Describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “an unwed teenage mother” has become too common to escape critique. It’s a favorite trope of a former governor of Arkansas who happens to be running for president.

Painting of the
Painting of the “Annunciation” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

But his comparison was more cute than critical in focusing on superficial similarities at the expense of deep distinctions.

No doubt the governor was sincere in making the connection, but do unwed, pregnant teens really have much to do with the true meaning of the virgin birth?

Casting Mary as unwed teen mom could of course be one way to illustrate the difficulties she experienced in explaining herself to those around her. Matthew and Luke, however, aren’t very interested in that angle– Joseph is the only one who matters and he only in Matthew– no time is spent on any others.

Another motive might be to commend young, unwed mothers who choose not to abort their children.

Mary unwed teen mother tee shirt
Image possibly copyrighted. User here in critical commentary is fair use.

That’s certainly worthy of some praise; but if that’s the intent, then Mary would be “the unwed mom who kept her child,” which just doesn’t work very well from a sentimental standpoint.

In any case, the notion of Mary as “an unwed teenage mother” assumes Mary’s unwed pregnancy is somehow commensurable with the pregnancies of today’s unwed teenagers.

It is not.

The insinuation of “unwed teen mother” into the biblical account of Jesus’ birth takes that story in a direction its author never intended to go and where the similarities between then and now are largely superficial. Important distinctions are overlooked in the process. Here are a few:

First and most obvious, Mary was a virgin– today’s pregnant, unwed teenagers are not. Virginity was a status symbol then. Today it’s not.

Mary’s existing “engagement” to Joseph was a formal contract that included major features of marriage; e.g., sexual relations between Mary and another man during her betrothal would have been considered adultery; death of Joseph or Mary during the betrothal would have rendered the other a widow or widower. The biggest differences were (1) no sexual relations during betrothal and (2) the woman remained with her parents until marriage. The terms “husband” and “wife” may even have been used for betrothed couples. Mt 1:20 could thus be translated “take home Mary your wife” versus “take home Mary as your wife”– the “as” in the latter being added by the translator.

While much is commonly made of Mary’s shame in the whole matter of Jesus’ conception, it appears that Joseph either absorbed or deflected that shame. Needless to say, none of this applies to today’s unwed, pregnant teens– not the existence of a formal bond with the father of the child nor the action of the father to rescue mother and child from public humiliation.

Mary was not a teenager. Teenagers did not exist in the ancient world. Thus the casting of Mary as a teenager is anachronistic in imposing a modern-day development on the past.

As an adult, Mary would have been held fully accountable and stigmatized for her situation. Unwed teenagers today are not.

Mary’s unwed pregnancy was in accord with God’s purposes. Unwed teenage pregnancies today are not.

Mary’s unwed pregnancy was blessed. Unwed pregnancies today are not– an unfortunate thing has already happened and that misfortune will most likely cascade into other misfortunes.

And on and on . . . .

Perhaps the most interesting point of agreement between Mary and at least some of today’s unwed, pregnant teens is that neither wound up marrying the true father of her child. Here again though, the difference is more important than the similarity.

Other points of similarity would include that both Mary and today’s unwed, pregnant teens “brought it on themselves” by their choices in life while at the same time also being captive to an inherited way of life they could not control or fully understand. Both were subordinated to the “pleasure” of the one who “impregnated” them. Once again though, differences dominate the comparison.

So the description of Mary as an unwed teenager is cute but not kind. It may sound deeply insightful, but it is profoundly unhelpful in its diversion away from needed truths into gratuitous and inept sentimentality– gratuitous in its irrelevancy to the meaning of Jesus’ birth and inept in its attempt at making something better while actually making things worse.

Deviancies that continually go unchallenged will eventually be celebrated. At the risk of sounding harsh, unwed pregnancies used to be understood as deviant. They no longer are. Rather, they are fast approaching celebration. The conflation of Mary’s pregnancy with the pregnancies of unwed teens goes with that flow. Mary’s pregnancy, however, was something to celebrate. The pregnancies of unmarried teens are not.

None of the above is meant to say that the birth of any child is unwanted. Rather, it is to object to an insidious form of moral confusion that subtly operates to increase the number of children born into difficult circumstances.


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*Revised and reposted from Dec 25, 2008.

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6 Comments on Mary, unwed teenage mother?

  1. Arline Saiki says:

    Mary is believed to have been about 14 or 15 years old at the time of her betrothal, that would make her a teen. But my understanding is that “espousal” at that time was a de facto marriage which is why Joseph had to “divorce” her in order to get rid of her.

    • wtb says:

      Hi Arline,

      The teenage social role developed in the U.S. after WWII. Prior to that, people were either children or adults.

      The teenage social role imposes an artificial immaturity on young people. But we’ve become so used to that infantilization we find it hard to believe people in their early teens can (and should) behave like adults.

