Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

December 2000
Immaculate misconceptions
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column AT THIS TIME of year, we often hear about the birth of Jesus, but rarely about his parents. When we do, they're usually characterized as simple people who just go along with things and smile in a simpering fashion as their little darling is born into the world.

And everything is clean and comfortable and lovely and nice.

Of course, that's just one take on the story and it isn't even the way things are told in the Bible. Predictably, the Apocryphal Gospels give us an account that is very different.

OUR FRIEND Pseudo-Matthew, which you may remember as the "other Gospel of Matthew", tells us that Mary, when only three years old, decided to join the nearest convent and be a nun.

At this point, we would expect Joachim and Anna, Mary's parents, to say, "what's a convent?" since the first one was founded over 350 years later. Instead, they say, "If that's what you want, dear," and take her to the nearest convent where she decides to be a virgin and spends her time being perfect and saintly, as you do.

Eventually, when Mary is 12, someone comes along and tells her she's got to be married, at which Mary bridles, having decided to be a virgin, sex being something that nasty horrid people do.

However, she's forced into it. Enter Joseph, an elderly carpenter of Nazareth, who despite his extreme old age, is told by an angel to marry Mary. Mary comes along to Joseph's house, but brings all her nun friends from the convent to keep her chin up.

Pseudo-Matthew does not record Joseph's reaction to the invasion of his home by half the convent. Which is a shame.

ANYWAY, ONE DAY the Angel Gabriel appears, and reveals that Mary is with child. Now in the official account that ended up in the Bible, Joseph thinks about marrying Mary anyway and divorcing her quietly. Nobody else makes any fuss at all and they get away with it.

Not so in Pseudo-Matthew, where the story gets out. There is a massive outcry and Mary is accused of defiling herself, no doubt by those members of the town's majority who have spent the last few years looking for something, anything, to pin on her.

So the people of Nazareth take Joseph and Mary to the temple... and make them drink some magic water. Apparently, the plan is that you drink the magic water and walk around the altar seven times, and everybody knows if you're guilty or not.

Pseudo-Matthew doesn't say how. He just says that God shows a sign on the guilty man's face, whatever that means. Anyway, vindicated by the magic water, the people of Nazareth fall to their knees and beg forgiveness.

THE STORY FOLLOWS the usual lines until the birth of Jesus, in the stable. Joseph is not present in Pseudo-Matthew's version, preferring to get a couple of midwives, who come back to find Jesus already born.

The first midwife examines Mary and finds that she has experienced no pain in the birth, and no blood has been shed. The second midwife, understandably sceptical, says, "here, let me have a look." And as soon as she's done, her hand seizes up and withers away, a punishment from heaven for not believing the first time.

But it all turns out OK, because the midwife prays for forgiveness and Baby Jesus touches the midwife's hand and heals it.

So Mary's happy, unfazed, and completely clean, the baby is shining and doesn't need to be changed, and Joseph and the midwives affect soppy grins. And everything is clean and comfortable and lovely and nice.

Hang on – isn't this where we started?

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