Opinion

Did early Christians believe that Mary was a teenager? It’s complicated

Jesus, Joseph and Mary. Photo via Barta IV on Flickr

(The Conversation) — On Nov. 13, a fifth Alabama woman came forward to accuse Roy Moore, former judge and current GOP Senate candidate, of sexual assault when she was 16.

Condemnation of Moore has been widespread, but Moore himself vehemently denies these allegations. He has backing from many in Alabama.


RELATED: Conservatives defend Roy Moore — invoking Joseph, Mary and the Ten Commandments


One of his most controversial statements of support came from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who declared, “There’s nothing immoral or illegal here… Maybe just a little unusual.”

Zeigler went on to appeal to the Christian story of Mary and Joseph:

“Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

I find the allegations against Moore repulsive. But, in addition, as a scholar of early Christianity, Zeigler’s remarks took my breath away. As most Christians would know, an important tenet of Christian theology is that Jesus was born of a virgin mother.

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.
AP Photo/Hal Yeager

However, there are many other little-known details in early Christian storytelling about the relationship between Mary and Joseph that I learned while researching my book, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: Family Trouble in the Infancy Gospels.” Early Christians believed that Mary and Joseph did not have sex, but there was much more that was worth learning from that relationship.

Listen up, Jim Zeigler.

The gospel narratives

The Christian Bible includes four gospels, or narratives, of the life of Jesus. Two of them, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, include accounts of Jesus’s birth. These two versions of the “Christmas story” supply almost all of the details about Mary and Joseph that can be found in the Christian Bible.

In Matthew 1-2, readers learn about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, or “wise men,” to see the newborn and the flight of the holy family to Egypt in order to escape King Herod’s killing of infants. Luke 1-2 describes the birth of John (the cousin of Jesus), an imperial census under the Roman Emperor Augustus and the appearance of angels celebrating the birth of Jesus in the skies above Bethlehem.

Both the gospels seem to agree that Mary conceived by supernatural means, not through sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, whatever Zeigler claims, neither the Gospel of Matthew nor the Gospel of Luke specifies the ages of Mary and Joseph.

The Proto-gospel of James

The earliest source to mention ages is another ancient Christian gospel: the Proto-gospel of James. This gospel is a prequel to the more familiar stories of the first Christmas found in the Christian Bible. It was written in the second century A.D., a hundred years or so after the gospels of the Christian New Testament. Critically, it is mostly unknown to Christians because it is not found in their Bibles.

Even so, the Proto-gospel of James is an important witness to the things that mattered to early Christians. The relationship of Mary and Joseph is one of them.

The Proto-gospel of James tends to fill in gaps left by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This, for example, is where readers can learn about the parents of Mary – Joachim and Anna – and about the divine intervention that leads to Anna’s conception of Mary.

This gospel also recounts the story of when Mary met Joseph, details absent from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In this telling, Joseph, an elderly widower, is chosen by lottery to take care of Mary, who is 12 years old at the time.

Like the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Proto-gospel of James reports that Mary does not conceive through sexual intercourse. She receives news from the angel Gabriel that she will become pregnant and bear a son, Jesus. But the Proto-gospel of James’s account adds a new wrinkle: Mary forgets about her encounter with the angel. When she realizes that she’s pregnant, she’s overcome with fear and confusion. Joseph is likewise confused by Mary’s pregnancy. He nevertheless remains loyal and protects the 12-year-old girl. He takes her to a cave outside of Bethlehem. Soon there is a blinding flash of light. As it recedes, a child appears.

Jesus has arrived.

Familiar and unfamiliar

New Testament.
Burns Library, Boston College Follow, CC BY-NC-ND

Some of these details will be familiar to readers of the New Testament: the town of Bethlehem, for example, and the angelic announcement to Mary – the Annunciation – that she will become pregnant.

Other details, however, will come as a surprise: Wasn’t Jesus born in Bethlehem, and not, as the Proto-gospel of James reports, outside of Bethlehem in a cave? And what about the story of how Mary met Joseph? The Proto-gospel of James adds to and changes elements of the earlier accounts of Matthew and Luke.

And then there are details that some Christians know from their religion that other Christians do not. Most Orthodox and Roman Catholics, for example, know the names of Anna and Joachim, the parents of Mary, even though they do not include the Proto-gospel of James in their Bibles. Most Protestant Christians, by contrast, will be unfamiliar with these figures.

