Many today believe that Mary faced a good deal of shame during her pregnancy and after the birth of Jesus. In addition they say Jesus was early on alleged to be illegitimate. Let’s take a closer look.
It was while reading Lynn Cohick’s newest book, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, that this issue was raised fresh for me. Ironically, I’ve been reading a short book by Verlyn Verbrugge called The Not-So-Silent Night which has an excellent chapter on “Mary’s Shame” which should not be missed. Both authors, however, come to very different conclusions. As his chapter title suggests, Verbrugge believes Mary was the object of shame and disgrace. Given the shame/honor culture of the day her family would have been appalled at Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Mary would certainly have been scorned by her family and those who knew her. Verbrugge sees pointers to this in Mary’s trip to Elizabeth. She makes this eighty mile hike with no apparent support from her family. After three months with Elizabeth Verbrugge suggests Joseph took Mary into his home—an unheard of event in that day. Why did he do this? One suggestion is that Mary may have been in danger of what is commonly known today in the Middle East as an “honor killing” and Joseph assumed the “role of protecting her 24/7.” (40)
Cohick disagrees. She says the misunderstanding all hinges on the implications of Mary being an “unwed mother.” She observes that, “such a conclusion does not take into account the betrothal customs of the day. Mary and Joseph had a binding contract of marriage; all that awaited was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any norm.” As she explains earlier the “betrothal carried legal weight; the bride-to-be was considered married. The arrangement was called an inchoate marriage.” (62) Furthermore, the “decision to end this relationship through divorce indicates that the betrothal was seen as an inchoate marriage.” (64) She cites latter rabbinic writings which indicate that a future groom who has sexual relations with his future bride “is not guilty of immoral behavior. If pregnancy occurs before the wedding, this is not a problem because the parentage is secure.” (153)
Cohick further explores the manner in which Mary is portrayed in the rest of the Gospels. She is invited to weddings (John 2) where servants listen to her “which may imply that she is family and/or that she has clout in the group. Either way, it does not seem likely that they would pay attention to someone whom every wedding guest presumably would ignore.” (155) We see her traveling regularly to the temple with large groups (Luke 2:41-52). She concludes that the picture we have “does not suggest that Mary was a social pariah. Instead, in these sketches she participates fully in the social and cultural network of Jewish villages in Galilee and Judea.” (155)
So, at this point I'm straddling a fence. I don't think Mary's family, however many knew, were jumping for joy at the news of her pregnancy but I think Cohick's point is that the shame motif has been perhaps pressed too far. I have no idea what kind of relationship Mary had with her family to surmise what kind of reaction she would have received. I imagine the story of a virgin birth would not have been received well (no matter how close they were). But Cohick raises some good points which make me wonder if the shame motif has been over played. Here's another one that's going to the "back burner" for further pondering.
But what about the charges of the illegitimacy of Jesus? We’ll look at that in a later post.