Myths of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph, and the Virgin Birth

stained glass nativityThere is no Nativity without the central figures of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ own parents. They stand looking over Jesus in his manger in the pose of proud parents.

We know their stories by heart: Mary, the Untainted Virgin, visited by an angel announcing her impending pregnancy with the Son of God, and Joseph, dutiful and loyal husband, visited in a dream by an angel with the child’s name. They travel from their home of Nazareth, to their ancestral home of Bethlehem, for the Roman census. Upon arrival, they find no room at the inn, and are forced to bring their Holy Child into the world in a stable, where they are soon visited by admirers, both mighty and humble, divine and mortal. From there, Joseph is almost never mentioned again, while Mary becomes a faithful devotee of her son, before her veneration after death.

Yet, what if the Mary and Joseph we’ve been given are mythical figures, dreamed up this way to provide a specific royal and divine background to the birth of Jesus, mere window dressings to the early years of Jesus? What if we have lost what Mary and Joseph really looked like, what their story really is, in favor of a religious myth that serves a larger narrative?

To uncover the real Mary and Joseph, we must look at the Nativity stories present in Scripture. The story of Jesus’ birth is recounted in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, each with it’s own perspective. Matthew, written to Jewish readers, emphasizes the patriarchal lineage of Jesus that ties him to the heavyweights of Jewish history, and this Joseph is the point of focus. Luke, writing to gentiles, and hoping to emphasize the miraculous in his telling of Jesus so that his readers might see Jesus as more spectacular than Caesar Augustus (and thus the “Son of God” more worthy of veneration) focuses on the Adoration and the heavenly host greeting Jesus’ entry to the world.

Only the Gospel of Matthew recounts the virginal nature of Mary, and thus the divine origin of her son. To modern readers, the idea of a virgin birth is spectacular, a sign of the singularity of Jesus as God’s only offspring. Yet, the unique nature of the story is precisely a result of it’s own existence in the dominant religious narrative of the Western world. To ancient readers, the idea of a Virgin Birth would be fairly anodyne, and yawn-inducing. A Virgin Birth? Big deal, get in line, you and a hundred other heroes can claim that.

This isn’t to discount the importance of Mary being a virgin to the rest of the story of Christ. Instead of a radical unique idea that stands alone in it’s improbability, the Virgin Birth instead stands as a marker of Jesus’ role as a Very Important Person, on par with Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great and King Cyrus, all of whom were purported to be born of virgins and thus Divi Filius, the sons of god. By identifying Jesus as born of a Virgin, the Gospel writers were identifying Jesus with the great leaders and heroes of the world; they were starting his story by saying, “pay attention, this is an important person you are about to read of.”

Matthew, as I’ve mentioned, was writing to a specifically Jewish audience, and thus was concerned with showing Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish scriptural predictions of the coming Messiah. The idea of Jesus as the son of God was supposed to fill one of these prophecies: Isaiah 7:14. In this verse, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz about the future of the nation of Judah. He says,

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

The Hebrew word used for young woman here is almah, which translates literally to mean a woman of marriageable age. Her virginal state is indeterminate in the Hebrew. When Matthew quotes this in his gospel, he also uses almah, but uses it alongside a story that includes a Virginal Mary, and thus, a Jesus sired by God. A Son of God.

This also highlights the importance of Joseph to the story, and the inherent contradiction of his inclusion. In light of Jesus’ relation to God, Joseph serves to tie the family of Jesus to the kingship of David, and to the Hebrew patriarchs. Joseph not being Jesus’ blood relative makes this tie tenuous, but the importance is that Jesus’ family is Judahite, and Davidic, two other crucial markers of his Messiahship. Joseph is a stand-in for Israel, a connection that shows Jesus as belonging to the Hebrews, at the same time he belongs to God as a son. It matters not that he isn’t the actual son of Joseph, and therefore isn’t actually related to David. Family ties were intimately important, and Jesus being a member of this family establishes the link itself.

