Reconceiving infertility in the Bible, with Candida Moss and Joel Baden
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. “Be fruitful and multiply.” According to the Book of Genesis, these are the first words God speaks to humanity. And over the centuries, people have understood these words as a commandment to procreate, and the ability to bear and raise children has been understood as a divine blessing. But what about people who can’t bear children due to biology or circumstance?
Candida Moss, a New Testament scholar, and Joel Baden, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, teamed up to write a book about the different views on infertility and families that are found throughout the Bible. From the apparently barren matriarchs of the Old Testament like Sarah and Rachel, to Paul’s efforts in the New Testament to forge a new family in Christ, biblical views on procreation and infertility are much more diverse than you might expect. Moss and Baden tell the story in their book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness. Not only do they clarify ancient perspectives on infertility, they also provide ways to create a more supportive religious environment for women and men experiencing infertility today.
We’re talking about Reconceiving Infertility with Candida Moss and Joel Baden in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to email@example.com.
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HODGES: Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Joel Baden is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. Together, they’re the authors of the book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness. The book was published last year by Princeton University Press. Candida thanks for taking the time to be on Maxwell Institute Podcast.
CANDIDA MOSS: Thanks so much for having us.
HODGES: And Joel, it’s nice to have you as well.
JOEL BADEN: It’s nice to be here.
Infertility is a Real and Socially Constructed Experience
HODGES: So let’s start off by talking about how the book starts off. It’s a book about the Bible, but you don’t begin by talking about the Bible. Instead, the introduction starts off by discussing chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. She’s a politician who’s been accused of being an “unfit representative of womanhood.” She’s a woman who doesn’t have children. So talk about her and your decision to start the book there.
MOSS: Well, I think the reason we decided to start with Angela Merkel is because by talking about her, we are showing that this is a live issue for people today. Sometimes when it comes to what the Bible says, people think “well this is arcane, this is in the past. It only pertains to members of a very specific religious group or religious tradition.” But when you look at politicians like Angela Merkel, or more recently British Prime Minister Theresa May, and you see that they’re criticized for not having children, you see that childlessness affects people not only in their personal lives, but in their professional lives. And that in the world in general we discriminate against those who don’t have children.
HODGES: And the idea that you bring up here in the introduction is the “social construction” of infertility. I think a lot of people today would just think of infertility as something that’s a medical condition. What it means is obvious. But the social construction of infertility is an interesting approach to this. Let’s talk about that for a minute to kind of help people understand what is meant by the social construction. Candida?
MOSS: Well, when we talk about the social construction of infertility or any kind of disability, what we’re saying is you have a physical condition—like infertility or blindness, a visual impairment or hearing impairment—and that condition is essentially neutral. It becomes disabling, it becomes a bad thing in a particular context.
So for example, in a blackout, being visually impaired would be a good thing because you would be better at navigating the world without light. In the context of infertility, what that means is if you were not trying to get pregnant, being infertile isn’t an issue. It’s only when you are trying to have children that suddenly this is a disability. If you are in your seventies no one would think of infertility as a disability because it would just be a feature of aging.
And so one of the things we’re trying to draw out is that when it comes to something like infertility, the extent to which it’s a bad thing is deeply contextual. And then when we turn to the Bible, we think you can see that there, too.
HODGES: And so the social construction of infertility is especially pressing in religious contexts. Let’s talk about the religious element here since the book is going to go down that road.
MOSS: Yeah. When it comes to infertility and especially now in the modern world, in a world where we all have kinds of technologies that allow people to prevent themselves from becoming pregnant, when you encounter a childless couple in a religious context there’s an assumption—particularly in my own denomination—that that couple is contracepting. In other words, they’re committing a sin. So now, infertility is not just a biological condition that might cause you and your partner personal pain and anguish, but it’s now something that means you’re being judged in your community. People are thinking of you as sinful unless you walk around telling everyone, there’s a moral implication to your biological condition. And that’s deeply unfair and shaming for those people.
HODGES: And especially for women. One of the things the introduction observes is that women often face greater pressure than men do because motherhood is often assumed to be “the highest state of womanhood,” is the quote that you use.
MOSS: Yeah, that’s certainly true. We see it in Catholicism. We see Pope Francis talking about motherhood and how important it is, as one of the most important roles on the church. And what does that mean for women who don’t have children? And even if we’re not looking at a religious context, people often assume when they see a childless couple that it is the wife who has either decided that they’re not going to have children or who’s physically incapable of having children.
