mary, the virgin birth, and nontraditional motherhood   laura


the making of a role model for middle eastern unmarried women who want to have a child

For the past three years, I have felt a strong and persistent desire to have a child. This desire has been complicated by the fact that motherhood is considered by my Arab culture to be off limits to unmarried women such as myself. Having a child would sever my relationship to much of my family, my culture and heritage (including religious), and to Lebanon generally. This has caused me a fair amount of distress and sadness. I find myself searching for a path to motherhood that does not require such enormous loss.

Recently I dreamt about Mary, Mother of God. In my dream Mary called from Lebanon to let me know that she was okay. I was told that she had troubles and problems, but that she was essentially fine. Hearing this news, I and the other dream characters thanked God. We then faced Lebanon and prostrated to Mary. Upon sharing this dream with a dream group, it was suggested that perhaps Mary was serving me as a role model of a Middle Eastern woman who became a mother in a nontraditional manner, without being outcast. I was stunned by this possibility and have mulled it over since hearing it. Could Mary be a role model for Middle Eastern women who want to choose a nontraditional path? Could we hold up Mary, beloved to both Christians and Muslims (1), as a woman possessed of both piety and willfulness? In Middle Eastern social and religious settings the courageous, brave and willful aspects of Mary tend to be ignored; instead the focus is on Mary's relationship to Jesus, and on her piety, humility, devotion and virginity. Could the focus be shifted? Is it possible to incorporate Mary's more active and rebellious traits into the picture we already have of her? My hope here is not to magically transform Middle Eastern society into accepting unmarried motherhood or other nontraditional choices.My hope is simply that, by revealing Mary's nontraditional approach to motherhood, and by exposing her typically ignored traits, I can present a realistic, holistic picture of Mary that other Middle Eastern women can look to for support and courage in their own nontraditional endeavors.

A number of factors may make Mary particularly suitable as a potential role model for Middle Eastern women. First, because of her status within the Middle East as a respected and holy woman, Mary has the social and religious credibility that would be necessary for Middle Eastern women to take her seriously. Second, Mary is culturally relevant as a Middle Eastern woman; her circumstances are not unlike the circumstances of contemporary Middle Eastern women. Third, Mary's Middle Eastern heritage makes her accessible to Middle Eastern women who might reject a Western role model. Fourth, Mary's heritage makes her an acceptable role model for women in the eyes of Middle Eastern men. This point is crucial if Mary is to be fully embraced by Middle Eastern women. Fifth, Mary as a role model is not religiously divisive, as she is loved and valued by Christians and Muslims alike.

Virginity in women is very highly valued in the Middle East.Mary is beloved to Middle Easterners for a variety of reasons, but I suspect that one of the main reasons for her status is due to her perceived virginity and virgin conception of Jesus (2). In order, therefore, to view Mary in a more wholistic way, it is necessary to look critically at the doctrine of the virgin birth, which originates in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke.

In "The Foremothers and the Mother of Jesus" Jane Schaberg presents a reading of the Matthean Infancy Narratives which challenges the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus (3). Schaberg proposes that "reading the New Testament narratives in terms of an illegitimate conception... offers a consistent explanation of many small details" which add up to a challenge to the virgin birth doctrine (4). She outlines four elements in Matthew toillustrate her point. These elements and her arguments will be summarized in the next few paragraphs.

First, Schaberg notes the unusual inclusion of four women in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. The four women have in common the following facts: all are "outside patriarchal family structures" (5), all have been wronged by males, all participated in potentially socially damaging sexual activity, and all are redeemed by men who return them to the patriarchal structure.Importantly, Schaberg points out that there is no direct, miraculous intervention by God in the lives of the women. For Schaberg the inclusion of these specific four women foreshadows the role of Mary, and indicates that Mary will not be intervened upon by God.

The second element in Matthew which Schaberg considers concerns the Palestinian customs around betrothal and marriage. Her argument here focuses on Joseph's legal (religious) options upon hearing the news of his betrothed's pregnancy. Schaberg suggests that Joseph heeds the message of the angel (to continue the marriage) not because the conception was virginal but because the angel's visitation provided him with a "righteous and legal" solution to his dilemma (6). Schaberg highlights the underlying social and religious reasons for Joseph's decision-making process. Schaberg's purpose for including this second element is obviously not to present evidence of an illegitimate conception; instead she is attempting to normalize Joseph's experience and decisions, thereby raising the question of illegitimacy.

The third element addressed by Schaberg is "the role of the Holy Spirit." (7) She notes that, except for the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, parallel virgin birth accounts cannot be found in any religious or pagan literature of the time. Schaberg therefore suggests that the Holy Spirit's action in the conception of Jesus should be viewed in light of the social and religious customs of the day. A symbolic reading of the Holy Spirit's involvement with Mary would be more accurate, and more typical of biblical literature. Schaberg points out that, in Old and New Testament literature, "divine begetting" is used to indicate and stress "God's power", that it "presupposes and does not replace human parenting." (8)

The final element that Schaberg considers in her essay involves the use of the term virgin (parthenos). Schaberg contends that Matthew's use of this word was intended to indicate that Mary was a virgin prior to the conception of Jesus, and that Jesus was either a product of adultery or a product of rape.According to Schaberg, "Matthew's point is that his [Jesus'] existence is divinely willed; his messiahship was not negated by the way he was conceived." (9) The story of the conception of Jesus is, admits Schaberg, rather unclear. This is directly attributable to the fact that Matthew was dealing with very sensitive and controversial material.

