Sunday, June 08, 2014

It's "Joseph, husband of Mary," not "Mary, wife of Joseph," or What's in a surname? Nothing we'd recognize, at least until the Middle Ages

A pastor asked recently how Luke, the author of his eponymous Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, could have come up with such personal details of the events surrounding Christ's birth in his Christmas account, since he wasn't there. The answer, of course, is that he most likely interviewed Jesus' mother Mary. The pastor then asked for Mary's last name.

Knowing that people in those days didn't have last names, one participant answered "Theotokos" ("Mother of God"), because that title identifies Jesus' mother uniquely among every Mary, Miriam, Maryam, or Maria in human history.

The pastor's response? "That's a title, not a last name." His answer was that Mary's last name is "wife of Joseph."

Well, "wife of Joseph" is a title, too. And it doesn't appear in the New Testament. (Last names didn't exist until the Middle Ages.)

People did have appellations that indicated familial, occupational, or locational associations. John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth, Leonardo da Vinci. In Matthew 1:16, Joseph -- Jesus' stepfather -- is referred to "Joseph the husband of Mary."

So, according to the pastor's logic, that would make Joseph's last name "the husband of Mary."

How do the Biblical texts actually refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus? The name "Mary" turns up fifty-four times in the ESV New Testament; only nineteen times does it refer to Jesus' mother. Here are a few examples:
"Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18).
"And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11).
"to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child" (Luke 2:5).
"And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed [...]'" (Luke 2:34).
And just "Mary" in a number of verses (e.g., Matthew 1:16, Mark 6:3, Luke 1:27, Acts 1:14). Interestingly, the Apostle John never refers to his adopted mom Mary by name (he uses "His mother" in John 19:25).

Adding context to Scripture can help us relate personally to the people, places, and events from so long ago, but it needs to be done truthfully. And a pastor should be the last one to err or worse, fabricate.