Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

[Please read the short Introduction first.]

Mary was a young woman, probably in her early or mid-teens,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

I’m not so sure. Apart from Elizabeth’s enthusiastic response when Mary visited her (Luke 1:41-45),[4] 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).

Part 3 »

There was little domestic comfort in Mary’s “Christmas.”
It had nothing in common with the snug scene depicted in Christmas Eve by Carl Larsson, 1904.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Footnotes

[1] I have personally 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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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Christmas Cardology Series 

(1) Introduction
(3) Nazareth to Bethlehem
(4) Was Jesus born in a barn?
(5) When was Jesus born?
(6) The Virgin Mary
(7) The Wise Men from the East

Related Article

Mary Consoles Eve
Mary and the Women in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus

14 thoughts on “Christmas Cardology 2: Mary’s Scandal and Favour

  1. Thanks Marg
    Just some ramblings:
    I) The seclusion of Mary is not so hard to understand, for Elisabeth we can guess but no more.

    Chronologically
    A) For Elisabeth there is no reason stated nor is there anything we know that proves one way or the other why she wanted to stay at home. My wife thinks that because Elisabeth is older and this will be her first child she might have been extra cautious. It makes sense but still its a guess.

    B) For Mary we do know why she went into seclusion,
    First under the Law of Moses she would have been stoned to death,
    This punishment is in the Law of Moses twice, first in Leviticus, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife-with the wife of his neighbor-both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10), and restated later “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” (Deuteronomy 22:22).

    Secondly, Mary would have had to trust that God would work out the reaction with the community; because who would believe her?

    Thirdly, Mary would have had to trust that God would work out her relationship with her fiancée Joseph, because Joseph would naturally assume the obvious; that Mary had been unfaithful.
    Three reasons to withdraw from society.

    II) Regarding the accommodation, we must remember that ‘hotels’ in those days were made up out of ONE room.

    A) If Mary had the baby in that room that night, the room / whole hotel would have been defiled based on Leviticus 15.

    B) All the people in the room would have been defiled. And would have to undergo a ritual bath and make a sacrificial offering (Who would pay for the expense? The inn-keeper, the people sleeping there?).

    Bottom-line it would have been a bad business decision for the innkeeper. Yet God for knew what would happen and kept them all safe.

    God Bless
    Paul Cohen
    Ariel Ministries Australia

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for this! I always appreciate your perspective.

    So, Mary may have gone to stay with Elizabeth in order to lie low for a few months and see how things would pan out. This could well have been the case. It certainly makes sense.

    I appreciate your comments about the defiling effects of childbirth. This is a real consideration.

    I hope you will have a look at my 4th instalment about where in Bethlehem Jesus was born. This is something you would know more about than me, so your comments would be very welcome.

  3. The life of Jesus was filled with scandalous things. And of course, the first was how he was conceived.

  4. I think Scripture might give us a glimpse of the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. In John 8:41, the Pharisees, while talking to Jesus, declared that they are not sons of fornication. Were they talking specifically of their Jewish heritage or were they taking a jab at Jesus because they considered him a son of fornication? Just a thought.

    1. Interesting!

      If the Pharisees hadn’t included, “The only Father we have is God”, it would be easier to think they were alluding to physical birth, to both their legitimate birth and Jesus’ more suspicious birth.

      Also, since much of the passage is about Abraham, I’m thinking it is more about Jewish heritage.

      The CEB translators think it is about heritage: “Our ancestry isn’t in question! The only Father we have is God!” (John 8:41 CEB).

      1. I think CEB is way interpretive here. There’s material in the Talmud which accuses Jesus of being a mamzer (illegitimate), the offspring of Mary and a Roman soldier. I can only imagine this scurrilous accusation dates back to the first century.

        I’m curious about Ralston’s reading of the Talmudic passage he cites; to me Yebamot 69b-70a says that the child of a betrothed couple, even if the betrothed husband is determined to be the father, is at least a shetuki (of uncertain legitimacy), if not (as in the opinion of other rabbis cited in that text) a mamzer.

        I’ll see if I can track down Cohick’s treatment.

        1. I appreciate your input on this.

          I have Lyn Cohick’s book and just reread the relevant pages again. She believes Jesus was not regarded as illegitimate and gives a few reasons why she believes this. The main two reasons are that it was not scandalous for betrothed couples to become preganant, and there is no sign that Mary was ostracised despite the long shadow illegitimacy typically casts (Sirach 23:22-25).

