Digging Theological Holes at Christmas

This blog is the result of a recent discussion about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

For the past two years, my family has been worshipping as part of a conservative Lutheran congregation. Last weekend, I was invited to a church related event held in someone’s home. Part of the discussion was about the life of Jesus.

Except for one incident about Jesus visiting Jerusalem at age twelve, all we know of his life is centered on either his birth or subsequent ministry at the age of 30. Nevertheless, within the gospels are interspersed a few nuggets concerning his background and that of his earthly family.

At the event last weekend, I think I conducted myself well—theologically speaking—during most of the discussion except in one area where stepped in it. Below is a more reasoned and thorough discussion of some of the controversial topics discussed that evening.

Note to readers: I’m going to deal with today’s subjects in terms of the Roman Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity, while I think the Orthodox folks would mostly agree with Rome, I’m not familiar enough with their theology to say for certain. As is typical on my blog, all verses are from KJV.

Mary and Joseph

I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that Mary was young when she became the mother of Jesus. I’m not aware of any dispute in the historic church on this point. However, Joseph is another matter altogether. Joseph is sometimes portrayed as being near the same age as Mary but many Protestants and virtually all of Rome would disagree. The prima facie proof that Joseph was much older than Mary is that Joseph is never mentioned by name after Jesus’ visit to the temple at age twelve.

And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.
Luke 2: 42-43

Ok, but what about Jesus’ family? He was not an only child.

Brothers and Sisters

Jesus’ siblings were mentioned in a few different places.

And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.
Matthew 13:54-57

Same account from Mark’s gospel.

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
Mark 6:1-4

The wedding at Cana–Jesus’ first miracle.

After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days.
John 2:12

Wedding at Cana

Below is a summary of other mentions in the New Testament of Jesus’ mother and siblings.

Jesus’ brothers, sisters & mother

Jesus’ siblings are mentioned as accompanying Jesus and his mother to Capernaum after the marriage at Cana (John 2:12). Later Mary and these brothers are recorded as seeking an audience with Jesus (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21). Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, His brethren are mentioned as urging Jesus to prove His Messiahship, which they themselves doubted (John 7:3-5). That they were later converted is clear, for they are described in Acts as uniting with the disciples and others in “prayer and supplication” prior to Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14). Paul implies that they were all married (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Many commentators hold that the author of the epistle of Jude, who identifies himself as the “brother of James,” was one of these brothers (Jude 1). It is also generally believed that the leader of the church at Jerusalem was James the brother of Jesus, (see Acts 12:17; 15:13). This seems to be confirmed by Paul’s reference to his visit to Jerusalem, in which he states that he saw only Peter, and “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19).

Did Jesus have any brothers, sisters or siblings?

Rome and some Protestants believe that the brothers and sisters mentioned above were not Mary’s biological offspring but Joseph’s from a previous marriage, making them all half siblings. They assert that Joseph was a widower that then wed a much younger woman. Some of you may wonder why it matters and others will jump to where I’m going next.

Mary: a Perpetual Virgin?

You see, some maintain that Mary was and remained a virgin throughout her entire life. Thus they need for the four brothers and unknown number of sisters of Jesus to be someone else’s children.

I first encountered this issue about fifth grade. I went to a Catholic elementary school and my Religion class was taught by nun. I was a Catholic at the time but had run across some folks that got me to read the Bible for myself. I brought this passage to my teacher and she was horrified.

“Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?”

In fact her response to this and other questions I brought to her that year was that we needed to leave biblical interpretation up to priests and bishops. She stated that lay folks were not capable of understanding the Bible on their own. She stated furthermore that if we began reading the Bible for ourselves, we might become heretics like Martin Luther.

FYI that was the first time I had ever heard the name, Martin Luther.

Folks remember that she was my teacher for a class to instruct me in Christianity—Roman style—and that was her view!

My Dissent

Folks I dissent on the claim that Mary was perpetually a virgin. There is simply no biblical warrant for such an idea. There are biblical passages on the issue but why let them get in the way of something that you need to be in there because of your presuppositions on celibacy?

Let’s skip my opinion and jump right into the Bible.

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Matthew 1:24 & 25

Oh, the King James Bible usage of the word “knew” in this passage means the same as it does in Genesis 4:1. (For purists, I’m arguing the KJV is consistent in the way they translate this idea of marital relations. I’m fully aware that NT was Greek while Genesis was originally Hebrew.)

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

Knew in Strong’s is #1097 in Greek. If you look it up you will find “3. By a Hebraistic euphemism…is used of the carnal connection of male and female

Graphic from Bible Study Tools

And the final nail in the perpetual virginity coffin is a quote from Mary herself.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
Luke 1:34

Strong’s citation of #1097 indicates that the same word is used in both passages, Matthew 1:25 and Luke 1:34. Thus Mary didn’t have sexual relations with Joseph until after Jesus was born which is just what Matthew says. Any speculation about Jesus’ siblings being from a previous relationship of Joseph or Mary being a perpetual virgin do violence to the clear reading of the gospels.

So far, I think I’ve been on strong (pardon the pun) theological ground; however, I then got myself off of firm ground and out on a limb.

Did Jews call Jesus a bastard?

The short answer is yes, but my question was when? And why?

The Talmud seems to reference Jesus and when it does, in an unfavorable light, but whether these references are original or later edits is debatable. If you wish to wade into this question, see Jesus in the Talmud However, at some point, Jesus was accused of being the offspring of Mary and a roman soldier.

