In the gospel stories, Mary the mother of Jesus is a humble, devout young woman of her time–which means she has little choice in the matter.
Set aside for a moment any debate about whether the Nativity stories in the Bible are history or mythology or some combination of the two. In either version, Matthew’s or Luke’s, does Mary consent to be the mother of Jesus?
During recent holiday seasons, this provocative question has been hotly argued on both sides, scandalizing conservative Christians. But our modern concept of consent would have been alien and bizarre to the gospel writers. If we could ask one of them to resolve the debate, he might say, “How could a pure young woman not want to be the mother of God incarnate?! What is this consent thing of which you speak?”
Behold, thou shalt conceive.
The New Testament contains two tellings of the nativity story. The story in Matthew doesn’t address how Mary learns about her pregnancy. She is simply “found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
Luke’s more elaborate tale includes an Annunciation scene in which a messenger angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and makes an announcement, “Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Mary asks how this can happen, given that she has yet to “know a man.”
Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
Mary humbly assents, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Later, in a poem patterned on the Hebrew Psalms, she exalts God, saying, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” This poem, now known as the Magnificat, became part of Catholic and Protestant liturgies.
When Christian’s argue that the nativity story includes consent, they typically point to the handmaid line and the Magnificat. But the fact that Luke’s Mary assents to Gabriel’s pronouncement, and then later during her pregnancy expresses wonder and pride, does not mean that the writer sought to convey consent as modern ethicists think of it.
More likely, given gender roles in the Ancient Near East at the time, the author of Luke sought to depict Mary as the archetypal embodiment of a devout and righteous Jewish girl or woman. His Mary recognizes that the glory of a woman is childbearing and that it is not her place to challenge a man or male angel or god in authority over her. When told that she will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and will bear a son of God, she embraces her assigned role willingly and gladly, later expressing pride and gratitude that she will attain the apogee of female accomplishment: being the mother of a great man—or in this case a god-man.
Seeing consent in the Luke annunciation story is anachronism.
When the Bible was written, women didn’t get to decide whether and when to have children. A young woman’s body—and specifically her ability to produce babies—belonged to her father, who then gave her in marriage to a husband, often in exchange for a negotiated bride price or to seal an alliance with another kin group or tribe. (If she was a slave or concubine, both of which Bible writers approved, her reproductive capacity belonged to her master.) In Mosaic law, rape was not a human rights offense but rather a property rights offense, and the father of a raped daughter could demand that the rapist pay a cash settlement and keep the used goods. A woman who voluntarily reduced her value by having sex before marriage could be killed. In other words, female consent was neither a necessary nor sufficient pre-condition for sex or childbearing.
The infancy stories of Jesus found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, are products of their time and culture, and neither of them depicts what most people would now consider informed or free consent. To be clear, this isn’t a question of sexual consent because—unlike some similar stories about gods impregnating human women—the insemination of Mary isn’t described in sexual terms. The question is one of reproductive consent. (Sexual consent and reproductive consent are two different things. A person can agree to have sex but not to have a baby, as in those cases when a partner lies about or sabotages birth control. Conversely, in modern times, a person may agree to reproduce but not to have sex—as when people donate eggs or sperm.)
What is free and full consent?
While we seldom talk about reproductive consent or its opposite, reproductive coercion, two related kinds of consent will be familiar to most people in modern Western culture—”informed consent” for medical procedures or research, and sexual consent. These two are quite different in some ways—for example, medical “informed consent” often requires a written agreement while sexual consent gets communicated verbally and nonverbally. But both also have the purpose of safeguarding personal autonomy, as does reproductive consent, so they offer some insights about how a nativity story with free and full consent might read. In medical and intimate settings, free and full consent generally requires the following:
- Consent precedes the action or event being consented.
- It is a response to a question or inquiry—the person is presented with a choice.
- The person giving consent is of sound mind and capable of understanding what they are saying yes to.
