Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave?

Heritage Images
Heritage Images

The Christmas season celebrates, as we all know, the birth of Jesus. But it is also one of the few times in the year when many Christians think and talk about Mary, his mother. A fixture in crèches, and the undoubted lead in Nativity plays, Mary is as much the focus of the Christmas story as Christ. But very little is known about the young woman whom religious tradition remembers as the “mother of God.” Centuries of careful theological speculation have described her status and capacity for sin, but a scholarly theory hypothesizes that Mary may have been enslaved.

Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA and Professor Extraordinarius, Institute of Gender Studies, University of South Africa, has published an article on Mary as an enslaved woman in her co-edited volume Bitter the Chastening Rod. This and other pieces build upon the work of South African scholar Winsome Munro and are part of her soon-to-be-published book, Re-Reading the Lukan Jesus for Liberation: Anointed Abolitionist, Born of the Doulē Called Mary (Cascade Books). Smith talked to The Daily Beast about the project.

Some readers will be shocked by Smith’s suggestion. How could we think that Mary was enslaved? Well, the answer is that she says as much. The Gospel that provides the most information about Mary is the Gospel of Luke. (In fact, according to later tradition, Luke had met Mary and she served as his source for information about the events leading up to and including the birth of Jesus.) When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Luke 1 and told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, Mary responded by identifying herself as a “doule” a Greek word that unambiguously means “enslaved girl” (Luke 1:38). If we were reading any other ancient text written in Greek, we would assume that Mary was enslaved.

As Smith told me, “Any first-century reader, of any ethnicity, culture or religion, living under the Roman empire—a slave society where a significant segment of the population was enslaved and an empire that relied on enslaved labor—would have taken Mary’s self-designation as an enslaved woman seriously and as a declaration of her material or physical lived reality and not simply as a metaphor. And we should, too.”

The Gospel of Luke was written, in the best scholarly estimates, some time between A.D. 70-120. This was a period, Smith said, when Jewish people were enslaved in large numbers (for example in the aftermath of the First Jewish War, when 97,000 residents of Jerusalem and its environs were captured). As Professor Catherine Hezser has shown in her book Jewish Slavery in Antiquity, ancient Jews also practiced slaveholding. Slavery would have been an easy and natural frame of reference for anyone who heard this story.

The problem is that this is not how English translations (or other modern translations) render the Greek. The New Revised Standard Version, for example, reads: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The problem, Smith said, is that when translators approach the text they come to it with their own set of relatively modern culturally determined biases. Bear in mind that when the masculine form of “enslaved person” (doulos) is found in the Gospel of Luke it has consistently been translated as “slave.”

The translational hiccup is bigger than just English versions of the Gospel of Luke. As Clarice Martin, Smith, and others have noted, translators understand doulos to mean an enslaved person in almost every instance it appears in the New Testament. The exceptions are those occasions when it refers to someone we understand to be theologically important (e.g. Mary, Moses, the apostle Paul, or the disciples) or people with whom Christians identify (e.g. followers of Jesus in general). Translating doulos as “servant,” writes Martin, “minimizes the full psychological weight of the institution of slavery itself.” There’s nothing emancipatory about altering Mary’s social status: doing this obscures the realities of ancient people’s lives.

The question of Mary’s status has some important ramifications for how we think about Jesus himself. As Smith told me, “In any slave society, a child born to an enslaved woman is born enslaved” in other words “Mary’s child, Jesus, is born enslaved.” This facet of Jesus’s socio-economic status can explain other details in his biography, explained Smith. Take, for instance, the fact that Jesus did not seem to have been active before the age of 30. Under legislation passed in A.D. 4. by the emperor Augustus, 30 was the age of manumission for enslaved men (though women, and many men, waited much longer, if not the entirety of their lives, for freedom). Viewing Jesus as formerly enslaved can help explain why he waited to begin his ministry.

When I asked her what her work means for our understanding of Jesus, Smith told me that this lens “situates Jesus at the bottom of the society into which he was born. He lived in stigmatized flesh like so many other people during his lifetime and beyond, including Black people, people of color, poor people, immigrants, and so on. This Lukan interpretation for many marginalized peoples and peoples whose ancestors were enslaved [this] means that God did not save or exempt his son from that which God did not exempt or save our ancestors.” The injustice of the world is an injustice that Jesus himself experienced. The putative enslavement of Jesus creates ethical demands for Christians today. Smith said that “Many people today still suffer” as victims of enslavement and human trafficking “Although their captives dehumanize them, they are God’s children whom we must fight to free.”

Even with this pastoral take away, some readers might still be shocked by the theory. They might prefer to see this language as “just a metaphor” and feel that even raising the possibility of “real enslavement” is blasphemy. If that’s you then you don’t have to come around on this point. Many scholars (full disclosure: I am among them) hold that the Gospel of Luke is historically removed from events in the life of Jesus and, thus, isn’t a great source for the specifics of his life. But it is worth asking yourself, why are we so horrified by the possibility that Mary (and, by extension Jesus) was enslaved? To put it bluntly: we have better scriptural evidence for Mary’s enslaved status than we do the ideal of her perpetual virginity, her traditional blue attire, or her doctrinal status as “Mother of God.”

Given all of that we should wonder what ideological and cultural commitments animate the erasure of this aspect of her identity here? Spoiler: it’s racism and classism. European Christians have spent 1,500 years thinking of Mary as the (white) Queen of Heaven, and this revelation doesn’t really fit with that. Recognizing that Luke portrays Mary as enslaved does not jeopardize any of the lofty theological claims that are made about her in Christian churches. The foundations of Christianity aren’t shaking. So why are people worried about social status when we should be concerned about exploitation? Ultimately, maybe, this isn’t about theology or history: It’s about our values and ourselves.

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