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 infidelity during the betrothal period. And as Matthew tells us, Joseph wanted a quiet, "no fault" divorce (Matt. 1:19). This probably reflects the current perspective on divorce that was promulgated by at least one group of Pharisees, the Hillelites. They argued that Deuteronomy 24:1 should be interpreted that a man must divorce his wife for infidelity/adultery and also for any matter that seemed right to him. Another group of Pharisees, the Shammaites, held that Deuteronomy 24:1 taught that only for adultery could a husband write divorce papers.
In the end, however, Joseph decides against divorce after an angel assures him that Mary is virtuous and that the baby is from God (Matt. 1:20-25). In the narrative's internal chronology, his decision to divorce and his change of heart are not common knowledge; no one in the village would have suspected that he was not the child's father. He stays with Mary, and thus the child, Jesus, would be considered his son unless the couple chose to speak about the mysterious work of God in their lives, as portrayed in Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives.
I do not mean to diminish Mary's strength of will and faithful obedience to God. She was well aware that Joseph might disown her and publicly denounce her if he suspected her of adultery. But that never happened. Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in a home that looked to all the world like an average Jewish family. Nor do I want to minimize the plight of unwed mothers. My point is only that Mary probably did not face the specific struggles and pain associated with unwed mothers today.
Those who stress that Mary bore the shame of an illegitimate birth must also wrestle with the portrayal of Mary during Jesus' life and ministry. How would we expect people in the first century to treat a woman who had an illegitimate son? Presumably in some way as an outcast, however that might be understood.
Ben Sira 23:22-36 [an extra-canonical work from the 2nd century B.C.] speaks of the long shadow of dishonor and disregard that illegitimacy casts. But Mary participates in social events such as the local wedding in John 2. Servants listen to her, which might imply that she is family and/or has clout in the group. Either way, it does not seem likely that they would pay attention to someone who every guest at the wedding presumably would be ignoring. Again, Mary is described as traveling regularly to the Temple ("Luke 2:41-52). Luke describes a time when Jesus got separated from his parents. In the narrative, Joseph and Mary are traveling in a group large enough that Jesus' absence went undetected for an entire day. This picture does not suggest that Mary was a social pariah. Instead, these sketches show her participating fully in the social and cultural network of Jewish villages in Galilee and Judea.
Finally, some argue that Matthew is emphasizing Mary's marginality by highlighting four immoral women in Jesus' genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (called the wife of Uriah the Hittite) (see Matt. 1:2-17). However, it is arguable that all four have histories of faithfulness in the face of troubles. Tamar is credited with doing the right thing in holding her father-in-law to account for failing to look after her. Ruth is repeatedly praised for her obedience to her mother-in-law and to Boaz. Bathsheba was taken from her home by King David, and the text places no blame on her for his misdeed. Only Rahab is identified as a prostitute, but in saving the Hebrew spies and siding with Israel, she redeemed herself and her family—she is a heroine of the story. It remains unclear to me what motivated Matthew to compose his genealogy as he did, but we can rule out the suggestion that the list reinforced Mary's suspected sexual impropriety.
When I think of Mary in the days leading up to Jesus' birth, I see a woman who was very aware of God's character in blessing his people, keeping his promises, and lifting up the humble. In her Magnificant (Luke 1:46-55), which echoes Hannah's song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10), Mary reminds us that God acts mercifully and redemptively, and that sometimes it takes eyes of faith to see that.
This blog post has been adapted from Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic).
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