The practice of commenting on religion and politics frequently takes one to strange places. Say, for example, having to parse a statement like this defense of former Alabama Supreme Court Justice and current Republican candidate for the US Senate Roy Moore, who has been accused by four women of sexual assault when they were teenagers:
“Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist,” Ziegler said choosing his words carefully before invoking Christ. “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
Judas Priest on a pony, as the kids say. This is a hot mess of a religion-based defense, and it comes from the Alabama State Auditor, no less. I’m sure it reinforces absolutely no negative stereotypes of his state. As my friend Brent Hege (an actual theologian) says, “If you’re enlisting Mary and Joseph to excuse pedophilia, you’re doing everything wrong. Everything.”
Let’s get some facts on the table here. According to Luke 1:7, both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “advanced in age” when Elizabeth became pregnant with John. Given lifespans in those days, this could mean nothing more than that they were moving beyond the typical age of parenthood. Zechariah certainly wasn’t 32 and Elizabeth in her teens.
More important, of course, is Ziegler’s reference to the Holy Family. We know that Mary was very young: marriage for Jewish women typically followed not long after their first menstruation. Since Mary has just begun the marriage process with Joseph, that puts her in the range of 13 or 14. Their status is typically glossed as being “engaged,” but they were married: Jewish custom had brides stay with their parents for a year after the wedding, and only then moving in with their husbands’ families. This is why Matthew mentions Joseph’s intention to divorce Mary quietly.
Was Joseph an older man? His age is not specified in scripture. Later extra-canonical tradition provided the “backstory” that Joseph was a widower chosen by lot to wed Mary, apparently as a way to explain the presence of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” in the gospels and epistles. (Jerome took another tack, arguing that the same word used to describe siblings could also include cousins.)
But if one doesn’t need Mary to remain ever-virgin, it’s much more straightforward to assume that Joseph, like most Jewish boys of his time, was at most a few years older than his new life, perhaps 16 or 17. It’s also a logical assumption that Joseph and Mary went on to have their own children.
Whatever his age, Joseph has always been considered Jesus’ foster father—in fact, the Catholic church to this day considers him the patron saint of foster parents. He claimed Jesus as his son and raised him as such, but the point of the gospel narrative was never to endorse underage relationships. It was to speak to the deeply faithful environment Jesus came up in. Joseph wasn’t justified in marrying a much-younger woman because he stayed married to her, in other words. He reflected God’s covenantal nature in sticking with a vulnerable woman and her child who by the rights of his day he would have been completely justified in sending away.
But speaking of the vulnerable, let’s talk about God and Mary. No, they didn’t have sex. What, did you think the LORD was one of those low-rent Greek gods? Rather, it’s the Holy Spirit that “overshadows” Mary. The same power of creation on display in Genesis and Exodus brings life into Mary’s womb, how it is not ours to know. The point is not biological. It’s that the God of creation is the God of redemption is the God of liberation is the God of salvation. That’s the point of the story, not that Jesus was born without any hokey-pokey that would have been totally cool anyway because Mary was hitched to Joseph. The story isn’t about Joseph acting like a righteous patriarch; it’s about God’s actions, Mary’s action in response, and only secondarily about Joseph.
Rather than bully his way into the world, God chooses to ask one of society’s most vulnerable members if she’s up to taking part in a scheme that is literally cosmic in scale, leading to the healing of the heavens and the earth. Medieval writers would marvel at the paradox of Mary giving birth to her very creator. And she says yes to this madness! Mary is clearly a woman of extraordinary strength and bravery. And, you will notice, she doesn’t bother asking permission from her father or any other male authority figure. She just goes ahead with the plan, a plan that could very easily have cost her her life, through stoning if not childbirth.
That element of choice turns out to be crucial. Not doing the nasty, so to speak, was only one element of virginity in the ancient world. As Elizabeth Johnson argues in Truly Our Sister, virgins weren’t so much people who avoided the contamination of sexuality as those who gave up their desire in order to maintain a single-minded focus on serving God. It’s only later, as the monastic emphasis on rigorous purity sets in, that virgins became those who have never taken part in vaginal intercourse. Even so, a notorious anti-sex crab like Augustine addresses rape as a cause for pastoral care, not judgment, and Aquinas flatly declares that rape victims cannot be said to have surrendered their virginity. This seems relevant. Mary’s sexuality belongs to her, not Joseph, not even God, because only she can choose to give her whole heart. Without that choice, she is not the Mary of blessed memory, she is not a saint, she is not a moral exemplar. She’s a victim of rape. To use her in support of someone accused of molesting girls her age is to take away every last ounce of the agency that makes her sacred. It turns the entire gospel inside out, making a monster of God and empty, bestial shells of humanity. It’s theologically bankrupt and more than a little twisted.
No, goddammit, it’s not okay to molest children because you’re potentially interested in marrying them like the supposedly older Joseph did with Mary, except he didn’t, and he wasn’t Jesus’ biological father in any case and gah, my brain just exploded having to explain that Joseph wasn’t a 30-something prosecutor preying on vulnerable teenagers and Mary was not a potential harlot in need of a man to disciple her awakening sexual lusts. In any sane world, anyone using such a line of reasoning would immediately die of shame.
But of course, we don’t live in a sane world. We live in in the darkest timeline, where Republicans have no shame, least of all Roy Moore, who was seemingly attempting to fundraise off the story just hours after it broke, claiming in bold print that “the forces of evil are on the march in our country“:
We’re in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message.
The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me.
(Emphasis and punctuation from the original.)
So here we are. God, in the divine generosity of creation, gives an aging, childless couple the gift of a son. Then, in love and faithfulness, God sends into the world God’s only son to heal and reconcile the divisions of the world, to save it from sin and death. Along the way, almost as an overflowing of grace, God calls into being the remarkable courage, compassion, tenderness and faithfulness of a very young woman and her husband. This complex, beautiful, divine initiative takes place for one reason and one reason only: to protect and defend a serial sexual predator, bully, bigot, and obstinate oaf apparently incapable of understanding or carrying out the duties of his office, who, remarkably, is not the current occupant of the Oval Office. And all of that comes in a wrapper of spiritual warfare against “the forces of evil,” who are apparently sunk in the error of thinking that basic human decency is a qualification for federal office.
I’m so old I remember when people used to think that God was all about establishing personal responsibility in the world. Now it seems like he’s only interested in you pushing the “R” lever in Alabama on December 12. Roy Moore better hope his only opponents in spiritual battle are the liberals, is what I’m saying. There’s at least one ever-virgin mother out there who I suspect would like to have a word with him and his defenders.
Further update: Moore is being persecuted just like Jesus. Okay then.