Does the New Testament indicate that Jesus’ critics made such accusations? At the event last week, I asserted that they did and of course was challenged. At the time, I couldn’t find a biblical reference. Later I did find the passage where the Jews called Jesus a bastard.

They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham.
Ye do the deeds of your father.
Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.
John 8:39-41

The phrase “We be not born of fornication” is the textbook definition of “bastard”– a person born of parents not married to each other. Was this a shot at the parentage of Jesus or his theology? Both?


At least one Gospel writer indicates the possibility…

And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph…
Luke 3:23

Is there more evidence?

However, besides this one account of Jesus being called a bastard, the New Testament is silent on the issue… unless you can fit it in ambiguous verses like the one below.

And when they had blindfolded him, they struck him on the face, and asked him, saying, Prophesy, who is it that smote thee? And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.
Luke 22: 64 & 65

While it’s probable that the Roman soldiers called Jesus such names and worse, there is no explicit account of that in the Bible. If the soldiers did say derogatory things about Jesus’ parentage, it was just harassment of the condemned, as they would not know of the story of his virgin birth.

Also, in the verses quoted above about Jesus being “the carpenter’s son” and “Mary, his mother”, nothing indicates that the people that Jesus encountered during his ministry questioned his origins. If they had, it would have been a continuing source of harassment his entire life.

The testimony of the genealogies given in the gospel is that Jesus has a rightful claim to the throne of David both thru the linage of Joseph and Mary. Were he a bastard, this claim would be void and grounds to reject his claim as King of the Jews.

The Annunciation

So why was I so wrong?

At last week’s gathering, I was wrong in my assertion that Jesus (and Mary) had to contend with rumors that Mary had become pregnant by someone other than Joseph. On this point I was wrong but I’m not alone.

After reflecting on the topic, I remembered where I’ve heard this claim of Jesus being called a bastard. I took this as true because I’ve heard it stated many times in the context of discussing the life issue. We, prolifers, want to try to relate our faith with women that find themselves in a crisis pregnancy. We try to make a connection between Mary being poor, single, and pregnant as a bridge to the situation these women are in so we can convince them to “save their baby.”

Our argument goes much like this: We say Mary was poor and disadvantaged. She faced disruption of her life and risked the social stigma attached to being pregnant. Her situation was much like yours now. Were Mary in your situation and chose abortion then Jesus would never be born. Thus, we argue, be like Mary, choose life for your baby.

Journey to Bethlehem

I think this idea is based in part on distorting verses like “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) and “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses” (Matthew 8:17).

In our zeal to be relevant and persuasive on the life issue, we find ourselves making theological pretzels by trying to force the Bible to say something that it does not. We desperately want to make the point that Jesus loves and understands both the pregnant woman and her unborn child because he and his family went thru the same life events that the young woman is now facing.

While the sentiment is understandable, it is not biblical. We have forced the text to fit an emotional argument that we want to make, to fit an emotional situation, that yields a rational result.

Sounds good but…

Here is a typical example of a different but related argument that I have often heard. I got this example from my handy internet search engine. The author is referring to Deuteronomy 22:20-29.

As you can see, the status of betrothal was almost identical to the status of a married woman. A betrothed woman who lay with a man that was not her intended husband, was punished as if she had committed adultery.

Mary of Nazareth, unwed and pregnant, knew the punishment she faced—stoning. She had nothing but the story of an angel to tell her parents and Joseph, the man she had promised to marry. Joseph would have been well within his rights—even within his duty—to expose her sin and witness her execution.

It was only with the intervention of an angel and Joseph’s own faith-filled acceptance of the angel’s message, that saved both Mary’s life and the life of her unborn baby, the Incarnation of God.

Mary knew exactly what she would face in her home and community after she said her faith-filled “Let it be done to me according to your word” to the visiting angel. And still, she said yes. She trusted that God would take care of her, and he did, through her holy husband Joseph.

Unwed and Pregnant in Ancient Israel?

This is a classic proof that equates Mary’s situation with a crisis pregnancy in modern day America.

Stoning of Stephen

Was Jesus’ birth really an unplanned pregnancy?

In a rebuttal to this idea is the following:

There is a popular meme making the rounds on social media that attempts to make a clever point about the importance of being open to life. Showing an image of the Nativity, the meme states, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The problem is that not only is the meme untrue, but it reduces a sublime and divine event to a common and mundane situation.

The fact of the matter is that the Incarnation was the most “planned” pregnancy in all of human history, and NOT just from God’s perspective. After writing a post on Facebook about this meme, explaining that the plan for the Incarnation was established at the very beginning, a lot of discussion ensued, most particularly focused on whether Mary had planned on having a baby or not.

The Blessed Virgin Mary did NOT have an ‘unplanned’ pregnancy

But the question continues to be raised as to whether or not Mary’s surprise at Gabriel’s greeting and subsequent explanation of the Incarnation constitutes an “unplanned” pregnancy.

Truth cannot be based on a lie, distortion, or misstatement. We are on the right side on the life issue but misrepresenting our God, His Word, or our faith to score points at the local clinic is not the path we should choose. We can communicate God’s love to both the woman and her baby without the sentimentality of recasting the faith into something that it is not. We are challenged to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) and that doesn’t require any artificial sweeteners to be added.


It is wrong to claim that Mary was perpetually a virgin and/or equate the virgin birth of Jesus with a “crisis pregnancy.” Many well-meaning folks make both claims. Lastly, no internal evidence in the New Testament exists that a shadow hung over Jesus or Mary as a result of the virgin birth. In my mind if such were the case, Jesus would be confronted with it during his public ministry or during the various trials held prior to his crucifixion.