Bible Scandals

The day my first child was born I realized that getting married hadn’t changed my life much at all, in comparison! Her arrival started a completely new adventure full of excitement, fear, happiness, agonizing, fun, worry, relief, and enjoyment. For some, the prospect of marriage and / or children is not so attractive and they choose to remain single and childless, while for others for this is a sad burden rather than a lifestyle choice. But for Jesus, singleness was a scandal.

Jesus’ singleness, in first-century Palestine, represented profound impiety and hinted at a well-known scandal in his life. For a Jew of that time the highest ideal was to obey God, and all Jews at every level of society were aware of God’s commands in Scripture. And it wasn’t just the ten given at Mount Sinai; the Jews eventually counted 613 commandments in Scripture. The very first was given to Adam – “Go forth and multiply” – and every male Jew attempted to obey it. And it was pretty obvious to your family and neighbours whether or not you were obeying it!

In the ancient Jewish literature of the time we can read about hundreds of individuals, but there is only one instance of an unmarried man – a studious rabbi named Simeon ben Azzi. He said that he was married to the Bible, so he didn’t have time for a wife! Actually, he was probably a widower, but his friends still urged him to remarry because singleness was so unacceptable.

Girls were mostly married by the age of twelve, and if a man wasn’t married by the age of twenty the gossips started comparing notes and looking for a reason.[1] Girls were married early because when they reached the age of twelve and a half they became entitled to refuse the husband their parents had arranged for them. Men had a little longer to make up their minds about who they would marry, but people soon grew suspicious. For example, although a single man was allowed to teach school children, he had to be constantly chaperoned. And if he was still single in his twenties, it was assumed there was something terribly wrong with him. Singleness was so rare and despised that no one willingly accepted this state.

So why was Jesus still single at the age of thirty? It was clear to all who knew him. No-one would let his daughter marry someone of questionable parentage since, if there was any irregularity in their birth, it could cast doubt on the legitimacy of their children for ten generations. And Jesus’ birth, as everyone knew, was very irregular. For one thing, it occurred too soon after his parents’ wedding, and for another Joseph admitted that he wasn’t the father. Most people would have regarded the story of angels and a virgin birth as a pathetic attempt to cover up the obvious – that Jesus was conceived illegitimately.

The legal term in British law for someone of illegitimate birth is 'bastard'. The fact that we don’t use this term in polite conversation indicates the stigma which accompanied it till very recently. In Jewish society the equivalent term was a mamzer. There weren’t many mamzerim (the plural of mamzer), partly because there was little sexual immorality in Jewish society and partly because of social pressure: they couldn’t attend the Temple, and they couldn’t marry anyone of legitimate birth. A mamzer was still obligated to get married, but they could only marry another mamzer.

Jesus was not a mamzer – at least, not officially, because there were no witnesses of his conception (except perhaps an angel!) and the birth did at least take place after a marriage, even if Joseph denied being the father. Jesus was therefore an 'unofficial' mamzer. This meant that no one could stop him entering the Temple or doing other things forbidden to mamzerim, though no good Jewish father would ever let his daughter marry him.

I have half-jokingly warned my two teenage daughters that any boyfriend they bring home will not be good enough for me. And yet, if they brought home a drug-crazed, convicted axe murderer, I would be more likely to welcome him than a first-century Jewish father would welcome Jesus as a son-in-law. Marriage to him would bring scandal on the whole family.

Jesus not only shared the stigma of being single – he also tried to do something to alleviate it for other single people. Jewish law excused eunuchs from the command to marry, because they couldn’t physically fulfil the duty to have children. Eunuchs were classified into two groups – those who were born as eunuchs (ie. 'made eunuchs by God') and those who had become eunuchs 'by man' (eg. by an injury). Jesus introduced a third category, pointing out that God did not require everyone to get married and attempt to have children. He said that one could choose voluntarily to live like a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12). He didn’t mean that someone should castrate themselves in order to be a better Christian (though unfortunately the second-century church leader, Origen, did think this and castrated himself, though later in life he realized that he had misinterpreted Jesus’ teaching!). Jesus meant that we could decide to serve the Kingdom of God by being single instead of getting married. There was therefore nothing impious or second-rate about being single.

Was Paul married? It is unthinkable that an obedient disciple of Gamaliel (as Paul claimed to have been in Acts 22:3) would have ignored the obligation to marry. Paul knew that disciples learned from the example of their masters, which is why he said: “Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul's master Gamaliel was married and had children, and yet Paul was clearly unmarried when he wrote 1 Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 7:8). It is likely that he was widowed rather than never married. Or perhaps he was still very young when he became a Christian and he decided to be a “eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom”. He certainly considered that being unmarried has some advantages for those who want to be unhampered by looking after a family (see 1 Corinthians 7:26-27; 32-35), though he assumed that most people would marry (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).

Jesus’ introduction of a third group of eunuchs – those who volunteered to remain single – showed that the law to 'go and multiply' didn’t apply to everyone because singleness could be just as beneficial for the Kingdom. Today single people play important roles in churches and Christian organizations, but in first-century Judaism, singleness was potentially scandalous and a bar from any leadership. Paradoxically, some churches today still tend to stigmatize singleness by focussing on marriage and children.

Living in a world where 'virgin' is an abusive or comic label can be a heavy burden for many single Christians. For most of them, of course, the 'stigma' is far less of an issue than the desire for the love and intimacy of a marriage. Jesus suffered alongside them as a single person every day. Admired by many for his teaching and miracles, he also faced the whispers which kept spreading the scandal of his irregular birth. It was a stigma he embraced in order to suffer with us and bring all of humanity back to God.

Go to 2. Supplanting Passover


[1] Mishnah Niddah 5:6-8; Babylonian Talmud Qiddushin 29b.

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© 2012 David Instone-Brewer
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