Valerie Tarico writes that in the gospel stories, Mary the mother of Jesus is a humble, devout young woman of her time – which means she has little choice in the matter.
Set aside for a moment any debate about whether the Nativity stories in the Bible are history or mythology or some combination of the two. In either version, Matthew’s or Luke’s, does Mary consent to be the mother of Jesus?
During recent holiday seasons, this provocative question has been hotly argued on both sides, scandalizing conservative Christians. But our modern concept of consent would have been alien and bizarre to the gospel writers. If we could ask one of them to resolve the debate, he might say, “How could a pure young woman not want to be the mother of God incarnate?! What is this consent thing of which you speak?”
Behold, thou shalt conceive.
The New Testament contains two tellings of the nativity story. The story in Matthew doesn’t address how Mary learns about her pregnancy. She is simply “found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
Luke’s more elaborate tale includes an Annunciation scene in which a messenger angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and makes an announcement, “Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Mary asks how this can happen, given that she has yet to “know a man.”
Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
Mary humbly assents, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Later, in a poem patterned on the Hebrew Psalms, she exalts God, saying, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” This poem, now known as the Magnificat, became part of Catholic and Protestant liturgies.
When Christian’s argue that the nativity story includes consent, they typically point to the handmaid line and the Magnificat. But the fact that Luke’s Mary assents to Gabriel’s pronouncement, and then later during her pregnancy expresses wonder and pride, does not mean that the writer sought to convey consent as modern ethicists think of it.
More likely, given gender roles in the Ancient Near East at the time, the author of Luke sought to depict Mary as the archetypal embodiment of a devout and righteous Jewish girl or woman. His Mary recognizes that the glory of a woman is childbearing and that it is not her place to challenge a man or male angel or god in authority over her. When told that she will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and will bear a son of God, she embraces her assigned role willingly and gladly, later expressing pride and gratitude that she will attain the apogee of female accomplishment: being the mother of a great man—or in this case a god-man.
Seeing consent in the Luke annunciation story is anachronism.
When the Bible was written, women didn’t get to decide whether and when to have children. A young woman’s body—and specifically her ability to produce babies—belonged to her father, who then gave her in marriage to a husband, often in exchange for a negotiated bride price or to seal an alliance with another kin group or tribe. (If she was a slave or concubine, both of which Bible writers approved, her reproductive capacity belonged to her master.) In Mosaic law, rape was not a human rights offense but rather a property rights offense, and the father of a raped daughter could demand that the rapist pay a cash settlement and keep the used goods. A woman who voluntarily reduced her value by having sex before marriage could be killed. In other words, female consent was neither a necessary nor sufficient pre-condition for sex or childbearing.
The infancy stories of Jesus found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, are products of their time and culture, and neither of them depicts what most people would now consider informed or free consent. To be clear, this isn’t a question of sexual consent because—unlike some similar stories about gods impregnating human women—the insemination of Mary isn’t described in sexual terms. The question is one of reproductive consent. (Sexual consent and reproductive consent are two different things. A person can agree to have sex but not to have a baby, as in those cases when a partner lies about or sabotages birth control. Conversely, in modern times, a person may agree to reproduce but not to have sex—as when people donate eggs or sperm.)
What is free and full consent?
While we seldom talk about reproductive consent or its opposite, reproductive coercion, two related kinds of consent will be familiar to most people in modern Western culture—”informed consent” for medical procedures or research, and sexual consent. These two are quite different in some ways—for example, medical “informed consent” often requires a written agreement while sexual consent gets communicated verbally and nonverbally. But both also have the purpose of safeguarding personal autonomy, as does reproductive consent, so they offer some insights about how a nativity story with free and full consent might read. In medical and intimate settings, free and full consent generally requires the following:
⏯Consent precedes the action or event being consented.
⏯It is a response to a question or inquiry—the person is presented with a choice.
⏯The person giving consent is of sound mind and capable of understanding what they are saying yes to.
⏯They have enough information to understand risks and benefits of saying yes or no, as well as other options that may be open to them.
⏯The person giving consent has time enough, unpressured, to think and ask questions.
⏯The person giving consent is free, physically and psychologically, to say no.
⏯They shouldn’t expect that it is going to happen no matter what they say.
⏯They shouldn’t be afraid that saying no will arouse threats or punishment or withholding of needed care.
⏯Power differences, authority or dependency between the two parties require extra caution because these can create implicit threats or fears of harm.
⏯Both parties understand that consent may change over time and agree that consent can be withdrawn when possible.
We often say that consent should sound like an enthusiastic yes! In this regard, the nativity story in Luke comes through. What’s missing is that the conditions for free and full consent are not themselves fully present. The angel does not present an open question, nor does Mary treat his proclamation as such. Her future role is announced, and she responds by humbly referring to herself as a bondservant, a handmaid. One might argue, further, that any young woman raised on the stories in the Hebrew Bible might have ample reason to fear the wrath of God should she choose to say no. But no matter; for Luke’s Mary, saying no is unthinkable.
What if the author of Luke had held the modern idea that female consent is a desired or even necessary part of a righteous impregnation story? Here is how the annunciation might have played out.
An Iron Age Annunciation with Modern Consent
One day God sent his messenger, the angel Gabriel, to a town in Galilee called Nazareth with a message for a maiden who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The maiden’s name was Mary.
