This Christmas you may hear a sermon or two comparing today's unwed mothers with a well-known one from the ancient Mideast: Mary, the mother of Jesus. Reflecting on the alleged public shame Mary endured as an unmarried mom-to-be, we hear, the single moms in our midst deserve our special compassion and care. (Christianity Today's most recent issue featured Bob Smietana's reported piece on churches' support for single moms.)

Without discounting the crucial need to support single moms and their children and stand against the shame that our culture can dish out to them, Lynn Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, suggests a different read of Mary's story. In her recent book, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, she researches the historical context of marriage and motherhood in the first century A.D., and believes that Mary did not experience shame during her pregnancy. Cohick explains.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm. Later rabbinic writings allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father's house was not guilty of immoral behavior.

If pregnancy occurred before the wedding, this was not a problem because the parentage of the child was secured. What is shocking is that Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The problem is not that a betrothed couple had sex, but that presumably Mary had sex with another man—she committed adultery.

This explains Joseph's reaction to divorce her, for that was the legal remedy when faced with ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.