Nativity of the Virgin Mary the Theotokos
Sources of Knowledge about Mary
Not much is known about he background of Mary the Mother of God. What we do know is found in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and portions of various apocryphal accounts that have been in part accepted by the Church.
The apocryphal books are books that appeared in the time of the New Testament but were excluded from the canonical books. For the most part they contain material that cannot be verified as historically accurate. They contain numerous stories that are fantastic legends that are not consistent with the simplicity of the Gospel stores. Most of such stories have been rejected by the Church as corruption introduced by the Gnostics, Manicheans and other heretical sects. There are instances where the Fathers of the Church along with hymnographers and iconographers borrowed from certain episodes in this apocrypha. They believed that there were some truths buried in these books and they incorporated them into their own writings.
The most important of these books is the Protoevangelium of James.* This is a composite work in which the information about the virgin Mary dates back to 130-140. It is important to understand that only material which is useful and reliable has been absorbed by the Church. It is not wise for Orthodox Christians to search these documents for further insights.
The Four major feasts of the Theotokos: Her Conception (Dec 9th), he Nativity (sept 9), her Entrance into the Temple (Nov 21), and her Dormition (Aug 15) are taken from the Protoevangelium of James, Pseudo-Matthew, The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, The Falling Asleep of Mary, and the Passing of Mary.
Pseudo-Matthew is an adaptation of the Protoevangelium of James and appeared in the West in the 4th century. The Gospel of the Birth of Mary is a Latin account of the Virgin’s birth and childhood. It is included in works that are attributed to Jerome (347-420). It is an enhanced version of the first part of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
There are numerous references to the details found in the Protoevangelium of James in the writings of the holy Fathers.- Saint Andrew of Crete (c.660-740), St. Germanos (c. 635-733) patriarch of constantinople, and Saint Gregory the Wonder Worker, Saint Photios (c. 897) St. Hesychios of Jerusalem (c. 451).
Many of our traditional icons depict episodes taken from the apocryphal writings. These icons can be found even in the renown churches in Constantinople, Mystra and on Mount Athos. This is true also for many of the hymns that are sung regularly in the Orthodox Church.
* Some indication of the popularity of the Infancy Gospel of James may be drawn from the fact that about one hundred and thirty Greek manuscripts containing it have survived. The Gospel of James was translated into Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, Irish and Latin.
Link to English version of this document http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vii.iv.html