[Please read the short Introduction first.]
Mary was a young woman, probably in her early or mid-teens, when the angel Gabriel visited her and brought this message from God:
“Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you! … Don’t be afraid, Mary . . . for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end! … The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over-shadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God (Luke 2:28-35).
Mary consented to God’s plan to make her the mother of the Messiah despite the possibility she might suffer scandal and disgrace for becoming pregnant without being married. Plus, there was the risk Mary could be publicly accused of sexual immorality and even be stoned to death, a penalty in those days.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of Gabriel’s visit. Betrothal was the first stage of marriage, and the contract of betrothal was bound by Jewish Law. When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he intended to break off the betrothal, effectively a divorce. He suspected Mary of impropriety, which can’t have been pleasant for her. However, after having the situation explained to him by an angel in a dream, Joseph took Mary home as his wife. But they did not consummate the marriage, have sex, until after Jesus was born. (See Matthew 1:18-25.)
So did Mary suffer scandal? Timothy Ralston thinks not and writes,
There is no clear indication anywhere within the New Testament that Mary was considered to have behaved immorally or that Jesus was illegitimate (i.e., “born of fornication”). A recent study suggests otherwise. Jewish society during this period considered betrothal to be a legal arrangement, binding both parties to mutual fidelity before the actual wedding event. Rabbinic teaching after the New Testament [b. Yevam 69b–70a] also allowed for pre-wedding sexual intercourse between bride and groom (if it occurred within her father’s house). It’s reasonable to assume, then, that there were pre-wedding pregnancies with no social or religious stigma, as long as the child was thought to be the groom’s. Matthew is clear that Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy “before they came together” (i.e., had a sexual relationship)… Mary suffered no “shame”—no ostracism from family, community, or religious leaders for her pregnancy. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that Jesus’s enemies ever accused him of illegitimacy.
I’m not so sure. Apart from Elizabeth’s enthusiastic response when Mary visited her (Luke 1:41-45), and apart from Joseph’s initial concern, the scriptures are silent about how people took the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Was there was no proper accommodation made available to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem because of a sense of scandal (Luke 2:6-7)?
Whether there was gossip and scandal, or not, Mary’s situation is in contrast to many Christmas card illustrations that depict scenes of snug security and domestic comfort. Mary’s practical security and comfort was uncertain and threatened.
Still, both Mary and Joseph were people of great faith and obedience (Luke 1:45-55; Matt. 1:24), and Mary was conscious of being favoured by God (Luke 1:28, 30). This knowledge must have been a tremendous blessing that buoyed her through the difficult days ahead.
We know she pondered the amazing events that surrounded the birth of Jesus and kept them in her heart (Luke 2:19 & 51). These memories would have been another source of reassurance, strength and comfort. Furthermore, if there had been some sense of scandal and disgrace over the Holy Family because of Mary’s pregnancy, it did not last; Luke’s Gospel tells us that the boy Jesus grew in favour with God and with people (Luke 2:52).
 I have baulked at the young age scholars have suggested for Mary, but the more I study about first-century Jewish (and Roman) woman, the more I have come to see that it was common for girls to be married by 14 or 15 years of age at that time. The Bible does not tell us Joseph’s age. The Protoevangelium of James (also known as the Infancy Gospel of James), however, claims that Joseph was an older man, a widower with children, when he married Mary.
 Ralston relies on the scholarship of Lynn Cohick. See Cohick’s study on whether Mary suffered social shame in her book, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 152–56.
 Timothy Ralston, “The Virgin Mary: Reclaiming Our Respect”, Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, edited by Sandra Glahn (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2017), 101-124, 105.
 Why did both Mary and Elizabeth stay in seclusion during the early months of their pregnancies and not during the later months when their pregnancies were most obvious? Was it to avoid raising doubts and questions about the paternity of their babies?
© 8th of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko
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