In fact, the Proto-gospel of James is just one example of a wide range of gospels and other early Christian writings that are not included in the Christian Bible. The storytelling about the holy family alone could fill a bookshelf: There is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the History of Joseph the Carpenter. Written at different times in different places, these accounts reflect the early Christian fascination with the household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Love is not predatory

Holy family with the lamb.
Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

One final observation that is relevant to Jim Zeigler’s comments: The Proto-gospel of James goes a step further than the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in making the point that there was no sexual contact between Mary and Joseph.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph overcomes personal anxiety about Mary’s pregnancy. In the Proto-gospel of James, the pregnancy of Mary becomes a matter of public scrutiny: Both Mary and Joseph must drink the “water of refutation,” a life-and-death ordeal designed to test the truth of their claims of not having had sex with one another. Both pass the test.

But the Proto-gospel of James is not just a story about the virginity of Mary, nor is it just about Joseph’s lack of involvement in the conception of Jesus. Mostly, it is a story about two people being swept up in events that they do not understand.

Together, Mary and Joseph risk everything despite not knowing what it all means. Amid the chaos, they learn to lean on each other. While Mary and Joseph do not, according to the Proto-gospel of James, have a physical relationship, they do love one another.

The ConversationAnd love should not be compared to the predatory behavior alleged against Roy Moore.

(Christopher A. Frilingos is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

About the author

Christopher A. Frilingos

83 Comments

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  • And why does the Gospel of James, which no Christians have ever accepted as authentic, take precedence over the canonical Gospels? Re Mary being a young teenager, the best way to make an educated guess is to look at courtship and marriage in the culture of the day. I think she probably was in her early teens. But that is not related to the more serious allegations against Moore. The guy is creepy, and the allegations are more credible than the denials.

  • Question for Evolutionists………………………..when a girl begins her menstrual cycle, is she still too young to have children?

  • Why are the allegations more credible than the denials? I don’t know anything about the women, but I know that Moore dated and MARRIED a woman significantly younger than him, and they’ve been, by all accounts, happily married for thirty-three years.

  • I see, because others have been proven in the wrong, therefore Moore must be in the wrong. Of course, false accusations never happen so the character and history of the accusers can be dismissed as unimportant and Moore’s guilt can be assumed.

  • (a) The Washington Post sought the four women’s accounts, not the other way around, (b) several of the women are Republicans, the allegedly molested one voted for Trump, and (c) Moore’s thing for younger girls was well known in Alabama for decades.

  • Biologically she may be old enough. Emotionally and mentally, probably not. See MTV’s “16 And Pregnant” or TLC’s “Unexpected” to learn more. This has nothing to do with evolution.

  • Nope. Not what I am saying at all. I am saying that the appearance of a happy, loving marriage is Just that, an appearance. We live in a culture that makes celebrity a value, and promotes the idea that being seen by large numbers f people is equivalent to knowing those people.

    My parents were married for 43 years. Happiness wasn’t really part of the equation.

  • I suspect that most accounts of Mary were probably legendary. It’s quite telling that the oldest gospel Mark does not mention the nativity at all.

  • She is capable of becoming pregnant but that doesn’t mean her body is developed about to safely give birth.

    But whether or not someone accepts evolution doesn’t matter there.

  • More time wasted on the life of a 1st century CE preacher MAN and his mother whose bodies rose many centuries after their deaths in a cloud of Palestinian dust.

  • I suppose then, according to evolutionary theory, eventually either girls will have their menstrual cycle later in life; or that the emotional/intellectual capacity will one day match up.

  • So if you denied the Hindus claim that Brahman created the universe, you would be an evolutionist.

  • Did you read what I wrote? If not a Creator (doesn’t matter what religion) then Evolution is the only explanation for humankind……or the animals, trees earth etc.

  • Does Humanist Philosophy have an explanation for the creation of the planet…animals, man etc., etc.? Just curious.

  • humanist principles are not meant to offer any such explanations…that would be the job of science. Kind of like asking “Does stamp collecting have an explanation for the physiology of the duck-billed platypus.

    Let’s return to your definition of evolutionist now that we have dealt with this side issue.

    So if you denied the Hindus claim that Brahman created the universe, you would be an evolutionist..correct?

  • No, that has nothing to do with evolutionary theory.

    Perhaps instead of pretending you know anything about one of the most well established scientific theories, you could learn something about it first.

  • You are committing the Fallacy of the False Dichotomy. There could be several explanations for how life arose on earth.

