an angel that they would conceive a child. He was taking a large number of animals to the Temple as a thanksgiving sacrifice for the good news, when Anna went out to meet him at the gate of the Temple!
Chapter 5 tells how Joachim’s sacrifice was accepted at the Temple before Anna conceived. Anna gave birth to a girl, and she named her Mary.
Chapter 6 says that Mary could walk at 6 months, when her parents made a special bedroom sanctuary for her to ensure that she came into contact only with “clean” or “pure” things. Joachim and Anna held a great feast for Mary’s first birthday, where Anna sang a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of this child.
Chapter 7 tells about Joachim’s proposal to fulfill Anna’s vow by taking Mary to the Temple on her second birthday, but Anna’s decision to keep Mary home for another year, in order to wean her completely both physically and also emotionally from her parents. Here is the translated passage about the Presentation of Mary:
And when the child was three years old, Joachim said: “Let us call the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews, and let each one take a lamp, and let these be burning, in order that the child may not turn back and her heart be enticed away from the temple of the Lord.” And he did so until they went up to the temple of the Lord. And the priest took her and kissed her and blessed her, saying: “The Lord has magnified your name among all generations; because of you the Lord at the end of the days will manifest his redemption to the children of Israel.” And he placed her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God put grace upon the child, and she danced for joy with her feet, and the whole house of Israel loved her.
Chapter 8 continues: “And her parents went down wondering, praising and glorifying the almighty God because the child did not turn back [to them]. And Mary was in the temple, nurtured like a dove, and she received food from the hand of an angel.”
This story is quite entertaining! But were girls presented in the Temple before the time of Christ; and if so, why? The documents of the time period need to be consulted.
First, in the Bible, the book of 1 Samuel 1 tells the story of how the previously childless mother, Anna, gave her only son, Samuel, the prophet, back to God by leaving him in the care of Heli to serve in the Temple after Samuel had been weaned, but still very young. What age could that have been? Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, 2 Maccabees 7:27 provides an example for a Jewish mother to have weaned a child by the age of three. This book was written only about 145 years before Mary would have been born. Even now, preschool starts at age three, because that is when most children are out of diapers. They have long-term memory at that point and can begin their more formal education. Thus, it is logically possible that there could have been a presentation of such a young child to the Temple.
Secondly, there is evidence of women serving in the Temple. First, theologian Dr. Taylor Marshall noted three pertinent passages in the Old Testament; Exodus 38:8 mentions women who “watch (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle.” 1 Samuel 2:22 describes “women that waited (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle” (1 Sam 2:22, Douay-Rheims). The Hebrew verb is the same in both passages, as well as in Numbers 4:23 and 8:24, to describe the liturgical work of the Levites. 2 Maccabees 3:19-20 states: “And the virgins also that were shut up, came forth, some to (the High Priest) Onias, and some to the walls, and others looked out of the windows. And all holding up their hands towards heaven, made supplication.” These virgins had a privileged status in order to be able to talk to the High Priest and to be making supplication. Therefore, it is clear that there were female Temple attendants, some of whom were at least virgins, whose vigilant prayer may have also served as security.
Moreover, Jewish sources mention Temple virgins as well. The Mishnah spoke of the huge veil in the Temple that was woven by 82 virgins. The Babylonian Talmud mentions “women who made the veils for the Temple…baked the showbread…prepared the incense.”
A Rabbinic commentary on the Roman sack of Jerusalem, that occurred in 70 A.D., described a triple-storied building in the Temple where the virgins lived, before it sadly commented how “the virgins who were weaving threw themselves in the flames,” presumably to save themselves from being violated and enslaved. This description of a female dormitory affiliated with the Temple is corroborated by Josephus, the Jewish historian (ca. 37-100 A.D.), who wrote of a “fore-court of women” at the Temple, where women who made a Nazarite vow could stay at a building that was attached to the Temple. The living quarters for women in the Temple is further supported in the New Testament by Anna, a widow who “never left the Temple” (Lk 2:36-37).
Because the Biblical account of the Annunciation affirms Mary’s virginity, she would have been qualified to serve as a Temple virgin (Lk 1:34). With her relative, Elizabeth, of the priestly tribe of Aaron (Lk 1:5), Mary would have had the connections helpful to enter into Temple service. Thus, there are Jewish and Christian testimonies of women who worked and/or lived in the Temple as virgins or at least celibately and, with her family network, Mary would have been a good candidate.
Thirdly, the long history of the liturgy supports this understanding of Mary as a Temple virgin who lived there from age three until fourteen, when she was married to St. Joseph. By the fourth century, St. Helena had a church constructed in Palestine for “the Entrance of the Most Holy Mother of God in the Temple,” as the Eastern Churches still call the feast; and St. Gregory of Nyssa was the first of a list of Church Fathers who refer to this event. The earliest known homilies for the feast were by Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople (715-730), who notably wrote not just one, but two homilies that were so well-regarded that they were carefully preserved. The current use of Sirach 24:14-16 as a Mass text for the feast of the Presentation of the Mary suggests that Mary, too, was “ministering in the Temple.”
