Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Mary and Joseph

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

What does the New Testament tell us about Mary? Mark, the earliest gospel, did not include a birth narrative, so his mentions of Mary are vague and not very flattering. He says Jesus’ family (the family isn’t specified; does he mean Mary and Joseph or Mary and Jesus’ brothers?) attempted to restrain him because people were claiming he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21). If Mary was present, it seems strange that other gospel verses say she was visited by an angel who told her that she would conceive a special child or to whom Luke says shepherds came in wonder to visit her newborn child or to whom Matthew says wise men journeyed to bring gifts to welcome her wondrous child’s birth. A little later in Mark, Mary is simply referred to as “his mother” when she and his siblings visited Jesus. Jesus was sitting with a crowd of people when someone in the group informed him that his mother, brothers and sisters were waiting outside and were asking for him (Mark 3:31-35). Isn’t it interesting that Mark calls her “his mother” instead of Mary? I wonder why?

The previous passage from Mark clearly suggests that Jesus was not an only child. Therefore, Mary was not a perpetual virgin as the Catholic Church attests. Some people try to explain these brothers and sisters away by claiming they were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage – i.e. he had been a widower or had divorced his previous wife before marrying Mary. As I interpret the gospels, Jesus was Mary’s eldest son, but not by any means her only son or only child. Jesus may not have been the son of Joseph, but as far as can be determined, Joseph fathered the other children. Also according to Mark, the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, asked “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:1-6) This passage also clearly attests that Mary had other sons and daughters. The townspeople refer to Jesus as “son of Mary,” implying his father’s identity was uncertain or unknown. Children were known as sons and daughters of their father, so “son of Mary” was likely an insult and implied illegitimacy.

Mary, the mother of James the younger, Joses and Salome, which is most likely Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion from a distance (Mark 15:40). Mary the mother of Joses and Mary Magdalene followed to determine where Jesus was buried (Mark 15:47) and the same Mary, the mother of James and Salome, and Mary Magdalene bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1).

Matthew’s gospel contains several stories involving Mary that are not found in the other gospels. Since Matthew includes a birth story, Mary becomes a major character. However, Matthew’s birth story begins with a genealogy based on Joseph’s family tree, which seems unimportant if Joseph was not Jesus’ father. At the end of the genealogy, Mary is mentioned: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16).

According to Matthew 1:18:25, Mary was engaged to Joseph but was already or became pregnant. She had dishonored her family and Joseph was reluctant to consummate the marriage. In a dream, an angel told him to take Mary as his wife because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph obeyed, but did not have sexual relations with her until after the child was born (sexual relations consummated the marriage).

In the passage mentioned in the previous paragraph, Matthew clearly states that Joseph had “marital relations” with Mary after she had given birth to Jesus. As Rev. Terrance A. Sweeney says, “Mary is not the virgin mother of an only child merely because church teaching says she is… If, indeed, Mary had several sons and daughters, as Scripture apparently attests, then we do her no honor by believing or asserting that she gave birth to only one child and that she died a virgin.” Such scriptural evidence makes it very difficult to believe the assertion by the Catholic Church that Joseph and Mary had no other children and that their marriage was devoid of sex.
The Hebrew word for virgin is betulah. The word used to describe Mary is almah, which was translated into the Greek word parthenos. Young girl, yes; virgin, no! I do not believe that Mary was in any biological sense a virgin.

Philip Gulley, in his book If the Church Were Christian, writes that long before he knew anything about human reproduction, he was told that Jesus was born of a virgin. Since he really did not know what that meant and since he trusted the person who told him, he believed it was true. Many years later, he began to wonder about the rationality of such a claim, and even later would learn that stories of virginal origins were not unique to Jesus, but it was several more years before he gained the courage to question Jesus’ virgin birth.

Matthew claims the wise men from the East entered the house and saw “the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11). So according to Matthew, Jesus wasn’t born in a stable or, at least by the time the wise men arrived, the family was living in a house.

Matthew also contends that Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter that Herod had ordered of all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-21). This story is far too similar to other escape stories in Hebrew scripture to be coincidence. For instance, Herod ordering all these innocent children to be killed recalls the command of the king of Egypt in Exodus 1:16.

After Herod died, Matthew writes that Joseph, the child and “his mother” returned to Israel. After being warned in another dream to avoid Judea, he made their home in Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:19-23).

