(RNS) — In a few days, Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. They will recount how Mary and Joseph made the long, hard journey to Bethlehem and how she gave birth to Jesus in a manger.
It’s a story with beautiful themes of God’s humble love, tenderness and vulnerability. But this holiday season, there’s a part of this story that it’s time to move past: Mary’s purported virginity.
I’m a theologian and am very familiar with the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus, as well as the many views of Mary’s virginity. For centuries, religious scholars have debated whether Mary was in fact a virgin, or whether this interpretation is based on a mistranslation of the Bible.
Regardless of the truth, one thing is for certain: The focus on Mary’s virginity created the rationale behind centuries of harmful views about virginity and perfect womanhood — how we should dress, act and approach our sexuality. These views are, in turn, tied to the gross inequalities women face still 2,000 years later — from the wage gap to attacks on reproductive rights.
For centuries, Christians have held that Mary was herself conceived immaculately — that is, perfectly free of sin and therefore fit to be a pure vessel to carry Jesus. Then, when Mary was a teenager — and importantly, still a virgin — the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus, another perfect, sinless child. Many Christian scholars say that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.
Theologians have long questioned these beliefs, even as religious leaders have used Mary’s purported virginity as a model for how women should behave. Sex is sin. Abstaining from sex is saintly.
St. Augustine was one of several church fathers who characterized sex for pleasure as a sin because it diverted one’s attention away from God. His work created a strong connection between purity and virginity, and laid the groundwork for countless social movements to control and shame women’s sexuality.
Today, this view remains very much alive. In many U.S. conservative Christian communities, women are still instructed that it is their duty — and notably, not the duty of men — to eschew sex for pleasure and to have sex only after marriage and only for reproduction.
They are duly told to refrain from dressing in a way that draws male attention. They must reject sexual advances from others and repress their own sexual urges. They wear purity rings and, in a few places, still attend purity balls — at which daughters promise their fathers that they will remain virgins until marriage. Unsurprisingly, many women who are raped or assaulted don’t report it because they don’t want to be considered “tainted.”
Similar mindsets can be found elsewhere, and in other faiths. Honor killings remain a fact of life in some countries, while others criminalize premarital sex and put women who have committed adultery to death.
In sum, a woman’s worth is greatly dependent on how “pure” she is perceived to be, and a woman’s sexual agency is at best ignored and at worst punished.
This shaming of women goes against God’s most basic teachings. In one of Jesus’ pivotal parables, recounted in the Gospel of John, he teaches the opposite lesson: A woman accused of adultery is brought before Jesus by a mob that wants to stone her to death. Instead of condemning her, however, Jesus famously responds that only those without sin should cast the first stone. Not surprisingly, no stones are thrown.
The truth is, Mary’s virginity is superfluous and turns a story that is supposed to be about the love of God into a tale that oppresses women. Instead of focusing on Mary’s sexuality, let’s celebrate the true glory of the season.
(The Rev. Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)