Much is made about Jesus’ birth in the Christmas story, but often preachers do not comment on Mary’s “situation”: an unwed mother who is pregnant. Culturally, this would have been disastrous. Mary, most likely just a teenager, is visited by the angel Gabriel to bring Good News: she is to give birth to the Anointed One of Israel. Luke chapter 1 reads:
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
It has been well documented that Mary’s pregnancy would be cause to shun Mary out of her community. A scandal! To be pregnant before marriage was grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. Even Joseph thought about leaving Mary, but a divine message changed that. However, apparently there has been some scholarship to suggest that Mary’s pregnancy may have not been that scandalous. Christianity Today‘s blog for women features a new perspective from Lynn Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Cohick’s take on Mary’s situation:
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 insight, the author contends, in no way diminishes Mary’s faithfulness and strength. For decades, scholars and seminaries have taught students about the negative moral implications of Mary’s situation.
I’m not sure what to think about this new perspective. Much of the argument of the author hinges on “later rabbinic writings”, which were after the time of Jesus. Mary must have experienced some sort of tension with her family and Joseph’s. Even though the marriage was a legal contract, sex and pregnancy before marriage was still a serious issue. Besides, the contract did not start until the marriage ceremony. I agree with one blogger’s take on it:
So, at this point I’m straddling a fence. I don’t think Mary’s family, however many knew, were jumping for joy at the news of her pregnancy but I think Cohick’s point is that the shame motif has been perhaps pressed too far. I have no idea what kind of relationship Mary had with her family to surmise what kind of reaction she would have received. I imagine the story of a virgin birth would not have been received well (no matter how close they were).
Some background on divorce and marriage may be helpful from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
The advantage was always with the husband, and yet a wife was not utterly helpless, for she, too, though practically without legal rights, could make herself so intolerably burdensome and hateful in the home that almost any husband would gladly avail himself of his prerogatives and write her a bill of divorcement. Thus, though a wife could not divorce her husband, she could force him to divorce her.
Joseph had two options:
- Joseph could continue the engagement and join Mary in her shame and marry her.
- Following the law, Joseph could accuse Mary of sexual immorality and releasing her from their betrothal contract. The penalty for adultery was stoning a woman.
Despite all the social and cultural implications, Mary literally becomes the bearer of good news. Mary’s faithfulness and strength are to be admired. Her story is a story of how God uses very unlikely people to accomplish his wonderful plan for salvation. No matter what shame she did or did not feel, Mary still proclaimed of God’s goodness in Luke 1:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
May you, in this last week of Advent be a “bearer” of God to others.