To return to the Angela Merkel example, no one has ever accused her husband of failing in some way by not having children, and no one ever thinks that it might be his decision rather than hers. And we can compare that with male politicians who are childless who are seen as just especially committed to their careers in a positive way.
The Old Testament Matriarchs as Models of Infertility
HODGES: So your background as you mentioned is in Catholicism, and Joel has a Jewish background. And Candida for you, you’ve specialized in the New Testament, Joel has specialized in the Hebrew Bible. And in this book, you bring both of these perspectives together to talk about ways that the Bible presents what we today would call infertility.
So the next part of the interview will speak largely with Joel—again, he’s a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. And we’re going to talk about the Biblical matriarchs in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Christian Old Testament. This chapter on “The Matriarchs as Models” digs into Israel’s cultural context. So we meet a number of women here who are experiencing great anguish because they’re barren. These are women like Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Samson’s mother who isn’t named. She’s called Samson’s mother, and her chief appearance in the text pertains to fertility issues. And then there’s also Hannah. And in the book it says, “Far more than in most modern societies, Hannah lived in a world that was practically designed to make infertile women feel outcast and alone.” How so Joel?
BADEN: What we have to remember is that in the Ancient Near East, in the context the Hebrew Bible was written, and in much of the ancient world in ways that we really can’t imagine quite so much today, bearing children was the primary social goal for women. A woman in ancient Israel was essentially shuttled between two households. That of her father in which she grows up, and when she’s in her father’s house she is effectively her father’s possession, to do it as he likes. And then when she gets married, she moves into the household of her husband and she effectively becomes his possession. And in that household of her husband, her job is to have children. And it was very clear that failure to do that would render her effectively useless.
So if a woman in the ancient world—in ancient Israel—turned out to be incapable of bearing children, it was perfectly legitimate for her husband to take a second wife who would be capable of bearing children. And that’s a situation I think we see with Hannah, certainly with Sarah, where if you are the first infertile wife, you have been relegated to second-class citizenship. You are not the mother of the children so you are not involved in issues of inheritance, which were so important back then. You haven’t contributed, right? So you are essentially sort of seen as freeloading in the household. And if a second wife wasn’t taken, or even if one was, you could be sent back to your father’s house. You could be divorced, sort of. That was a perfectly reasonable cause for divorce. “She couldn’t bear me children so I’m divorcing her and I’ll marry someone else.” And then she gets sent back to her father’s house where now that she’s known to be infertile, no one is going to marry her now because she can’t fulfill that primary role. And she now lives essentially alone in her father’s house. Again, sort of seen as like an unfortunate freeloader.
The situation is such that women who were suffering from infertility, who couldn’t bear children, were not only sort of placed in these uncomfortable settings, but were treated by others at least—I mean the Biblical text shows us if you think about Hagar vis a vis Sarah or Peninnah who is Hannah’s rival wife, or even Rachel and Leah, when Leah can bear children and Rachel can’t, there is a real stigma attached to inability to bear a real—I mean you used the word “anguish.” I think that’s very appropriate.
HODGES: There’s also this ethics of mocking that you bring up, too. Peninnah and Hannah have these very harsh exchanges. What is the mocking element throughout the text?
BADEN: I mean there is a sense that you certainly get most strongly from Peninnah in the story of Hannah that if she can bear and Hannah can’t then Peninnah is sort of favored by God and Hannah must be out of God’s favor. And again, when we think about the religious implications of infertility—both in the ancient world and today—that’s a constant. This notion that “well, if you can’t bear children, God must be unhappy with you somehow.”
HODGES: There’s this striking verse in First Samuel where it just bluntly says that “Hannah’s rival, to make her miserable, would taunt her because the Lord had closed her womb.”
HODGES: Infertility in this case then—and in many cases here—can be seen as a curse of God. That “the Lord closed the womb” throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. And people are familiar with the refrain that if people are righteous, then God will prosper them. If they’re wicked, then they won’t prosper. Where is infertility depicted as being a curse of God in the Hebrew Scriptures other than the example I just gave? Are there any other examples where it’s depicted as a curse?
BADEN: So the main example—in fact, one of the only authentic examples of God actually cursing somebody with infertility—is in Genesis 20. One of the stories of Abraham trying to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to gain favor in a foreign court. In this case, the court of the King Abimelech. And when Abimelech tries to take Sarah essentially into his household as a wife, God curses Abimelech’s household with infertility and then cures them of it once Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham.
