She is the world's most honored woman, but the New Testament presents little more than a glimpse of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
A more detailed picture, especially of her early years, emerges from a new book, "The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesus," by University of Southern California religion professor Ronald F. Hock. It was published just in time for Christmas by Ulysses Press of Berkeley, Calif.
Not only does the work shed more light on the life of Mary, but it also presents a view of her husband, Joseph, that contrasts sharply with his shadowy New Testament image. It presents him as an aging widower who reluctantly agrees to take care of the young virgin after being picked for the responsibility in a synagogue lottery.
"I already have sons, and I'm an old man; she's only a young woman," Joseph objects when the high priest informs him that he has been chosen by lot to take Mary under his protection. "I'm afraid that I'll become the butt of jokes among the people of Israel."
Hock based his book on an early Christian work known as "The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James," which is included in its entirety in "The Life of Mary and the Birth of Jesus."
The Gospel also describes the birth of Mary, her upbringing in the temple, the trials faced by Mary and Joseph as her pregnancy became evident and the birth of Jesus in a cave rather than the familiar stable of the New Testament.
Hock said he wrote the book to provide "a glimpse of how Christian tradition has developed."
"The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James," Hock pointed out, was one of 40 or 50 gospels written in the second century but excluded from the Latin translation prepared by the great Scripture scholar Jerome. It subsequently was included on a papal list of condemned works.
But, Hock stressed, despite its lack of standing with the Vatican, the Gospel of James provided the inspiration for paintings, mosaics and other works of art dealing with the life of Mary in churches around the world. It is the only source of information for creating those works, he said.
The Rev. E. Werner Weinreich, a Lutheran pastor and Scripture scholar, describes the Gospel of James as "a nice story for people who want to read legends."
"It is more or less folk literature. It was never acknowledged as being scriptural by any church," he said. "If you read it as a book of stories, it is fine, but you should not base your faith on it."
People who read "The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James," Mr. Weinreich said, should consider it "a book of ancient stories written about something we didn't have any other information about."
Although it has no official standing in the Catholic Church, the Rev. Richard J. Cassidy, professor of New Testament at Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora, said "The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James" contains some material that has added to the Catholic tradition.
For instance, the names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne, are not mentioned in the New Testament, but they are central figures in "The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James."
Nevertheless, Father Cassidy feels that devoting time to reading "The Ancient Infancy Gospel of James" is unproductive.
"The most important aspects of Christmas are contained in the infancy narratives in the works of Luke and Matthew," he said.
Father Cassidy pointed out that "there were all kinds of (religious) documents" produced in the first century and later.
"You could go all over chasing these documents. Instead, it is better to focus on the treasures that we have in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew," he said.
Hock, a Methodist, does not concede that the Gospel of James is without value.
"I wouldn't say it should not be taken seriously. Information about Mary is always important," he said.
One reason he wrote the book, Hock said, is because there is much less information -- fewer than two dozen references -- about Mary in the New Testament than most people realize.
In addition to the passages dealing with the birth of Jesus, Mary is seen holding a prominent place in the life of Jesus only in connection with the wedding celebration in Cana and at the foot of the cross on which he died.
Elsewhere, there are fleeting references to her as his mother and as one of his followers.
The Gospel of James begins with both Joachim and Anne lamenting that they are childless. It includes the birth of Mary, her early years living in the temple, the selection of Joseph, a widower with grown children, to care for her, Mary's selection by God to bear Jesus and the birth of Jesus.