Matthew, Mark and Luke report the family of Jesus visiting him during his ministry. Also like Mark, Matthew simply refers to Mary as “his mother.” Matthew mentions brothers accompanying their mother, but not sisters (Luke 8:19-21, Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 6:1-6).

According to Matthew, Jesus was rejected in his hometown, Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 6:1-6). Matthew’s only mention of Mary by name is, “Is not his mother called Mary?” Matthew names the brothers – James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas – and mentions sisters but does not name them.

Matthew and Mark write that Mary the mother of James and Joseph, most likely Jesus’ mother, witnessed the crucifixion with Mary Magdalene and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56). Matthew also reports that “the other Mary” and Mary Magdalene were watching near the grave when the stone was rolled to seal the tomb (Matthew 27:61). Since Mary, the mother of James, Joseph (Simon, Judas and Salome), and Mary Magdalene were together during the crucifixion, it seems likely the same two women would have been together at the grave site. Since the Sabbath had to be celebrated from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, “the other Mary” and Mary Magdalene went to the grave site at dawn on Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices that Mark said they had purchased (Matthew 28:1).

Luke 1:26-38 contains stories involving Mary that are not found in the other gospels. In Luke, Mary is a virgin who is engaged to Joseph. She is visited by the angel Gabriel in Nazareth who tells her that she has been chosen by God to conceive and bear a son who “will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom there will be no end.” This event is called the Annunciation. Notice that according to Gabriel, her son, who was to be named Jesus, would become King of Israel – not the Messiah. He was to reign on the throne of David; in other words, he was to be a military king.

Soon after the angel departed, Luke says Mary left Nazareth to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Was Mary already pregnant? If so, did she leave Nazareth to avoid her outraged relatives? When Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house the baby in her cousin’s womb leapt (her baby became John the Baptist; there isn’t anything unusual about a baby moving in its mother’s womb; however, Elizabeth had supposedly conceived “in her old age” and was six months pregnant, so the baby’s movement may have been an exhilarating moment for her). It was at this point that Mary reportedly spoke what has become known as the “Magnificat,” which is very similar to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Mary remained in the home of Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, who was the high priest, for three months. Leslie Weatherhead contends that Mary’s pregnancy was a “sacred marriage.” In a sacred marriage, the high priest portrayed the part of a divine messenger. When he cohabited with a virgin, the offspring was regarded a son of god, a divine person who incarnated god. Jewish law required a period of three months to certify the parentage of a child. That would explain why Mary stayed in the home of Zachariah for that period of time before she returned to her own house. It also explains why Mary “went with hast” to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah – she had to be impregnated by the high priest so her offspring would be regarded as a son of God.

That Jesus may have been born as the result of a “sacred marriage” is possible, but if he was conceived the same way his brothers and sisters were does not change the Godly person he became. What it changes is that his mother should not be venerated and deified as the Virgin Mary.

According to Luke 2:1-7, Joseph and his pregnant wife-to-be (they were engaged) had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral town, Bethlehem, to be counted in a census ordered by Emperor Augustus (this census during Caesar Augustus’ reign is an unverified historical event that is only mentioned in Luke). While they were in Bethlehem (it was extremely important that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the expectation that the Messiah would be born in the city of David), Mary gave birth to “her firstborn son” (notice it doesn’t say her “only” son).

Mary is mentioned again in Luke 2:16 when the shepherds found Mary, Joseph and the child in the manger.
When the boy was eight days old, according to Luke, his parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and named. During this ceremony two people, Anna and Simeon, foretold an extraordinary future for Mary’s son (Luke 2:21-28).

After the circumcising and presentation in the Temple, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:39).

According to Luke, Jesus, at age twelve, accompanied “his parents” to Jerusalem to observe the festival of the Passover. After the festival ended, Jesus stayed behind when the other members of his family started the trek back home. His absence was not noticed for some time. After three days, Jesus was found in the temple listening and asking questions to the scribes and Pharisees. Then they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:41-52).

Luke names the women who found the tomb empty as Mary the mother of James (most likely Jesus’ mother), Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and others who were not named (Luke 24:10). In this section, Mary and Joseph are always referred to as “his parents.”

John’s gospel contains two stories involving Mary that are not found in the other gospels, but she is never named in John.

