Van Ens: The danger of knowing the Christmas story by heart? You’ll get it wrong (column)
Readers who know the Christmas story by heart sometimes forget that Mary and Joseph lived in an ancient culture unlike ours. Some Christians mistakenly equate Mary and Joseph’s union with current marriage customs, as if today’s dating patterns leading to marriage are the same as those practiced the first Christmas.
Evangelical Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler ripped Joseph and Mary from their ancient Middle Eastern cultural setting. He appealed to the biblical account of Mary and Joseph’s relationship when defending Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore’s dating conduct. Moore is accused of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl when in his 30s.
Defending his evangelical Southern Baptist hero, Ziegler argued that Moore as an older suitor trolling for teen girls at a mall was OK, since such conduct mirrors what happened during the first Christmas.
Consequently, Ziegler gave Ray Moore a pass when getting parents’ permission to date their teen daughters because he acted like Joseph. Ziegler told the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper on Thursday, Nov. 9, “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager, and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. … There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a bit unusual.”
Or creepy … a 30-something predator hitting on teenage girls.
Christian fundamentalists tell how young southern girls are taught to look up to older men as role models. Didn’t Thomas Jefferson have a liaison with Sally Hemings, who was 30 years younger than he was? Jefferson’s father, Peter, in his 30s married a wife of 19 years. And 32-year-old James Madison’s first engagement was to 15-year-old Kitty Floyd. The rationale goes that Ray Moore kept good company in hitting on teenage girls.
Ziegler mistakenly assumes he knows by heart the Christmas story. He gullibly recounts a Hallmark card rendition of Christmas in which a bearded senior named Joseph accompanies a young virgin to Bethlehem. The Bible tells little about Joseph, so Ziegler fills in nonexistent details with pious fiction.
What’s peculiar about Joseph is that nativity writers never quote him. The Bible doesn’t record any of his conversation. We don’t know why he likes Mary or whether he’s older than she is. The Bible doesn’t furnish Joseph’s age.
The Rev. Jim Martin, who edits the Roman Catholic Jesuit magazine America, debunks Ziegler’s phony defense of Roy Moore. Martin tweeted that “comparing the allegations against Ray Moore in any way to Joseph and Mary is disgusting. We have no idea about the exact ages of either the Virgin Mary or St. Joseph at the time of their betrothal or marriage” (The Denver Post, “Biblical scholars take issue with lawmaker’s defender,” Nov. 11, p. 12 A.)
The Gospel of Matthew reports Mary was “pledged to be married to Joseph” (Matthew 1:18). Matrimony then proceeded in two stages. “Betrothal” signaled the first step when a bride, who practiced sexual abstinence, lived with her parents for at least a year. Only later did this betrothal mature into marriage, after which the relationship was consummated.
Is this ancient marriage custom descriptive in any way of a 30-something male hitting on a female teen?
Theologian Ed Stetzer, who writes for the evangelical Christianity Today magazine, denounced this practice of superimposing first-century Christmas customs on Moore’s kinky dating relationships and giving them a clean rating.
“Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old (judicial) prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl,” declares the Rev. Stetzer, “is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous. … Even those who followed ancient marriage costumes, which we do not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage.”
Relying on historical inaccuracy about Mary and Joseph’s relationship to justify Ray Moore’s weird dating habits is silly and sensationalistic. Don’t take it to heart.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.