Mary’s “Virginity” and the Problem of Military Rape (Sunday Homily)


Readings for 4th Sunday in Advent: IS 7:10-14; PS 24 1-6;ROM 1: 1-7; MT 1: 18-24.

As we know, rape in the military is a huge problem. According to Amy Ziering’s award-winning film, “The Invisible War,” more than 20% of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the armed forces. In 2009 alone, more than 3200 cases were documented. But since 80% of such instances go unreported, the figure is closer to 16,000.

My question is: if U.S. soldiers are raping and otherwise sexually assaulting their colleagues with such regularity, what do you suppose they’re doing to “enemy” women? What do you suppose the figure is there?

From time immemorial, of course, rape has been used as a weapon of war. It’s a classic way of asserting power over the enemy by defiling the ones they cherish and are expected to protect. Raping their women humiliates enemy men.

Clearly, we have no trouble recognizing rape as an enemy strategy. But what about our servicemen in relation to the “ragheads” and “gooks” they’ve been taught to objectify, hate and despise?

The evidence is that it’s part of their indoctrination too. Years ago, I remember reading in our local paper of how scandalized one of our Kentucky congressmen was when he visited a military base and heard jogging servicemen chanting, “Burn, rape, pillage, kill. . . .” Note the second word in the chant. Why is it there? Is it meaningless in practice?

And then, of course, there’s the logic introduced earlier. If U.S. soldiers rape servicewomen with such abandon, what about those despised women in (most recently) Afghanistan and Iraq?

All of that is relevant to today’s liturgy of the word because of its emphasis on Jesus’ “virgin birth,” and a persistent tradition that Jesus’ conception was the result of rape by a Roman soldier. What if that tradition were true? Would that make the story less inspiring or more? I’d choose the latter – especially in the light of the questions I’ve just raised.

Let me explain simply by offering some background for today’s reading from Matthew along with a reference to the selection from Isaiah traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ virginal conception.

To get from here to there, try to understand the situation of Joseph and Mary as young marrieds in a context of imperial aggression. They’re a teenage couple; they are poor and living in an occupied country. Joseph is a jack-of-all-trades – that’s what the Greek word we translate as “carpenter” meant in first century Palestine. Like everyone from his class, he was unemployed most of the time. But he’d fix your leaking roof if you hired him. When he could, he’d harvest grapes and wheat for local landlords.

And he was probably deeply involved with the local insurgency against Roman occupation. (Nearly every impoverished patriot is in such situations.) Additionally, the only commentary we have on Joseph’s character is Matthew’s single word “just.” He was a just man. (By the way, his son, James – the one who headed the Jerusalem church following his brother’s death – was also known as “James the just.”) In the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day, justice meant taking the side of the powerless. It appears to have been a central value Joseph passed on to his children.

As resisters, Joseph’s kind would have been considered terrorists by the Romans. In fact, the very year in which Jesus was likely born (6 BCE) Galilee’s countryside would have been crawling with Roman soldiers fighting against people like Jesus’ supposed father. The occupiers were busy laying siege to the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee – a mere hour’s walk from Joseph’s village.

There the insurgency had taken a decisive stand against Rome’s puppet, King Herod. And like Americans in Iraq’s Fallujah, the Romans were determined to make an example of the city by laying it waste utterly. Before their final offensive, that involved night raids, kicking in doors, and raping young Jewish girls. To repeat, all forces of occupation – even our own today – know the drill.

In any case, according to that persistent tradition about her “virginity,” that’s where Mary came in. She was a young teenager about 12 or 14. Although (as Matthew’s gospel tells it) she eventually became Joseph’s “dream girl,” she was probably linked with him by the village matchmaker perhaps when they were both still toddlers. They had not yet begun to live together, because they were probably waiting for Mary to come officially “of age” – able to bear children.

Be that as it may, Mary suddenly finds herself pregnant out of wedlock. Can you imagine her worry? Innumerable teenage girls can relate to her panic – and disgrace. Obviously, Mary did not want to be just another of her community’s “virgins.” [That’s what (behind their hands) local matrons called unwed mothers.]

According to the story, Joseph too shared Mary’s disgrace and embarrassment. He wanted a divorce (i.e. release from his commitment to marry). And he probably demanded it with the anger and recrimination that are inevitably associated with the dreaded “d” word.