      David Farragut, for example, led a party to take command of a captured warship when he was 12! Thomas Edison was a publisher. Ben Franklin was an apprenticed printer. And on and on . . .

      So yes, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was numerically a “teen.” But she was not a “teenager” in the present sense of the word. The difference is well-documented.

      See Psychologically Relevant.

      Also, see “The Teenage Mystique.”

      On the need for Joseph to “put Mary away,” I think you may be using “de facto” incorrectly. “De facto” normally contrasts with “de jure.” The latter “concerns law.” The former “concerns fact.” If the relationship between Joseph and Mary were “de facto marriage,” then they would be living as husband and wife as a matter of fact, but not as a matter of law. That would be exactly the opposite of what actually occurred. Instead, their relationship was a “matter of law” that specifically did NOT include living together as a “matter of fact.”

      Thanks for your comment!

      Bill Brewer

  2. Sel says:

    Mary was a unwed mother who gave birth to (by all rational reckoning) a gay son. I don’t understand why religious zealots so hate their own heritage.

    • wtb says:

      Hi Sel,

      I would object to both your logic and your facts — not to mention the feigning of ignorance to further a falsehood. No sale!

  3. Angelo says:

    All this pointless debate on the notion of “immaculate conception” is idiotic.

    It’s already been shown that the story of a virgin birth was nothing more than the mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “young girl” to “virgin” and the editors who created the new testament under order by Emperor Constantine capitalizing on this notion to elevate the status of Jesus’ birth to a supernatural one.

    Basically a marketing ploy as were many of the decisions for editing the story of Jesus and the new testament so that it would “sell” to the Romans who were being forced by Constantine to become Christian.

    The story of Jesus was manipulated to be very similar to the story of the Roman god Mithras, worshiped by the ruling and military elite so that it was easy for them to accept.

    This is also why Jesus’ birthday is celebrated in December to co-inside with the Roman midwinter celebration of the Solstice which was by far the most important holiday to Romans.

    It’s sad how little self proclaimed Christians actually know about their own religion. They’re all too content to simply take the bible at face value and base their entire lives on something without even questioning or taking the time to find out where it came from.

    • wtb says:

      Hi Angelo,

      My post is not really about the “immaculate conception,” but since you bring it up, let me make a few points on it and your other comments.

      First of all, “immaculate conception” is not about the conception of Jesus — it’s about the conception of Mary. If you intent is to persuade, then I would suggest a tone of truth-seeking rather than of intimidation aggravated by misinformation (cf. “idiotic”).

      The translation of the Hebrew word for “young woman” (“almah”) into the Greek word for “virgin” (“parthenos”) in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) occurred sometime between the third and second century BCE. Since the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into the LXX probably knew the nuances of both languages better than any scholar alive today and since we can’t be sure of the Hebrew text those scholars used in their translation, it is a bit presumptuous to label their choice of words as a “mistranslation.” All translations are “mistranslations” in that semantic fields of words between two languages never completely match.

      Ancient Jews considered the LXX to be inspired, but ancient Christians exploited it so effectively that ancient Jews eventually abandoned the LXX in favor of lesser Greek translations.

      New Testament documents trace back to the first century. Christians deemed those documents as authoritative long before Constantine was ever born. Constantine was more interested in Christian unity than the content of Christian doctrine.

      In all, you misrepresent two historical developments separated by four-to-five centuries as if they were one grand conspiracy.

      Then you bring up Mithras. But scholarship is all over the map on the connection with Christianity — yet amazingly, you are so confident of your position.

      In any case, the scholarly momentum/direction is in favor of Christianity. Confrontation is more important than conception and direction is more important than derivation. Rhetoric demands the use of “common places” in persuasion. To advance a worldview, devotees necessarily have to exploit the symbols, imagery, and ideas of the prevailing culture. Christianity accordingly confronted and opposed Mithraism. Yes, the two religions had some similarities — but also huge differences.

      Yes, Dec 25 (and Jan 6) were identified with a pagan religion(s). But ancient Christians laid claim to those days and redefined them in terms of Christianity. You see that as a deceit. I see it as an act of power. What about the cross? Rome used it to terrorize those whom it conquered. Christianity turned it into a sign of salvation. Does that exposure of a connection between Christianity and Roman culture undermine Christian truth claims? Hardly — rather, it upholds them.

      Yes, it “is sad how little self-proclaimed Christians actually know about their own religion.”

      And yes, they are “all too content to simply take the bible at face value and base their entire lives on something without even questioning or taking the time to find out where it came from.”

      But there are worse things. It is “folk foolishness” to give credence to the arguably false “facts” of the debunking genre so aptly exemplified in “The Da Vinci Code” and similar works.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Best Regards,


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