Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Child marriage"

On Christmas Eve, Randal Rauser did a post on whether Mary was too young to get married:

The post, as well as feedback in the combox, raises ethical issues regarding "child marriage," pedophilia, statutory rape, age of consent, &c. I'd add that these issues also come into play with respect to Islam generally, and Muhammad in particular.

i) It wouldn't surprise me if Rauser denies the virgin birth. But I wouldn't expect him to tip his hand on that if it jeopardized his job security.

ii) I think "child marriage" is ambiguous. A child marriage could refer to a marriage that's arranged by their respective parents when the couple are prepubescent, but that doesn't entail that they live as husband and wife at that time. It just means the boy and girl are betrothed to each other. The actual marriage ceremony, and consummation, may be years later, when both are teenagers. "Child marriage" in that sense needs to be distinguished from child marriage in the sense of prepubescent conjugal relations. 

In addition, we need to distinguish between cases where both parties are "children" or marriage between a "child" and an adult. 

iii) In the 1C, mortality rates were much higher. It that regard, it was pragmatic to marry younger since you might not get the chance if you waited. You couldn't count on having a normal lifespan. That wasn't even probable. 

iv) To say adolescents are psychologically immature for marriage is anachronistic in the context of 1C Judaism. This isn't like a modern nuclear marriage. Rather, child-rearing generally took place in the context of an extended family, in which there were lots of helping hands and seasoned advice.

Likewise, in cultures with a rigid social structure, your roles and duties are preassigned. You don't have to make as many personal decisions as the couple in a nuclear family, because the social blueprint makes many of those decisions for you. I'm not saying that's necessarily a good think. It depends, in part, on the social blueprint. 

v) Rauser's treatment is oddly one-sided, with its sustained emphasis on girls rather than boys. There's a common bias in cases like that. If the adult is male and the teenager is female, that's rape–but if the adult is female and the teenager is male, "the boy got lucky."

vi) I think a bigger problem with early adolescent motherhood is less about psychology than physiology. Because her body is smaller and underdeveloped at that age, I believe that raises the risk of medical complications in gestation and childbirth.

In the case of Mary, she'd enjoy special providential protection. And in any event, we don't know how old she was. 

vii) Statutory rape laws and age of consent laws can be technicalities. The threshold is somewhat arbitrary. That generates borderline cases. If an 18-year-old girl has premarital sex with a 17-year-old boy, that's technically statutory rape, yet the transaction is clearly consensual.

Any legal age will be somewhat arbitrary, but you can't have these laws without a stipulated age, so that's a necessary and justifiable consequence of having such laws in the first place.  We ought to have such laws. But enforcement of the law should make allowance for the arbitrary cutoff, and focus on clear-cut examples rather than marginal cases.

vii) A natural threshold is puberty. That's when the libido kicks in. That's when both parties may find sexual activity appealing. That's very different than forcing sexual relations onto a prepubescent boy or girl.

Indeed, adolescent sexuality is a common problem precisely because many adolescents initiate sexual encounters. The sex drive makes that consensual. 

That doesn't make it an optimal age for marriage. And you can have medical conditions like precocious puberty where sexual activity would be premature. But pathological conditions don't set the bar. 

ix) Because Joseph is out of the picture during the public ministry of Christ, it's common to speculate that he had died by them, which leads to the further speculation that he was much older than Mary. That, however, is a very dubious postulate. In the 1C, in the absence of modern medical science, it was far more common for people to die young from accidents or disease. 

Likewise, it may simply be the case that Mary was more involved her son's life than Joseph. He was just the step-dad. 

x) As a rule, I'd say marriage in early adolescence is inadvisable. 

Keep in mind that nowadays, in the West, we don't have arranged marriage, and couples often marry in their twenties or later, yet the divorce rate is very high. 

Conversely, I have an older cousin who married at 15. She's now about 80, and still married to her first husband. 

1 comment:

  1. If Mary wasn't old enough to be married, then I guess Rauser is implying that marriage among Judean Jews at the time was *typically* wrong. Not just that the age range _could_ go too low. After all, we don't know anything about Mary's age other than that she was a virgin espoused to Joseph. If there was a typical age range of, say, 14-19, why assume that she was on the low end?

    Actually, I think it's pretty clear that Joseph was dead by time of Jesus' ministry. It's actually one of the most interesting undesigned coincidences, because so many different passages fit together in a quiet, unstated way to lead to that conclusion. The commitment of Mary to the care of the beloved disciple at the cross seems like a knock-down, in any event. And notice the continued pattern of his absence from the early church in Acts 1, where the typical phrase "his mother and brethren" is carried over from the gospels.

    But as you say, that doesn't mean that Joseph was far older than Mary. That would be a _very_ weak inference.

    The idea of Joseph as much older than Mary was fostered by apocryphal gospels and the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Certainly they were using the appearance in the gospels that Joseph was already dead, but they ran much farther with it. Some even made him much older so he could have had a previous marriage and so Jesus' brothers and sisters mentioned in the Bible could be Joseph's children from his earlier marriage!

    I suppose one could try to make an argument from the verse in Matthew that calls him "a just man" that he was not somewhere around his late teens, but I think that would be stretching it. Any idea that a young man of 18 or so can't be "a just man," burdened with heavy questions like what to do about his pregnant fiance, would be an anachronistic projection of our own cultural norms.