So that Mary would not be overwhelmed by the heavenly messenger’s radiant glory, Gabriel adopted the form of an ordinary Jewish woman carrying an earthen water jug [Gabriel minimizes intimidation due to status differential]. When Mary went to fetch water at the town well, Gabriel approached and stood beside her at the well. “Greetings, blessed one!” he said. “You are favored of the Lord, and he is with you.”
Mary looked at the unfamiliar woman, wondering what sort of weird greeting this might be. “I beg your pardon?” she said politely. “I don’t think we have met.”
Gabriel inclined his head. “Gabriella,” he said with a disarming smile. Gabriel had played the role of divine messenger for millennia, ever since that Eden incident, and he had mastered the art of coming across as simultaneously non-threatening and credible to Iron Age humans. He set down his clay jar next to hers and straightened the homespun woolen scarf that covered his hair, save for a few unruly curls much like Mary’s own. Then, with slender but strong female hands, he caught hold of the rope and began lowering the bucket into the well. “Shall we fill your jug first?”
As he hoisted the full bucket, he spoke almost casually. “You know how some people have visions and receive messages from the heavenly realm?”
“Yes,” said Mary.
“Well, I am one of those people, and I came here to the well today because I have a message for you.”
“Me?” said Mary.
“Yes. You have found favor with God,” he repeated.
Mary’s eyes widened. She knew, of course, that the world was full of miraculous signs and wonders, and omens and portents and prophesies. She knew that the God of Israel and other supernatural beings sometimes appeared in visions or dreams to prophets, priests, oracles, witches, magicians, and even ordinary people. But as a young woman just barely come of age, she had never experienced these things herself.
“Would you like to know my message?” Gabriel asked, and Mary nodded.
“Ok,” said Gabriel. “Here it is: Yahweh has decided to create a son who will be both god and man. His name will be Jesus.” He paused and then recited, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” He paused again and added, “Full disclosure: First he has to become a replacement for all of the pigeons and goats and sheep and cattle that are sacrificed in the temple for the forgiveness of sins. So, at age 33, he will be tortured and killed by the Romans and will rise from the dead [Gabriel candidly gives both pros and cons].
“If you are willing, God would like for you to be the woman who bears this child.” [He poses the proposition as a voluntary choice.] But God will continue to bless you and honor your righteousness whether you choose or not to bear this child. [He explicitly addresses any sense of threat based on Yahweh’s violent history].
“Do you have any questions?”
It was all a bit much for Mary to take in. She stared blankly for a moment, the water jugs forgotten. Then she blurted the first that came to mind, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She blushed, awkward now, and her fingers clutched at the folds of her robe as if to hide.
“How old are you?” Gabriel asked.
“Thirteen,” answered Mary, “and betrothed by my father to Joseph. Of the house of David.”
“Ah,” said Gabriel. Her question about virginity wasn’t the first he would have asked under similar circumstances. Maybe Why me? Why now? Why can’t we just keep sacrificing goats and sheep? How does it work for someone to be a god and a human? But he knew that this concept loomed large in her culture, which is why young women got married off as soon as they were sexually mature. She must be just on the cusp.
He wondered fleetingly why Yahweh had chosen such a young person to make such a big decision, but he didn’t question God, not even for a second. After all, he and every other angel in heaven remembered how God had reacted when Lucifer started challenging God’s authority. Lucifer’s rebellion was the reason Gabriel had this job.
Drawing his attention back to Mary, he assured that her virginity was no barrier. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Seeing doubt still on her face, he offered a bit of evidence. “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son. She was said to be barren, but this is the sixth month for her. You can see for yourself. With God, nothing is impossible.”
That had been skepticism, right? Or was it fear? Perhaps the word “overshadow” had been a bit strong.
“It won’t hurt,” he said gently, “At least not the getting pregnant part. Do you have any other questions?”
Mary floundered, more than a little overwhelmed. I can’t say no to Yahweh, she thought. Out loud, she said, “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”
But Gabriel shook his head gently. “God does not ask this of you as his servant or slave, but rather of your own free will. [He clarifies that despite the power difference she has a real choice]. Take as long as you need to decide—he will know when you have chosen. [She is not pressured]. I would suggest given your age that you ask your father, but he would then be compelled to make the decision for you, so you will have to decide on your own.
“And don’t worry about your fiancé. If you choose to go forward, God’s messengers will have ways to bring him along.”
Gabriel helped the dazed Mary lift the full water jug to her head and watched as she scurried back down the dusty path toward town and her father’s house, checking over her shoulder at the figure by the well. He lifted his own water jug and waved with his one free hand, vanishing into thin air only after she was out of sight.
Mary continued down the dusty path and through the cobbled streets, her head spinning. “Was that real?” she asked herself. “Or was it a dream?” She wasn’t entirely sure. But somehow that felt okay, because a different and even more novel question occupied her mind: What do I want? If it were real, if this choice really were mine, would I want to do it?
Having returned to his ethereal form, Gabriel watched from on high, reading the possibilities that ran through her imagination. He smiled to himself. He had done his job; and when Mary made up her mind, Yahweh would be the first to know.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.
She writes about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society.