- They have enough information to understand risks and benefits of saying yes or no, as well as other options that may be open to them.
- The person giving consent has time enough, unpressured, to think and ask questions.
- The person giving consent is free, physically and psychologically, to say no.
–They shouldn’t expect that it is going to happen no matter what they say.
–They shouldn’t be afraid that saying no will arouse threats or punishment or withholding of needed care.
–Power differences, authority or dependency between the two parties require extra caution because these can create implicit threats or fears of harm.
- Both parties understand that consent may change over time and agree that consent can be withdrawn when possible.
We often say that consent should sound like an enthusiastic yes! In this regard, the nativity story in Luke comes through. What’s missing is that the conditions for free and full consent are not themselves fully present. The angel does not present an open question, nor does Mary treat his proclamation as such. Her future role is announced, and she responds by humbly referring to herself as a bondservant, a handmaid. One might argue, further, that any young woman raised on the stories in the Hebrew Bible might have ample reason to fear the wrath of God should she choose to say no. But no matter; for Luke’s Mary, saying no is unthinkable.
What if the author of Luke had held the modern idea that female consent is a desired or even necessary part of a righteous impregnation story? Here is how the annunciation might have played out.
An Iron Age Annunciation with Modern Consent
One day God sent his messenger, the angel Gabriel, to a town in Galilee called Nazareth with a message for a maiden who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The maiden’s name was Mary.
So that Mary would not be overwhelmed by the heavenly messenger’s radiant glory, Gabriel adopted the form of an ordinary Jewish woman carrying an earthen water jug [Gabriel minimizes intimidation due to status differential]. When Mary went to fetch water at the town well, Gabriel approached and stood beside her at the well. “Greetings, blessed one!” he said. “You are favored of the Lord, and he is with you.”
Mary looked at the unfamiliar woman, wondering what sort of weird greeting this might be. “I beg your pardon?” she said politely. “I don’t think we have met.”
Gabriel inclined his head. “Gabriella,” he said with a disarming smile. Gabriel had played the role of divine messenger for millennia, ever since that Eden incident, and he had mastered the art of coming across as simultaneously non-threatening and credible to Iron Age humans. He set down his clay jar next to hers and straightened the homespun woolen scarf that covered his hair, save for a few unruly curls much like Mary’s own. Then, with slender but strong female hands, he caught hold of the rope and began lowering the bucket into the well. “Shall we fill your jug first?”
As he hoisted the full bucket, he spoke almost casually. “You know how some people have visions and receive messages from the heavenly realm?”
“Yes,” said Mary.
“Well, I am one of those people, and I came here to the well today because I have a message for you.”
“Me?” said Mary.
“Yes. You have found favor with God,” he repeated.
Mary’s eyes widened. She knew, of course, that the world was full of miraculous signs and wonders, and omens and portents and prophesies. She knew that the God of Israel and other supernatural beings sometimes appeared in visions or dreams to prophets, priests, oracles, witches, magicians, and even ordinary people. But as a young woman just barely come of age, she had never experienced these things herself.
“Would you like to know my message?” Gabriel asked, and Mary nodded.
“Ok,” said Gabriel. “Here it is: Yahweh has decided to create a son who will be both god and man. His name will be Jesus.” He paused and then recited, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” He paused again and added, “Full disclosure: First he has to become a replacement for all of the pigeons and goats and sheep and cattle that are sacrificed in the temple for the forgiveness of sins. So, at age 33, he will be tortured and killed by the Romans and will rise from the dead [Gabriel candidly gives both pros and cons].
“If you are willing, God would like for you to be the woman who bears this child.” [He poses the proposition as a voluntary choice.] But God will continue to bless you and honor your righteousness whether you choose or not to bear this child. [He explicitly addresses any sense of threat based on Yahweh’s violent history].
“Do you have any questions?”
It was all a bit much for Mary to take in. She stared blankly for a moment, the water jugs forgotten. Then she blurted the first that came to mind, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She blushed, awkward now, and her fingers clutched at the folds of her robe as if to hide.