That’s about the only moment where there’s an authentic curse of infertility. Which isn’t to say that the idea that infertility with a curse was not in fact socially prevalent. I think the story of Athena reveals that to be the case. But the other interesting aspect to the story of Peninnah and Hannah that you mentioned is that the notion that “God must have cursed you to bring about this infertility,” that’s something that is voiced by Peninnah, who is certainly not the protagonist of the story. So that perspective is put in the mouth of the person you’re not supposed to like.
BADEN: And I think that’s a really interesting rhetorical move and certainly can be read—and this is how we read it in the book—can be read as sort of a point against that perspective.
HODGES: This is one of the things that you do time and time again especially throughout this section of the book, is to address some of the assumptions that people bring to the text. So in the book it says, “Given the centuries upon centuries of readers who have understood infertility within this overarching religious framework, and given the centrality of the Bible as the source of religious believers’ understanding about God, it’s natural to assume that for all of the ancient Biblical authors as well, infertility was thought to be the result of divine punishment.” And then you ask, “Is this a necessary conclusion or have we been so overwhelmed by the master narrative that we’re unable to see other strands?”
This is what you’re doing throughout the book, then, is picking out these other strands.
BADEN: Yeah. One of the things that’s important to remember when reading the Bible in almost any situation is it just doesn’t speak with one voice. It is multiple authors, writing multiple times, over the course of many, many centuries in very different social contexts. And so they’re going to disagree. And so the Bible doesn’t present sort of one view of infertility. And we talk about—You mentioned in that quote you just read, the master narrative, which is to say that the standard view that infertility is a curse, as we discussed. And it’s not that that’s not in the Bible because it certainly is. It’s that there are plenty of other perspectives in the Bible as well.
And to the particular point that you’re raising about God sort of—Peninnah says, “God closed the womb prevented you from being fertile,” that is one perspective. But there is another I think actually more broadly represented perspective, that it’s not that God closes the womb to prevent pregnancy, it’s that when somebody is trying to get pregnant, it’s God’s responsibility to open the womb to allow them to become pregnant. We see the same language of God holds the key to the womb, or unlocking, opening. This is language that is present in the Bible and also in the Near Eastern context around it, Mesopotamian, Egyptian. This seems to be a very common notion—that is to say, fertility is not possible without divine intervention. Which is quite different from the opposite view that infertility is the result of divine intervention.
HODGES: I thought that was a really striking argument and well-made as you mentioned there are other Ancient Near Eastern texts that sort of hit on that same thing. The idea that it’s God’s responsibility to open the womb. Not that God would go stop that natural process, but rather God’s responsibility is to open it.
I think for contemporary believers to read that, that shifts responsibility or blame—if it becomes a situation of blame—from the woman onto God. But that can also raise theological issues as well then, and perhaps cause resentment toward God for not opening the womb.
BADEN: Yeah. Not every alternative reading we present is going to be perfectly comforting. What we’re trying to do in this case particularly though, is shift—as you say—shift the blame, right? We want to take the onus off of the woman as if she’s done something wrong to deserve being positively cursed by God in that way that you mentioned, right? That sort of like “if you do well, you’re favored, and if not, you’re punished.” And to recognize that there are simply different levels of divine intervention and different ways that women can understand their relationship to God and their experience of infertility.
HODGES: That’s right. And the book I think—it’s important for readers to recognize that while, as authors you are looking for alternate readings, it’s not the case that you’re letting your own predilections sort of guide those interpretations. I think as scholars you really are trying to dig out the different options within the text and just say “what different ideas and images do we find in the Bible that can give people different ways of looking at things?” Sort of breaking apart that assumption of univocality that so many people bring to the text.
And also the idea that we bring our cultural assumptions to it. Earlier you mentioned that marital practice, a Levirate marriage I think is what it’s referred to where—No. That has to do with when someone dies. You mentioned the marital practice where if a wife can’t conceive, then it’s perfectly fine for a man to get another wife. That clearly flies in the face of most marital practices at least in Western Christianity and Judaism today.
BADEN: Yeah. You know, I think on the whole, the idea of the book is—as you say—is not to sort of take a perceived Biblical univocality and replace it with our own univocality.
