“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” said Jim Zeigler, the state auditor of Alabama, defending Roy Moore against allegations of pedophilia. Zeigler has been roundly chastised for the blasphemous nature of his remark.
His statement is striking in another respect. Consider that it was made by a “Bible-believing born-again Christian,” as Zeigler describes himself on Facebook. His assumptions about certain attributes of Jesus’s legal parents are as familiar as a Nativity scene on a Christmas card but cannot be sourced to the Bible. Their origins are in extra-scriptural tradition. A Bible-believing born-again Christian who is a true Protestant should cast a skeptical eye toward it, at least in theory.
Nowhere in the Bible is Mary’s age at the time of her betrothal attested. Neither is Joseph’s.
All we know from the New Testament is that, when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, Joseph was an aner (Matt. 1:19), a man. He could have been in his teens though past puberty, eligible to marry; aner is also the word for “husband” or “husband-to-be.”
Mary was a parthenos (Luke 1:27), a marriageable young woman — in most translations, “a virgin.” How young? She could have been 20. She could have been 30, for all that Luke or any other New Testament author tells us.
Granted, for a man to be that much younger than his wife would have defied social norms, and it would contradict our traditional image of the Holy Family, but nothing in the Bible disallows the possibility that Mary and Joseph were about the same age — or even that she was older.
(“And behold,” the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “your cousin Elizabeth, even she herself [kai autes] has conceived a son in her old age.” Well, the emphatic force of “even she herself” applies only to “has conceived a son” and not to “in her old age”: That’s the traditional way of reading that verse [Luke 1:36], but what sway would tradition have over a Christian who followed the doctrine of sola scriptura? By the way, Zeigler’s desperate assertion that “Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth” is baseless. Neither Scripture nor tradition supports it. Luke tells us that both Zachariah and Elizabeth were old when she conceived the child who became John the Baptist. That’s all.)
The earliest literary source (or the earliest one I know of) for the view of Mary as a young teen and of Joseph as much older — in some depictions he looks almost elderly as he prays over the infant Jesus in the manger — is the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal work from the middle of the second century a.d. There Mary is said to have been 14 when she conceived Jesus (9:23), and Joseph at that time says of himself that he is “an old man with children” (8:13). Sacred art and extra-scriptural literature reinforce the image and have become the lens through which we see (or think we see) the text of the gospels.
That a Bible-believing born-again Christian accepts a pious tradition that lacks biblical corroboration is a sign that he rejects sola scriptura and agrees with Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and other Christians who read Scripture in light of the early Church Fathers and those who have built on their work over the generations. Or that he agrees with them when he thinks it’s convenient for scoring a political point in the culture war. Zeigler is eyeing a race for the governorship of Alabama.