Before I begin, I need you to know that the above title is not some clever PR stunt or an attempt at being controversial and derogatory.
I am writing this “advent reflection” of sorts, probably my last/penultimate blog of 2016, because I’m aware that it’s that time of year again.
That time of glitz, over indulgence and throw-away remarks about the integrity of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Already this year I’ve lost count of the amount side-comments and “banter” that has involved the idea of Mary being a woman of sexual promiscuity, or, to express it in the terms I’ve heard, “Mary was a whore”. And we’re only seven days into advent!
I totally get that the Virgin Birth is a tough idea to swallow (even some Christians wrestle with it). But my major beef with comments such as this has nothing to do with theology, per se. (At least not in this blog post, anyway.)
I’ll get to what I detest most about this comment very soon, but before I do, and for those who believe the message of Christianity rises or falls on an Virgin Birth, it’s worth noting the following;
(For those who don’t wish to read these points, and who want to get to the juice of this post, you may skip ahead to the section entitled, “Mary was not a Whore“)
1. Only Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus mention the virgin birth within their nativity stories, and only due to its significance/emphasis to their respective themes. The gospel accounts of Mark and John don’t, and neither do any of the other writings contained within the New Testament (NT). In other words, the vast majority of the NT makes no specific statements with regards to a virgin birth, or anything special about Jesus’ conception. Yes, there are references to the deity/incarnation and the sinless state of Christ, but this God-head status and sinless lamb status are never defended via reference to the means of Jesus’ conception. Nowhere within the New Testament writings (the letters of Paul being and containing the earliest Christian records) is anything of the theological, political, sociological thrust of the Christian faith “hung” (I.e. dependent upon) a virgin birth. This should strike us as odd if the Gospel is reliant upon on it. There’s lots of theological emphasis on Jesus’ Life (Incarnation), his death, and his Resurrection, but zero on the way in which Jesus was conceived.
Later, from the times of the Church Fathers and into the Reformation, theological statements regarding the nature of Jesus’ flesh (i.e. whether his body was made of the old/existing “fallen” creation, or of a different, new creation/none fallen substance) and its implications to the atonement were developed; these issues have been consistently revisited/debated ever since. But the NT as whole doesn’t make much of a big theological deal at all about the Virgin Birth in connection to the atoning work of Christ. If Matthew and Luke’s nativity stories weren’t part of the NT, the message of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection achieved and enacted, wouldn’t be compromised.
Ergo, it’s possible to be Christian and not accept the historical reality of the virgin birth.
2. Some Christian bible scholars do refute the idea of the virgin birth stories as being historically accurate, seeing them instead as literary devices, reflecting Old Testament themes and employing political rhetoric, used by the gospel authors to reflect the significance of what God was doing in and through the ministry of Jesus.
For example: Luke’s nativity, involving both Elizabeth and Mary, closely parallels the birth stories of the Old Testament judges of Samson and Samuel, recorded in Judges 13:1-24, and 1 Samuel 1-2:11; both of whom were miraculously conceived by “barren” women (though not immaculately) and went on to deliver Israel from some kind of oppression.
For those who have studied Mary’s hymn of praise–also known as the Magnificat (see Luke 1: 46-55)–it’s hard not to notice how closely Mary’s words follow the rhythm and heartbeat of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 1-11. Whilst the words of Gabriel to Zechariah, in Luke 1: 11-15, are reminiscent of an angel’s words to Samson’s mother in Judges 13. Even Luke’s use of the angel Gabriel, in being the messenger to both Zechariah and Mary, finds its referent in the Old Testament story of Daniel and his messianic visions, which is the only other reference to the angel Gabriel within the entire corpus of scripture.
By modern standards, Luke could be charged with plagiarism. However, that’s not the case. Luke, and Matthew, purposely echo Old Testament themes to stir up cultural memory. To use a modern term, Luke is “riffing” on the Old Testament promises and purposes of Israel’s God and distilling them into the Jesus story. Luke’s purpose in doing this is not solely about the historicity of the events he is describing, but about grounding the historical story of Jesus and the implications of his actions in human history into the grander narrative and themes of the Jewish Story.