    Evolution as a model does not address how life arose on earth..it only deals with the observable changes in allele frequencies via natural selection. A god could be involved. A god could not be involved (a Deist version) or god could simply not exist.

    Evolution makes no claims about gods.

  • Thanks for the compliment! But..I may be misunderstanding your position so for clarity sake, please provide your alternative explanation and the data that backs it up. If strong..I will support you for a Nobel Prize!

  • Which is why Evolution is an atheistic religion rather than actual science. Planning, purposefulness, teleology, goal-directedness — Evolution denies the existence of ANY of these qualities at ANY time in the biological world around you.

    Why? Because they all imply intelligence and design, just like they do for human engineers. Not even a deistic, gone-on-vacation God is allowed, because even a deistic deity does a little planning and design.

  • Evolution is a scientific theory, not a religion.

    I’m sorry, you don’t seem to understand science or the theory so far.

  • Wait. You ask a question, people directly and simply answer the question, and your response is “whatever.” You remind me of my son around middle school when he didn’t like my answer.

  • No planning is the opposite of what I do when I endeavor to cook, though many accidents may occur, my actions are very intentional.

  • The Birmingham News reports:

    A Gadsden woman says Roy Moore groped her while she was in his law office on legal business with her mother in 1991. Moore was married at that time. In the past week, Moore has been accused by five other women of a range of behaviors that include sexual misconduct with a woman when she was 14, and sexual assault of another when she was 16. This is the first public accusation of physical contact that happened after Moore was married.

  • The information I have been given says that evolutionists believe that life occurred in the same sequence that is narrated in Genesis (plants first, aquatic animals next, then land animals, and finally people); that the chief difference between the creationist view and the evolutionist view is that creationists say it happened by deliberate plan, while evolutionists say it happened fortuitously.

    I further understand that, while creationists maintain that the process was a deliberate plan, they do not go into details as to the mechanics of how it was done.

    Unless and until there is an empirical test for the existence or non-existence of Deity, there will continue to be back-and-forth …

  • Actually the age has dropped since 1860 – doubt it would be easy to pull data much beyond that point. It was believed that the older age was in response to poor nutrition and infection. It is a phenomenon also seen in the daughters of immigrants where they have relocated to a more prosperous location.

    On the other side of the coin, the average age of childbirth was 30.3 in 2015. Women over the age of 40 had more babies than those under 20.

    As well over the same time frame, the period of adolescence lasts 3 times longer. These are examples of adaptation to the environment, which does not necessarily lead to changes that are evolutionary. And I am sure there is someone who has more than a basic knowledge of this, so feel free to correct.

  • Hard to have a discussion with people who lack a little humility. I don’t ever proclaim to know everything. I have a hard time having a conversation with those who are so “certain” of things unseen and never fully ‘knowing’. What else is there to say to such a dogmatic statement.

  • Scientific theories do not incorporate unnecessary or unsupported ideas, which is why they are not religions.

  • I taught middle school for a year. I was shocked at how early boys were developing as well. Many speculate the food industry has something to do with that. Crazy days indeed.

  • I have also read that, because food is so loaded with preservatives, corpses are taking longer to decompose.

  • My understanding:
    Each month, the ovaries release an ovum and the lining of the uterus prepares to receive a zygote (the fertilized ovum) if one is formed.
    If a zygote does not implant itself in the lining of the uterus within a certain time, the uterus rejects its lining, which exits the body via the vagina. This discharge is called menstruation.
    The fact that a girl is menstruating means that she is ovulating, and is biologically able to become pregnant. If she is not fully-grown, she and the baby may be physically harmed by the pregnancy — either or both might not survive the pregnancy or the delivery.
    … and that is my understanding.

    My opinion: The power of procreation is not to be taken lightly, nor is it a fit subject for humor.

  • You didn’t answer my question. Why are their allegations more credible than Moore’s denials? What made Clinton’s accusers more credible than his denials?

  • My parents were married for 45 years, only marriage for both, and happiness was definitely part of the equation — to the point that years after my father’s death the last verse of Brad Paisley’s “Waitin’ on a Woman” could choke her up. There are happy marriages out there, and I haven’t seen any report to indicate that the Moores’ marriage isn’t exactly that. Have you?

    So I’ll ask again, why are the allegations more credible than Moore’s denials?