BADEN: Right? That is, we’re not trying to take our own modern belief and say “the Bible doesn’t say this one thing, it says this other one thing.” What we’re really trying to do…And each chapter of the book presents a different angle on the issue. It’s not an argument that builds from chapter to chapter such that we get a complete full “this is the one argument of the entire Bible.” As you say, we’re trying to illustrate different points, different perspectives, lots of different ways of looking at it, because the experience of infertility differs from person to person. So the idea of replacing one univocality with another equally fails to recognize the diversity of the lived experience of infertility.
“Be Fruitful and Multiply”
HODGES: That’s Joel Baden. He’s the professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. We’re talking about the book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness, which Joel wrote with Candida Moss.
Joel, I wanted to talk about the first words that God says to humanity as recorded in Genesis. God says, “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is in Genesis chapter one. These same instructions are given to Noah after the flood. They’re given to Jacob when his name is changed to Israel. And then God tells Abraham, as well as Ishmael, that he will make them “fruitful.” So many Biblical interpreters have understood this, “Be fruitful and multiply,” as being an active command on God’s part. Like a command: “Go be fruitful and multiply.” But you suggest a different way to read these passages. Not as commands, but rather as blessings. How did you arrive at this interpretation, and talk a little bit about it.
BADEN: So it’s important to recognize that this is sort of an ambivalent passage in many ways. It is grammatically a command, right? These are imperative verbs. “Be fruitful and multiply. Do this thing.” Which is why I think culturally it is long been taken as a command to be fulfilled. One of the primary commands, in fact, certainly in both of our traditions. But it’s introduced by saying “God blessed them saying ‘Be fruitful and multiply.'” So it’s also primarily a blessing that is not something that if you don’t do it, you’ll be punished, but a capacity that God is bestowing upon the recipients of this blessing, right? “I’m giving you the ability, the capacity to be fruitful and multiply and to do so in ways that are sort of long-lasting.”
So if you think about—I mean God says this to the first generation of humanity in Genesis 1. Well, they didn’t have more than three kids, right? So it’s not as if they were commanded to be somehow remarkably fruitful. They just need to begin the process of fruitfulness, of populating the earth.
And I think another interesting point here is to whom this was given. And the real issue here is, is this a command or a blessing that is applied to everybody throughout all time? Is it universal and sort of across all time such that we are still commanded to be fruitful and multiply? Or was it in fact a command that was given or a blessing given to specific people at specific times?
And what I think is fascinating about the Biblical text is, it’s given not just to the first couple—which might make it universal—but it’s given just a handful of times. To the first humans. To Noah. To Abraham. To Jacob. So in other words, to people who have—in the world of the Biblical story—a need to be fruitful.
So obviously, the first couple needs to be fruitful because otherwise the story will be very short.
BADEN: Noah also needs to be fruitful, otherwise the story would be a little bit longer, but not much. And Abraham and Jacob need to be fruitful because they’re the progenitors of the nation of Israel.
But there are plenty of people to whom the blessing isn’t given. Moses, among others. There are plenty of times where it could well be given but it isn’t. That is, it’s given and then it ceases to be given. No one is told “be fruitful and multiply” after Israel, at the end of Genesis, has become fruitful and multiplied. That is, once Israel becomes the nation—the populace nation that it becomes before the Exodus story starts—we don’t see any individuals being given the “be fruitful and multiply” language anymore because the time for it has ceased.
And the other point that I would make about this, the other point we make in the book is, animals are given this blessing before humans in Genesis 1. And I don’t think that we think that animals are divinely required to be fruitful and multiply. They were simply given the capacity, just as we were. So what we’re trying to do in this chapter is to rethink the way that these first words are understood. They’re necessary in the narrative and they present a…they give a capacity for humanity to multiply in ways that are important for the ongoing story and for the history of humanity. But they really don’t appear to be a universal, for all time, absolute imperative that we must all be fruitful and multiply.
HODGES: It’s really striking too, in order to bolster this interpretation, you raise the fact that the Biblical narrative—after these imperatives are given—later on notes that they’ve also been fulfilled.
BADEN: Yeah, I mean at the end of Genesis, it says Israel was fruitful and multiplied. The being fruitful and multiplying is part of the divine promise that’s given to the patriarchs. To Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. That they are supposed to become a great nation. Well, to become a great nation, you need two things. You need a bunch of people and you need land. And the entire story of the Pentateuch or the Torah is the fulfillment of those two halves of the promise.
