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Was Mary ever labeled a “bad girl”? and why it matters

It's Christmas–which means male pastors typically preach on Jesus' miraculous birth. Hallelujah! I'm grateful for marvelous messages that keep us focused on the real meaning of Christmas. But through the years most of the Christmas sermons I've heard suggest that Mary endured the label of bad girl later in life. I'm not so sure. I love and respect these pastors, but I wonder if they have missed an important part of the Christmas story that matters a lot to women, and that women might have insight into the issue that the male mind might not consider important. I'd love to know what you think.      

  The story begins as Gabriel informs Mary that she will soon be pregnant even though she is a virgin. She responds with faith. But surely she struggles with terrifying thoughts about what this will mean for her future. Mary had every reason to feel that her whole world was imploding. Imagine you are Mary. Marriage was a high value in this shame/honor culture. Her worth, identity, and future were bound up in the match her parents made for her. Girls were betrothed young;  we think she may have been 13 or 14. The engagement period lasted a year, to prove the young woman was chaste, requiring a divorce decree to end the pact.

        Imagine what's probably going on in her head. Will anyone actually believe me when I tell them I'm pregnant? It's not what you think–no Roman soldier behind the barn…no, the child is from God. Sure, sure. Without God's protection, her story would be the town scandal for years to come. Not Mary, that sweet girl, so devoted to God, so wholesome, I guess appearances can be deceiving. Such a betrayal to her poor family. Iyiyiyiyi! What will become of the girl? And poor Joseph! What a tragedy!

       Before the angel's announcement, she has been needle pointing M and J on towels and tablecloths. Now she might as well pack her hope chest, and prepare to go into seclusion for the rest of her life. Because logically this news will not only shame Mary but also her whole family. This is the Middle East. No wonder she is "troubled" by Gabriel's unexpected news.

      As Mary processed Gabriel's news, real fears must have clouded her mind: Gossip, slander, ruin! But did any of that materialize? I don't think so. Let's take a look at what the Bible says happened. Luke 1:26 tells us that Mary's older relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist when Gabriel sprung the news that Mary was going to bear the Messiah. Immediately after Gabriel's announcement Mary hightailed it to Elizabeth's home. She was welcomed, understood, and protected. She stayed there for three months and then returned home. She was not showing yet, and we don't know how many of the twelve months of the engagement had passed, but I'm guessing that when she returned home, she and Joseph were married right away.  Because when Joseph had to leave Nazareth to travel to pay taxes in Bethlehem, he took Mary with him. The couple wasn't allowed to be alone together before they were married. She would never had been allowed to travel with him unless they were man and wife.  And remember that pregnant women seldom went out in public and they wore loose baggy clothing. I wonder if God arranged that Joseph whisk her out of town before the rumor mill began to grind.

            In addition, in the biblical accounts, she was never called foul names later in life. We see no evidence of behind-the-doors whispering to soil her reputation. She never wore a scarlet letter. Somehow, I believe God saved Mary's honor. Otherwise, later when the Pharisees were attempting to discredit Jesus, they would have used this against him constantly, and against his mother and family. But we see no real evidence of this kind of scandal surrounding His birth or that His mother was labeled an unchaste woman. No, God had her back. He protected her the way he protects many women today.

         Why do male pastors so often assume that Joseph and Mary were not yet married when Jesus was born? Probably because of the typical translation of Luke 2:5 which says, "He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." (NIV). However, a better translation of the original language is: Joseph went to Bethlehem "to be enrolled with Mary, the one having been betrothed to him, being pregnant." This small difference makes a big difference to women. I wonder if including capable women on biblical interpretation teams might provide us with more accurate translations?

           Matthew 1:27 provides another clue: "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife." No stalling. As we put these clues together, I think that its far more likely that what Mary feared never materialized because a loving Father intervened and saw to it that her reputation was never tarnished. In that unforgiving culture, this was a big deal!

       Even in our culture, our reputations matter a great deal to most of us too. And some women are drawn to the Lord when they learn that he delights to cleanse them from sexual sin, giving them a second chance to live a chaste life. Maybe this is one reason why the American Church is composed of 60% women and the numbers are higher in many other parts of the world. God cares deeply for women and Mary is just one of many examples.

     Some might say that I'm splitting hairs, but we split a lot of hairs as we attempt to discover theological truth. Maybe this is just one of those truths that has been overlooked because it means more to most women than to men. This might be a good reason to include more women in our biblical discussions and why we need a woman's touch in theology as well as in other realms of life. I'd love to hear more sermons that consider the possibility, even likelihood, that Mary was never labeled a "bad girl" and just as Jesus came to redeem men, his tenderness and protection extends to women too. This marvelous example oozes tender care, the kind that Jesus often showed to women, regardless of their moral standing. I'd love to hear more sermons that reveal this part of the Triune God's character. Today the Church is losing more women than any other demographic. More sermons like that might encourage women to trust Christ and serve together with their brothers for the good of the Church and a broken world. Your thoughts?    

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Sue Edwards

Dr. Edwards is Assistant Professor of Christian Education (Specialization: Women's Studies) at Dallas Theological Seminary and holds degrees from Trinity University, DTS, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is the author of New Doors in Ministry to Women, A Fresh Model for Transforming Your Church, Campus, or Mission Field and Women's Retreats, A Creative Planning Guide. She has 30 years experience in Bible teaching, directing women's ministry, retreat and conference speaking, training teams and teachers, and writing curriculum. Married to David for 34 years, she especially enjoys extended family gatherings and romping with her four grandchildren.

13 Comments

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    Katherine Holloway

    Sue: I completely agree! I’ve

    Sue: I completely agree! I've also wondered why the focus on Mary facing scorn from those in her town. Why would God want his sons mother to have a tarnished reputation? Thanks for the post. I think this does matter a lot!