In all of this, there is no claim of the historicity of Mary and Joseph’s existence. In fact, in the original context, the historical accuracy is unimportant. Matthew and Luke are conveying a bigger, more important truth here, and debates over Mary and Joseph’s actual state of being were unimportant.

But they aren’t unimportant anymore. The idea of Virgin Birth no longer operates along other contemporary claims of Sonship, but instead stands alone. We no longer need such a marker of importance; what we need at this point in history, with two thousand years of baggage overshadowing the story of Christ, is a closer understanding of the historical Jesus, and what he meant to the world, and thus what he means to us. And that means understanding where he comes from, understanding his family and his birth, and what they say about the person of Jesus, not the icon of Christ.

So, what does the historical story of Jesus’ parents look like? Well, first, start by erasing Joseph from the picture. I don’t believe Joseph is a historical figure. I don’t think he actually ever existed as we think of him, as the steadfast husband of Mary and the stepfather of Jesus. As I demonstrated above, Joseph operates as a stand-in for Jesus’ Messiah-based ties to Israel. Joseph merely exists as a literary device that establishes Jesus’ place in the larger story of the Hebrew people.

Joseph also exists as a purifying agent for the character of Mary. The idea of a single mother who endured either sexual immorality or sexual violence, was surely unacceptable to the Gospel writers of the time. Joseph, then, dispenses with this inconvenience by putting Mary into a “pure” context, as a married, tame wife of a true Hebrew. In order to understand the humanity of Jesus, to get at the visceral reality of the Nativity, we must dispense of the character of Joseph, who serves as a patriarchal softener, a device to make the story more palatable.

This leaves us with Mary, alone and pregnant. No longer do we have a tame, domestic, passive Mother of God, purified of all earthly connections. Instead, we have the real Mary, living in the dust and dirt of first century Palestine, enduring the shit of a life on the fringes. This is a woman of the world, one who is distinctly human, and truthfully broken and impure and fallible, just like everyone around here. She no longer attains exceptionality because of what God did to her, but of because of what she does. And that surely was an unacceptable character trait to the early church.

Let’s think about why this would be. When Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels, the historical Jesus was a memory, but a comparatively recent one. There may have been a few people alive in Nazareth who remembered Jesus and Mary, and certainly their children and grandchildren were still alive. Jesus was enough of a prominent member of the community, and the only thing of significance to ever come from Nazareth, and thus his story would have been talked about and remembered in his hometown. That of his family almost certainly would be too.

This was dangerous to the early church. Making the claim of Jesus being the Son of God, birthed by a Virgin Mary, was not only a marker of the Divine nature of Jesus, but also a guard against the real story.

What I mean is, if we concede the Virgin Birth as fabricated to provide gravitas to Jesus, then that leaves open the possibility that someone who knew an earthly father of Jesus, married to Mary, would be able to come forward and defend that father’s case. (For example, the family of that father, who would have a vested interest in presenting such a figure as their offspring, for reasons of both prestige and preserving the honor of their son.)

Yet, the Virgin Birth story persisted, meaning that an alternate story of his father never gained traction. But what if that is because Jesus’ father was unknown, or was suppressed?

I think there are two plausible explanations of Jesus’ paternity, the second more likely than the first, but both interrelated: either he was a illegitimate child, or he was the product of a rape.

Now, I know those are both fairly inflammatory options, but stick with me here, and let get to the profound, and important, theological implications of those possibilities.

Matthew writes, in 1:18-19,

“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph,  being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Within this verse is the seed of the idea of adultery and a bastard child, and the shame and humiliation brought on the families. There could be no more ignominious beginning to the live of the one who would become Messiah. It would be in the church’s best interest, and the interest of Jesus’ family, to cover up such a beginning with something so majestic as Divine Sonship. By ascribing to Jesus the title “Son of God,” any and all criticism or dissent from Nazareth would be neutralized.

The second possibility, that of a rape, is connected here. Perhaps he was a bastard due to the poor judgment of Mary. But what if he was conceived through no fault to Mary? I consider rape the more likely scenario, because Jewish law is fairly unequivocal about the penalty for an adulterous woman: death by stoning. The fact that Mary lived to give birth indicates that either the adultery was committed with a man she may have been betrothed to (a dishonorable and shameful act, but not punishable by death) or that sexual violence was committed against Mary.

