Archive for November 25th, 2008

An excavated insula in CapernaumIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc, and in Part II we discussed the probability of Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot (mid-September to early-October), as opposed to the semi-synchretistically chosen date of December 25.

In this installment, we will examine Jesus’ parents, comparing common belief/depiction of them to a contextual probability of who they were.

Marriage Customs

In Middle-eastern Jewish culture in the first century, like today, girls are considered to have reached an “age of accountability” at the age of twelve, or their first menstruation, whichever comes first. Upon reaching that age, the family would search for a prospective future mate for their daughter.

Upon finding an appropriate “match”, the families would gather together and announce a betrothal between the daughter (the lesser party, in that culture) of one family and the son (the greater party) of the other family. In that celebration, a blood sacrifice (typically a goat) would be made and a binding covenant declared between the families. Once declared, the betrothal could only be nullified in agreement between the two families, without cause. If there was cause, such as infidelity, to break the covenant, the patriarch of the family violating the covenant could be subject to death, if the offended family so desired. This was a serious thing!  (See here for more information on the bloodpath ceremony, which also has significance in the Easter story.)

In the Galilee region, once a betrothal was declared, the son would build a room onto his family’s house, preparing it as a place for he and his bride to live (these multi-room, multi-family houses, called insula, have been extensively excavated in Galilee cities in the past several decades). Once the father of the bridegroom decided that the time was right for the wedding to come about, he would tell his son, and the entire family would go to pick up the girl and bring she and her family back for the wedding celebration. At the culmination of the first night of the wedding feast, the bride and groom would enter their new home together and consumate the marriage (while everyone else waited and celebrated outside – talk about pressure to perform!). This image of bride and groom, preparation and wedding feasts is used in multiple stories told by Jesus.

But that’s a topic to examine a different day.

Mother Mary

All cultural indications from the Jewish culture and the Galilee region would suggest that Mary was 12-13 years of age at the time of her betrothal. Also, considering that most betrothal periods would last from 6 months to two years (at most), these cultural indicators would suggest that Mary was 12 – 14 years old when she received the visit from the angel Gabriel.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)

How often do we see Christmas reenactments on TV or at our churches in which Mary is a young twentysomething girl, as opposed to a 6th-, 7th- or 8th-grade girl? Not only that, but she’s 9 months pregnant!


If we only know a little bit about Mary, we know even less about Joseph.

Once again, if we follow Galilean Jewish tradition, Joseph would have been at least 13, though it is possible he was a few years older, since he is identified with a profession, which he would typically have learned from his father between the ages of 12 and 16.

There are a number of religious traditions which have suggested that Joseph was significantly older and a widower when he was betrothed to Mary. However, this came from the Catholic tradition which insisted this had to have been the case, specifically because of the belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth (a mistaken interpretation of Matthew 1:25). Thus, since Jesus had at least 4 brothers and 2 or more sisters (see Mark 6:3), many Catholics will argue that these siblings had to have come from Joseph via a prior marriage.  However, this is highly unlikely and not supported by scripture.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary-uh?

In Matthew 1, we read about Joseph:

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

So, already, we can see Joseph’s an honorable fellow, unwilling to have Mary and/or her father disgraced (or potentially, killed) for her “infidelity”. What we might miss, not knowing this culture, is that Joseph was, in turn, exposing himself to a great deal of public disgrace in not divorcing her.

In not taking action to distance himself from Mary, Joseph was de facto admitting that he was the father of Mary’s baby (which would have been seen as a moral failure on his part, in primary responsibility), which should have resulted in an immediate binding declaration of marriage (without celebration) and a disgrace to him and his family.

Hold this thought for a minute.

In Luke, we learn about the census of Caesar Augustus in approximately 4 B.C., and the events around Jesus’ birth.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

This passage is all we have in the Bible about the events specifically around the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. And it begs some questions, based on the context we’ve discussed – questions that don’t often get asked.

1) If Joseph was of the house and line of David, so was his father. Since he was not yet married, it would be sufficient for his father or grandfather to register his family in the Roman census. Instead, we have a 15- or 16-year-old boy taking his 9-months’-pregnant, 13-year-old bride-to-be on a dangerous 40+ mile  journey on foot (owning a donkey was a symbol of wealth, which does not seem to be indicative of Joseph’s circumstance). If he was not yet married, he should not have been responsible for registering his family-to-be. Why isn’t Joseph’s family with him?

2) There was no room for them in the inn. In the middle-east, hospitality is prized above almost all other social values, so for there to be no room – in a town from which Joseph is descendant – is very strange. No, make that incredibly strange.  So – why would there be no room for a boy and his imminently expectant bride-to-be in a community which should have relatives, and where his father’s family should be staying?

Culturally, the best answer to these questions (and other similar ones) is that, in taking an obviously expectant Mary as his bride, Joseph was ostensibly admitting “guilt” in the circumstances.  he had brought some degree of shame upon himself and his family, and was living out the consequences. This would explain why Joseph and Mary didn’t have any support from their extended families, why he would have to take Mary with him, and why nobody in Bethlehem would have room for them.

[NOTE: Another possibility which has been suggested is that Joseph had no extended family, but this does not make as much sense, as Joseph was learned in a profession - as a tekton, a mason - that would have required familial apprenticeship to learn.]

So What?

All too often, we paint an incredibly sanitized Christmas in our own cultural context, missing out on the desperate and dire circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the cultural lowliness and shame surrounding them. In trying to exalt Jesus (which is a good thing – don’t get me wrong), we miss how low God allowed himself to go on the cultural and societal ladder in entering this world.

He came in the circumstances of the lowliest of the low, exhalting Himself in serving all other people, and dying the worst of deaths on our behalf. If we do not let him be who he was, we cannot fully appreciate who he is and what he went through for us – in life and in death.

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