Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no sexual relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25)
Why did the Gospel writer have to include that last line? I don’t mean the “he named him Jesus” bit, but the bit just before that – that Joseph “had no sexual relations with Mary” until the child had been born? He “knew her not” says the old King James version. Either way, that’s too much information so far as I’m concerned!
I don’t want to know about the sex life of Mary and Joseph. Isn’t that the sort of thing that the couple should keep to themselves? Of course, if this were an episode of Neighbors or an installment on some reality TV show, this might be the very first thing we’d expect to be privy to regarding the lead characters, but it’s not that kind of show, is it?
That’s actually the key question I want to focus on today – ‘what kind of show’, or, more precisely, ‘what kind of story is this?’, for it’s not an episode from an early sitcom or some saucy first century yarn. It’s a Bible story. And it’s not just any Bible story either. It’s one of those core narratives that is not only central to the greater New Testament but which is also a defining story for us as a community!
Academics refer to these types of stories as myths, but I don’t like that term as it seems to imply that the story is make-believe, so I’ll stick to story or narrative. The point, at any rate, is that certain stories are central to the life of a people. They define who we are and what we believe, and so we tell and retell these stories, passing them on through the generations, from father to son and from mother to daughter, and this story of the birth of Jesus is most certainly one of these core narratives!
This isn’t just any story. This is our Christmas story. As a Christian community, we structure our year around this story. Look around the church building and you’ll see signs and symbols everywhere, echoing this story – the angels, the shepherds, the sheep and the manger – and at the centre of it all is this couple, Mary and Joseph, who are spiritual mother and father to us all in a sense. I don’t want to know about their sex life any more than I want to know about the sex life of my earthly parents!
What sort of story is this? What sort of couple is this? What sort of child is this?
‘What sort of engagement was this?’ – perhaps that’s an accessible point at which to start, for it’s clear from the story that Mary and Joseph’s engagement was something a bit more serious than the sorts of betrothals we are familiar with nowadays.
Mary finds that she is pregnant and Joseph knows that he is not the father and so “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly”. The crisis itself is not uncommon nowadays any more than it was back then – an unexpected pregnancy with doubts being raised as to who the father is, though these things aren’t normally resolved quietly in my experience, but neither is the woman ‘exposed to public disgrace’ if the relationship falls apart.
Engagements in first century Judea were evidently a more serious family affair than they are nowadays, and probably something more akin to the way ‘trial marriages’ work in Iran. For those who aren’t familiar with the practice, couples in Iran often enter into a trial marriage after consultation with their families. They live together for a fixed period – perhaps six months or a year – after which, if things are going smoothly, they are formally married.
It’s similar to what happens in our culture when a couple shacks up together, except that it’s all done with family support. I remember asking my friend, Sheikh Mansour, ‘but what do you do if the girl gets pregnant?’, to which he replied ‘what do you do?’
The question in our story, of course, is ‘what is Joseph going to do?’, and Joseph, like Mary, is called to walk a path of blind obedience – ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’. He must maintain the relationship with Mary and father the mysterious child, whose origins and whose future are so obscure!
And so we are told that Joseph “took her as his wife”, which means what? Did they go down to the registry office and organise a quick ceremony, or did they gather together with whatever members of the family that they could find and organise some communal celebration? In the context of first century Judea, “he took her as his wife” could just mean that Joseph consummated the relationship (sexually), which is what we know it doesn’t mean, of course, because he ‘knew her not’!
And maybe that’s the whole point of that detail – that this vulnerable couple were left in a sort of limbo situation – being married but not fully married (as traditionally understood) – as they headed off on their painful pilgrimage to Bethlehem, with their lives and their future and their relationship with each other already being totally determined by this mysterious child who had not yet been born!
Perhaps that’s all the detail about the celibacy of Joseph is meant to convey to us, though, as we might expect, commentators over the centuries have found the story of the virgin birth to be fruitful ground for more detailed speculation.
Certainly, it doesn’t require too much imagination to suggest that there might be an ‘anti sex’ agenda in the birth narrative, reflecting the negative attitude towards human sexuality that became increasingly prevalent in the church as it evolved.
This anti-sex attitude has indeed been reflected in the writings pious souls over the centuries who have felt that it would not have been possible for the Son of God to have been born as a result of sex – a conviction that (to my understanding) did lead to the theory of the ‘immaculate conception’, which refers not to the miraculous conception of Jesus but to the miraculous conception of Mary, his mother, for if she were to be the pure vessel through whom the Son of God was to be born, she too would have to be conceived in a way that didn’t involve any human sexual activity!
Some of you may have read Shelby Spong’s book, “Born of a Woman” (published in 1994) in which he goes further and suggests that the virgin birth story not only reflects negative attitudes towards sex but more specifically, negative attitudes towards women and female sexuality in particular!
A number of scholars have likewise seen in the Gospels’ birth stories the influence of the Gnostics (who were most prevalent in the 2nd and 3rd centuries). Gnostics had very negative attitudes towards all things physical, and greatly influenced the early church, perhaps even the writings of the New Testament!
I’m personally not at all convinced that the Gnostics were active so early such that they could have influenced the construction of the Gospels, and I note too that where they were influential in later church history, it wasn’t always an influence favoring men over women!
I have actually been studying some of the second and third century Gnostic literature recently, and I believe that the formulation of the aforementioned theory of the immaculate conception of Mary was specifically tied to the Gnostic belief that sin of Adam is passed down through the human species explicitly through the male seed! That is why Mary, who had to be sinless, had to have been conceived without the involvement of any male in particular! Whatever you think of that theory, it doesn’t seem to me to be one that elevates men above women.