As an aside, with regard to the implications of Mary’s story in Luke, I think Brian McClaren’s remarks on the significance of the virgin birth are poignant when thinking about the patriarchal dominated culture of her day:
“In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered ‘the weaker sex’ that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying:
‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant . . . scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 48, 51, 52, 53) “[i]
Even the scholars who do accept the historical credibility of the virgin birth, still concede the importance of the Old Testament allusions and Political punch of the nativity stories as the primary motivation for their writing.
3. With regards to any “untoward” involvement from Joseph. Some people are surprised Joseph wasn’t suspicious, but Matthew says otherwise. Matthew clearly states that Joseph was not happy with the story he had received from Mary with regards to how she became pregnant, and sought to divorce her because of this. It took divine intervention to persuade him otherwise (see Matt 1:18-24). On the other hand, if Joseph did happen to be the biological father of Jesus, there would have been no need to invent a “cover story which scapegoats God” for fear of being frowned upon for having “pre-marital” sex. This is an example of us, in a western modern age, reading back modern, western, conservative Christian views into a middle-eastern, first century culture. Joseph was betrothed to Mary (legally married in his day). They would have been seen as Husband and Wife (hence why Matthew states that Joseph thought of divorcing her in secret). If Joseph and Mary had decided to be sexually active prior to an official ceremony, no one would have made a fuss of it.
4. Yes, there is that old story of a Roman centurion, or another Jewish man called Joseph Pandera floating about. Around the ninth century this story emerged, stating that Mary had had an amorous and willing premarital or extramarital affair. But this story is such a late development that it can hardly be used to refute the earlier stories, or be taken as a serious historical contender for Jesus’ parentage.[ii]
5. Added to the above, there’s also the other annoying modern telling of the “Angel” being some bloke pretending to be sent from God just to take advantage of Mary. Not only do I suspect that such a story finds its origins in the mental faculties of a particular gender (as will be clear below), I also highly doubt that anybody would be daft enough to believe the validity of such a claim and therefore be willing to have sex.
6. Finally, what’s the motivation behind associating some scandal to Jesus’ conception? From what I can tell, the thinking seems to be, “If Jesus was conceived in some dubious, illegitimate, tabloid manner then the whole of his ministry can be seen as illegitimate”. In other words, if Jesus’ conception was of some immoral means then this casts a shadow on Jesus’ own character, integrity, potential and apparent goodness, therefore “he’s not the kind of person to be emulated, honored or listened too”.
It should be obvious that such ideas are also ridiculous; whether or not someone was conceived in a “moral” manner does not define, nor determine that person’s potential as a good, moral person. Imagine saying this to someone who was born as a result of rape, or conceived by “accident”, or born out of marriage? Regardless of how “culturally moral” or “unlawful” or “unplanned” we came to be conceived, we would never classify ourselves (and others) as being bad people, or sub-human, or lacking in potential for human goodness based on anything to do with our parentage. Would we? How someone comes to be conceived does not allocate them to being treated as less-human, evil or valueless, and it would perverse and prejudice of us to do say it would.
Secondly, on this point, if something scandalous had surrounded Jesus birth, biblically speaking, he wouldn’t have been on his own. Both Matthew and Luke would have had a wealth of biblical narrative at their disposal to allude to; their genealogies alone contain a multitude of “scandalous” stories, stories that the sovereignty and grace of God redeems and works through. How someone came to be never, within scripture, stopped God from taking holding of their lives, loving them and using them for extraordinary things.
In summary, I’d suggest that our motivation for making such claims says more about how we perceive, and define people’s goodness/humanity and worth, then it does about Jesus.
Which nicely brings me to my major gripe of this irritating and, for reasons that will become evident, highly degrading and insulting comment.
