Was Mary Scandalous? Was She Raped?: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 6

What better time than Christmas to resurrect old arguments about the birth of Jesus, right? Let's take, for example, the dated notion that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera. This, actually, is a viewpoint that the modern filmmaker (and member of the infamous Jesus Seminary) Paul Verhoeven is attempting to make a movie and write a book about. The title of the book is Jesus Of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait. But is the notion that Mary was raped, actually realistic? Or better yet, is this an argument we can place any stock in? Not so much because it troubles me theologically but because I can find no good evidence that would cause me to subscribe it, leads me to say "No" to both answers. More on this in a moment!

Let me digress a little bit here and ask another question, one that has also been around a while but also seems to get brought up at Christmastime: Did God rape Mary? Was the miraculous conception an act of interpersonal violence? Did God force Himself on the young Jewish girl? Is God some type of serial rapist? Could this story only work in a culture where patriarchy silenced women and left them with no voice? Well, let's start with the last question, to which I would answer "No". For one, this story has persisted through the ages. For two, women were not totally silenced (even when raped) in antiquity, as the OT story of Tamar attests. Further, the society (dominated by males) actually developed laws to protect women from rape and to punish men who carried out such acts. See: Exodus 22.15-6 and Dt. 22.25-9. On a side note, the OT is replete with links to rape (Gen 20, 26, 34; Ex. 22.15-6; Dt. 22.25-9; 1 Kgs. 1, Jer. 20.7, Ezk. 16, 23; Jdg. 19-21; 2 Sam. 13, etc.). Even Tamar, who was raped, is mentioned in Jesus' lineage. Realizing that women had a "right" to say "no", when we read birth narratives about Jesus, we actually find Mary saying "yes" (e.g. "I am your bondservant..."). She is choosing to proceed with the event.

I wish I could go more into this (and perhaps I will at a later time) but from a narrative point-of-view, Mary is not raped by God. As odd as it seems to say it, the act appears "consensual". So, did they have sex? Was there some kind of "divine hookup"? Well, not really. The Gospels say (and Christian tradition affirms) that it was through the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary that she became pregnant. In Christian theology, the belief is that the Holy Spirit never forces Himself upon persons but that only enters their life upon invitation. Clearly, the Gospel story / stories depict Mary as inviting God to work in her life. So, did God rape Mary? If we take the point-of-view of the Gospels--written by males in a patriarchal culture, who, if they had wanted to show "male dominance" could have easily made it seem like "divine rape"--we can say "No".

Now, back to the Roman soldier named Panthera. Where did this story even come from? Well as best as I can tell, it pops up in a 2nd-century document written by the Christian philosopher named Origen (who, perhaps, recieved it from Ambrosius). In a work he titled Against Celsus, he notes that another philosopher, named Celcus, was promoting this idea. Now, I have included all of chapter 32 of Against Celsus below so that you can read it for yourself. But if you read it, and do that in context, you will see that Origen is not all that concerned with defending a theology of a virginal conception or birth. Instead, what he is concerned with doing--and this fact bears out through the entirety of the work--is to argue, against Celsus, that Christians aren't simplistic thinkers (or stupid). To be able to do this, oddly, Origen feels like he has to prove that Jesus was not born from an ignorant Roman soldier but that His birth was legitimate. As Origen says at the end of chapter 32: "It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities." For Origen, it is important that Jesus be "superior" and have "excellent" qualities. In other words, to prove that Christians are great thinkers, Origen felt like he had to show first that Jesus was great. This is an odd approach to say the least.

Before leaving Origen, I should also point out that elsewhere, Origen is not hesitant to tie the incarnation of Jesus to the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Origen thought Jesus' incarnation was God's way of proving that the Pax Romana was the way to establish world peace. The Graeco-Roman guild of NT scholarship argues the opposite of this view across the board; indeed, Origen would not find welcome in those circles today!

