Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

Wallace's sermon today centered around today's Gospel text, Matthew 1:18-25, the problem of Mary being pregnant, and it’s not Joseph’s. Well, I was sitting in church thinking of all the legal problems. My first thought was “Wow! What if Joseph had annulled the contract; Jesus would have been a mumzer!” (Yiddish and Hebrew word for bastard. My retired Jewish friend uses the word all the time to describe people who are real shitheads. “He’s a real mumzer.”) So when I got home, I Googled a little and learned some of the “rules” for betrothal in ancient Jewish society, what the problem of being pregnant, but not by the betrothed, or the husband, and the implications of being a bastard in the society of the day.

Technically, there is no specific prohibition in the Torah against premarital sex, which is kind of interesting in itself. However, when you look at the fact the marriage contract as literally a transferal of property, it certainly is of value with regard to the bride price. Ancient Judaism is sorta funny in that regard. Women have rights with regards to sex, marital property, etc. but there are also glaring things that sort of have that “women as property” air to them.

Traditional Judaism strongly condemns the irresponsibility of sex outside of marriage. It is interesting, though, that althought it is considered to be improper and immoral, it is not technically a sin. In fact, to prevent such relations, Orthodox Jewish law prohibits an unmarried, unrelated man and woman from being alone long enough to have sexual relations. But these laws come from the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, not from the Torah. They are rabbinic interpretations of the law. But the rub is, once you are betrothed, you’re as good as married and the laws of marriage apply, with the exception that, if you find out you got a damaged bill of goods, you can annul the contract.

Here’s what I came up with about betrothal under ancient Jewish law (thank you, Wikipedia!):

There are three ways for a Jewish couple to become betrothed (Mishna, Tractate Kiddushin 1:1):

1. With money (as when a man hands a woman an object of value, such as a ring or a coin, for the purpose of contracted marriage, and in the presence of two witnesses, and she actively accepts—basically the “bride price”);
2. Through a written contract (shtar) containing the betrothal declaration phrased as "through this contract"; or
3. By sex with the intention of creating a bond of marriage; a method strongly discouraged by the rabbinic sages and intended only for levirate marriages (where the brother marries the widow to preserve family property rights and some sort of status for the widow).

So at the very least, Joseph could declare the contract null and void b/c he had not had sex with her, and she was knocked up. In the worst case scenario, her pregnancy could have been used as proof of adultery, and he could have had her stoned. Pretty heavy stuff!

Mamzer (actually pronounced "mumzer") is the Hebrew word for bastard. Technically in Jewish law that refers to either the issue of an adulterous relationship OR incest. I doubt most people realize how tough it was in ancient times to be a mamzer.

1. A mamzer and his or her descendants are not allowed to marry a regular (non-mamzer) Jewish spouse. He or she is permitted to marry only another mamzer, a convert to Judaism, or (in the case of a man) a non-Jewish female slave. Even today in modern Israel, mamzerim are not allowed to marry Jews.

2. The children of a mamzer, whether male or female, are mamzerim; likewise their children are mamzerim forever. (The old “sins of the father” argument).

3. Mamzerim were prohibited from entering the Temple.

4. They were not allowed to be taught Torah.

5. A mamzer's house and grave were painted white to point him out, even in death.

6. According to a source in Toldot Yeshu, mamzerim in some Jewish communities were shaved bald so they were set apart from the rest of the community in many aspects of daily life. Not quite as bad as being a leper, I suppose, but close.

The topic today made me think about Joseph as a “real man.” A mensch, as it were. Joseph had to be one hell of a true-hearted guy to do what he did. A brave guy. A tough guy. I mean, think about it, in the “What if Jesus had been born in Kirksville?” mode. All the neighbors in Nazareth, you know they figured out Mary was pregnant before she got married. Word would have gotten out somehow. I can’t believe Joseph didn’t confide to someone the predicament. Someone had to get wind of the suspicion that Joseph wasn't the father. People in town are going, “What a wuss. He could have gotten rid of her and got him a REAL virgin. What does he see in that little slut, anyway?” Then, after Jesus is born, you KNOW everyone in town is looking at him and wondering who Jesus looks like. There HAD to be rumors. Who knows, maybe Joseph even had to clobber some asshole with a 2x4 over it now and then when some wise-ass got too smart mouthed.

And you KNOW even Joseph himself had to have his moments where he wondered what kind of fool he was, buying an angel’s statement in a dream. I’m sure he believed the integrity of the dream overall, because dreams are very important to people of that time, but there just had to be the occasional bad day for Joseph in that regard.

So it certainly makes a great “what if” story, and since we really don’t know squat about Joseph historically, it really drives home that he had to be a pretty solid kind of guy!


Just the other day I picked up a book that talked about Jesus being a mamzer. It was clear to me that Jesus parentage was in dispute by the way He was treated on several occasions in scripture. Maybe you and I are the only ones who see this fact. I know that Jesus was the Son of God but that would have been hard to prove to the local town folk. If there is a point to this it is this. This was a tremendous wall to overcome, and he did it without sin. I cannot say that I would have done the same. This goes to show the absolutely amazing grace and mercy that God bestows on us. Perhaps this explains some of Jesus reactions, and why He sought out marginal people. He blatantly violated the oral laws all the time.

Don't worry. Even if your "saviour" is an non-issue in our literature, our Sages always knew who Yoshkele a momzer was.

I suspect the book you're talking about is Bruce Chilton's biography of Jesus, "Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography", Image Books, Doubleday.

A good read, historically factual; but as others before him, Chilton misses the real point; that though Jesus, son of man, was possibly a mamser by our earthly standards, Jesus, Son of Abba, was Christ in denying mortal mind any power to rule that which is created by our heavenly father; MAN, created in HIS image and likeness.

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But the important point is that he wasn't Jewish, and definitely wasn't a rabbi. There were NO unmarried rabbis in Jesus' time, and the reason he remained unmarried is simple: he was forbidden from marrying into the Jewish community for 10 generations, and had he married, it would have to be to another mamzer or non-Jew.

From the age of 12 to 30, rabbis would have studied with another rabbi in the community, who was known to the community. In the New Testament, the non-Jewish Jesus disappears for 18 years. Had he not done so, his mamzer status would have been clear.



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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