In Defense of Mary

The Head of Mary by Jose de Ribera 1637

Matthew was the first gospel to add a birth story, probably to answer questions about Mary that persisted in ca 100 A.D. Scholars say that Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels, so his birth story is told from Joseph’s perspective. And yet, Matthew subtly makes Mary more important than Joseph, to the point of saying that he is not Jesus’ father.

And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Messiah. Matthew 1:16

That is exactly the birth story Matthew fleshed out.

Now the birth of Jesus…was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child… Matthew 1: 18-19

If Joseph had a Davidic bloodline and had contracted an alliance with a young virgin princess who could bear a contender for the throne…this was a blow…even with her prophecy (See post on The Abuse of the Virgins) that she would be the one to bear such a son…even and especially if the real father was Herodian. Understanding that both Matthew and Luke’s birth stories are quite different, the emphasis in both was put on Mary’s virginity. First, Matthew calls up an old prophecy for a way in the past king that Isaiah tries to cheer up with a prophecy that this particular new young virgin wife (alma) would give bear him a blessed son in the normal fashion:

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Matthew 1:23)…changed to “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS…” (Matthew 1:21)…

Prophecy or not, Mary was found to be pregnant during her betrothal year—a traditional year to test young virgins to make sure they were as advertised before the marriage ceremony. The Essenes, for example…

…try their spouses for three (months); and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them… Wars of the Jews II.VIII.13

Sinning Matriarchs

What Matthew did next was rather brilliant. He speaks directly to his Jewish audience by not denying that Mary was a sinner but puts her in context by adding to his legendary genealogy for Jesus going back to Abraham, four similarly compromised matriarchs of the official bloodline of Israel: Tamar, Rachab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and…Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias…Matthew 1:4-7

Rachab was a harlot and a “strange woman” who saved Hebrew spies in Canaan. Thamar and Ruth pretended to be harlots in order to conceive sons to carry on the line of their dead husbands as required of them by Mosaic law,[i] and “the wife of Urias” was Bathsheba, an adulteress with King David and then queen mother of King Solomon.[ii]  Matthew was saying that Mary’s sin must be forgiven as she was a part of Israel’s bloodline.

Matthew sticks with the King David tie, though, using the terms “king” and “kingdom” more that the others. He has Jesus awkwardly born in Bethlehem to strengthen his claim. I will look at the likelihood of a 2000 year-old Davidic claim alone having any chance at ratification under Roman occupation in a later post. But we are told that King Herod and his son Archelaus try to kill Mary’s baby as if her son had a chance at taking the House of Herod’s sanction by Rome away from them. Matthew even has three wise men bring kingly presents to “the young child with Mary his mother.” Not Joseph son of David, his (supposed) father.

Mary the Sinner

We are accustomed to Mary Magdalene being the sinning women…not Mary. We have learned to compartmentalize what we know about Mary. On the one hand Mary is the ever virgin doing the will of the Lord and on the other hand, an adulteress. (Some have even suggested that the gospel Mary has been divided in two…with Mary the “good girl” and Mary Magdalene the “bad girl. Over time, Jesus was elevated to the level of Augustus Caesar and Alexander the Great who were also “born of a virgin.”  But at the time, (100 years give or take after she gave birth) Matthew wanted us to know that even if she was a sinner, she was the one that the Lord had to work with and so she would just have to be forgiven…and explained.

We saw the Essen view of women as unfaithful and unreliable verging on evil in the last post on Salome. Matthew tried to defend Mary because she was pregnant when she shouldn’t have been. If you have read the posts on Mariamne III, you would understand how that may have come about…because in the real world of an old world harem, even a daughter of King David could be raped for political purposes as Tamar was. I’ve quoted the Essene view of women before but it bears repeating:

They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continues; but they guard against the lascivious behaviour of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man…Wars of the Jews II.VIII.2

What the law and the Essenes deliberately overlook is the fact that virgin princesses obey the king and/or their father. We have seen how a princess can be married off to one man by her father, pulled out of the marriage and immediately married off to another man…for political purposes. But even “feminist” Jesus or his disciples or the gospel writers were hard on “women’s issues,” especially adultery. :

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder…And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.  Matthew 19:6-9

The term “adultery” and “adulterous” were used often by Jesus but Mark went so far as to make adultery the first Commandment:

Thou knowest the commandments, do not commit adultery. Do not kill. Do not steal…Mark 10:9

But then an odd thing happens. Jesus is shown forgiving and defending many often unnamed sinning women. One of my favorite stories in the gospels has Jesus forgiving an adulteress.

