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The enduring scandal of Mary’s virginity

The enduring scandal of Mary’s virginity

In her article for the Daily Beast, Candida Moss writes that “Of all the miracles recorded in the New Testament, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ garners the most cynical attention.”

Upon learning that I teach at the University of Notre Dame, almost every atheist I meet will make a crack about Mary’s sexual history.

Since the earliest centuries of Christianity, Moss writes, conspiracy theorists have attempted either to explain away the mystery, or to embellish it, as in the Infancy Gospel of James, which tells the story of a doubting Salome examining Mary post-partum and finding her virginity intact.

Over the weekend, the Rev. Ruth Everhart took on the controversy in a piece for the Washington Post.

Church culture tends to be fixated on sexual purity year-round, but during Advent, I’m tempted to blame it on the Virgin Mary. After all, she set an impossibly high bar. Now the rest of us are stuck trying to be both a virgin and a mother at the same time. It does not seem to matter that this is biologically impossible.

Everhart is the author of a memoir, Ruined, which describes her experience of a brutal rape whilst at college, and the way that it affected her faith and theology, eventually leading her to ordination in the Presbyterian tradition.

I’m convinced of this: Mary is not responsible for what we’ve done to her story. Church culture has overfocused on virginity and made it into an idol of sexual purity. When it comes to female experience, the church seems compelled to shrink and distort and manipulate.

Maybe that’s why, more than a decade after I was raped, I became a pastor. I had to face down the demons. To do that, I had to live inside church culture. I had to come to terms with Mary’s story, and so many others.

Everhart’s article was soon picked up by conservative websites, whose cynicism towards liberal theology was evident in their commentary. Moss’s article includes the warning, “Don’t go there,” and concludes that

[when] it comes to Christian theology, as it does with yo’ mamma, Mary is both the most criticized and the most defended.

But as for Everhart, she has made her peace with Mary.

The world still needs to hear from Mary. What Mary gives us is the gospel — not a gospel of sanitized sexuality, but the gospel of incarnation. Or as it says in John: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory.”

Read Candida Moss in the Daily Beast here; Ruth Everhart in the Washington Post here. Everhart’s memoir, Ruined, is the winner of a 2017 Christianity Today book award.

 Photo: Vergine orante, by Massimo Diodato – Photographed by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto. Public Domain, via wikimedia



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leslie marshall

It’s true some churches place too much emphasis on Virgin Mary and even add falsehoods onto it. I think the importance of the birth miracle, lies more
in the amazingly perfect way that God presented himself, so that everyone could relate to him. [We were all born.] Also, the way God did it, was the only way, that Jesus could be divine & human both. That was genius.

In Mary’s day, it wasn’t that unusual for a ‘betrothed’ (a legally binding agreement) woman to become pregnant, it was not really a scandal, they would just get married sooner. In Joseph’s case, he & Mary both knew that they had not had sex yet. So he first thought that she had been with someone else.

Mary & Joseph went on to have biological children after they had Jesus, probably 3 or 4 more. In bible times, and even today, almost every culture supports the idea that men & women should wait to marry or be betrothed before they have a sexual relationship. It’s advantageous for all involved.

David Allen

To be fully human didn’t Jesus need a complete set of human chromosomes? Mary provided the X, from which human came the Y?

Or are we superimposing our modern and scientific understanding of the biology of humankind and how babies are made upon an ancient period in human history that actually believed something completely different about human procreation? And if what they believed was actually different, wouldn’t it also influence how they wrote the stories of such blessed events? And how they couched their statements of belief?

Thom Forde

First, apologies for the above. I logged in & commented from a different computer and filled things in too quickly.

To David, I would suggest that both our contemporary notions of genetics or ancient notions of procreation are limited inside the expanse of what God can accomplish. We really shouldn’t be basing statements of belief on such misconceptions.

T Ford

For future approval of comments, please follow the posted policy and use your first & last names. – ed

It should not be taken as a fact that Mary had children after Jesus. For 1,000 years the undivided Church accepted her perpetual virginity and the Roman and Orthodox Churches continue in that understanding. Even reformers as late (or later) as the Wesley’s accepted this. It is a more contemporary notion among Protestants that the brothers and sisters cited in Holy Scripture (just once IIRC) are of Mary.

JC Fisher

I think Ann’s point, Chris—correct me if I’m wrong, Ann—is the notion that the BVM couldn’t be a “good girl” if, after Jesus’s birth, she then went on to have {gasp!} normal sexual relations w/ her husband. It’s the RC (and EO?) dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity which is, frankly, rather disturbing.

Do I know that Mary & Joseph shared the, um, “marital embrace”? Of course I don’t. But it seems bizarre to me to insist they couldn’t have (couldn’t have given Jesus “brothers and sisters”), or else the Salvation Story falls apart. It suggests a “Sex = Bad!” theology which, IMO, the Church has suffered too much of (and for which, as always, *women* pay the highest price—all that policing of the All-Holy Hymen that patriarchy demands).

[And don’t even get me started on Mary’s “Immaculate Conception”! ;-p]

Chris Steele

Kinda like they demanded a new Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) to counter bad boy Adam? 1Cor 15:45 God demands good to counter bad. I didn’t think that was up for dispute.

Ann Fontaine

Yes- patriarchy demanded a “good girl” to counter that “bad girl” Eve

Harvey Ray

Thank you Ann for comment and thought based of informed scholarship. And as my professor of New Testament in seminar once added to a long intersession about Mary’s holy virginity, “Let us give thanks for the biological integrity of St. Joseph!”

Ann Fontaine

Since “virgin” in the Gospels is taken from the prophets where it just meant young woman who had never given birth – I don’t really think about this issue. I like Joan Chittister’s idea that the real miracle is God choosing the least valuable of that society — a young girl – to be the God-bearer. Children and especially girls were of no value except as property — God is saying something totally counter to this cultural belief. We seem to be slipping back to this devaluing of women and girls with this election. Mary can be our standard for being beloved of God and a person with her own ability to choose.


Thanks for commenting; in future please use your first and last name – editor

First century Jewish women were not property. As evidence, consider the Kesubah, the wedding document, that guaranteed (and still guarantees) a wife’s rights.

In Mary’s case, the true dilemma was the fact that Jesus would have been considered a mamzer – a bastard. Obviously, Jesus, the Son of G-d and savior of the world, could not be presented in the Gospels as a mamzer, hence the need for a respectful explanation of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy.

Ann Fontaine

Thanks Ben — but still she was pregnant not by Joseph – the dilemma as you say.

Paul Powers

Sister Joan’s idea is also reflected in a line from the Te Deum: “Thou didst humble thyself to be born of a virgin.”

Paul Woodrum

I’m much more comfortable with John than with Matthew and Luke though I must say, Mary’s Magnificat wallops me. And now it’s time to set up the crib with its shepherds, sheep, angels, Wise Men, camels, the blessed mother and the puzzled Joseph. The Word in painted porcelain. Hail, Mary.

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