Joseph’s anger, suspicion, and thoughts about divorce may also have come from his hatred of the Romans. (And here comes that persistent tradition about Mary’s “virginity.”) It even remembers the rapist’s name. According to Celsus’ “True Doctrines” written about 178 C.E., the rapist was called “Panthera.” That was also the name of one of the Roman legions involved in that siege of Sepphoris.

Such suspicious circumstances around Jesus’ questionable conception also find some support in John’s gospel, where Jesus is called a “Samaritan” (8:48). That was a harsh term equivalent to our “bastard.” Additionally, Mark refers to Jesus simply as “Son of Mary” (6:3) – a quite unusual reference in a culture where children were identified by their father’s name.

And then (once again) even Matthew’s term “parthenos” (virgin) to refer to Mary was often connected with children of unknown paternity. Such offspring were disparagingly called “virgins’ kids.”

With all of that in mind, and if Celsus’ tradition has merit, it’s easy to understand how the thought of taking up with a girl defiled by a Roman “pig” (what Jews called the occupiers) probably turned Joseph’s stomach. No wonder he wanted a divorce.

That is, if the tradition has merit . . . . You see, we can take our pick here. (And that brings me to the point about the historical veracity of the stories around Jesus’ birth.) All of the traditions are entirely questionable as far as historical fact is concerned.

For instance, the familiar account of Jesus’ virgin birth is found only in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke). Mark and John make no mention of it. That means that they either didn’t know about the tradition, or Mark and John didn’t think it important enough to include. (By the way, if Jesus’ conception was as miraculous as we’ve always been taught, how likely is either of those alternatives?)

And then there’s that business – recounted in today’s first reading – about Isaiah’s supposed prediction of Jesus’ virginal conception. Matthew takes Isaiah’s words completely out of context.

Actually, Isaiah’s not referring to Jesus at all, but to his own time more than 500 years earlier. And the Hebrew term he uses is not the equivalent of “virgin.” That’s a mistranslation. The word the prophet employs simply means “young girl.” Isaiah’s prediction is that a “young girl” of his own time will conceive. The prophet’s words had nothing to do with Jesus or virgin birth.

The point here is we’re not dealing with “history” in the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead we’re confronted with a miraculous “birth story,” – a literary genre that characterizes accounts of virtually all “Great Men” in the ancient world. Its point is that God’s Spirit entered into Jesus from the very outset – long, long before his actual birth.

In that light, historically speaking, rape is a much more likely explanation of Jesus’ conception than intervention by the Holy Spirit. Think about it. That’s simply a fact.

How then was Jesus begotten? If Joseph was his father, we understand how Jesus was so concerned with social justice. And through this pre-birth story we can hear (once again!) a summons to learn from Joseph the way Jesus and his brother James did. It’s also a reason for re-evaluating our culture’s drumbeat of indoctrination against “terrorists.” As Pope Francis has recently said, if we’re not concerned with justice for the poor, we can’t pretend to be following Jesus’ way.

If Panthera humiliated Jesus’ mother (and Joseph), and Jesus was the product of rape – and if rape is an inevitable strategy of war – then that’s an additional reason for pressuring the U.S. military to aggressively investigate and punish perpetrators of military rape. It’s also a reason for refusing to honor the U.S. military in general, for opposing war, working for peace, and appreciating Jesus’ solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

Once again, as Pope Francis would have it, If we’re not resisting war and working for peace, our observation of this Christmas season is pure theater and sham.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “Mary’s “Virginity” and the Problem of Military Rape (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Brilliantly informative….and more edifying.
    It puts so much in a better perspective….like release!
    Thanks Mike for your great work.
    A peaceful Christmas to us all.


    1. Thanks, Jim. A peaceful Christmas to you and your family as well. It’s hard to believe that our time in India is almost at an end. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the comments you’ve taken the trouble to make — in such good spirit — over this last year.


    1. Thanks, Bob. I was hoping to offer some reflections that are not just more of the same. Thanks for taking the trouble to read them. All the best to you and your family at this holiday season. We’ll be in Kerela (on India’s southwest coast) for Christmas.


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