Although private revelations are not of theological use, it is interesting to note that the apocryphal writings correspond well with the visions recorded of the German stigmatist, Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich. There are some differences as well, such as St. Joseph being a virgin, which had been one of the reasons that the Church had already determined that the Protoevangelium was not inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a former seamstress, Emmerich’s more detailed version of Mary’s presentation described the lovely dresses worn by the child Mary and her attendants, but also a mystical interpretation of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant being appropriately housed in the Temple, just as the literal Ark of the Covenant had been. As the official Vatican biography states, “Her words, which have reached innumerable people in many languages from her modest room in Dülmen through the writings of Clemens Brentano, are an outstanding proclamation of the Gospel in service to salvation right up to the present day.” Since none of her writings contradict Scripture or known history, Emmerich’s descriptions of the Presentation and then Mary’s education in the Jewish Temple open up a wider range of logical possibilities of how such an event could have occurred.
In summary, the evidence for the historicity of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple is not as clear as modern scholars would like. Nonetheless, since there are Biblical and Jewish testimonies for boys, women, and virgins serving in the Temple, it is logical to conclude that it would be possible for some of those virgins to include girls as well. Given these facts, it is reasonable to think that it was most appropriate that Mary would have been one of them. Even though the apocryphal gospels may be inaccurate on the details, both the fourth-century construction of a church and the homilies of the Church Fathers since that time support the early oral tradition of Mary being presented at age three in the Temple to serve there until her marriage to Joseph. This is as far as mere scholarship can go at this time. Perhaps future research or archaeology may discover more.
However, for many Christians such as Catholics and the Orthodox Christians, Tradition (with a capital “T”) is the handing down of Christ’s complete message “whether by word of mouth, or by letter,” as St. Paul expressed it in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (CCC 81-83). Tradition includes the ritual worship that the Church has passed down from the early centuries. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1124 teaches: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.” Thus, reason guided by Tradition accepts those parts of the apocryphal gospels that the Church has celebrated liturgically from Patristic time, including Mary’s Presentation in the Temple. This theological conclusion fits so well with the corroborating evidence that it seems the burden of proof falls upon those who might wish to dispute that the Presentation of Mary was an actual event in history.
 Paul VI, Marialis Cultis or For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2, 1974, The Vatican, http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19740202_marialis-cultus.html.
 Johann Roten, “Life of Mary in the Liturgy,” All about Mary. International Marian Research Institute. Accessed May 21, 2019, https://www.udayton.edu/imri/mary/l/liturgy-life-of-mary-in-the.php.
 Jacques Hervieux, What Are Apocryphal Gospels? (London: Burns and Oats, 1960), 10-11, 180-183.
 Various translations can be found online, such as those listed by Early Christian Writings, accessed May 20, 2019, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/infancyjames.html.
 Neil J. Roy, “Protoevangelium of James,” New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2010), 918-919.
 The summary of the eight chapters was made from Ron Cameron, ed. The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 109-113.
 There are many artworks on the meeting of Sts. Joachim and Anna at the Gate, sometimes called the Golden Gate, which to an American evokes San Francisco, but here refers to Jerusalem. The Presentation of Mary is also a common theme, usually showing her on the altar steps, as can be seen by paintings in Giotto Di Bondone in Padua, Titian, and Tintoretto (H. French, “Presentation of Mary,” NCE 2010, vol. p. 683).
 Other Gospels, 113.
 Other Gospels, 113.
 Taylor Marshall, “Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?” December 19, 2011. http://taylormarshall.com/2011/12/did-jewish-temple-virgins-exist-and-was.html.
 H.D.M. Spence, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, BibleHub. Accessed May 20, 2019. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/1_samuel/1.htm
 The second Book of Maccabees is dated to 160 B.C. according to “Maccabees, Books of,” NCE 2nd edition, vol. 9 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2003). Mary is thought to have been perhaps about fifteen years old when Christ was born.
 Taylor Marshall, “The True Presentation of the Virgin Mary (Foretold in the Book of Sirach),” November 21, 2011. http://taylormarshall.com/2011/11/true-presentation-of-virgin-mary.html.
 Marshall, “Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?”
 Marshall, “Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?” referred to Mishna Shekalim 8, 5-6, and the Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 106a.
 Marshall, “Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?” cited Pesikta Rabbati 26, 6.
 Adolph Büchler, “The Fore-Court of Women and the Brass Gate in the Temple of Jerusalem,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 10, no. 4 (1898): 678-718. doi:10.2307/1450393.
 Roten, “The Life of Mary in Liturgy.”
 The Orthodox Church in America, “The Entry of the Most Holy Mother of God into the Temple,” https://oca.org/saints/lives/2010/11/21/103357-the-entry-of-the-most-holy-mother-of-god-into-the-temple. Gregory of Nyssa, Oratioi in Dieum Natalem Christi, in PG 46: 1139-1140, “Homily on the Nativity of Christ,” trans. John Sanidopoulos, Mystagogy Resource Center, Dec. 27, 2017, https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2017/12/homily-on-nativity-of-christ-st-gregory.html refers to the apocryphal account of the story of Mary being taken to the Temple when she was weaned.
 Gregory Roth, Paradox Beyond Nature: An Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Dialogue on the Marian Homilies of Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople (715-730) (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012), 63-65.
 Marshall, “True Presentation.”
 The Marian content of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions have been compiled in The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is easily found online in various formats, such as the one translated by Sir Michael Palairet, with supplementary notes by Rev. Sebastian Bullough, O.P., edited by Donald R. Dickerson, Jr., 2009, and found at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/emmerich/lifemary.html.
 Emmerich, “The Presentation of Blessed Virgin in the Temple.” Accessed May 21, 2019, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/emmerich/lifemary.vii.html.
 The Vatican, “Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824),” http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20041003_emmerick_en.html.
 Roy, “Protoevangelium of James,” 920.