Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Gospel of Mary - Chapter 9

The widowers are assembled, each with his staff. The high priest takes each man's staff and takes them with him into the temple and prays.

After he has finished praying he comes back out and begins handing the staves back to their owners. None of them had a sign upon them. Joseph is the last man and as he is handed it a dove flies out of the staff and perches on his head. Interesting note, there is another version of this story where Joseph's staff buds with lilies. 'In the Christian West, this is understood as an emblem of his virginity.' Which doesn't mesh with the rest of this text, since when the priest tells Joseph that he has been called to receive the virgin of the Lord into his keeping Joseph balks at it, saying that he is an old man and has sons. He fears that this will make him the laughing stock of Israel. But the priest reminds him of the fate of those who go against God's will and Joseph capitulates and takes Mary into his house.

'He said to her, "Mary, behold, I have received you out of the temple of the Lord my God, and now I am leaving you in my home, for I must go and work at building my homes. I will return to you quickly. May the Lord God take care of you."'

So Mary is wed, and then left in charge of the household and an unknown number of children. She was maybe 12, 13 years old when she became the mother and mistress of this household. Can you imagine that? It seems so freaky now, because at that age kids are still figuring out life and which end is up. But in the past there was no such concept of childhood. Children grew up hard and fast because they had to and they dealt with many things that we don't believe that they're capable of dealing with now.


  1. Yes, it's amazing how fast people had to grow up then. Well, I heard adolescence was an invention of the West and our times so I guess it makes sense that people back then were doing grown-up things so much earlier.

  2. But does that mean they were capable then, or just that no one then understood and cared about psychological abuse? I wonder about that a lot. The fact that Mary did get married young doesn't mean she actually handled it well and that that was a good or even ok thing to do. Of course, maybe I'm making assumptions I shouldn't about what went on in that marriage, too. It might be like Mohammad had a 6 year old wife or something, but at least some will explain that she was just there in the house and nothing happened between them until she was grown. Maybe that's even why they have Joseph leaving her right away, rather than consummating the marriage, to remove the squick. It sort of looks more like he adopted a baby-sitter than a wife.

    It also sort of makes me wonder about his kids. How many? How old? Were they left on their own all the time before he got Mary? Not things we can answer, but interesting to think about.

  3. Susanne,

    I think it's only amazing to us because it's so different from the way society works now. If we went to one of those tribes in the Amazon or where ever, where they've been preserved from modernity I think we'd find something closer to ancient attitudes on 'childhood'. The community couldn't afford to provide everything for someone for 18 years without them contributing back.

  4. sanil,

    I'd guess that's one of those things we'll never know. People got married young in the past, so the children weren't insulated from the knowledge that they would need. I would suspect that some of them dealt better than others. It would depend on the situation and the personalities involved, just like any other relationship. One marriage may have been what we consider abusive and the married couple next door, made up of the same demographics wasn't.

    Yes, Mohammed had a 6 year old wife, but according to most people they consummated the marriage by the time she was 9. Historically okay? Perhaps. Still squicky when you think about it though.

    If these types of marriage were common in antiquity, which everyone says that they were, I don't imagine that the original hearers of this Gospel would have been squicked by Mary and Joseph living together. I'm thinking that Joseph leaving right away is to emphasize the point that Mary was virgin - that there was no possibility of her having slept with Joseph.

    It's funny, Joseph's argument that he has sons and is old makes me wonder if maybe some of the sons were older, at least Mary's own age. Which might be why he was saying he'd be a laughing stock. Old man marries a young woman, brings her into a house full of young men her own age. She comes up pregnant and the old man claims it's his, but everyone else assumes he's been cuckolded by one of his own sons and his young wife.

    Maybe Joseph had been paying someone to take care of the kids? It is interesting to think about, but sadly not something we'll get answers too.

  5. When she was 9?? Ew, yeah. I didn't remember what age was given and assumed if they argued for it being ok she must have at least been a teenager. Oops.

    I like the explanation of his sons being older. I didn't think of that, and it does make a lot of sense with the things you pointed out. Clever!

  6. Yeah. That's the most common and accepted version of the tale and Aisha's age. I've seen some that argue both ages are wrong and that she was a teen when she married Mohammed. But the oldest version is the one where she is 6 and then 9 at consummation.