Having reviewed and reflected on Schaberg's essay, I find myself wondering whether a great deal of the contemporary approach to Christian theology has hinged on the reading of the Infancy Narratives. It seems to me that the modern day confusion around the virgin birth is a result of Matthew's (and, I suppose, Luke's) confusion and ambivalence around the same issue. If Matthew had been able to state unequivocally that Mary's pregnancy was the result of sex (either chosen or forced), we today would be in a very different theological place.Because Matthew was apparently nervous dealing with this material, he left room for misogynist men to interpret the text as supporting a virgin birth. As a result, most Christian theology and corresponding doctrines have been oppressive, anti-sex and restrictive instead of life-affirming and liberative, as may have been the case if Matthew had been clearer. Had that been the case, contemporary Middle Eastern unmarried women would likely not be subjected to such severe prohibitions on motherhood, among other things. Had that been the case, there would be no reason to write this paper. It seems to me that in writing the Infancy Narratives, Matthew stood at a crossroads, and the path down which he proceeded has deeply affected the way we view Christianity, women and sexuality today. It becomes even more of an imperative, then, to reimagine Mary as a fully human being, and also to view Jesus in the light of his human mother.

In spite of the common, inaccurate reading of the Infancy Narratives, women around the world have turned to and relied upon Mary as a source of strength, liberation and unconditional love. Chung Hyun Kyung's chapter on Mary in Struggle to be the Sun Again may provide clues for Middle Eastern women looking to reclaim Mary as a role model. (10) Chung writes that while Mary has been used by the patriarchal church to oppress Asian women, recently Asian women themselves have begun to reclaim Mary by redefining her and their relationship to her. Chung outlines three broad models that Mary can provide for Asian women: the fully liberated human being, the true disciple, and the co-redeemer. The model of co-redeemer will not be addressed here, as it relies on specifically Christian language and imagery, and would not be relevant to those Middle Eastern women who are not Christian.

Mary serves Asian women as a model of fully liberated human being in three ways. First, Chung notes that Asian women have ascribed new meaning to Mary's virginity.Instead of considering the virginity of Mary as a biological fact, Asian women are beginning to consider it as a relational situation. Virginity now refers to a woman existing in a state of self-determination, outside of patriarchy. Mary's virginity is rooted in her "true connectedness to her own self and to God." (11) And since it excludes men's participation, the virgin birth is taken as a sign from God of the beginning of the end of patriarchy.Mary as Mother provides Asian women with the second alternative for the fully liberated human being. Here Mary is viewed as a woman who, by making her own decision to have the baby Jesus, "enables God to be born through her own body." (12) This strong, empowered Mary made political as well as personal choices that were revolutionary. Mary as Sister models the third way for Asian women to embrace full human liberation. This aspect of Mary focuses on her solidarity with other women, is illustrated by Mary's relationship with Elizabeth, and culminates when Mary sings the Magnificat to Elizabeth.

Although Mary is not often referred to by traditional theologians as a disciple, according to Chung she is in fact the true disciple of God, and serves as the second model for Asian women in this regard. Chung makes clear that Mary's "servanthood is a radical discipleship of discernment, risk, and resistance for liberation, not a passive obedience to the powerful." (13) As a true disciple, Mary demonstrates the characteristics of active receptivity, compassion, endurance, and strength. Chung cites the people's revolution in the Philippines as an example of Asian women modeling Mary's true discipleship.

Chung clearly portrays some of the ways that Mary has been reclaimed as a positive role model by Asian women. Both the model of fully liberated human being and the model of true discipleship have relevance for Middle Eastern women. The casting of Mary as a "sister in solidarity" might be especially applicable within the Middle East, where there tends to be an emphasis on national, class and religious divisions. Mary as Mother may provide Middle Eastern women with a model for making active and intentional decisions around reproduction. The model of true discipleship is relevant to Middle Eastern women as well, in that it offers a way for women to be empowered, strong and liberated within traditional religious structures.

Chung's position on virginity might be the most powerful model presented, in terms of relevance in the lives of Middle Eastern women. If we Middle Eastern women could deconstruct and reclaim virginity in the manner Chung describes, the personal and political transformational possibilities would be endless. This effort would require first and foremost the displacement of the role of the hymen in virginity, and a replacement of the hymen with self-determination. Such an enormous task is bound to have both positive and negative consequences.

The multifaceted picture of Mary presented here has the potential to be a source of inspiration for Middle Eastern women who are attempting nontraditional endeavors. Even if we do not change church doctrine, or the minds of men, we have the power to change ourselves by modeling the characteristics of Mary.


1. Geoffrey Parrinder, Son of Joseph: The Parentage of Jesus, 1992, p.106.
2. Muslims as well as Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. See Surah 3:47 of the Qu'ran.
3. Jane Schaberg, "The Foremothers and the Mother of Jesus", in Motherhood: Experience, Institution, Theology, 1989, pp. 112-119.
4. Schaberg, p. 113.
5. Schaberg, p. 113.
6. Schaberg, p. 116.
7. Schaberg, p. 116.
8. Schaberg, p. 117.
9. Schaberg, p. 118.
10. Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to be the Sun Again, 1990, pp. 74-84.
11. Chung, p. 77.
12. Chung, p. 78.
13. Chung, p. 82.


Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.

Parrinder, Geoffrey, Son of Joseph:The Parentage of Jesus. Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd, 1992.

Schaberg, Jane, "The Foremothers and the Mother of Jesus" in Carr, Anne and Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, eds. Motherhood:Experience, Institution, Theology. Edinburgh: Stichting Concilium and T & T Clark Ltd, 1989.

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