Rape at the hands of the ruling Roman soldiers would not have been that uncommon. There was very little to check the power of soldiers enforcing Roman rule in distant provinces, and the word of a peasant girl against a Roman citizen soldier would hold no water. What if the exercise of that power in this case consisted of the forcible rape of Mary? Would that have been something outside the bounds of possibility? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s highly probable that a majority of Jewish women had less-than-pleasant encounters with Roman soldiers during the 100 years of Roman rule of Palestine.

Again, this would have been something of shame for the family to conceal, and the fact that Jesus may have been half Roman, or Germanic, or Greek, or wherever the soldier was from, would have been something to hide, especially if the goal was to establish Jesus as a truly Jewish Messiah. What better hiding place than behind claims of lineage directly from the most Jewish of all Jews, King David himself?

So, what do these two scenarios mean for understanding Jesus? Whether Jesus is the product of adultery or rape is irrelevant theologically; what’s important is that, in this telling, Jesus is descended from the lowest of the low. God chose the illegitimate son of a disgraced and humiliated peasant girl to show the Way of God. It shows that truth and meaning and hope can be found in the darkest of beginnings.

I want to emphasize that I don’t mean to minimize the centrality of Mary to the story. I am sympathetic to feminist critiques of the Gospel that emphasize the agency and power of Mary in the story of Jesus. And I know that a historically critical interpretation really strips Mary down to minimal detail, and thus seemingly strips her of that agency and power. I hold no such intention.

I believe the idea of Mary as a single teenage mother, the victim of a terrible act, raising a Messiah, imbues Mary with a extraordinarily formative role in the development of Jesus. If he is the product of adultery, then Mary was probably at best looked down upon by her family, and at worst, cast out by them. Either way, this leaves Mary as the one who chiefly raised and formed the child Jesus. This gives her much credit to his eventual ministry, credit she justly deserves. If she was the victim of rape, and thus raised the child of such a monstrous act, then she carries the awesome weight of an extraordinary woman, one who overcomes great hardship and incredible odds to raise a son of singular importance. Instead of crumbling in the face of ruthless imperial violence visited personally upon her very person, Mary made a life for herself and her unexpected son.

Mary, in this telling of the Nativity, is as central as a character can be. She moves from the passive vessel carrying the child of God, a largely silent and symbolic figure, to the prime mover in the first act of Jesus’ life. She becomes a person to be greatly admired for her strength of mind, of personality, of pure will to thrive.

I know all of this is fairly speculative. The myths surrounding the birth of Jesus are not unimportant; in fact, they are quite important in what they say about who Jesus was to the people who lived with and experienced him. In examining them to deduce some historicity, we have learned much about the meaning of the Scriptural texts. But to simply dismiss all of this, and say that it is outside the bounds of what is possible is to deny it’s foundation in reality. We know almost nothing about the early Jesus, and logical deductions based on culture and what little we have in the scriptures leads us to these conclusions. Are they speculative and, ultimately, unknowable? Sure. Are they without merit, and thus worthless? Absolutely not. Understanding the story of Jesus’ origins – the whole story, in all it’s forms and with a full exposition of the historical clues in the text – is central to understanding Jesus himself.

This story – Mary, impregnated by dishonorable means, giving birth to a son whom she wholly raises to become a leader, to become a Messiah for his people, whose origins are covered up in favor of a story that highlights his divine and royal lineage, his link to his people and their story – this story holds much power and meaning. But what does it mean for our celebration of Christmas and Advent?

It highlights the hopeful nature of the Advent season to ponder Mary as a single, unwed, teenage victim who birthed and raised the most consequential figure in human history. Besides the amazing rise of Jesus, contemplate the amazing elevation of Mary! From a forgotten and potentially cast-out teenager, to the beloved mother of the central figure of the world’s largest religion. What a story of hope! During the darkest days of her pregnancy, alone and humiliated, could she ever have imagined the heights to which her memory, and the memory of this unplanned son, would rise? Surely not! Yet, as Jesus later went on to teach, God uses the smallest, the most inconsequential, the rejected and lowly and disgraced and oppressed, to reveal God’s vision for God’s kingdom.