    The older sons thing does make a lot of sense. :)

  7. Ooooooo, interesting older son theory!!

    See the thing about Aisha to me is that 9 year old and 50 some year old man is just icky. I don't care if it was normal back then.

    Michael will be 9 soon and, yeah, just can't see that happening. But then he's a boy and we know they mature slower. Still.

  8. Susanne,

    It's a theory based on common sense. :) I don't have many of those, so enjoy.

    We can't help feeling the way we do about child marriage, no matter what the time period we're contemplating. I think, though, that we do have to manage to step back and look at the time and the culture to understand what's going on. It won't make it less icky, but it does give one perspective.

    Hah. Yes, boys mature slower than girls, but still. It's icky and wrong. Now. Whether that's because we understand biology and psychology better or just a change in culture...maybe half and half. But that's the way it is.

  9. Although traditionally speaking many have assumed Aisha were 6 at the time of marriage and 9 by the time of consummation, more recent scholarship have shown (by comparing factual events such as the fact that she actually were born no later than within the first year of the call) setting her actual age to around 10-15 for the time of the marriage, and 15-19 for the time of the consummation.

    As for Mary's age, 12 sounds incredibly young. Something else I wonder about, women used to get their periods much later back then than they do today. I was 13, my Mum was 14, her Mum was 16. I know that in Denmark (especially due to nutrition deficiencies and stuff) it wasn't abnormal for women not to get their period until they were 18-19 years old. Today girls are getting their periods at way too young an age, possibly due to all the hormonal disruptive chemicals we use.

  10. Becky,

    I've seen articles explaining why Aisha had to be older than the common belief and articles explaining why the previous articles were wrong, all written by Muslims. Both sides seem to have good arguments so I guess unless we find something that answers it definitely it'll have to be a matter of which you choose to believe.

    Personally I tend to think that the older version of the story is true. It's recorded in the oldest extant biography of Muhammad that Aisha was 6 at the time of marriage and 9 at the time of consummation. If this was a false story, wouldn't the biography have been at pains to correct it? And if it was true and unusual/criminal at the time, wouldn't Muhammad's enemies have made use of it? Neither of those things appear to have happened, which means that it was most likely both true and common at the time.

    There's also the problem of Aisha's age being recorded as 6 and 9 in sahih hadiths. I know not everyone places the same importance or weight on ahadith, but there it is.

    I'm actually curious as to how the proponents of an older Aisha deal with the hadith that explicitly state her age. I can't recall seeing one that dealt with it - it's possible that the hadith are incorrect, of course, but then that throws doubt over the whole hadith thing anyway because either Aisha got her own age wrong or somewhere along the line one of the narrators got it wrong, meaning that other hadith could have the same problem.

    I have seen studies that show women in warmer climates get their periods at a younger age than those in colder climates.

    Given the time period and the fact that people died much younger in those days and women even younger than the men because of difficulties in child birth, Mary's age seems pretty believable.

  11. And then I forgot to say:

    I find the idea of an adult man marrying a young girl squiggy. I won't deny that. But that's in a modern context. In a historical context I can still find it personally icky, but understand that it was the time and the culture and doesn't mean the same thing it does today. So I'm 'okay' with it. Historically. Not in modernity.

  12. That thing about Northern/Southern makes a lot of sense, from a nutritional standpoint as well, since (at least here in Scandinavia) vegetables and fruit are hard to come by (naturally) for half the year.

    Hmmm the entire hadith thing is very sensitive, I personally tend to disregard the hadiths. As for Aisha, what I've read is that people weren't too fussy about actual years and probably didn't know the actual age for different events, so the estimation of her age should be based on her recollecting certain events, meaning that she'd have to be of a certain age (4-6 years old) to be able to remember those things. But yeah, honestly, I'm not too bothered, because, like I said, I don't really believe in hadiths, and do prefer to put more emphasis on the Qur'an.

  13. That's something I've considered, sort of in passing on this matter - people didn't use the same calendar as we do and they didn't keep time in quite the same way. I'm not saying it was completely different, but it wasn't the same. And when you're fighting to live day to day, days, months and years probably don't seem quite so important and you might lose track of them.


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