“How old are you?” Gabriel asked.
“Thirteen,” answered Mary, “and betrothed by my father to Joseph. Of the house of David.”
“Ah,” said Gabriel. Her question about virginity wasn’t the first he would have asked under similar circumstances. Maybe Why me? Why now? Why can’t we just keep sacrificing goats and sheep? How does it work for someone to be a god and a human? But he knew that this concept loomed large in her culture, which is why young women got married off as soon as they were sexually mature. She must be just on the cusp.
He wondered fleetingly why Yahweh had chosen such a young person to make such a big decision, but he didn’t question God, not even for a second. After all, he and every other angel in heaven remembered how God had reacted when Lucifer started challenging God’s authority. Lucifer’s rebellion was the reason Gabriel had this job.
Drawing his attention back to Mary, he assured that her virginity was no barrier. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Seeing doubt still on her face, he offered a bit of evidence. “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son. She was said to be barren, but this is the sixth month for her. You can see for yourself. With God, nothing is impossible.”
That had been skepticism, right? Or was it fear? Perhaps the word “overshadow” had been a bit strong.
“It won’t hurt,” he said gently, “At least not the getting pregnant part. Do you have any other questions?”
Mary floundered, more than a little overwhelmed. I can’t say no to Yahweh, she thought. Out loud, she said, “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”
But Gabriel shook his head gently. “God does not ask this of you as his servant or slave, but rather of your own free will. [He clarifies that despite the power difference she has a real choice]. Take as long as you need to decide—he will know when you have chosen. [She is not pressured]. I would suggest given your age that you ask your father, but he would then be compelled to make the decision for you, so you will have to decide on your own.
“And don’t worry about your fiancé. If you choose to go forward, God’s messengers will have ways to bring him along.”
Gabriel helped the dazed Mary lift the full water jug to her head and watched as she scurried back down the dusty path toward town and her father’s house, checking over her shoulder at the figure by the well. He lifted his own water jug and waved with his one free hand, vanishing into thin air only after she was out of sight.
Mary continued down the dusty path and through the cobbled streets, her head spinning. “Was that real?” she asked herself. “Or was it a dream?” She wasn’t entirely sure. But somehow that felt okay, because a different and even more novel question occupied her mind: What do I want? If it were real, if this choice really were mine, would I want to do it?
Having returned to his ethereal form, Gabriel watched from on high, reading the possibilities that ran through her imagination. He smiled to himself. He had done his job; and when Mary made up her mind, Yahweh would be the first to know.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author ofTrusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
love it! and…since “free-will” is always the BIG Christian response to why we either “choose heaven” or “choose hell” it makes perfect sense that a god would NEVER impose himself or force himself upon anyone, and especially a young 13 year old girl !
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Should we get too upset? Both Jesus and Mary are likely myths. If they were real, most, if not all, of the stories about them are myths. Do we get upset at the adventures of Thor or Zeus?
Hi Joey – I don’t think we should get upset at all, because the Jesus and Mary of the Bible are definitely mythicized even if the stories were superimposed on the lives of real people. I do think that looking at old myths from new angles can get us to notice messages or dynamics that otherwise operate below the level of consciousness. And when we notice them with our rational minds, then we are more free to make our own choices about how we ourselves want to live.
I agree with you considering the fact that we have made movies and TV shows out of them, name cars, planes, and spaceships after them, have statues and pictures of them and study them in school.
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Lol. I had to think about that for a moment.
Good one Valerie Pat
This is a bit of a side issue, but from our 21stC western perspective, it’s not always understood how important having male children was, and still can be, in many cultures. Female babies have been exposed in their millions for centuries in China for example. (Sons were needed to keep the crops growing on subsistence farms to keep parents from starving in old age). I’ve met islamic women over the years desperate to have sons, not daughters to please their husbands. When fundy, I used to wonder if Mary felt really happy because she was being guaranteed a son, as opposed to a completely useless drain on the family finances that a daughter was.
