Historical Cultural Context
Virginity & Honor
In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and a woman who found themselves alone together would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care (Sir 26:10-12).
There are a variety of strategies for carrying out this concern. One is to ensure that a woman is always in the company of other women and children (girls and boys) younger than the age of puberty. Another is the structure of the houses where the inner room or courtyard secluded from the view of people (men) in the outside world is reserved as the proper place for unmarried women.
In Luke’s account of the annunciation, a presumably masculine angel visits Mary who seems to be quite alone. Very likely, she is in the innermost quarters of her family’s home, the proper place for an unmarried young woman. The angel is an intruder, and the scene would strike any Mediterranean person as suspicious, angel notwithstanding.
”Moreover, Mary is betrothed (a more accurate word than the misleading “engaged”) to Joseph. Betrothal was a family event rather than an event between two individuals. Marriage in the ancient Middle East was arranged by the parents with the intention of joining and strengthening two families.
In Middle Eastern villages today, the marriage contract is negotiated by the mothers to make certain the families are of equal status and that neither family is taking advantage of the other. The patriarchs will ultimately ratify what has been negotiated.
Mary thus finds herself in an embarrassing and potentially shameful situation. Should anything happen to her in the family home, her father and brothers would be shamed for not taking proper care of her (see Sir 42:9-10). The family’s shame would increase on the marriage evening if no tokens of virginity could be produced (see Dt 22:13-21).
Notice that despite all the honorable assurances from the messenger, Mary is still properly concerned about her honor status: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She is fully aware of the significance and consequences of the angel’s message. In a flash, she recognizes the new challenges that will emerge in her betrothal and the crisis into which this pregnancy could throw both families (see Dt 22:13-21 and Num 5:11-31).
The angel reminds Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mediterraneans recognize in the angel’s explanation two indications that God is going to play the role of traditional husband for Mary. He will “empower” her (“the spirit will come upon you”) and “protect” her (“overshadow you”), two duties of a Middle Eastern husband. The meaning is not lost on Mary, the Mediterranean maiden.
Her concluding remark is a typical Middle Eastern cultural response when one has lost an argument, or decides to conclude a discussion that is going nowhere. The sentiment “let it be done to me according to your word” is more commonly stated, “As you wish.” At this stage of the story, there still remains much for Mary to face. She may be as perplexed after the angel departs as she was when he arrived.
Historians frequently point to figures in the ancient world whose origins sound just like Jesus. For instance, Asclepius, the healing deity, had a human mother, Coronis (or Arsinoe), and a divine father, Apollo. From their twentieth-century, theologically enlightened perspective, modern Christians find the fact that Jesus had no human father not to be troubling.
Attempting to enter the first-century world and culture of Palestine to understand and appreciate this scene in Luke leads to a more sympathetic view of the unsettling experience it must have been for Mary. Even for saints, faith is not easy.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University