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. 

Where is the dragon in the nativity?

There’s a scene in the film Love Actually where a little girl announces that she’ll be playing “first lobster” in the school nativity play. “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” asks her surprised mum, which leads the girl to sigh in exasperation at such profound levels of parental ignorance. … Continue Reading

Challenging Christmas myths on shepherds, swaddling, and support for the holy family

Christmas is a time for celebration, for feasting and for relationships. But it is also a time for a mild engagement in iconoclasm, as we peel back the layers of accreted tradition and recover the origins of the Christmas gospel—something which needs to happen every year, it seems. In that spirit (and Spirit) I offer … Continue Reading

Bullying in the Church of England: Theological and Ethical Perspectives

On 31st May, 2022, there was an online conference organised by ABEL (Against Bullying, Encouraging Love) entitled Pedestals, Pulpits and Pews: Perspectives on Bullying in the Church of England. Recordings of the presentations are viewable on YouTube. This article from Andrew Goddard is his presentation which, while only exploratory in nature, opens with how to … Continue Reading

How should we translate ‘man’?

My friend Oliver Harrison recently raised an interesting question about the translation of sexed terms: Beautiful June dawn, so up to church to say Morning Prayer. But wait! What’s this? Ps. 119:9 is translated as “How shall young people cleanse their way to keep themselves according to your word?” Now I’m pretty sure that’s not … Continue Reading