Was Mary (and therefore Jesus) a slave?

Major David Cavanagh of the The Salvation Army offers this response to Mitzi J. Smith’s reading of doule in Luke 1:38.

“Was the Virgin Mary actually a slave?” That is the question raised by Mitzi J. Smith, J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and Professor of Gender Studies at the University of South Africa, in an article published in Bitter the Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Age of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (Fortress Academic, 2022). The article, published last August, has recently been recycled in blogs by Candida Moss, Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave?, and Kevin Giles, What If Jesus’s Mother Mary Was A Slave?.

Having spent eighteen years as the leader of several local congregations, together with my wife, I remember all too well the pressure to find ways of giving the “old, old story” fresh relevance, especially at recurring moments in the ecclesiastical calendar, such as Advent. It would not surprise me if this hypothesis were to be recycled in sermons next December, when preachers will again be looking for a new angle on the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the gospel itself. 

Preachers might find this hypothesis appealing because its corollary is that, as the child of a slave woman, Jesus himself might have been a slave—an idea which would certainly grab any congregation’s attention! Candida Moss quotes Smith as telling her that “In any slave society, a child born to an enslaved woman is born enslaved”, while Antony Thiselton notes that “Those who were born as children of a woman in slavery constituted up to around a third of the slave population in major urban centres”.[efn_note]Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 562.[/efn_note] Smith also points to the fact that Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty, noting that under legislation passed in AD 40 by the emperor Augustus,[efn_note]Lex Aelia Sentia[/efn_note] this was the age of manumission for enslaved men, and if Jesus had indeed been a slave, he would not have been free to begin his ministry any earlier. If Jesus, as the child as a slave woman, was indeed a slave, this might shed new light on Jesus’ ministry both in its’ original setting and for some contemporary debates. Smith comments that if Jesus was born as a slave, this 

situates Jesus at the bottom of the society into which he was born. He lived in stigmatized flesh like so many other people during his lifetime and beyond, including Black people, people of color, poor people, immigrants, and so on…The injustice of the world is an injustice that Jesus himself experienced. 

Jesus raises Lazarus in John 11

In the Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 5 in Year A, we come to the last of our for explorations of Jesus’ encounters with individuals that formed a catechumate in the early church in her raising of Lazarus in John 11.1–45. Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will return to our gospel of the year, Matthew, in the lead in to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This remarkable extended narrative forms a turning point in the Fourth Gospel. The gospel is commonly seen as being in two halves, the so-called ‘Book of Signs’ running from the prologue until now, and the ‘Book of Glory’ which runs from chapter 12 to the end. (In a previous scholarly generation, these were understood to reflect two different [written] sources behind the final form of the gospel; but we don’t need to have this obsessed with sources to note that there is different language, a different emphasis, even a different ‘feel’ in the first half and the second half of the gospel.) The seven signs in the gospel are most commonly understood to be:

Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11 – “the first of the signs”
Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15
Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24
Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7
The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45
There is some debate here, because they are not each explicitly identified in the narrative as a ‘sign’, so some readers see the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water as one, combined, sign, making Jesus’ own resurrection the seventh. However, the signs are quite clearly depicted as partial revelations which point forward to ultimate reality, and it makes more sense to see each of these seven pointing forward to the eighth, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, which (if ‘seven’ signifies this age, with its seven days of creation and rest) depict this as the beginning of the new age to come.

The narrative itself is vivid and compelling, full of arresting detail and emotion. Jo-Ann Brant, in her Paideia commentary, observes:

The principal action is a reversal—the dead one lives—but to the simplicity of this reversal, John adds the complexity of emotion, allusion, report, reaction, and counterreaction. Grief and censure turn to an expression of gratitude—the anointing of feet—that in turn comes to signify a funerary rite. Jesus raises Lazarus to life, and the authorities plot to take both their lives. John plays with epithets and allusions to underscore that Lazarus’ story foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection in a variety of ways (p 170).

Was European colonialism a good thing or a bad thing?

Following his very helpful review of Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: a moral reckoning, John Root offers reflection on five paradoxes of European colonialism and its legacy. In April 1964 I attended a selection conference for ordination in the Church of England. One of the selectors was a thoughtful, late middle-aged high churchman, who prior to his ordination … Continue Reading

How can we develop resilient faith?

From 15th to 19th May I am speaking at Lee Abbey in Devon on ‘Resilient Faith: coping with doubts, difficulties and disappointments’. You can find full details and book here. We are sometimes given the impression that a Christian faith will protect us from all the doubts and difficulties in the world. So when challenges … Continue Reading