John reports that “the mother of Jesus” attended a wedding at Cana in Galilee. According to John, Jesus’ mother told him when the wine ran out; she obviously expected him to remedy the situation. He ask why that was their concern. “His mother” ordered the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do. Perhaps reluctantly, Jesus ordered them to fill six stone jars with water, which he magically turned into excellent wine (John 2:1-11). There is speculation that this event was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene. If that is true, “his mother” would have been the hostess and therefore, in charge of food and drink.

John also writes that his mother, his brothers, and his disciples traveled with Jesus to Capernaum and stayed there a few days (John 2:12).

According to John, the people ask if Jesus was not “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Again Mary is not named (John 6:42).

The next time we hear of “his mother” in John is when she is one of the witnesses of her son’s crucifixion. When Jesus saw her, he asked “the disciple whom he loved” to take care of his mother as if she was his mother (John 19:25-27). So, apparently she lived in this disciple’s home after the crucifixion.

Isn’t it interesting that Mary is never mentioned in all the writings of Paul, the earliest writer of material that was included in the New Testament. Paul was not at all concerned with Jesus’ origins. His only references to Jesus’ family came when he said that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). He asserted that “according to the flesh,” Jesus was descended from the House of David (Romans 1:3). Paul also made reference to Jesus’ brother, James, but there is no mention of Jesus’ divine origin, miraculous birth, or virgin mother.

In Acts, Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” for the early Christian movement (Acts 1:14).

If an angel told Mary she was to give birth to the Son of God, if shepherds came to the manger to worship the baby, if wise men came bearing expensive gifts, if at age twelve Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to talk to the Scribes and Pharisees in the Temple, and if Anna and Simeon foretold an extraordinary future for the young child, then Mary (and Joseph, for that matter) was exceedingly dense not to recognize her son as something extraordinarily special. However, that does not appear to have been the case.

Mary Mythology

The mythology concerning Mary continued to grow. By the early years of the second century the idea of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman began to grow. First, it was claimed that she was a virgin mother. Next, she became a permanent virgin, making it necessary to explain away the biblically mentioned brothers and sisters. Then someone decided without apology that Ezekiel 44:1 (“the gates of the city were closed only the Lord could go in and out”), which had been written some 800 years before Jesus’ birth, demonstrated that he had been born without disturbing his mother’s womb. So through some really spectacular intellectual gymnastics, the church fathers claimed Mary was a postpartum virgin, meaning that her hymen had not been ruptured during Jesus’ birth.

As late as the nineteenth century, Mary was declared to be immaculately conceived. This was necessary because the stain of human sin, which is supposedly transferred from mother to child (the original sin theory), could not have occurred in Jesus’ birth – after all, he was sinless.

And then in the twentieth century, Mary was proclaimed to have bodily ascended into heaven. This new doctrine was based on the fact that no one knew her place of burial. The reason, according to the Roman Catholic Church, was that she never died.

Give me a break! These Mary myths are nothing but theological mumbo-jumbo!

Joseph

What do we really know about Joseph? Was he a person of history? Surprisingly, the New Testament is not much help. While Mary’s resume in the New Testament is quite thin, Joseph’s is almost non-existent.

The earliest Christian writings, Paul letters, do not mention either Joseph or Mary. All he says about Jesus’ origins is that he was like every other human being “born of a woman” and like every other Jew “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).

Mark’s gospel does not contain a birth story or mention Joseph. If Mark knew about the virgin birth and Joseph’s role as Jesus’ father, why would he have ignored it?

Joseph and the virgin birth story entered the Christian tradition in Matthew’s gospel, which was written during the ninth decade CE, and Joseph becomes a central figure in Matthew’s birth story. Since his wife was impregnated by someone else, Joseph intends to send her back to her father, but in a dream God assures him of her faithfulness. When Joseph names the child, it means he offers protection and legitimacy to the child.

Joseph also appears in Luke’s birth story, but in a much less critical role. Once Luke’s birth narrative ends, Joseph disappears. He never appears anywhere else in the New Testament.

Since Joseph is not present during Jesus’ adult life, it has been speculated that he was an older man who died while Jesus was very young, but there is no data to verify that conclusion.

