The Illegitimacy of Jesus by Jane Schaberg

The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, Expanded Twentieth Anniversary EditionThe Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Jane Schaberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This evenhanded work of New Testament scholarship is needlessly freighted with discussions of where it fits in the world of feminist literature.

I was alerted to the existence of this book by a mention of it in an obituary for Jane Schaberg in Biblical Archaeology Review magazine. Its main title, The Illegitimacy of Jesus, I found magnetic, especially in its relevance to my own fictional work in progress. So I suppressed my instinctive aversion to anything that labels itself as feminist and ordered myself a copy.

I’m glad I did. For I discovered, in the first place, that the author’s working definition of feminism is

as Hilda Smith defines it: “the view of women as a distinct sociological group for which there are established patterns of behavior, special legal and legislative restrictions, and customarily defined roles,” which are based on neither rational criteria nor physiological dictates.

And the portion of the definition that lies within the quotation marks is not feminism as I understand the term, but a perfectly reasonable and neutral angle of research that could just as well be taken by any nonfeminist. As for the part that lies outside the quotation marks, it’s not clear whether it is a paraphrase of Hilda Smith, or Schaberg’s own addition, but in any case it doesn’t seem to have affected the content of the book, beyond a few instances of the word androcentric and needless reminders that the culture of ancient Judea was patriarchal. For although the author sets out to preach to the feminist choir, the argument of her book does not in any way depend on the reader’s prior commitment to feminist ideology.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that a careful reading of both the gospels and other ancient literature does not support the doctrine of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus. It does, on the other hand, support a contention that existed in ancient times: that Jesus was a child illegitimately conceived——that is, conceived through either the rape or seduction of Mary during the time of her betrothal to Joseph. Schaberg shows how both Matthew and Luke, the two evangelists who treat the topic of Jesus’ birth, in their different ways, fudge the question of Jesus’ paternity. Rather, they agree that Joseph was not the biological father, and that the Holy Spirit sanctified the conception and assured Mary and her child of God’s approval and protection.

Matthew in particular appears to show awareness of the law of Deut 22:23––27, regarding the rape of a betrothed woman. The man who was guilty of violating another man’s bride-to-be was to be executed in any case, but the woman only if the act occurred in a city and she did not cry out for help, which would imply her complicity. If the act occurred in the country, where there was no one to hear her cry out, she was to be spared. Schaberg spends some time weighing the implications of this law and how its application may have evolved by the time of Jesus’ conception.

The author examines the works of Matthew and Luke in some detail, and the works of other authors, including Mark and John, in much less detail. She looks at the Jewish tradition that Jesus was actually fathered by a man named Panthera or ben Stada, and offers her own cautious and tentative conclusion.

This does not go beyond the basic assertion that the evidence seems to support the fact that Mary conceived Jesus in the normal biological way during the time of her betrothal to Joseph, but with a man other than Joseph. Whether this happened via rape, “seduction,” or some other way, she is not in a position to say. She does not offer a positive scenario for what happened, for that would be mere conjecture——it would be fiction.

Schaberg covers the material thoroughly without churning through excessive detail. The actual argument of the book occupies only 140 of its 318 pages. The rest of it, apart from 75 pages of end-notes, consists of pieces by Schaberg and a few others about how her work fits in various controversies within feminism and Christianity. These might possibly interest you if you’re a feminist or a Christian; I skipped them.

The book would be a lot better if all that polemical gunk were trimmed away. The heart of it shows that Schaberg’s interest was really in scholarship, straight up, and for this reader, anyway, she makes her case. I already believed that Jesus had been “illegitimately” conceived, but now I have a resource that places that notion within the context of specific, relevant, ancient sources that deal with it. This book shows why the simplest explanation here, as so often, is the best.

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