I mean no offense to any of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who might take the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary very seriously. I think though that we can all agree that it is not taught in the New Testament, and neither was it a belief that was circulating at the time the New Testament was written. Indeed, it was only formally adopted as a doctrine of the church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
I’d like to suggest at this point that we may better grasp the full impact of the birth story in the Gospels, not through thinking about how it might have contributed to later problems in the church, let alone by thinking about how those problems might have influenced its construction, but by comparing the Gospel narrative with other great narratives that were circulating at the time that it was written.
Within the Bible itself there are a number of mysterious birth narratives, each auspicious in its own way. We might think of the story of the miraculous birth of Samuel to Hannah, as retold in the first book of Samuel, or even of the story of the birth of John the Baptist.
Further, it occurs to me that within the non-Jewish religious world of the first century there were countless stories circulating of auspicious characters who had mysterious births! And I don’t know if any serious study has ever been done comparing the blessed virgin Mary with the blessed virgin Athena – the only woman in the Greek pantheon who never had a male escort!
Those who are familiar with New Testament Greek know that ‘parthenos’ is the Greek word meaning ‘virgin’ or ‘young girl’. The word is used with reference to Mary in the New Testament. Those who haven’t studied New Testament Greek will nonetheless recognise the word ‘Parthenon’ as referring to that amazing temple on the Acropolis in Athens, dedicated not to Mary, of course, but to Athena!
I mentioned that I’ve been doing some study of early Christian Gnostic documents of late. I’ve also been listening to a series of lectures on the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and they are fascinating indeed!
I am conscious too that a number of feminist scholars of the 1970’s took up fresh studies in the female goddesses of Greece in particular, hoping to find in them some more positive role models of feminine strength and independence, particularly in comparison with the negative stereotypes that have been propagated by the church.
The lecturer I’ve been listening to, Professor Kathryn McClymond, suggested though that looking for positive female role models in the Greek pantheon is a doomed quest as these women, while they often exhibit strength and independence, also embody all of the worst female stereotypes.
A story that well illustrates this regards a wedding banquet put on by the great god, Zeus, who forgot to invite along Eris, the goddess of discord. Eris turns up uninvited and tosses into the party a golden apple with the words “for the fairest” written on it. This then leads to a battle royal between goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over who is deserving of the apple! They ask Zeus to adjudicate but he (wisely) gives the job to Paris, prince of Troy. The goddesses then try to influence Paris, firstly by stripping naked and then by bribing him! Hera offers him power, Athena offers him wisdom, but it’s Aphrodite who wins by offering him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Sparta. And that’s how the Trojan war really began!
I won’t continue with the epic characters of Greek mythology, and there’s not enough time to go into the specifics of Roman mythology, which gave us the other great narratives that would have been circulating at the time of Jesus.
Roman mythology was, or course, largely a retranslation of Greek mythology. The names were changed – Zeus becoming Jupiter and Heracles becoming Hercules – but the stories remained largely the same. Indeed, in my reading of the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, the only clear difference I can see between the two is that the Roman stories were even more violent than those of the Greeks!
Most have probably heard of the legend of Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome. If you have heard of them, you may remember that they were apparently suckled by a she-wolf as infants, later to grow up and found the great city!
What you may not remember about Romulus and Remus is that the reason they were raised by wolves is because their mother, who was the daughter of a murdered king, was raped by Mars, the god of war. The twin boys that were subsequently born to her were therefore seen as threats to the throne, and so while their mother was buried alive, the boys were left to die of exposure by the river Tiber, only to be rescued by the wolves. The boys grow up and kill the king who killed their mother, after which Romulus murders Remus!
You’ll forgive me for indulging in such a bloody tale, but this is the sort of stuff that Roman legend is made of, and, as I say, these ancient myths are the stories that are passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter, and they are the stories that define a people.
What do the great stories of Rome tell us about the Roman people? They tell us that violence, rape, pain and struggle have always defined them as a people! Romans were descended from boys who had been left for dead but who fought back and vanquished their enemies through cunning, strength of arms and raw courage!
A community is defined by its stories – that’s the point.
The stories of the Romans tell us who the Roman people were, just as the great myths of ancient Greece tell us who they were as a people.
If we want to understand how the Indigenous people of this land understand themselves, we need to listen to the stories of the dreamtime, whereas we white Australians prefer to define ourselves through the story of the ANZACS.
The question then is, what do these stories in the Bible tell us about ourselves as a spiritual people, and what does the Christmas story in particular tell us about who we are as a Christian community and about who our God is?
I think the comparison with the great Greek and Roman myths is instructive in this regard, for one thing that both Greek and Roman mythology shared in common was that their great stories consistently said nothing about ordinary people!
The characters that fill out those great ancient myths are all titans or gods or demi-gods of some sort. They are larger than life characters who perform miraculous deeds, vanquish great monsters, build great cities and win great battles! When these tales speak of mortal men and woman at all, they are inevitably mighty warriors who drench themselves in both glory and blood. These are the stories that define the people of the first century, but not the Christian community!
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)
This is our story! It’s the story of an ordinary young girl, engaged to an apparently unexceptional young man, who turns out to be unexpectedly pregnant. Of course she goes on from there to become the most powerful woman in the known world … No. She goes on from there to give birth in squalid circumstances and she lays the baby in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).
This is the Christmas story. It’s a story about a God works through ordinary people in the most ordinary of circumstances – a God who ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52)
It’s an offensive story in many ways – this Christmas story – offensive in its simplicity! It’s a story that is more concerned with the personal lives of two Palestinian peasants than it is with telling us how to vanquish monsters or build great cities! Love it or hate it though, this is our story!