Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 3

So it’s time to bring in the heavy hitters on this series – the scholars who have done a whole lot more studying on this than I have. Part of the reason why that’s necessary is because last time, when I went through all the attributes of Jesus’ life referenced by Paul, I missed arguably the three biggest. Whoops!

But when fulfillment of the time came, God sent his son, born through a woman, and born under the Law. This was so he could redeem those under the Law so that we could be adopted. Galatians 4:4-5

As John Shelby Spong points out in his book, Born of a Woman, Paul also speaks matter-of-factly about Jesus’ brother, James, in Gal. 1:19. Finally, in Romans 1, Paul speaks of God’s son, “descended from David.”

All three of those references describe a very human Jesus. And, so far as the Christian canon is concerned, they – together with what I described last week – were the entirety of the known life of Christ until the Gospel of Mark was written about 15-20 years later.

For a long time, Matthew was considered the first Gospel written, but the grammar of Mark doesn’t really allow for any option other than its being written first. The reason is the style and grammar of Mark is so bad, it doesn’t make any sense for Mark to have copied so extensively from Matthew only to dumb down the language. Rather, it’s hard to see a method of transmission any different from the one now commonly accepted: “Mark” wrote the first story of Jesus, and “Matthew” and “Luke” (the gospels are actually written anonymously) copied extensively from him while adding their own material – either from each other or a third source (scholars call it “Q”). “John” wrote last, although since his work has almost nothing in common with the others, it’s harder to date. Scholars see it being written closer to the end of the first century, though.

So the order is Mark-Matthew-Luke-John.

Only two of those stories of Jesus have birth narratives, however, and Mark – written first – does not.

Here’s how Mark begins the Christ story: The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son …” (1:1). The next seven verses are about John the Baptist, and Jesus first appears in 1:9: “About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.”

That’s it.

But of course Mark has some other clues about Jesus’ origins. Mark 6:

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown. His disciples followed him. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were surprised. “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?

So Jesus is one of at least seven children. His mother’s name is Mary. He’s a carpenter. And his father is unmentioned, which seems kind of odd for a patriarchal society, referring to a man in reference to his mother but not his father.

Also, on the cross in Mark 15:

Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.

Is this his mother? James and Joses are the names of Jesus’ brothers in chapter 6, but they’re also pretty common names. Why would Mark not simply call her his mother? The seeming attempt to distinguish James apart from perhaps some other well-known James (the one commonly believed to be Jesus’ brother would have been quite famous at the time Mark was written, as he was head of the Jerusalem church), so I think this is probably someone else.

So we now have all of the writings of Paul and the first recorded story of Jesus. From them, we know this about Jesus’ origins and early life:

  • His mother’s name is Mary.
  • He has four brothers and at least two sisters.
  • He is from Nazareth.
  • He was a carpenter.

But there’s one other key part of Mark having to do with Jesus’ family, in Mark 3:

Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!” …

His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”

Who are these family members who think Jesus is crazy? Are they different from his mother and brothers, who arrive after Jesus gives a brief discourse on the house divided and blaspheming the Holy Spirit in response to accusations that he’s casting out demons through the power of Satan? In any event, shouldn’t Jesus’ family have known about his supernatural origins and perhaps understood his ministry better?

This gets tricky. Because the author of Mark is also working with a motif in which no one other than the demons recognizes the truth about Jesus until Peter’s confession in chapter 8. This theme of the “messianic secret” is a key part of understanding the gospel – but it also means various events are likely adjusted and manipulated to fit this theme. For example, it strains credibility to believe the disciples could be so obtuse as to question how Jesus could feed the 4,000 not long after they’d seen him feed the 5,000 (8:4), but the author is using the disciples as a literary device to reveal the blindness of his own readers.

Similarly, we simply can’t know whether the events of Mark 3 have a basis in historical fact, but it’s certainly plausible that Jesus’ relationship with his family was strained enough that this story would carry a lot of weight with the author and earliest readers. But it only carries weight if Jesus’ family is ignorant of any miraculous conception, and it’s difficult to see how that could be the case unless it didn’t actually happen.

Spong argues the story in Mark 3 helps us understand Jesus’ response in chapter 6 to the criticism he found in Nazareth: “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households.”

Again, the author could simply be using the family as a literary device, or he could have been inspired to use the messianic secret theme because of the real-life conflict Jesus experienced with his own family. It’s also possible, perhaps likely, that Jesus’ family – his siblings, for sure – resented his popularity, and that this jealousy would have begun very early, as they learned their brother was miraculously conceived.

All those caveats aside, let’s agree that in Mark, Jesus’ family members, including the fleeting references to his mother, do not act as if they know he’s the product of a miraculous birth. How much weight we place on that, on the other hand, is substantially mitigated by those caveats.

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