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives, and early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down and taught them. And the Scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest though?” This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him…(H)e…said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” … (When all the men had vanished) …he said, unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”  She said, “No man, Lord.”  And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”  John 8:1-11

Please note that the man caught in the “very act” was not present…only the woman. But beloved story or not, scholars do not think that the original Book of John included this story.

Because the story of the adulterous woman is so visual and immediate, many biblical scholars believe that it was a later insertion and did not form part of John’s original gospel. They suggest that it was a particularly popular story about Jesus that for some reasons had not been included in the first three gospels, but was placed in the fourth gospel some time after John had completed writing it, virtually by popular demand.[iii]

The story would have been popular with the women, though. As we will see in later posts, being in Jerusalem and under siege during its last days of the war with Rome in 65-70 A.D. was exceedingly hard on women whose rapes were often seen as “adultery.” I think that women who survived that war would have found Jesus’ rules on adultery too hard to humanely follow so Jesus needed to be shown to be humane on the subject. The date for John’s gospel to be written is still up for debate but any addition could well have been inserted after the war…

The Real Sin of Mary/Mariamne III

When we mortals hear the words “sinning woman,” we immediately think the “sin” is her Lolita-like sexual depravity, and, of course, there is always one to prove the rule. In reality, though, there are other reasons to consider a royal woman a sinner. We will go into them as we go along but the following quote from a Jewish rabbinical source from the time the gospels are being written and both Jews and the new Christians were lobbing blasphemies at each other, condemns Mary for something else…

…Commentators refer to Jesu-ha-Notzri (i.e. Jesus) by mention of the wicked kingdom of Edom (descendent of Herod), since that was his nation…He was hanged on a Passover Eve…He was near to the Kingdom (i.e. in order of succession). Balaam the Lame (i.e. Jesus) was 33 years old when Pintias the Robber (i.e. Pontius Pilate) killed him…They say that his mother was descended from princes and rulers, but consorted with carpenters…[iv]

Joseph is not named, nor a Davidic bloodline mentioned. “She” is not named but is clearly one of the Herodian royal house…which, as we have seen, does not mean she couldn’t have also had Hasmonean royal blood. “She” is not named, nor is her father’s name given to determine her exact royal bloodline…it is still veiled…but they do name her sin. “She” is being condemned for two things: having Herodian royal blood and marrying beneath her station…as if a young virgin princess—especially a Herodian one had any real say over her life….

Comparing the Lives of Mary and Mariamne III

Combining Mary with the Princess Mariamne III and knowing what we know now of the life of royal women and what is expected of them and what can befall them, we are left with three choices from the works of Josephus for how Mary might have become a sinner.”

  1. The Abuse of the Virgins: Herod put his brother Pheroras’ wife (who had a prophecy from “certain Pharisees) on trial for the “abuse of the virgins”—remembering also that in the same time frame Herod put his eunuch Bagoas to death for believing a prophecy “certain Pharisees” made for him that he could father a child who would be the “king to come.”[iii] If the miracle was that Bagoas, though a eunuch, would father a child that could be “the king to come out of his own body begotten”…it would still require a virgin with royal blood to become pregnant with that child. Mariamne and Herodias were those virgins in the harem who were abused and for whom the eunuch had access. Since there is so much fuss about “Mary” and no fuss over Herodias, we can probably assume that it was the Hasmonean Queen’s namesake that got picked for the actual “abuse.”[iv] It has to be why there were so many trials that Mary had to go through.

  2. Antipater was the father: Despite all the above, Mariamne III was betrothed to Antipater son of Herod as a pre-puberty virgin. His demand to be betrothed to her was a political stunt, in my opinion. For one thing, Antipater was in his 50s and already had a pure-blooded Hasmonean daughter of King Antigonus as his wife and mother of his children…children old enough to be in the betrothal wars of the last days of Herod. Everything Antipater was doing in the last years of his father’s reign was to enhance his image with the multitudes who knew he had been behind the execution of the beloved sons of Mariamne the Hasmonean Queen. And, my guess is that Antipater’s reason for wanting Mariamne and not Herodias was that being named Mariamne she would have had a special place in the multitude’s hearts as a reminder of the Queen, her grandmother. The people would have been watching her like a hawk and Antipater could not afford any more bad press by breaking her betrothal year.[v.]