What I find most interesting about Origen's work is that it is not a defense of the virginal conception, in the main. In fact, he does not seem all that concerned with the theological concept. Of course, neither do any of the apostle Paul's writings point to the virgin birth (some have argued that Gal. does), nor do any of the other NT documents. Only Matthew and Luke mention it directly (though the saying in Mk. may be another allusion). There is little even in the NT dealing with this matter. Though Paul's letters were highly occasional, one wonders why he never drew any theological concepts from the conception if it were so significant? What about the other writers?

While there is little said about the virginal conception, it goes without saying that the Gospel writers aim to be clear on the matter: Mary was not raped and she was not the victim of scandal, neither was she scandalous herself. What took place was an act between Mary and God. If a rape consists of violating personal consent, taking advantage of a vulnerable person, misusing power and authority (as happens with so many ministers today!!!), then the Gospel story cannot be found guilty and as such, neither can God. Just as well, Mary is presumed innocent (as the Early Church's end-view attests to).

Origen, Against Celsus (chp. 32)

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera; and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but (their) preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions. Is it at all agreeable to reason, that he who dared to do so much for the human race, in order that, as far as in him lay, all the Greeks and Barbarians, who were looking for divine condemnation, might depart from evil, and regulate their entire conduct in a manner pleasing to the Creator of the world, should not have had a miraculous birth, but one the vilest and most disgraceful of all? And I will ask of them as Greeks, and particularly of Celsus, who either holds or not the sentiments of Plato, and at any rate quotes them, whether He who sends souls down into the bodies of men, degraded Him who was to dare such mighty acts, and to teach so many men, and to reform so many from the mass of wickedness in the world, to a birth more disgraceful than any other, and did not rather introduce Him into the world through a lawful marriage? Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say all), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.


  1. I wrote an article (published in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus) on this topic (more or less), entitled "Was Jesus Illegitimate? The Evidence Of His Social Interactions". I just thought I'd let you know, in case you are wondering what to blog about for part 7412 of this series...

  2. To the untrained eye the statement "I am your bondservant..." would indicate acquiescence to an act to which Mary had no defense, an admission that she was in God's power and therefore accepted His intentions with as much grace as was possible under the circumstances. After all, she probably knew that it would cause trouble, that Joseph would seek to undue the marriage - which he did, of course.

    BTW, the verification word for my post was "phalia". What kind of web site you ruinning here? ;)

  3. That would "running here", of course - no pun intended!

  4. The name Panthera sounds suspiciously like a rearrangement of the letters of Parthenos, the Greek word for virgin.

  5. Ah, James, I recall that article and I think that I may have downloaded it last year (I will have to dig that up and give it a look!). But I don't think I can get to pt. 7412 before Advent ends this year. :(

  6. Scott,
    I certainly hope I am not ruining this site. As for what kind of site I'm running, well, I'll lave imaginative minds to wonder. You say, "to the untrained eye bondservant would indicate acquiescence to an act which Mary had no defense"...

    I see what you're saying. But to the trained eye, that's not necesarrily the case. We have to keep in mind that ancient culture was (and sources are) replete with examples of persons selling themselves into slavery (often to better their lives; for instance, being a king's slave/servant was often better than being a peasant/pauper. I can't go into the whole "positive aspects of slavery in antiquity" here but if you're interested, there certainly is a lot of literature on it (if you need sources I can help). But I think the point is that Mary is posturing herself as such because she desires to, not because she is forced to. Again, sometimes we forget that indeed, many slaves had freedoms to choose things.

    Thanks for replying. I don't know what to say about your statement other than, "that's kinda interesting". What do you do with this supposition of yours (or is it someone else's)?

  7. The supposition is not original to me. It suggests to me that there was some intent to slander Jesus and his mother Mary by inventing a supposed rapist (or seducer) of Mary. The name of the supposed rapist was created by rearranging some of the letters of parthenos, thus suggesting that Mary was not a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but that Jesus was actually the offspring of an illicit union.