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    Anonymous

    Sue, you make an excellent

    Sue, you make an excellent point about more intentionally including qualified women on biblical study groups and translation teams. Keep it up! You're in a good position to nudge the Church in this direction.

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    Sandra Glahn

    Another “Bad Girl” Vindicated

    I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis that Mary's reputation probably never suffered for her obedience. Scholars in the past have been much too quick to assign sexual sin, or the accusation of it, to so many women of the Bible. I'm thinking here of Tamar, Bathsheba, the Samaritan woman…. If we believe men and women are different, that means we must value what it means to have all eyes on the text and all parties in the discussion. Thank you! 

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    Kay Stanton

    Christmas Miracle

    I love the Luke 2:5 interpretation from the original language. What was your source?

    Thanks for your insight.

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      Sue Edwards

      Source

      Kay,

      Go to an interlinear Greek-English text, for  example "The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English", page 169. For those who have not studied the original languages, there are marvelous tools out there to help you dig deeper. Enjoy.

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    Anon

    Dear Sue,

    Dear Sue,

    Thank you so much for the article you wrote. I clicked on it because I thought the article title sounded interesting, but as I began to read, I realised it was exactly what I needed to read. For the past months, I have been worrying and stressing about Gods plan for me and after reading this i've realised i don't need to worry. Mary was in a more worse situation than me and God resolved her fears, so all the fears and obstacles i'm worried about, i have no need for them.

    Thank you for showin me that. x

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    Sue Edwards

    So glad the article encouraged you

    Dear Anon, I'm delighted that God's care for Mary blessed you. You are the reason that teaching accurately about women of the Bible is so important. Thanks for your thoughts. I think I'll post about the woman at the well on Friday. Some recent work by women scholars gives us some insight into her story that you might find helpful too. 

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    Sue Bohlin

    My favorite part of your blog post…

    … was this gem: "This small difference makes a big difference to women. I wonder if including capable women on biblical interpretation teams might provide us with more accurate translations?"

    Amen! Preach it, sister! 🙂

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    Sue Edwards

    Thanks

    Appreciate your comment and YOU, Sue. The comment by the hurting woman reinforced why it matters. Blessings.

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    Lael Arrington

    I will raise the lone (so far) question

    Sue, I love a robust, respectful debate. So I offer this with great affection and deference to your greater Biblical scholarship. But I have to say I'm not convinced.

    Per Matt 1:27 I agree that they must have been married before the trip to Bethlehem. But we don't know when the angel appeared to Joseph.

    Mary returned from Elizabeth's three months pregnant. Jesus was born after what was probably about a four-day, 80 mile journey to Bethlehem. Even if they arrived in Bethlehem a month earlier, that still leaves a five month gap.  

    I don't see anything in the text that tells us at what point in that 5-6 months the angel appeared to Joseph. We just know that he found out she was pregnant and was planning to divorce her. And we know that since they were legally bethrothed it would require a divorce to end the relationship.

    We just don't know if he found out when she began to show or when she told him, which could have been before or after she began to show.

    From the text, the trigger to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem was not Joseph's desire to shield Mary from shame, but the providentially inspired call from Rome for a census.

    Even if they got married in month four in a hastily arranged marriage, she would have soon been showing that she was "great with child". So unless they were living in Bethlehem for the final months of her pregnancy it would have been obvious to the home town folks in Nazareth.

    As for your reference to the fact that nowhere in Scripture did critics use any reference to her perceived immorality to discredit either her or Jesus, I have a question there too. It's possible they did use it and the gospels do not record it. Except possibly once.

    In John 8 When Jesus talks about his Father, the Pharisees respond in John 8:39-41, "Abraham is our father."

    Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing what your father did."

    They said to him, "We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father- even God." 

    I'm no NT scholar, but some who are claim that the Pharisees comment here (WE were not born of sexual immorality) is a none too veiled accusation against Jesus being a bastard child. At least it's quite possible.

    As for wanting to believe that God had Mary's back and wouldn't allow her to endure such shame…I don't know. She had to endure that shame in her most important relationship–with Joseph. He did not believe her and we don't know how long he knew, and she had to endure, before the angel set him straight. The angel could have appeared to Joseph earlier and saved Mary that shame and Joseph's tortured grappling with the decision. But  he didn't.

    From the start she had to wrap Jesus up herself and lay him in a manger–an indication that there was no midwife to help her. A feeding trough must have been an extremely disturbing place to lay a baby whom Gabriel had promised would be a King who would rule on David's throne. 

    Simeon told her that because of Jesus a sword would pierce her heart. Before he turned two she would have to run for his life across the border to Egypt to escape the king who wanted to kill her baby. Alone in a foreign country she had to raise Jesus in a strange land far from family where she didn't understand the language.

    From the second half of Jesus' earthly ministry up until his resurrenction all her Magnificat expectations were utterly dashed. Add to that a season of terrible family tension. Her other sons thought Jesus was crazy.  She endured an unspeakable ordeal at his crucifixion.  So clearly God was willing for her to suffer. Given all the pain and disappointment he allowed I'm not so sure he would have protected her from shame and gossip in Nazareth. 

    But the beauty is…God redeemed it all. Even if we add the widely-known shame of an unwed pregnancy to the list. I love this lesson of Mary's life: To whom much is given much is required. And no matter what it required it could never equal what she has been given for eternity. She was right: From now on all generations will honor her and call her blessed. She will always have a uniquely privileged relationship with the King of Kings.

    No doubt through all that sorrow and suffering she drew closer to God in a way she never would have otherwise. And there she is in Acts 1 waiting in hope and joy in the upper room, part of the little band who had the fire and strength to turn the world upside-down.

    Again, Sue, I offer these questions with great respect and an open mind and heart.

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