3. The whole “not a virgin” thing was pure propaganda [vi] against Mariamne III and her son whome the right win and even some disciples, would have seen as betraying them…more later…but remember the Jewish slander against Mary quoted above. “They say that his mother was descended from princes and rulers, but consorted with carpenters…”

No mention of Antipater because he was a worthy betrothal for her. He was the Herodian heir to the kingdom, and she was a Hasmonean/Herodian princess. And, as mentioned earlier, if Antipater was smart, he would have waited to consummate the betrothal to a marriage alliance for his own long-overdue coronation…as his father had done with his betrothal to Mariamne I. Herod waited three years, waging war on the Jews and was about to break the siege of Jerusalem—with three Roman legions. (37 A.D.) When he knew he had officially won the war against the last Hasmonean king, and he could officially ride in and declare himself king—that is when he rode off to Samaria to consummate the marriage! That is how you get maximum good will from your virgin princess. Antipater was executed by his father before he could be crowned king…This scenario allows Mariamne III to be a virgin…technically or truly, when betrothed to Joseph…who was not worthy of her bloodline…”a carpenter” and all the rest is propaganda. (See post on The Virgin Prophecy and on A Note on Joseph the Just for how it might have come about.)

There is some confusion in the New Testament about who the carpenter was. Mark actually wrote first that Jesus was the carpenter in Mark 6:3 and DOES NOT mention Joseph at all. Later gospels made Joseph the carpenter. The term “consorted with carpenters,” though, was Mariamne III’s sin…but it was also Mariamne I the Hasmonean Queen’s sin…because she married Herod who was beneath her station and forever tainted the royal bloodline. Both Mariamne’s married beneath their bloodlines, and it was problematic for all the “sons of Mary.”

There were others slanders. I quote this well-known one from Wikipedia:

In the 2nd century, Celsus, a Pagan anti-Christian Greek philosopher, wrote that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. The views of Celsus drew responses from Origen who considered it a fabricated story. Celsus’ claim is only known from Origen’s reply. Origen writes:

“Let us return, however, to the words put into the mouth of the Jew, where ‘the mother of Jesus’ is described as having been ‘turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera’. [vii]

It is thought that the gospel of Mark was written between 70 and 90 A.D., after the devastating Jewish war with Rome in 65-70 A.D. when it was dangerous to be a Jew. By the time the gospel of John was written, those that were now calling themselves Christians and were as much Gentile as Jewish, needed to separate themselves from their dangerous roots. They began to loudly blame “the Jews” for the death of their leader and the Jewish rabbis began to fling a few slanders back at them.

But please note that in all the slanders Mary is the one at fault.


[i] Levirate law: And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. Genesis 38:8 for one. This law will definitely play a role in the New Testament story…more as we go.

[ii] For just one of the women, Rahab the Harlot’s story is at Joshua 6:25. See Hebrews 11:31, By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace….Some think that this New Testament epistle was written to the Essenes. Josephus and the Rabbis also have stories on the rehabilitation of Rahab. Many good books have now been written on these women like The Harlot by the Side of the Road, Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch, Ballantine Books, New York, 1997.

[iii] Women in the Bible

[iv] From Lexicon Talmudicum, Sub “Aranarbel” and Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 51a. quoted from front pages to “King Jesus” by Robert Graves Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1984. Graves is the first one I read who said that Antipater was the father of Jesus and that one of the Mariamne’s was his mother. A current author I like on the subject is Joseph Raymond’s novel “Grandson of Herod,” 2012 and his non-fiction version, “Herodian Messiah, 2010, both books published by Tower Groves Publishing, St. Louis, MO.

[v] Antiquities of the Jews XVII.II.4

[vi] It helps to remember that this was a pre-scientific era and while people were savvy on how girls got pregnant, a lot of superstition and fear of women held the day. Take this story from a later period: “Gemara… If a snake enters a woman, let her spread her legs and place them on two barrels; fat meat must be brought and cast on the burning coals; a basket of cress must be brought together with fragrant wine and placed there, and be well beaten together. They should take a pair of tongs in their hand, for when it smells the fragrance it will come out, so that it can be seized and burnt in the fire, as otherwise it will re-enter. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath 110a
Soncino 1961 Edition, page 536

[vii.] Contra Celsum by Origen, Henry Chadwick 1980 page 32, Patrick, John The Apology of Origen in Reply to Celsus, 2009, pages 22–24

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.