What if Joseph was not a historical person, but was created by Matthew to fill out his cast of characters when he created the first birth narrative? It is a well known fact that there was a deep division in Jewish history between the tribe of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and Israel, the Northern Kingdom. These two Jewish states split permanently after the reign of Solomon in 920 BCE. Hebrew Scripture suggests that this division originated with the patriarch Jacob. Jacob’s first wife, Leah, was the mother of Judah and his second wife, Rachel, was the mother of Joseph. Enmity between these half-brothers appears in the Genesis account of their early life. It was Judah who sold Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver.

Matthew portrayed Jesus as the one who came to heal these divisions. His gospel opens with Jesus’ genealogy that traces his line through King David and the kings of the Southern Kingdom, so, according to Matthew, Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah. However, he also named Jesus’ earthly father Joseph, so he also incorporated the northern tribes into his story.

If Joseph was a character Matthew concocted, where did he get the content for this character? Joseph’s biographical data can be found in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel: he had a father named Jacob (Luke says his father was named Eli); his role was to save the messiah from death by fleeing to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23); and God speaks to him only through dreams (it was in a dream that he was told to take Mary as his wife; he received directions in dreams that told him to take Mary and the child to Egypt and finally to settle his family in Nazareth).

Matthew is famous for using Hebrew scriptures to prove his point. In this case, he uses the dramatic story of Joseph, which is found in Genesis 37-50. The patriarchial Joseph also had a father named Jacob; his role was to save the chosen people from death during a time of famine by taking them to Egypt; and he interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh’s butler and baker and finally interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh himself. I doubt these connections between the patriarch Joseph and Jesus’ father named Joseph are coincidental. Therefore, Joseph could very likely have been a literary creation of Matthew.

The last time Joseph appears in any gospel is in Luke during the story of the Passover visit to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. Like the infancy narratives the story emphasizes Jesus’ future mission. Speaking to both his parents, the boy refers to God as “my father,” but his parents fail to understand.

In Mark, the people of Nazareth call Jesus “Mary’s son,” which is basically the same as calling him a bastard. In Matthew, the townspeople call Jesus “the carpenter’s son,” but don’t actually name his father. Only Luke calls him “the son of Joseph.” In John, the disbelieving Jews refer to “Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.”

The canonical gospels created a problem when they claimed that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, and that Joseph was not his father, however Joseph’s paternity was essential to establish Jesus’ Davidic descent.

If Joseph Wasn’t Jesus’ Father, Who Was?

Speculation that Jesus was illegitimate has been around for centuries. There is a distinct possibility that his mother became pregnant though sexual relations, whether by consent or by rape, with a Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius Abdes Panthera. James Tabor suggests that Pantera (or Panthera) was a Roman soldier, possibly a Jew; that he was a native of Syria-Palestine, just north of Galilee. Tabor writes, “Jesus’ father remains unknown but possibly was named Pantera, and if so, was quite possibly a Roman soldier.”

In many Jewish references, Jesus was referred to as “ben Panthera” (“ben” means “son of”). Adamantius Origen, an early Christian historian and church father (185-251), recorded the following about Mary that was written by a Greek philosopher named Celsus around 178:

“Mary was turned out by her husband, a carpenter by profession, after she had been convicted of unfaithfulness. Cut off by her spouse, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard; that Jesus, on account of his poverty was hired out to go to Egypt; that while there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing.”

Later, Origen confirmed that Jesus’ mother’s lover was a Roman soldier called Panthera. Sometime during the seventeenth century, those sentences were erased from the oldest Vatican manuscripts and codices.

Epiphanius, the Bishop of Salamis (315-403), a champion of Christian orthodoxy and a saint of Roman Catholicism, frankly stated: “Jesus was the son of a certain Julius whose surname was Panthera.”

Rape was a common event in Palestine during the Roman occupation and soldiers were notorious for their treatment of young women. According to the Koran, “a full-grown man” forced his attentions on Mary, and in her fear of the disgrace that would follow, she left the area and bore Jesus in secret. It would be unthinkable for Mary to admit such an event had occurred for, under the Law of Moses, a betrothed virgin who had sex with any man during the period of her betrothal, was to be stoned to death by the men of the city. In other words, Mary faced the death penalty unless she could prove her innocence.

In a fourth century CE Christian text called the Acts of Pilate, there is an account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. One of the charges of his enemies was that he was “born of fornication.”

The previous clues are presented so that the reader can make their own informed decision concerning Jesus’ birth and his parents.

Review & Commentary

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