And it came to pass that the weirdest religious quote of 2017 occurred when Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault upon girls who were ages 14 and 16 when he was in his early 30s.
Moore denied this. But State Auditor Jim Ziegler leapt to his fellow Republican’s defense by offering the Washington Examiner this head-scratcher: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here, maybe just a bit unusual.
That “took my breath away,” says Michigan State University’s Christopher Frilingos. Sexual morality aside, Ziegler scuttled a prime tenet of biblical orthodoxy by indicating that the holy couple sired Jesus through normal sexual relations. The Bible’s two separate Nativity accounts specify that Mary was a virgin who conceived miraculously so that Jesus had no mortal father and Joseph was a stepfather or legally adoptive parent.
That brings to mind another attempted Bible rewrite by the late Jane Schaberg, an ex-nun and feminist “Goddess” devotee teaching at Catholicism’s University of Detroit. Her 1987 book “The Illegitimacy of Jesus” saw a New Testament cover-up in which Jesus’ biological father raped or seduced Mary while she was engaged to Joseph.
That harked back to an ancient Jewish tale, included in the Talmud, that Jesus was the “son of Panthera,” supposedly a Roman soldier. It’s possible Jesus’ opponents were leveling such an accusation when they told him “we are not illegitimate children” (John 8:41) as though Jesus was. Today’s skeptics post such stuff all across the Internet, hoping readers will ignore that the New Testament Gospels are our earliest, thus most reliable, sources.
Well, then, what about Ziegler’s claim that the pregnant Mary was “a teenager” and Joseph an older “adult”? Frilingos examines this among other questions in “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels” (University of Pennsylvania Press). He summarized matters in a November 14 article for theconversation.com, where scholars rewrite research to make it understandable for general readers.
The infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke say nothing about the ages of Mary and Joseph. The Ziegler-esque scenario traces back to the “Protoevangelium of James,” one of several apocryphal texts that were devised to fill in the gaps left by the Gospels’ relatively brief Christmas passages. The “James” legend is dubious since, as Frilingos notes, it was written a century after Matthew and Luke, from which it borrowed some phrases.
Joseph resisted this arranged marriage because “I am an old man and she is a young girl” so he would face ridicule. Afterward, he shunned all contact with Mary, then reappeared when she was age 16 to discover she was pregnant. After an angel reassured Joseph that Mary miraculously was a virgin, he defended her purity before the priests.
Whatever Joseph’s age might have been, historians say it’s quite plausible Mary was a teen because early marriages were the general rule for maidens in Jewish and other ancient cultures. This made it more likely a couple would benefit by having more children. A Bible encyclopedia reports that shortly after New Testament times, Judaism fixed the minimum ages for marriage at 12 for girls and 13 for boys.
The contention in “James” that Joseph was “an old man” related to the post-biblical but ancient “perpetual virginity” tenet in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It holds that Mary remained a virgin after giving birth through the rest of her life and never had sexual relations. If husband Joseph was aged that becomes more plausible.
Protestants’ “Scripture alone” principle means they are not bound by such non-biblical teachings. In addition, Protestants take literally Matthew 13:55, which speaks of Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters.” ‘The common Catholic and Orthodox explanation is that the verse refers to “cousins” or other close relatives, not Mary’s own offspring. Another approach says Joseph was a widower when he married Mary so the siblings were her stepchildren from Joseph’s first marriage.
Protestants also cite Matthew 1:25, which in the U.S. Catholic Bible says Joseph “had no relations with her until she bore a son.” The official footnote with this verse states that “the Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.”
Further on Mary’s miraculous virginal conception of Jesus (as opposed to her perpetual virginity afterward): The biblical teaching is defended in “What Christians Ought to Believe” (2016) by Australian evangelical Michael Bird. The latest liberal Protestant reassessment is “A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters” (2017) by Kyle Roberts, who teaches at a United Church of Christ seminary in Minnesota.