          In footnote 51 (p. 133) she writes, “The discussion of Jesus’ illegitimacy extends as well to whether he was considered a mamzer, a term that suggests illegitimacy or one born of a prohibited marriage. This term appears to be a legal category for later rabbis; our immediate concern is the community’s social judgement of Jesus’ parentage, and by extension, the social status of Mary.”

          Cohick then provides two references which give two different perspectives on the issue: one for a book chapter by Scot McKnight “Jesus as Mamzer (Illegitimate Son)”, the other for a paper by James F. McGrath “Was Jesus Illegitimate? The Evidence of his Social Interactions.” Cohick also discusses Mark 6:1-6 and John 8:41.

          I imagine the accusation that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier may have started later, when the church (made up predominately of Jews) started to grow and caused real problems for some synagogues who rejected Jesus as Messiah.

          1. Found Cohick online. She makes good points from the Mark and John texts. I do think that her argument that pregnancy during betrothal was not scandalous is based on a misreading of the Yebamot passage, though.

            Nonetheless, a valuable contribution to our understanding.

          2. Unfortunately, there’s too much assumed knowledge (that I don’t have) in Yebamot 69b70a for me to grasp what is going on. But I will certainly keep in mind that Mary’s pregnancy may well have been scandalous.

  5. I also believe that Mary was probably around 13-17 (most likely 15) during the angel visit. I read about it in several sources. Even today that girls are still marrying young. However, I did read somewhere that sex with prebusecent and pubescent girls rarely occurs. Sex occurs mostly when the girl is post-puberty. I read it from here Interrogating Claims about Natural Sexual Behavior: More on Deep Thinking Hebephile

  6. I had read that the comment in Mark 6:3, about Jesus being Mary’s son, instead of calling him Jospeh’s son, was an oblique reference to his illegitimacy.

    In a small village, would anyone else have known Joseph’s plans to divorce Mary? It’s an honest question. I lived in a small village for a year, and people knew my business almost before I knew it myself. But, maybe Jospeh had kept his plan to himself, and it only came out later, maybe when Mary told her whole story to the believers after Jesus’ resurrection, or something.

    Last summer In Israel, read an inscription on an ancient headstone of a man for his wife who died at 18, a good wife for five years. He actually also counted out the weeks and days of their time together.

    1. Hi Joanne,

      I haven’t heard people suggest Mark 6:3 is an allusion to illegitimacy. Joseph isn’t around when Jesus is an adult, he’s probably deceased. But Jesus’ mother, his three named brothers, and his unnamed and unnumbered “sisters are here.”

      I have heard people suggest that John 8:41, where the Pharisees tell Jesus, “We have not been born from sexual immorality,” is an indication that they thought there was something dodgy about Jesus’ conception. But that idea only works if we ignore the topic of their conversation in John 8:31-47.

      Also, I have heard a few people now say that, since the couple were engaged, Jesus would not have been regarded as an illegitimate child. Elizabeth was delighted with Mary’s pregnancy.

      There’s no actual mention of scandal in the New Testament, but I really don’t know.

      That’s interesting about the epitaph. Have you got any more information about it? Whereabouts in Israel was it?

  7. No, I don’t think Mary pregnancy was scandalous in the town, probably no-one apart from Joseph and Elizabeth knew anything about it. We don’t know how early in the pregnancy Joseph found out and if she was showing yet, therefore others wouldn’t know yet. When she told Joseph that she was pregnant and how, he would have thought: “I am not going to marry this dumb girl, some bloke comes up to her, claims to be an angel and she lets him have his wicked way with her! It will probably happen again in the future.” The fact that they were still only betrothed not married means that Mary has not yet had her first period. Also making it clear that Joseph was not the father. Marriage couldn’t occur till after that, which means she was still very young. Quite normal in those days. There is also no reason to assume that Joseph was a much older man. Marriages where both were young people would have been arranged by the families. The fact that Joseph was probably dead when Jesus started His ministry mean nothing, except that Jesus would have had to support His mother and siblings until they were old enough to do it or with His sisters until they were married, some people have always died young. I am sure we all know families where the father died young from illness or accident. But people in Nazareth assumed Joseph to be the father. Don’t know chapter and verse, but when Jesus was preaching in the synagogue and they were astonished at Him, they said “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” And elsewhere He was called the “carpenter’s son”. Jesus was always assumed to be Joseph’s son!

    1. I don’t think anyone questioned that Joseph was the father (Mark 6:3). But they might have wondered why Mary gave birth to a baby only around 6 months after Joseph took Mary home as his wife. (Compare Matthew 1 with Luke 1, especially Matthew 1:24 with Luke 1:56.)

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