Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 5

In case you’re new:

  • Part 1, an introduction.
  • Part 2, in which we found that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, either didn’t know about a virgin birth story or didn’t think it important enough to mention, even obliquely.
  • Part 3, in which we found that Mark, the earliest written gospel, likewise does not know a virgin birth story, and his portrayal of Jesus’ family makes it sound like they didn’t know of one either.
  • Part 4, in which we found that Matthew and Luke, while agreeing on several key details, tell virgin birth stories that are not compatible with each other.

We’re not quite done with Matthew and Luke yet. What do they tell of Jesus’ family life? We found that useful when looking at Mark. Gerd Ludemann’s book Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus will be our guide through these stories.

Given Mark’s place as the first gospel and the basis for both Matthew and Luke, it’s unsurprising to find a version of the Markan story in which Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and brothers?” It honestly makes more sense in Mark, where Jesus’ statement is preceded by the fact that his family thinks he’s crazy and wants to take him away – again, an odd decision for a family who would know of his supernatural origins. Matthew perhaps knows this and excises that introductory narrative in his telling (12:46-50). Ludemann notes that Matthew also changes the circumstances in which Jesus is told of his family’s arrival. Both of these changes help lessen the strain between Jesus and his family portrayed in Mark 3:31-35.

Like Mark, Matthew also tells of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown. Again, he makes some significant alterations, primary of which is the description of Jesus’ family. In Mark 6, the members of the synagogue say: “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?” But in Matthew 13, it becomes: “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us?”

Matthew’s addition of Joseph into the story is interesting. The change from Mark to Matthew is where we get the image of Jesus as an apprentice to his carpenter father (as this harmonizes the different stories), but in fact these gospel writers are saying very different things. Mark is retelling a criticism of Jesus himself that made his neighbors disbelieve him: He worked with his hands; he was of no important status. Matthew turns that into a more general sense that the crowd simply knows Jesus’ family too well to accept that he might be special. Aside from this, there’s another possible reason for the change here, but we’ll save that for later.

Luke also recounts these two stories. Kind of.

Mark 6 becomes a much different story in Luke’s hands, as he in chapter 4 has Jesus read from Isaiah, then announce his own fulfillment of the prophecy, which doesn’t go over too well. Luke also names the hometown, Nazareth, while Mark and Matthew left it anonymous. Luke also moves the narrative to the beginning of his ministry, rather than a little bit later, after he calls the disciples, as the others have it. Along with the reading from Isaiah, Luke has Jesus in a lengthy back-and-forth with the members of the synagogue, then closes with their failed attempt to kill him. Luke removes all references to Jesus’ family save one: “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

Luke also includes the story of Jesus’ mother and brothers coming to see him, in chapter 8. He, too, removes the reason; he also shortens the passage to Jesus simply responding that those who “hear the word of God and do it” are his true family.

Ludemann notes one other mention in Luke of Jesus’ family. In 11:27, a woman calls out after he’s exorcized a demon: “Happy is the mother who gave birth to you and who nursed you.” The CEB likes to render “blessed” as “happy,” so this is a beatitude. Jesus responds with what Ludemann calls a “correction [rather] than a strict repudiation”: “Happy rather are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” I don’t think there’s much to be gained from that. We know he had a mother, after all, and I think our modern-day culture makes this seem more hostile than it would have seemed at the time.

The most significant takeaway from all of this is that both Matthew and Luke – who most scholars believe adapted Mark separately without knowledge of each other’s work – add Joseph to the hometown crowd’s litany of questions in rejecting Jesus. Why would they do this? Ludemann points out that in Jewish tradition, boys are identified as the sons of their fathers, not their mothers – even if their fathers have died. In the Old Testament, when children are tied to their mothers, the vast majority are because groups of sons came from the same father but different mothers, or the father was a Gentile – or the son was illegitimate.

Ludemann makes a case for the latter, arguing this is why Matthew and Luke separately added Joseph to their questioning. He also cites a third-century papyrus in which scribes “corrected” Mark by adding a reference to “the carpenter.” The notion of Jesus as illegitimate would have been difficult for the early Christians – less so for us today, I think – and could plausibly have spurred the development of narratives to explain the absence of a father while removing the stain of illegitimacy.

If this happened, those stories would have had to spread remarkably fast for two authors to incorporate them into their gospels with enough similarities to inspire nearly 2,000 years of harmonization (even if the stories upon closer reading are actually incompatible). Adding Joseph to the rejection story in Jesus’ hometown may have been an effort to clear his name – or it could have been a natural outgrowth of the authors’ knowledge that Joseph was Jesus’ father and therefore worthy of mention in the passage.

Of course, the counterargument would be: Since Jewish culture was so patriarchal, wouldn’t Mark have known Joseph’s name and used it, if for no reason but to avoid perpetuating an inaccurate stigma? This is not easily dismissed, in my opinion. It’s no smoking gun, but Joseph’s initial absence from Jesus’ story is a bigger deal than perhaps it seems on the surface.

But we’re not done with the gospel writers yet. We have one more to go. Next time!

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