The story of Mary is the story of Advent. It’s the story of God’s kingdom. What a story it is.

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7 thoughts on “Myths of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph, and the Virgin Birth

  1. Pingback: Week in Review: 12/13/15 | Justin DaMetz

  2. Progressive Christians use of ‘historical context’ always follows two patterns: 1) It rewrites the Bible in areas in which the Christian must stand on faith (creation, miracles, etc). 2) It rewrites the Bible in areas that might offend non-Christians (gender roles, single path to salvation, etc).

    However, in doing so, you eliminate the need for the Bible completely and instead place the burden of following Christ on each person. Here is what always happens when Progressive Christians insert ‘historical context’ into a situation:

    1) The Christian God is weak and was not able to create a book that could stand the test of time and culture. His abilities are finite and require man’s intervention to bring their full meaning to light.

    2) Secular work and archaeological finds that shed doubt on the story of the Bible are held in higher regard. In fact, the Bible typically receives the entire burden of critique. Your assumption that Mary was raped, because some records from antiquity claimed it happened often. You have placed you faith in men, rather than God.

    3) The Bible is error filled, or at least mere mythology (not sure there is a difference, just two sides of the same coin). As a result, its usefulness in the life of Christian is equal in relevance to anything written by Joel Osteen. In fact, in order to maintain the worldview of the Progressive Christian, the books of the Bible were written far removed from the events and as such contain little actual events. This makes Osteen’s (or othercurrent writers) writings more relevant.

    4) Each perversion of the text based on ‘historical context’ is only one in a line of dominos to fall. With regards to the story of Jesus Birth, assuming you are correct; we must also throw out the story of Elizabeth, Zechariah and John the Baptist; as none of those stories fit if Mary was raped. Moreover, any mention in the Bible regarding the ‘seed of a woman’ or ‘born of a woman’ also requires perversion.

    Finally recreating the story of Jesus birth destroys his divinity. Job 14:4 states, “Who can bring what is pure from impure? No one?” Humanity through original sin and genetic anomalies is an impure being. If Christ had human mother and father, he was impure from birth and could not be the savior, as Paul writes in Romans 8:8, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

    The only need to change this text is to appease non-Christians and provide weak Christians with an excuse to rely on themselves rather than on faith. This becomes the crutch that is central to all Progressive Christian teaching, that man has a hand in his own salvation.

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  3. bgilvin

    I appreciate what you’re doing here. It’s really important, I think, to put the claims of the virgin birth in proper historical and textual/translative context. However, whenever I see the illegitimacy/rape hypotheses trotted out, I can’t help but think that the line between contextualization/conjecture and midrash has been blurred. We end up writing a new myth, which I suppose is fine, but it’s not history.

    I’ve always surmised that the ultimate concern of the early writers of the Gospels was fitting the story of Jesus’ life into the readings of the prophetic texts in the Septuagint, not covering up a “shameful” actuality. However, polemical documents like the Toledoth Yeshu do imply a rape rumor–whether that is just to slur Jesus or it is a well-curated whisper from the first century, I don’t suppose we’ll really ever know.

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    1. Brandon, I think you are right. We probably won’t really ever know. But I don’t bring this hypothesis up to create a new myth or to replace the story we have; I simply want us to grapple with some idea of what might have really happened, and consequently why we have the story we have now, to try and get at a better understanding of Jesus and the movement he started and the early church. I actually, just after I finished this series, read “The Illegitimacy of Jesus” by Jane Schaberg, and I thought she did a really good job of working deeply through these ideas and exploring why they are so important in understanding the fullness of the Christian story. I wish I had read it before this series, it would have developed my thoughts more fully!

      Brandon, thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it and hope to see you around here some more.

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  4. Pingback: Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015 | Justin DaMetz

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