That’s a good point. People talk about the ratio of males to females in China as a function of sex-selective abortion. I wonder what the ratio was in centuries past.
In 2006, I went to China to help a friend adopt a girl baby, so read as much as I could. There’s a famous poem apparently, many centuries old that says something like ‘Cradle a son in silk and satin, cradle a daughter on grass and soil’. Early x-tian missionaries spoke of often seeing corpses of baby girls, or handicapped boy children in town middens. Around 2006, it was suggested the ratio gap would be so big by 2020 that China might well go to war – it would need vast amounts of oil by then from its neighbours. The large surplus of testosterone-filled young men, who in previous times would be settling down to raise a family, would make excellent soldiers. Fortunately that hasn’t proved true, the gender-imbalance has eased as girls have gained value, they can leave their peasant homes and earn as much money in city factories as men which is sent home to support parents in their old age. So women have some ‘equality’ or value now – and the one-child policy no longer operates, but obviously, in past centuries no one knows how many millions of females were exposed or smothered at birth and thrown onto rubbish heaps! And those who survived, apparently were told the old proverb that a woman should ‘Obey her father, obey her husband, obey her son.’ Which sounds a pretty miserable existence for untold numbers of women through many centuries!
I hadn’t heard that poem about exposing female infants. One thing abortion foes seldom realize is that abortion and contraception, if you look at the trajectory of human history, have at least in part been replacements for infanticide. That is true for unwanted females, for families with limited ability to care for another child, and for flaws in reproduction leading to birth defects.
I like this re-imagining of the tale, especially where Gabriel remembers how he got his job in the context of Lucifer’s rebellion. This kind of seals the fate of ‘informed consent’ in my opinion. Of course, the conclusion – when Mary made up her mind, Yahweh would be the first to know – is renderd non-sensical in that Yahweh is omniscient and knows what she is going to do anyway!
CONCEPTION OF JESUS.
Do you think that Mary and Joseph should have remembered the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Jesus? You would naturally think that when a woman goes through a unique conception, that she would remember it, and that the man who’s wife became pregnant while they were engaged, without any effort on his part, that he would remember it also. It is not something he would easily forget. Yet the gospel writers seem to have strange memory lapses.
According to Luke 2: 42-50, Mary finds Jesus in the temple, she chastises him for causing so much trouble, whereby he replied “Why is it that you are looking for me? Did you not know that I must be concerned with the affairs of my father”. Luke’s gospel adds, “and they (Mary and Joseph) did not understand the saying that he (Jesus) spoke to them.” Mary does not understand, Joseph does not understand, If Mary and Joseph were both visited by angels before the birth of Jesus, how is it that they don’t understand, some twelve years later. Has Mary forgotten that Jesus was supernaturally conceived in such a way as was never experienced by any other person? Is it unlikely that Mary would forget Elizabeth saying to her? “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” “And why is this (granted) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” Luke 1:42-43, and especially Mary’s own words. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour. For he has looked upon the humble state of his slave girl, for, behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the mighty one has done great things to me, and holy is his name.” Luke 1:46-49,
After all of this Mary does not know what Jesus meant when he said that he must be concerned about the affairs of his father. How could Mary and Joseph forget that the wise men Magi worshipped Jesus as a baby and presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Matthew 2:11, They also seemed to forget how an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to go to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Matthew 2: 13, and that Herod slew all of the children two years of age or under in Bethlehem. Matthew 2: 16. How could they forget that, (apart from the fact that it fulfilled scripture,
Hosea 11:1) Why did they have to flee to Egypt ? Did they go to Egypt? According to Luke 2: 39, they went to Nazareth and were not in the dangerous area of Bethlehem, where it is alleged that Herod had the children slain. This creates another problem Herod died four years prior to when the church originally stated that Jesus was born.
