Div School Professor Refutes New Testament Justification for Sexual Harassment of Teens

Much of Divinity School professor Margaret Mitchell’s work has sought to “problematize” the perceived simplicity of declaring a Biblical interpretation as literal or allegorical.

By Caroline Kubzansky, Managing Editor ('20-'21)

In a Time article last Friday, University Divinity School professor Margaret Mitchell delivered a rebuke to a New Testament justification of Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual harassment of teens.

In response to allegations that Moore sexually assaulted or harassed six teenage girls while in his thirties, Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler argued that Mary was a teenager while Joseph was an adult in his twenties to explain Moore’s actions.

Mitchell, a professor of the New Testament and early Christian literature, said in an interview with The Maroon that although Mary may be a teenager—according to the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James, which tells the story of Mary’s early life—no piece of early Christian literature states Joseph’s age.

Any emphasis on an age difference was likely intended to make the circumstances of Jesus’ birth seem more extraordinary, Mitchell argued.

“It does call her a parthenos, which is a word that means a young girl, but also can refer to the status of young girl as virgin, that is as one who hasn’t yet had sexual congress,” she said.

Mitchell also said that while Ziegler may have been making a literal appeal to the New Testament, he neglected the fact that the text’s writers emphasize the abnormality of Mary and Joseph’s relationship, and in doing so, Ziegler inverted its meaning.

“The whole point of the gospel narratives about the conception and birth of Jesus is that this is not the norm. The whole point of the story is that this is not the way life goes…. He’s reading against the grain of the text,” she said.

Though the historical Joseph was likely significantly older than Mary, the Infancy Gospel of James states that Joseph was afraid to marry Mary for fear of ridicule. So he left her at home for four years after marriage, during which time she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

This would make Mary’s age at conception 16.

“In the text, Mary is twelve when betrothed, Joseph is a widower who already has children, and he’s old and grumpy and he doesn’t really want to do this, and he’s not even home when she conceives,” Mitchell said.

Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court Justice who has been elected to and removed from the Court twice, is running for the seat Jeff Sessions vacated in order to become attorney general. Despite the accusations, Moore has said that he will not drop out of the Senate race.

Mitchell, whose work centers on the New Testament and Christian literature up to the fourth century, has also done research on the American religious right’s interpretation of the Bible.

Much of her work has sought to problematize the perceived simplicity of declaring a Biblical interpretation as literal or allegorical.

“One of the characteristic features…of the Christian right [is] that they declare that they take the Bible literally, and in general the American press accepts that self-claim as if it’s completely accurate,” Mitchell said.

“One of the crucial steps of Biblical interpretation is choosing what you think is relevant to what you want to talk about. Is everything in the Bible equally relevant to modern American society? The New Testament also recognizes chattel slavery.”

Mitchell added that any conversation centering around Biblical precedents in the 21st century is likely to be anachronistic, and the defense of a political candidate—even a candidate who has made his career into a crusade for Biblical fidelity—is more nuanced than simply drawing a direct comparison between his actions and Biblical events.

“The problem of how an ancient text…can be brought into the modern discussions is much more complicated than throwing proof texts around,” she said.