WASHINGTON – An Alabama state official is citing the Bible to defend the Republican U.S. Senate candidate accused of sexual advances on girls. State auditor Jim Ziegler says "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter," suggesting that Roy Moore acted in a divine tradition if he in fact made sexual advances toward a 14-year-old girl.
Theologians and pastors, among others, expressed revulsion that Mary and Joseph would be used to counter allegations of sexual misbehavior with a minor. They also said Ziegler got the facts wrong and ignored the cultural context of the time in which Jesus lived.
"If this is evangelicalism, I'm on the wrong team," the evangelical commentator Ed Stetzer wrote in Christianity Today. "But it is not. Christians don't use Joseph and Mary to explain child molesting accusations."
Moore, a 70-year-old former state Supreme Court justice, flatly denied allegations of decades-old sexual advances on girls, published Thursday in a Washington Post story. The accounts by multiple women prompted Republican lawmakers to say he should end his candidacy for the Dec. 12 special election if the allegations are true. "I have never engaged in sexual misconduct," Moore said Friday.
But Ziegler was dismissive about the fuss. "There's just nothing immoral or illegal here," he told the Washington Examiner. "Maybe just a little bit unusual."
Rev. Jim Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America, tweeted Friday that "comparing the allegations against Roy Moore in any way to Joseph and Mary is disgusting." Martin said: "We have no idea about the exact ages of either the Virgin Mary or St. Joseph at the time of their betrothal or marriage."
The Bible does not state the ages of Joseph and Mary, agrees Margaret M. Mitchell, a professor of early Christian literature and the New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Under ancient norms and apparently under first century Roman and Jewish law, she said, it was apparently common for girls 12 and older to be betrothed, though practice varied by region, social class and more.
She said the earliest text to mention Mary's age is "The Infancy Gospel of James," which she describes as "a clearly legendary text that is trying to expand on the gospel accounts." That non-authoritative text placed Mary's age at 12 when she conceived and it cited supposed evidence of her enduring virginity to demonstrate she conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse.
Similarly, Mitchell said by email, "We have no idea how old the historical Joseph was, though a tradition that he was very old developed in the second century and beyond." The point of that, too, was to support the idea of the virgin birth — Joseph perhaps being too old to impregnate Mary.
Such theories were "fanciful expansions on the Gospel narratives," Mitchell said. But they add a "veneer of solemnity ... that may allow a modern Christian like Mr Z (Ziegler) to gloss over what it means for a 12 or 14 year old girl to be viewed as and used as a sexual vessel."
Martin, in tweets, said: "Joseph is often depicted in art as older than Mary, in fact, considerably older, so as to make him seem less 'sexualized,' and to emphasize Mary's virginity. But, in fact, both Mary and Joseph could have been the same age."
Leigh Corfman told the Post she was 14 when Moore first approached her and took her to his home twice, the second time touching her over her bra and panties and having her touch him over his underwear. The Post quoted three other women who said he pursued them when they were 16 to 18 and he was in his early 30s. He denies the women's reports and says he won't quit the race.
If the Bible is not clear on the subject, the law is: Alabama's legal age of consent then and now is 16 and adults cannot touch children sexually or entice them into a home for that purpose.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.