Perhaps Matthew’s placing them in Egypt to fulfill scripture was too quick for Joseph and Mary to remember, for Luke 2: 22, has them in Jerusalem for forty days after the birth to fulfill Leviticus 12:1-8, and then in Luke 2:39, they return to Nazareth. They also seemed to forget how the shepherds, made known the saying which had been told to them about this child, Luke 2: 17. Mary and Joseph even forgot, how they marveled ten months after the angelic visitations, that is, one month after the event surrounding Jesus birth.
At that time they were already surprised when Simeon and Anna, the daughter of Phanvel, spoke of Jesus future while he was yet still an infant. Luke 2:25-38.
If these events are historical, why is it that later, during Jesus active period, no one, not even his family, seem to know of his marvelous origins, Matt.13: 54-55, If a conception took place would not Mary have some idea just as to who Jesus was? Would not she reveal this information to her family? Yet we find that Jesus relatives, who came to seize him, Mark 3:21,31, are not told by Mary his mother, who comes and joins them, that contrary to what they think, Jesus is not crazy.
The gospel of John states “For neither did his brothers believe in him” John 7: 5, Did Mary not inform the rest of her children of Jesus divine origins. It is hard to understand that Mary would not inform them that Jesus was the “messiah” so that they might believe in him and thereby enjoy salvation, and what of Mary’s own reaction towards Jesus. In the few appearances that Mary herself makes in the gospels, during the lifetime of Jesus, there is no indication that she showed any understanding that her son Jesus, was the “son of God.” by means of a unique conception. Mark 3:31-35, John 2:3-4. She, Mary revealed no such understanding to his followers.
Jesus earlier followers said that Jesus became the “Son of God” through the resurrection and they never mentioned a unique conception. Paul declared Jesus to be “Son of God” with power, by the resurrection from the dead. Romans 1: 4, see also Acts 13: 33, Where Psalm 2: 7 is applied to the resurrection.
The doctrine of a unique conception seems to have no effect upon Christian teaching prior to its mention in the last part of the first century.
On the basis of New Testament records it is doubtful that Jesus family, or the early believers, and most of all, even Mary herself did not know about the unique conception she is alleged to have undergone.” Did you not know that I must be concerned with the affairs of my Father?” Strange as it may seem, Mary and Joseph did not know it. They did not know it because they had never heard of their son’s “miraculous conception”. It appears that the unique miraculous conception came into circulation long after the deaths of the people in this story.
Jim. Lee. 9/99.
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“They shouldn’t be afraid that saying no will arouse threats or punishment …-Power differences, authority or dependency between the two parties require extra caution because these can create implicit threats or fears of harm.” Gee, a young Jewish girl raised on tales of how almighty God destroyed disobedient mankind with a flood, sent down fire and brimstone on disobedient cities, ordered his people to wipe out the disobedient including women and children, and filled the Law and the Prophets with warnings of dire consequences for disobedience – of course she could freely consent without fear of repercussions. NOT! But as you point out people in that culture had no concept of consent for women as we appreciate it today, and thank goodness we are finally addressing the issue.
I’ve always been amused by the way some modern people simply assume that what they have been exposed to is the way things have always been, forever into the distant past. The fact is that not all cultures (now and in the pat) regard women in this way. But this way of thinking is so entrenched in our culture that even when we see the evidence in front of us, we often fail to recognize it. Europe was not always a male dominated society, even within the modern era. The middle east was not always a male dominated society, as old writings show. Most Native American cultures had far more respect for women than the European settlers, and most still do. My son-in-law’s people were led by the Council of Women, which still exists. In my nation, women are the clan leaders who must be consulted for any major decision, and it is the mother who determines the clan of the children. Not until there was an “election” rigged by the BIA was there a man who led the people, and he was a puppet. That has recently changed, when the people decided that they wanted to go back to the ways that worked best for them. Maybe good to open one’s eyes and mind, set aside assumptions, and look at the societies that have always recognized and honored women’s place in the world.