  • (a) the fact that the women were convinced to go public doesn’t tell us why, (b) Republicans are in the middle of a civil war, and considering the revelations of Trump’s own abuse of women during the campaign I’d say that the accuser’s willingness to vote for him anyway actually works against her rather than for her, and (c) I already pointed out that Moore’s “thing” for DATING older girls / younger women is well evidenced by the fact that he MARRIED one — not exactly the behavior of a sexual predator. Especially considering that the women that have said they dated him seem to have had no complaints about his behavior while on the dates.

  • Multiple accusers, corroborated by witness whom They told about it at the time. Once would be an aberration. five times, not to mention the being banned from a mall, and it begins to smell like smoke.

    This is what I wrote in another RNS article on Moore.

    “I understand what you mean exactly. I don’t really care all that much about 40 year old abuse allegations, though I do think they speak to his character or lack of same. But that is more than amply spoken to by his much more recent activities.

    I think what really gets my ire is that now we find out what is really hiding behind the cloak of religiosity. And there is always something hiding behind it. And the excuses being made for him are perhaps the most disgusting of all. I mean, really!!!! Joseph and Mary?

    8% of Alabama voters are undecided about whether it is better to vote for a creepy pedophile or a Democrat. It says worlds about where we are in this country. But then, so does Trump.”

    I have no idea if he is guilty or innocent of what he is accused of. There is ample reason to oppose him regardless. But it wouldn’t surprise me, for the reasons outlined, to think that he is exactly what he appears to be.( For the record, I thought to same thing of Kevin spacey, I always thought there was something creepy about him).But I do note that a lot of people are questioning the wisdom of supporting him. And a lot of people are going to absurd lengths to protect him.

    I hope that answers your question.

  • I left this out. I would note that even some of his defenders, especially the jEsus and Mary guy, seem to believe that the allegations are true. Make of that as you will.

  • Moore hasn’t directly and unambiguously denied any of it, was unwilling to address the allegations in public and had a history of abusing authority. His accusers went to actual news sources to disclose it were willing to subject themselves to public questioning, scrutiny and retaliation.

    Clinton’s accusers have not held press conferences, told reporters or subjected themselves to public scrutiny. It is entirely rumors given life on partisan trolling media.

  • There is no such thing as an evolutionist. Evolution is a scientific theory accepted on the basis of evidence and research accrued. It is not believed, it is established and proven.

    Creationism is not an actual belief either. It is simply a rhetorical argument used to deny personal faith and try to browbeat people into accepting protestant Christian belief. Dishonesty incarnate.

    All creationists are liars by nature. (You even lied about the sequence of events in Genesis)

    They deny personal faith is the basis for belief to pretend it is based on rational methods.

    Until certain protestants can be more honest about their belief and more trusting in faith, creationism will exist.

  • Assuming that by “evolutionists” you mean “the fossil record”, then nope. It was bacteria. Then more bacteria. Then algae. Then mass extinction (Great Oxygenation event). Then aquatic invertebrates. Then mass extinction (End Ordovician). Then fish and land plants. Then mass extinction (Late Devonian). Then land animals. Then mass extinction (End Permian). Then dinosaurs. Then mass extinction (End Triassic). Then birds and more dinosaurs. Then mass extinction (End Cretaceous). Then the rise of mammals. Then primates. Then a clear progression of hominids. Then modern humans.

    That’s more of a Rube Goldberg machine than a plan. In the words of King Alfonso X, “If the Almighty had consulted me before embarking on the task of creation, I would have recommended something simpler”.

  • Most American atheists have been raised in a church and read the Bible and joined a youth group. We know what Christianity is. Preaching to us is not productive. If you want to discuss our beliefs, then please learn what we believe. Read a book about evolution, study what the Big Bang is, find out why people believe in these things. You don’t have to believe, but understanding the other side does help move a conversation forward. Personally, I read a lot of books, about Judaism or Islam or Christianity, because it helps to understand where people are coming from. I’m a liberal, but I check out Fox News and Breitbart so I can understand the talking points of the right.

  • Just as you are frustrated and or confused as to the myriad of theological interpretations (as I am btw..), I too am confused and or frustrated with the variety of explanations/interpretations of “creation” from a non-religious perspective. I am the first to admit that my belief in a Creator, and an after-life is one of “Faith”. Let us define ‘faith’ as a belief in that which is unseen. I don’t have direct proof — I have never seen God nor touched the hands of His Son. Just as Scott Peterson’s murder of his wife was never witnessed, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to have an ‘opinion’ of his guilt. I just wish those who believe in Evolution would also admit as I do that they also believe in “faith”. I wonder if you will. And I apologize for public, or widely accepted “Christianity” down through the ages. Probably why my faith is as strong as it is, because this reality is just another confirmation of what the Scriptures reveal. Peace to you.