And the first half—being fruitful and having many people—is accomplished by the end of Genesis. And the second half of getting a land is accomplished in the Book of Joshua. And so the idea that somehow we should lift “be fruitful and multiply” out of that context, out of the context of that promise and out of the context of its eventual fulfillment, it seems to me to be not a great reading of the Biblical story as it’s given to us.
HODGES: One of the quotes I marked down here from the book says, “It is not a command from the past that pertains to the present, it is a blessing in the past that explains the present.”
And you also mentioned Moses and Miriam as well. These are Biblical figures who could serve as excellent models, I think, for people who don’t have children, to look at these examples. Moses and Miriam as you say, they don’t receive the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” We don’t see that happening in the text. So it’s not just for a man like Moses. I’m thinking of Candida’s earlier comments about how some male politicians sort of get a pass on not having children, so maybe we could say “maybe we’re giving Moses a pass there.” But his sister as well, right?
BADEN: Yeah. I mean to be fair to Moses, there are parts of the story—Again, and this has to do with the various authors of the text and their understandings. For some parts of the text, Moses has one or two sons. But his sons disappear from the story essentially as soon as they’re born and are never mentioned again. And Moses has no lineage of any sense. And there are other authors who Moses had no children at all.
But Miriam especially is a wonderful example of a female figure—a major figure in the Biblical story who is never said to have children, who is never said to have suffered on account of not having children. She’s never cursed. You know, none of these things. She goes about her role in this important role in leading Israel with no comment at all about her fertility status.
And there are others like that. I mean the other one that comes to mind immediately is Deborah, the famous prophet in the Book of Judges. These are strong female characters for whom fertility is simply never raised as an issue.
Isaiah Flips the Script
HODGES: I think one of the problems that a lot of women face—and men as well—in reading the Hebrew Scriptures today is that more women than men do take center stage [on fertility issues]. So you’ve mentioned some of these other examples where women do. But even in the case of the matriarchs, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah and so forth, they can be difficult models for the infertile reader. And we touched on this a little bit but I wanted to talk a little bit more about it.
These women suffer but each one of them who are depicted as suffering eventually gave birth. Whereas many women today never ultimately do. So your next chapter in the book explores how the prophet Isaiah flips the script. He uses these stories of infertility in a different way. He re-purposes the imagery of infertility in a way that contemporary readers especially might appreciate. Talk about that.
BADEN: Yes. The matriarchs are actually really terrible models for modern infertility because they are not, in the end, infertile. None of them remains “barren.” They’re all miraculously healed. And if we only had that in the Bible, we might end up at a situation where the response is, “well, you know the Bible says. If you’re infertile, you should just pray and God will—even if you’re ninety years old, God will heal you.”
And that’s how we end up even today with these notions that if you’d just pray hard enough, you’ll be healed. Which is terribly damaging in so many ways because of course you could pray all day every day and if you’re medically incapable, you’re medically incapable. And then you end up with feelings of shame and guilt. “Now I’m not praying well enough?” So there’s all sorts of problems with that sort of “pray and be healed” in the matriarchal model sense.
What’s great about Isaiah is, Isaiah is totally conscious of the matriarchal stories and he’s building on that imagery. But instead of focusing—as people tend to do—on the moment of them being healed from their infertility, Isaiah sort of focuses on the infertility part of their life, on that as the dominant experience. And instead of saying “oh, that was the bad time and then it was great that they were healed,” Isaiah takes their infertility as the model. Isaiah sort of says “that period, that time of infertility, that’s who we are as a nation.” And so he takes up the notion of Israel as an infertile mother. Israel as a barren mother. Jerusalem, the city, as infertile. And he sort of really sinks into that imagery and elevates it so that the infertile individual no longer needs to feel like an outcast of society. The infertile woman is now the emblem of Israel, right? It’s far more potent and…I mean “encouraging” may not be the right word, at least not at first, but it’s a way of making infertility a central part of what it means to be Israel as opposed to this thing that is preventing Israel from happening, as it is in the matriarchal stories.
What Isaiah does is, he understands infertility as sort of the way things are now, right? This is our sort of general modern condition for him. And as he looks to the future, he looks to eschatological moments in which the infertile woman will be held up as wondrous and righteous—language like “sing oh barren one,” right? Where the one who is barren will be glad and the one who has children will essentially wish that she was the barren one.
BADEN: And so what Isaiah is doing there is really focusing—and it is really wonderful for our purposes—is focusing on the social experience of infertility. And he’s saying, you know what? We’re going to remove social stigma and to elevate the infertile woman to an enviable position. So reversing what Peninnah was saying, essentially. And by that I think Isaiah thereby provides this really powerful positive depiction of the experience of infertility.
