The Most Scandalous Myths About the Virgin Mary
From the number of times her mother was married to vicious stories about a Roman soldier, Mary has been subject to more rumors than almost any biblical figure.
Of all the stories in the Bible, the virgin birth is most likely to elicit a sarcastic comment. Call it misogyny, if you will, but more aspersions are cast on the story of Jesus’ conception and the sexual purity of Mary than on any other miracle in the New Testament. For many modern readers the virginity of Mary is a myth, and the perpetual virginity of Mary (the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary and Joseph never had sex) is outright fantasy. Yet there's nothing new in this reaction: Myths and legends about Mary have circulated since the early Church—and some of them are downright scandalous.
Questioning the Virginity of Mary can give you third degree burns
From the time of the early Church, there were those who questioned Mary’s virginity. Some rabbinic and ancient Roman sources suggest that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera. According to these early critics, Mary concocted the story of the virgin birth in order to conceal the fact that she cheated on her betrothed with a member of the oppressive military force that was subjugating her people. The particular explanation is actually pretty unlikely, if only because as a resident of Nazareth Mary would have rarely (if ever!) come into contact with Roman soldiers; nevertheless ancient Christian readers took it seriously.
A second-century story known as The Protoevangelium of James fills in a lot of the gaps in Mary’s biography. It tells us about Mary’s childhood, that she had special status as a dedicated virgin, and that she was 16 when she conceived Jesus. In this version of the nativity story Joseph doesn’t just accuse her of disgracing herself, he responds to Mary’s statement that she hasn’t “known” a man by asking her, “Where did this thing in your womb come from then?”
But Joseph is a believer in comparison to woman named Salome. Salome, who meets a midwife who examined Mary, declares, “As the Lord my God lives, unless I insert my finger and investigate her, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth." Mary prepares herself for the gynecological exam and Salome performs the test. Her hand literally catches on fire, and it takes the appearance of an angel (as well as some strong statements of contrition from Salome) before she is healed.
The Virgin Birth is not the Immaculate Conception
One of the most popular misconceptions about the Christmas story is that the phrase “immaculate conception” is an elevated theological way of talking about the virgin birth. In fact, it’s not; it’s a reference to the conception of Mary herself. According to later legends (preserved in later adaptations of another apocryphal text called the Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew), Mary’s parents spent a year apart before her birth. In some versions of the story Mary was conceived when an angel appeared to her mother, in another when her parents very “chastely embraced” when they reunited, after their long absence, at the golden gate in Jerusalem.
If you’re wondering why these legends came about in the first place, it’s largely to do with a medieval conversation that surrounded the status of Mary and the connection of sin to sex. By this time people had already started to believe that original sin (which Jesus didn’t have) was passed from person to person via the act of sexual intercourse. This raised the question, had Mary been subject to sin like normal people or was she “immaculate” (spotless)? In 1438 Pope Pius IX officially endorsed the idea that Mary was conceived immaculately, but the idea only officially became doctrine in 1854.
Her mother might have been married three times
The New Testament itself never mentions the names of Mary’s parents, but, according to tradition, her mother was Anna and her father Joachim. Anna first appears in the Protoevangelium of James and gradually developed from a minor character into a fully fledged medieval saint. One of the more interesting aspects of her biography (for a saint) is that she was apparently married three times (it’s technically called the theory of the trinubium). Why? In order to deal with the problem of the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Bible. If Mary was a lifelong virgin, how could he have had siblings? The answer, according to the fifth-century Bible translator Jerome, was that they were actually Jesus’ cousins. (And it is true that cousins were often raised as siblings in the ancient world.) So, fair enough. Who, then, we might ask, were Jesus’ aunts and uncles? Presumably Mary’s brothers and sisters.
Out of this chain of assumptions a tradition developed in which Anne remarried twice after Joachim’s death, producing two more “Marys”: Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome. I’m not joking: this tradition maintains that Anne named three of her daughters Mary. The theory was condemned in the twelfth century when theologians felt that this didn’t present Anne in the best possible light.
She didn’t feel any pain in childbirth
Childbirth is a messy, arduous, and painful experience. Mothers may have noticed that in Renaissance art Mary tends to look quite put together after giving birth to baby Jesus. She puts the Duchess of Cambridge to shame. There’s no blood, sweat, or afterbirth muddying up our picture of the Holy Family. This isn’t just the unrealistic expectations of high art, it’s an entire theological tradition. Catholic tradition maintains that that the pain that women experience in childbirth is the result of the sinfulness of Eve in the Garden of Eden. For this reason, the postpartum Mary is depicted as placid, calm, and content. Medieval descriptions of her experience of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth describe it as pleasurable and at times even erotic.
She didn’t experience any pain or suffering in death. In fact, she may not have died at all.
Even if Mary experienced the horrible unspeakable grief of losing a child, legend maintains that she didn’t experience much physical pain. In fact, in some traditions she didn’t really die at all. There are a whole host of stories about the end of Mary’s life on earth. Some conclude with her falling asleep (and then being resurrected and rising to heaven), while others culminate in her assumption into heaven (potentially without having died). The former, known as the Dormition of the Virgin, is popular among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics. The idea that she fell asleep is meant to convey that she fell asleep without suffering. The doctrine of the Assumption of Mary is common to Roman Catholics. In either theory, adherents are clear that even though she may have died, Mary did not experience any of the suffering or pain associated with death.