  • You needn’t apologize for what other people do, even when they are in your in-group. Bad people exist in every group ever formed. That’s just the way people work. Some of us have a tendency to believe the best in others and some take advantage of that. None of us seem to do particularly well when we have power over others. The only way any group can protect themselves from bad people is to put in safeguards. Religions, not just yours, tend to believe they have a monopoly on morality and therefore don’t need safeguards and they tend to believe in a strict authoritarian structure, which allows some people to have a lot of power over others. And then you end up with child sex abuse in churches and church members killing gay people and women being molested. As soon as churches institute policies that protect members from those with power over them, much of the horrible things done in the name of the church will stop.

    There is unlikely to ever be proof of any god. Evidence would be helpful. However, none of the evidence I’ve seen to date stands up to the light. Consequently, faith is necessary to believe, and I don’t have faith.

  • I am not a scientist, but I would suspect those were cultural changes. I don’t think we often get noticeable evolutionary changes over a couple of hundred years.

  • You got it – may not have made my point clear with respect to Roy’s comments re: evolution – that we also adapt to our environment. Adaptation and evolution are linked but not the same. Evolution is a new species. Changes in menstrual cycle onset is not an example of evolution.

  • I guess I find it interesting that everyone assumes Mary was a teenager, but Joseph had to be a much older man. A Jewish boy is bar mitzvahed at 13 because that’s when he becomes a man accountable under the law. Boys would have been apprenticed out at a young age (single digits) to learn a trade like carpentry, so it’s entirely possible–Proto-gospel of James not withstanding–Joseph might not be much older than Mary.

  • I haven’t heard of a single witness that the women accusing Moore of sexual assault told at the time. And it isn’t “five times” — there are only two involving claims of attempted sexual assault of underage minors, both of which Moore has adamantly denied and one of which might involve a forged signature in her yearbook.

    Beyond that, there is one that accused him yesterday of groping her in his office when she was twenty-eight … and again, she didn’t tell anyone about it at the time. Moore hasn’t responded to this yet.

    Of the five left, three involve dates with young women of legal age, with nothing of a sexual nature occurring. Moore says he doesn’t remember dating the seventeen- and one eighteen-year-old, but does remember knowing them at around that time. He denies ever supplying alcohol to a minor. The “accusation” of a date by the second eighteen-year-old was made just last night, AFAIK Moore hasn’t responded yet.

    The last two involve dates that according to the women themselves didn’t happen, and AFAIK Moore hasn’t responded specifically to either. But one of them is a woman that was twenty-two at the time, which might have been the same age as Moore’s future wife when he met her (married when she was twenty-four, I’m guessing a year for the wedding and a year for dating before that).

    So basically, I think we can set the latter five to the side — whether they happened or not, they were dates. You and I might find them a little weird but when we’re supposed to just ignore whatever consenting adults get up to in the bedroom, how much more for just dating?

    So that leaves the two, what do you know about their character and history to counterbalance Moore’s thirty-three years of apparently happy, faithful marriage? Especially for such a serious charge as this — considering the damage that would be inflicted on Moore’s reputation and career, I would hope you’d want solid proof.

    (As an aside, that reference to Joseph and Mary that was made? That may have been intended to apply to the age of the women Moore was dating, not the two that accused him of trying to rape them as minors. That would actually make some kind of sense, even if the obvious answer is “We don’t live in Judea in the time of Jesus.”)

  • The author has an obligation to contextualize this so called “Proto-Gospel of James” but he must of forgot. The writing is considered by the Church and informed Historians as non-canonical, pseudepigrapha, which means false author, he also uses apocrypha, that’s small a, as in opposite to Deuterocanonical Apocrypha, whch means second canon. The “proto-gospel of James” is a non-scriptural, nonauthoratative work of heretical fiction by someone who stole St. James name, to gain influence, enjoy!

  • It would be fairly easy to prove the existence of God. However, it would require God’s cooperation, which is doubtful. Simply ask God for a list of the dates and times of the next 10 major world earthquakes and their strengths. If the list proves to be correct, then God would have a scientific knowledge far in advance of humanity, which is one definition of a God.

    However, I don’t see any test to disprove the existence of God.

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