Sorry, Roy Moore. Joseph Wasn’t Twice Mary’s Age. (Politico)

Sorry, Roy Moore. Joseph Wasn’t Twice Mary’s Age.

http://politi.co/2mC1Uve

After allegations broke last week that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had pursued relationships with several (and sexually assaulted at least one) teenage girls some 40 years ago, when Moore was in his early 30s, Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler reached for one of the most reliable weapons in the religious right’s defensive arsenal: the Bible. “Take Mary and Joseph,” Ziegler told the Washington Examiner when he defended the morality of Moore’s conduct on November 9, just hours after the Washington Post story broke. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

But those who ascribe to Ziegler’s reading of Scripture—and many of Moore’s evangelical supporters could be among them—should read more carefully. The Bible offers no evidence that Joseph was older than Mary. “We know virtually nothing about Joseph, and no age is mentioned for either Joseph or Mary in the Gospels,” says Paula Fredriksen, professor emerita of scripture at Boston University, and author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. In fact, according to Jewish law and customs of the day, Mary and Joseph probably would have both been young when they married. “Girls were usually engaged sometime between the ages of 12 and 15, and would be married sometime thereafter, at 15 or 16, and boys would have been 19 or 20,” Fredriksen says.

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But what of the many classic paintings and illustrations, not to mention countless church yard Nativity displays and Christmas cards featuring Joseph as a grey-bearded, almost grandfatherly figure, in contrast to Mary’s eternally glowing, post-natal youth? That has nothing to do with the biblical record, it turns out. The reason for the “superannuation of Joseph” in art and the popular imagination, as Fredriksen puts it, was a later response to early church debates about Mary’s perpetual virginity. If Mary had sexual relations with Joseph, she would lose that pure and chaste status which was foretold in Scripture. So to remove all doubt, theologians aged Joseph.

The controversy over Joseph’s age centers around the issue of Jesus’ siblings, who appear in Mark (6:3) and Matthew (13:55-56). If the siblings were the product of unions between Mary and Joseph, then Mary could not have remained a virgin after her immaculate conception. But many in the church believed that Mary lived as a virgin throughout her life. Her perpetual virginity represented her full and everlasting commitment to being the mother of Christ.

The issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity came to head in the 4th century, around the time the books of the Christian Bible were being assembled. Some heretical bishops—mostly located in the Byzantine East—concluded that the only way to explain Jesus’ siblings was through sexual relations between Joseph and Mary after Jesus had been born. The mainstream church pushed back, with an organized media campaign of texts known to scholars as “Apocrypha.” Among the campaign’s key weapons was a 2nd century Greek document titled the “Protoevangelium of James,” meaning the first gospel of the apostle James. It was one of several “infancy gospels” circulating during the first few centuries CE that did not make it into the final 4th century version of the Christian Bible because they contained teachings inconsistent with Scripture. But the “Protoevangelium of James,” proved useful when pushing the wide generation gap between Joseph and Mary.

In the text, Joseph is described as the now-familiar, elderly partner of Mary: a widower with adult children from a previous marriage, which helped explain away Jesus’ pesky siblings. The elderly saint claims he is not up to the task of caring for a youthful, pregnant wife out of sheer exhaustion, and the potential embarrassment. “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel,” Joseph complains to the high priest. “The Protoevangelium of James was a way of reasserting, in a very emphatic way, the virginity of Mary,” says Princeton University’s Elaine Pagels, professor of the history of religion. It wasn’t the only document that did so. In another early text, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, which was composed in Egypt between the 6th and 7th centuries, Christ himself tells the story of his step-father, claiming Joseph was 90 years old when he married Mary and died at 111.

The theory caught on. During the Middle Ages, Joseph the senior citizen became a stock figure in literature and art. Portrayals of Joseph as old and grey reached their height in Renaissance and Baroque-era paintings, such as Guido Reni’s 1640 “St. Joseph and the Christ Child,” in which a kindly, grandfatherly Joseph cradles the baby Jesus in his arms. Such images were a far cry from the earliest depictions of the saint. In the 5th century mosaics at Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Joseph appears hale and hearty and somewhat buff, in keeping with his stated profession in the Gospels as a tekton, a Greek word which could mean carpenter, but might more accurately be translated into modern English as “construction worker.”

Gradually, in the wake of plague and political turmoil that threatened to tear Europe apart during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, some religious orders started honoring and embracing Joseph as a strong protector and Joseph once again and soon began to regain some of his youthful vigor. St. Teresa of Avila entrusted the spiritual task of reforming the Carmelite order in 16th century Spain to Joseph, dedicating monasteries in his name. In 1729, he was enrolled in the Vatican’s official Litany of Saints,. By 2006, when Hollywood released the film The Nativity Story, Joseph was back as Mary’s near contemporary; Oscar Isaac, then 27 years old played the stepfather of Jesus.

But overall, the myth of the old Joseph has stuck—a historically inaccurate reading of the Bible still evoked by religious conservatives like Zeigler. The irony, though, is that even if one accepts the classic image of Joseph as a geriatric, then comparing Moore to the stepfather of Jesus doesn’t quite work either. The concept of an older Joseph was developed only to underscore his non-sexual relationship with Mary, as opposed to supporting some vaguely moral, May-December romance.

Either way, says Fredriksen, what remains clear to her is that comparing Moore to Joseph not only pushes the envelope: It rips it to shreds. “There is nothing either in the Gospels, or in the apocryphal stories that evolved later, that Joseph ever groped Mary,” she says.

Tom Verde has written about religion for the New York Times and AramcoWorld magazine.

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November 17, 2017 at 07:31AM