In the late 1960s, Annie and I had three young daughters ages two, four, and six. The middle one was severely deaf with very limited vision only in her left eye, as well as a rather long list of other challenges. She was a high maintenance child. Annie also found that being the wife of a clergyman demanded her involvement with the parish. Annie needed help!
We were delighted to discover that Catholic Social Services of Hawai’i took in unwed mothers from all over the United States. This organization sought local families willing to feed and house these women, who also received a small stipend for the duration of the pregnancy. After the babies were delivered and adopted, the birth mothers would return home.
This seemed like a perfect solution, so we became a home willing to help unwed moms. It was a great experience for all, and over the years we met some wonderful young women.
Whenever I tell about our experiences with unwed mothers, I think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Why? My reality check says that Mary was an unwed mother, and Jesus was her illegitimate child. Before my readers call my bishop and demand a heresy trial, hear me out—then call the bishop.
My first clue: Saint Paul, Mark, and John never mention a nativity story. The first time we hear one is six or seven decades after Jesus is dead. There is a reason why we have never heard such a story; it has to do with the fact that some Followers of Jesus were working very hard to make Jesus God. A nativity story with divine intervention would take care of the illegitimacy issue.
Luke had the same problem, and he worked even harder to weave a tale that is three chapters long, has lots of divine interventions, and includes a genealogy making Jesus God since the time of Adam.
My second clue has to do with Joseph, the alleged human father of Jesus. The Gospel of John tells us a couple of times that Joseph was the actual father, but we know that John’s Gospel is never to be taken literally. John tells made-up stories wrapped around a truth. In John 1, the prologue, Jesus has been God since before the Beginning. Joseph is simply another character. It is also important to remember that only Matthew, Luke, and John allude to Joseph. Otherwise, he is never mentioned in any of the other New Testament material.
For me, Joseph is a fictional character modeled after the Old Testament Joseph in Genesis who was a very kind, loving human being. Remember the story? Some of his older brothers sold him into slavery (they were jealous that he was his father’s favorite), but, over the years, Joseph became a very important person in Pharaoh’s empire (see Genesis 38). During a severe famine, Joseph gave food to his family, saving them from starvation. In short, Joseph was a kind, loving, forgiving human being. As the Nativity stories were being developed, why not use the name Joseph to be the kind, loving, understanding, forgiving surrogate father for Jesus? The name has positive associations. I think the same can be said of Joseph of Arimathea, the supposed owner of the very costly tomb in which Jesus was buried—but that’s another blog. He too was fictional.
With that background, let me speculate about what could have happened. The first given is that in the time of Jesus women were simply property and were bought and sold like animals. It meant little or nothing for a man to have forced sex with a woman. My take: Mary had been raped by someone, maybe even a family member. It was always the woman’s fault. (What’s new?) However, Mary’s dad would not have been a happy camper because his daughter now became “used” property and not worth much in the marriage market.
Bottom line: To overcome this deficit (illegitimacy), two gospel writers simply made this part of a divine plan and, violà! Jesus is more than legit, he is now God. Quite a promotion!
For me, there’s no problem. Jesus is still my Christ. This poor Middle Eastern Jew, a bastard without education, was executed as a criminal—but in his short lifetime, he had such a strong message that he is responsible for changing the course of civilization. I couldn’t care less who his father was.
Okay! Go ahead and call my bishop—but please let me know what you said to him.