HODGES: And this would echo through the ages, through interpretation—post-Biblical tradition looked to the future, to the end-time. The Rabbinic tradition developed a few ways to hold out hope for the barren. On the one hand, some interpreters would talk about a future end-time when infertile women would be made fertile.
So there was on the one hand, some interpreters are saying, “Oh, it’s difficult to be infertile now, but eventually in the end-time, you’ll be made fertile. You’ll be blessed.” And then other interpreters viewed the end-time as a time when all would be well. Everyone would be blessed. And no one would be bearing children…Essentially, everyone would be infertile but still blessed with loved ones and family and these sort of things. So these are two kind of competing visions that you find in later interpreters.
BADEN: Yeah. And these two visions last well into the post-Biblical period in both Jewish and Christian tradition. As you say on the one hand, the notion that infertility actually—like almost all disability—this notion that it will be healed in the afterlife, right? In heaven, everybody will be healed of their physical impairments. And that is one perspective that exists. It has certainly plenty of problems ethically. But it’s out there.
The other one that I think we find a lot more interesting—at least I do—is this notion that in the afterlife, in the world to come, no one’s going to be giving birth. And if that’s the case, what that means is people were constructing the perfected world as one in which everyone is infertile. And that’s such a fascinating thing because usually when we think about, how do we imagine the world to come? The afterlife? It’s our sort of cultural vision of perfection. And so for people to say “you know what? Perfection is infertility.” That absolutely shifts the way that infertility is read in our world.
The New Testament and Jesus as God’s Son
HODGES: That’s Joel S. Baden. He’s a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. We’re speaking with him today about the book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness.
And we’re also speaking with Candida R. Moss who’s a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. And that brings us to the New Testament. As your book Reconceiving Infertility turns the New Testament it goes straight to the Gospel of Mark, Candida, which is likely the first gospel to have been written and it lacks a manger scene with the baby Jesus and a virgin birth and these things. Instead, Mark opens up with Jesus’s baptism. Let’s talk about why we begin here. What do we find about infertility in this narrative?
CANDIDA MOSS: Well, we begin on the section on the New Testament here because this, historically speaking, is where the gospel story began. As you noted, Mark is our first gospel and it begins—not in a manger but on the shore of the River Jordan with Jesus being baptized. And we often allow the infancy narratives from Matthew and Luke to kind of sneak around the baptism narrative and fill what we perceive to be a void in the Gospel of Mark. But for Mark, that wasn’t important. For Mark, this scene where God says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, this day I have begotten you”; that’s the critical moment.
And when historians have looked at this scene and said “what does this mean for Mark? What would someone hearing this spoken in the first century have thought was happening?” The answer is it looks a lot like Roman adoption. By which I mean that in the ancient world a lot of children died. And affluent upper class Romans often didn’t have that many children because pregnancy was so dangerous. And so it was very possible—and it happened a lot—that you would end up in your fifties and you would have no fully grown sons to pass on your legacy to. And so what they did was they adopted grown males.
Most famously, this happened with Julius Caesar and Octavius who became the Emperor Augustus who—and I don’t think this is a coincidence—was emperor when Jesus was born. And so what we have here is a model of parenting in which you pick a child. And when Romans talk about this, they say, “We pick a fully grown adult because who wants a baby? It might die. We don’t know what it’s going to turn out to be.” But when you pick an adult and you adopt it, you are validating its character and personality and you’re saying it’s a good person.
And adoption is conceived in a completely different way nowadays. We talk about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and their children, and then their adopted children as if they’re different. But there was no Maury Povich in the ancient world, so there was always that risk that perhaps your child wasn’t your own. And so family was thought of very much in terms of the child that you chose to raise. And in the Roman world everyone chose to raise their child because even biological children—they were born and a servant or a slave would put the child at the feet of the father and if he decided to pick it up, it was his legal offspring. And if he abandoned it then, it didn’t matter that it was biological child.
So what we see in the ancient world is an emphasis on choosing and on duty. So when we look at Jesus in the baptismal waters, God is choosing Him. God is declaring that this is his child. And while we might worry about the biology of that, for Mark it didn’t matter. And whether or not you think that Mark accurately reflects here the sort of ontology of what it means for Jesus to be Son of God, it didn’t matter to him and it didn’t matter to ancient readers. For them, this model of adoption, this was parenthood. Valid parenthood. And I think that’s especially important when we think about adoption in modern contexts and the way we think of it as inferior to biological parenting.
