Christ’s birth story: a different perspective
The Bible is a living document that allows us to look for new truths as we live in a changing culture and world. Christianity has had a strong tradition of viewing sex as sinful, rather than as a God-given gift to be cherished. I think Christians can develop an appreciation for marriage beyond its sexual function. This can be a starting point for different sides of the sexuality debate to come together and understand each other better. A view of biblical ethics that focuses on sexual relationships that are just can help correct the more limited view of sex as essentially sinful.
The traditional belief that God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus because she was a virgin epitomizes the sex-is-sinful tradition. Mary was thought to be pure and without sin because she was a virgin. Some have argued she never had a sexual thought of any kind; not because she had followed God’s laws given to her people through Moses, not because she was a role model, not because she had never gossipped, not because she had prayed every day for the well being of others – but only because she was “sexually pure.” Mary may have been given the title of virgin later, rather than being described as a “young woman,” as was the case in very early biblical texts, probably because she was not married. This was a somewhat embarrassing condition for the mother of God’s only son.
What if we look at the story of Jesus’s birth from a perspective of just love instead, in the spirit of a Jewish Midrash aggadah.1 What we observe is that Mary had a deeply devoted friend in Joseph – I wonder if she called him Joe. In fact, after Joe learned that Mary was pregnant and knew the baby was not his child – since the two of them never had intercourse – he did not abandon Mary. They remained close caring friends and eventually traveled together to Bethlehem even though Mary was about to have her baby. One has to wonder where Mary’s parents or other relatives were with regard to their teenage daughter and relative who was pregnant out of wedlock and about to give birth.
So, in this story we have Joe, who might well have had to forgive Mary if he suspected she had been unfaithful, now willing to help her to fulfill the government requirement that she travel to Bethlehem. Keep in mind that he did this even though Mary had not been inclined to offer him sex in return for his unconditional agape love. He placed his nine-month pregnant, teenage friend on a donkey and headed to Bethlehem knowing that he might well have to assist in the birth of a child he did not conceive in a culture where men never participated in the birthing of their children.
In Jewish culture, women were expected to remain separate from men when they were menstruating. The menstrual tent is almost certainly the place where a woman also went to birth a child with the assistance of female friends. In fact, the general convention of men being absent from the delivery of their children lasted well into the early 1970s, even in the United States.
So Mary and Joe, who planned to stay together in an inn, but ended up in a stable because all of the inns were full, now embarked on the delivery of Jesus where Joe almost certainly had to fill the role of midwife, including encouraging Mary during painful contractions, finding some suitable cloth to use to clean up baby Jesus, cutting the umbilical cord, and facilitating the delivery of the placenta. After what must have been a very stressful experience, Joe stayed by Mary’s side traveling with her to a foreign country because of the threat that her son might be killed, eventually marrying her, fathering a number of children with her, and lovingly raising Jesus as if he were his biological son, including teaching him valuable carpentry skills.
It appears the story of Jesus’s birth is really about a couple who shared an agape love for each other, perhaps one of the most moving stories of just love ever told. We could all learn about love from rereading the story in this light, rather than focusing on Mary’s supposed sexual status as a virgin. Perhaps God chose Mary and Joseph to be Jesus’ parents recognizing the depth of agape love they shared with each other and would shower on Jesus.
1. Midrashrefers to a form of rabbinic literature that offers commentary on biblical texts in an effort to explore and clarify ambiguities. These can be scholarly or of an artistic, literary nature, including making points through parable or allegory.