Saturday, September 8, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today is the first Great Feast of the Orthodox Christian ecclesiastical year — The Nativity of the Theotokos. This event, of course, is not found within the NT, because that is not what the NT is about — the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The story of Mary’s birth is found in a book called the Protoevangelium of James.

Many people (including the good folks of Early Christian Writings to which I linked above) label the Protoevanglium to be apocryphal. From an Orthodox Christian point of view this is a misnomer. The word apocryphal means spurious; however, this writing was popular among early Christians and understood to be good for reading. Indeed, details from the Protoevangelium of James are found within the Mariological feasts of the Orthodox Church.

This, in turn, reminds us that the canon of the Bible as we know it today was not set in stone until the 4th century (by St. Athanasius the Great, for those who are curious). Prior to this there were various books that are not in the canon that were popular with early Christians, that were seen as good and holy works by early Christians (including St. Athanasius) and that were even read during services by early Christians. In fact, Hebrews and Revelation almost did not make it into the canon. Hebrews, while popular in the East, was rejected by many Western Christians because they did not believe it was written by St. Paul. Revelation, while popular in the West, was not well received in the East because of the interpretive difficulties that it poses (indeed, it is never read as part of any service in the Orthodox Church to this day).

A few examples of books that, though popular, did not make it into the canon:

There are, of course, a plethora of books that were completely rejected by the early Church — the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas just to name two. (BTW, the “re-discovery” of the latter a few years ago did not create much of a buzz among Orthodox Christianity because we already knew of its existence via St. Iraneus, who rejected it).

There is also the Book of Enoch. Though not recognized by most Christians (it is seen as canonical by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches), it is quoted in the Epistle of Jude (14-15).

I bring all this up because, despite my efforts to the contrary, there are those who are uncomfortable using the Bible as source material for a FRPG. This list of books, therefore, can be used as an alternative set of source material for someone who wants to run a campaign with a pseudo-Christian church or mythology. As anyone who has gone back and read some of the prophets, there are plenty of ways to utilize these books.

For example, here are a few themes that can be mined from the Protoevangelium of James:

  • Birth by a woman far beyond her child bearing years and/or barren is far more common within salvation history than the unique virgin birth of Christ. Anna, Mary’s mother, follows in this scriptural tradition — she is elderly and barren when she becomes pregnant. This theme could be exploited as part of the backstory of an adventure or campaign.
  • Mary is taken to the Temple by her parents to become of one the Temple Virgins. This highlights the power and status that virginity had in the ancient world. Indeed, there are plenty of examples both within Scripture and without that tie virginity with the ability to prophesy. This is great for backstory, campaign flavor and/or as a seed for all kinds of shenanigans within a campaign.
  • Mary was given food by angels while she lived inside the Temple. Angels, therefore, can play an active role in a campaign. Indeed, they can be avatars for God in a campaign world, playing the role from whence their name comes — messenger.

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