HODGES: Yeah, there’s still this implicit bias today I think for a lot of people. The idea that a genetic family—direct biological offspring—is a traditional family, a “more real” family in some sense. And then we also have this thing where you can adopt somebody and that’s great and everything, but it’s not the same. Having the actual biological parents is thought by some to be extremely necessary or preferable.
But what we’re finding here in the ancient world where Jesus was, is the idea that adoption was not viewed as this inferior thing but rather this was something that God Himself did with Jesus in the Mark narrative. He says to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved, and with you I’m well pleased.”
So you’re swimming upstream a little bit against contemporary prejudices about the family. Did you feel that as you’re writing this, this almost having to resist the sort of thing you know readers are bringing to the text?
MOSS: I think it was precisely because we also live in this world and we know that this is what readers are bringing to the text that we felt it was important to write these things. They feel counterintuitive to us—not just because there’s a biological reality to parenting, but because we grow up in a culture that says that they are real children if they’re biologically your own. And in a world in which you couldn’t be certain of that, and a world in which step-parenting wasn’t treated as separate from parenting. Take a look at the way Joseph is presented in Matthew. There’s no sort of “Joseph is Jesus’s father” and is the link to David. And no one says, “Well, you know, his stepdad.”
MOSS: So there isn’t that distinction in the Biblical world. And if the Bible is supposed to be our guide to how we live, I think we need to be aware of those elements that we’re leaving behind. And I think this is one that we could stand to recapture.
HODGES: You mentioned Matthew and the family depiction that we find there, where Joseph is Jesus’s father, but also Jesus is depicted being God’s son. So Matthew and Luke’s Gospels relate stories about the birth of Jesus. They go earlier than the Gospel of Mark does. And you make a striking claim about these gospels. Here it is. “If there is a human context within which we can understand the birth of Jesus, it is the context of infertility.” How so?
MOSS: Well, when you look at Matthew and Luke and the infancy stories, they sound a lot like the stories of the matriarchs. In fact, scholars have said that the language and imagery of Luke in particular is the language of the Greek version of the Pentateuch. So the authors are deliberately presenting the birth of Jesus as akin to that of the sort of miraculous cures of infertility in the Hebrew Bible.
And then when you get into the mechanics, you have a young woman who—the text is really very clear—is a virgin and is not engaged in sexual intercourse who becomes pregnant. And if we were going to do the “what would Jesus do” read on this—if we’re going to say, “What kind of modern model do we have here?” —this looks like surrogacy. This looks like artificial parenting. And we have modern scientific models for that.
And that’s important to think about because so often the Bible is used to endorse “natural” means of procreating. But when it comes to Jesus, the person who you’re supposed to be emulating more than anyone else, we have a birth scene that is—for want of a better word—unnatural. This is not “normal.” [laughs] This is not normal procreation. And I think that’s especially important because so few religious couples who are suffering from troubles getting pregnant feel able to go to doctors and actually engage in IVF and other forms of procreative assistant, precisely because they are religious. So to find here in the birth story of Jesus a model which is “unnatural” or “abnormal” or seems to be artificial, I think that’s very important. And that, I hope, empowers people to get diagnosed or get some forms of treatment that they might not have known were available to them.
HODGES: And this is important too, especially for Catholic readers as you’ve hinted at, the idea that some infertility treatments are discouraged by the Catholic church including in vitro fertilization. They’re also discouraging birth control and these types of things…and assistant reproductive technology. So as a professor at Notre Dame, a Catholic university, you’re writing about this in ways that seem to run counter to the Catholic church. And before we move to the next part, I thought maybe I’d ask you about that.
MOSS: Yeah. Well, we’re not endorsing assistant reproductive technologies, you know, as a book. We’re saying “here are ways you can read the Bible.” So I don’t think that I’m writing anything that is, sort of, “the Catholic church is wrong.”
MOSS: I think we are quite critical of things that have been said, even by Pope Francis—whom I love when I’m commenting on television—about women and about childless couples. So Pope Francis in the past has accused childless couples of being selfish, and implied that the reason why people don’t have children is because they want to buy second homes and they want money. And maybe that’s the case for some people, and I can see why that’s problematic. As a Catholic, I can see why that’s problematic. To focus on money more than family.