MARY WAS NOT A WHORE
Why do I hate this comment so much?
Not so much for the historical or theological ignorance it displays.
But because it perfectly crystallises the patriarchal oppression, derogatory objectification and scapegoating of women.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was some basis to some illegitimate, pre-marriage infidelity involved in Jesus’ conception, whether that is at the hands of a roman centurion or someone under angelic-delusions.
If so, notice what this kind of side-comment does; it lays the blame for such infidelity on the woman in typical patriarchal fashion.
If there was some historical basis for such an idea–and there isn’t–it would be more likely that Mary would have been a victim of this episode and not the instigator. I.e. if such a story has any grounds at all, Mary should be seen as a victim of rape and not as a willing participant.
But following a very disgusting, dehumanising, modern (and yet ancient) patriarchal trend, the victim is labelled as a whore.
In a modern analogy, such thinking is reflected in the horrible trend of blaming the crime of rape on what the victim is wearing. It’s encapsulated in the horrendous statement, “She was asking for it“. I hate this. I really, really hate this! Instead of naming the horrible and perverse principles at work in the mind of the rapist, we negate the rapist’s culpability by scandalously scapegoating the woman. The abuse victim, in turn, is painted as some malicious siren, whilst the male perpetrator gets cast as an innocent victim to his senses.
There is no defence for this. Such excusing of an horrendous act is both shameful and evil. To project the reasons for rape onto the victim is, I believe, to purposely collude with the intentions of the rapist.
That may sound harsh. But trust me, I could put it across in a worse way. So consider that as me being polite.
If there is anything that a comment like, “Mary was a Whore” reveals, it isn’t the illegitimacy of Jesus’ birth. It is more revealing of our objectifying and degrading view of women, and willingness to conspire with a male-dominated system which scapegoats the opposite sex for the inexcusable actions of men.
If you’re going to say “Mary was a whore”–and it’s mostly men I’ve heard it from–it says more about you than it does about Mary.
So to be clear, this post isn’t a defence of a biblical story. There are books and articles galore exploring and debating this. Rather it’s to sound an alarm, and to state an obvious truth that still seems to escape some of us men in the twenty-first century;
Women are not trophies, objects, or toys.
Women do not exist for male entertainment, or to be subservient to men, or to be ranked, or graded, or scored by our twisted brains.
Again, Brian McClaren’s understanding of the virgin birth, above, speaks volumes into this male-masticating-milieu.
However, I’ll leave the final words for an absolute hero of mine, Elaine Storkey, with regards rape culture;
“Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, the glamorization of sexual violence and the entitlement given to men. Gender definitions themselves play a part in it. When ‘manhood’ is defined in terms of dominance and sexual aggression, then it is hardly a man’s fault if he expresses the aggression towards a woman…Defining ‘womanhood’ produces more ambiguous results. Women can be perceived as submissive, innocent and sexually passive, or as whores just waiting to be raped (‘she was asking for it’). Either way, [women] are at risk.
Other facets of rape culture are easily recognised: trivializing sexual assault, showing tolerance towards sexual harassment, inflating false rape report statistics, publicly scrutinizing a victims dress, mental state, motives and history. One of the more alarming recent developments in many Western societies is the proliferation of ‘jokes’ about sexual violence.”[iii]
I know that the theme of such a blog post might seem out-of-sync with the whole Christmas season, but I assure you, it’s not.
If the incarnation–God dwelling among us–is about redeeming a fallen humanity, then that also involves the renewal of our thoughts towards each other.
Chow for now,
Ps. If you want to read my Advent reflection for last year, click here.
[i] Brian D. McClaren, We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 15, p85, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014
[ii] See Jesus Outside the New Testament, Section The Toledot Yeshu, p122. Robert E. Van Voorst, Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2000.
[iii] Elaine Storkey, Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming the Violence Against Women, p127-128, SPCK, 2015.
Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed