A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
How Do You Understand Christmas?
December 10, 2006
The Scandal of Mary
The Nativity Story is Hollywood's latest attempt to bring us the authentic Christmas. It tells of the scandal of a young woman, Mary, conceiving without having intercourse with her fiancé, Joseph. Paternity is attributed to God who has miraculously seen to the impregnation of Mary. Her child, Jesus, will not be shunned as illegitimate but will be hailed as the blessed saviour of his people.
Nativity is a marked improvement on its forebears, particularly in its portrayal of the repressive governance of Palestine and the patriarchal culture that impacted on women. Nativity however is reminiscent of parish Christmas pageants - uncritically splicing the two biblical infancy narratives together and using cinematic tricks to explain the unbelievable bits. Unlike the parish equivalent though, Nativity masquerades as history.
Liberal scholars for decades have told us that most of the supposed facts of the nativity are fictions. Angels, wise men, heavenly hosts, the census, Bethlehem… are all part of the story-telling craft, weaving meanings derived from Jesus' life back into his birth. It makes for great stories, encapsulates great truths, but is lousy history.
As for the paternity of Jesus, these liberal scholars denounced the divine implantation thesis that Nativity went to some length to replicate. On the basis that embryos don't drop from the sky, these scholars thought that Joseph was the most likely candidate.
However it makes no sense for both Matthew and Luke to sow doubt about Jesus' paternity if Joseph was his actual father. The scandal that accompanied the pregnancy would have diminished if Joseph had owned up. Indeed the pregnancy of a betrothed girl by her fiancé was viewed as more positive than negative, for it was thought to guarantee children and ensure the male line.
Although scholarship today is less concerned about historicity than about what the texts actually say, it is possible to assert the following: Firstly that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived between betrothal and home-taking. Secondly the circumstances of his conception were scandalous. Thirdly, Mary was not blamed. Fourthly that Joseph, despite not being the biological father, legitimated the child. Lastly, that the child was not accounted as inferior or cursed, like an illegitimate offspring. Rather the opposite.
Who then was the father? For those who like to use God, as the movie does, to explain the supposed unexplainable please note the words used by the angel “come upon” and “overshadow” have no sexual connotations. In the ancient world divine and human paternities were not mutually exclusive. As with King David being called “Son of God”, it was possible to have human parents and still be hailed as of divine origin.
Today there is growing acceptance of the validity of the work of Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. She posits that within and behind the nativity stories is an illegitimacy tradition. Mary was seduced or raped.
When the Magnificat sings that God has looked with favour on the 'lowliness' of Mary, and the Greek word for 'lowliness' is usually translated 'humiliation', one has to ask how she was humiliated. Illegitimacy, despite the indoctrination of multiple Christmas pageants, is probably the answer.
Schaberg asks us to look again at Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, and the unusual insertion of four women in it. These women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – were not the great heroines of Hebrew history. Tamar and Ruth were childless widows, Rahab a prostitute, and Bathsheba an adulteress. All four were wronged or thwarted by the male world. In their scandalous sexual activity - or in Ruth's case perhaps only suspicion of sexual activity - all risked their own condemnation. Their situations were righted by men who accepted responsibility for them, legitimating them and their children-to-be.
The inclusion of these women in the Matthean genealogy alerts us that we should expect another woman [read Mary] who becomes a social misfit, is wronged or thwarted, who is party to a sexual act that places her in great danger, and whose story has an outcome where she is drawn in under patriarchal protection. Illegitimate rather than miraculous conception is a better explanation for the women in the genealogy.
In Matthew 1:18-25 Joseph discovering Mary pregnant weighs his options and, due to angelic intervention, decides to own both mother and child. There is an allusion to Deuteronomy 22:23-27 where the Torah addresses the seduction or rape of a betrothed virgin. Joseph is choosing from among several options – a “quiet” divorce being less severe than public exposure and punishment, even death. The question is does Joseph think she was raped or is an adulteress? It is improbable that he thought the latter. If he thought Mary had committed adultery he is more likely to have sought a more extreme remedy, and he would have been unlikely to take the angel's advice to marry her.
Schaberg asks us to consider also the use of Isaiah 7:14, mistranslated to say “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. In the Hebrew text the phrase is “a young woman shall conceive”. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew, the word parthenos [commonly translated as 'virgin'] is used. However the Greek text also uses parthenos to refer to women who are not biological virgins but rape victims.
The consequences of Jane Schaberg's work have been sobering. She has been vilified, had her car torched, and received screeds of hate mail. Yet slowly and surely academic colleagues, when not being dictated to by Church authorities and their vested interests, have addressed the textual issues she has raised. The case for an illegitimacy tradition is strongest in Matthew's Gospel, and possible in Luke's.
The theological consequences of the illegitimacy thesis are enormous. The Christian God sides with the rejected, humiliated, and wronged. God vindicates the violated. With Mary and with all the abused, Christians can sing the hope of God putting down the mighty men from their inflated thrones and exalting the humiliated and weak. The Magnificat was always a rallying cry for those protesting injustice, but those promoting compliance have tamed it.
We have a choice to make as we read and hear again Mary's story this Christmas. Is she a passive 'handmaiden of the Lord' who by a miraculous divine implantation carries the Son of God? The movie Nativity is weakest at this point, for Keisha Castle-Hughes is more powerful than the traditional script permits. Or is Mary a victim of abuse who with steely grit, courage, and support battles patriarchal society to own her son as a child of God? This movie would raise the ire of most Christian churches.
The choice of how we read Mary's story will affect how we read the whole Christian story, and how we understand sin, sex, holiness, and redemption. Jesus, the one born of the flesh, who might be thought to bear the curse of his parents, who will be executed as a criminal, who is unholy in human estimation, is the one who will be declared holy by the power of God. This is the scandalous message of Christmas.