Baker Academic

Friday, November 10, 2017

Was Joseph a Perv?

Was Joseph, the husband of Mary, a perv?

No. But Jim Zeigler might be. That is to say Zeigler's logic and assumptions about Joseph are altogether perverted.

Two days ago Zeigler, the Alabama State Auditor, defended the alleged sexual misconduct of Roy Moore. Moore is accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl.

According to the Washington Post Zeigler said, “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 little bit unusual.”

Let's not bury the lede. Zeigler's historical assumptions are wrong. His justification of Moore's alleged pervitude is repugnant. Lamentably, sexual abuse by a male in power is anything but unusual. That said, it might be worthwhile (secondarily) to answer a few questions about the characters we meet in the New Testament named Joseph and Mary.

Historically speaking, we know almost nothing about Joseph. He is not featured in the Gospel of Mark (our earliest narrative about Jesus) and Matthew and Luke are more interested in Jesus's heavenly Father than his mother's husband. The key literary point that both Matthew and Luke make is that Joseph was not Jesus's biological father but acted honorably toward Mary. We do not know how old Joseph was when he was betrothed. But the relevant cultural norms considered 20 years (or thereabout) to be the ideal age for men to marry. The average life expectancy was 40-45 years and the demand for progeny was paramount. So most men were arranged to wed shortly after puberty. For agrarian cultures in the Mediterranean this meant around 20 years old.

We also don't know how old Mary was when she was betrothed. Any assumptions based on her status as a "virgin" are without historical warrant. She was probably younger than twenty but there is no reason to think she was a "child" by the standards of her culture. It is possible that Joseph was older and that Mary was younger. Arranged marriages sometimes take this shape. But a large age gap is not supported by the evidence in this particular case.

Given how very little we know from history, we might address the question literarily and theologically. According to Matthew and Luke, Joseph and Mary had not consummated their betrothal. This is an important point for these narratives because the reader is supposed to believe that Mary's pregnancy was an act of God.

So unless Zeigler is trying to say that Roy Moore is the Holy Spirit (who would be much, much older than 20) his analogy is incoherent. Historically speaking, Zeigler's statement is in error. Literarily and theologically speaking, Zeigler's statement is perverted. Finally, and most importantly, Moore is not accused of pursuing a betrothal; he is accused of pursuing statutory rape. To justify such behavior by appealing to an ancient literary precedent—one that is not analogous anyway—shows just how much perverted justification goes into enabling sexual predators.


  1. I was asked about this my a co-worker just yesterday. Thanks for taking the time to address it.