But for a lot of childless people, they don’t have children because they’re struggling to become pregnant. Maybe they got married later in life. Maybe they’ve had four miscarriages that nobody knows about and they are struggling with the trauma of those experiences. Maybe the wife has a medical condition that makes pregnancy incredibly difficult. And these are situations that are not publicly acknowledged in church discussions about having families. And they should be, because otherwise, those people are boxed out of those experiences.
Certainly, as a professor at Notre Dame, I do get hate mail for saying these things and for being critical of the Pope. But I think it’s important…We also get a lot of mail from people who appreciate that we have spoken about their lived experiences, and I don’t know about Joel, but that means a great deal to me.
HODGES: Yeah. I think some of the comments that I’ve seen online about the book come from people who find it very refreshing—especially Catholic people reading this—to see the kind of things that you say in this book, that sort of talk about some of the things the Pope has said specifically, providing some other views about that. Institutionally does that bring any heat upon you at all?
MOSS: I can’t say that this is the first book that I’ve written that was controversial. [laughs] So it’s difficult to know if it’s this book or one of the others.
I think that people understand…I’ve been open about my own personal experience and how—because I’m a kidney transplant recipient—pregnancy is pretty much off the table for me. So I don’t think that I take a lot of heat because of this. But that’s because I have to “out” myself and explain why I don’t have children. And I think it would be better if we lived in a world—or if Catholics just lived in a world—in which we didn’t make these assumptions about people and we would instead be empathetic and aware of the range of lived experiences that people have.
HODGES: That’s Candida Moss. She’s professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. So we’ve talked about the Gospel of Mark which has an adoption scene. We’ve talked about Matthew and Luke where there’s this sort of this miraculous birth that doesn’t take place via traditional methods of procreation.
And John’s gospel is unique in placing Jesus’s origin back at the beginning. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God.” So he doesn’t start at a baptism. He doesn’t start at a birth or miraculous conception…Immaculate conception…I guess? but that’s a different—Actually, that’s different. That has to do with Mary’s sin…
MOSS: Good for you for knowing that.
HODGES: [laughs] But with John, Jesus’s entry into the mortal word is described passively, after the fact, “and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” So there’s this passive construction there. Talk about how the Gospel of John, then, speaks to the matter of infertility and family.
MOSS: Well, you’re absolutely right. It is a passive description and grammatical construction and it’s so ambiguous. It’s almost as if he’s conceived before time in some kind of heavenly laboratory. There’s just no way to take that model and transplant it into people’s lived experiences today [laughs]. It is completely other, and certainly very far from natural biological reproduction.
And we have to put that alongside the scene much later in the Gospel of John where we see a family actually being made. When Jesus was on the cross, his mother is there and John is there. And he says to his mother and to the disciple, he says, “Woman, behold your son.” And then reciprocally, he says, “Behold your mother.” He actually makes a family there at the cross. It’s a really interesting scene because this scene really encapsulates what you find throughout the New Testament, which is a model in which the family is the family of believers. And it’s a family predicated on duty and love, not biology. And that model is taken up throughout the early church—but especially in Paul and in these first few decades of the Christian era.
HODGES: It’s really interesting because, again, a lot of people today—especially in the Christian tradition—place a lot of emphasis on the biological family. But in the gospels, especially in John, we have this example of the forging of a family based on decision, based on service and love, that’s a little bit different than the kind of—And it doesn’t speak…Well, I guess it does. I mean, Jesus at one point says [laughs] “leave your mother and father and follow me” kind of a thing. So, views of the family in the Bible and in the New Testament in particular, I think, are more complex than a lot of readers might assume.
MOSS: I think that is true. We tend to skip over the passages where Jesus says to someone, “You should leave your father unburied in the street and come follow me.”—
MOSS: —Or when his family comes to him and people will say, “your mother and brothers and sisters are here,” he says, “I don’t know who they are. The people who are my brothers and sisters are the people here listening to me.” Or when—as you just mentioned—he says, “Follow me. Leave your wealth and your family behind and I’ll give you new family.”
And these are tough passages. Historically, we can understand them as coming out of a world in which many people who left their families to become followers of Jesus had to leave their families because their family members were Jews, and they weren’t believers. And so there were real schisms in families over this. And so we can see that kind of reflected in the text of the New Testament.
I don’t think today people have to choose between biological and faith families. But it does bring up something important, which is that for the disciples, for Jesus, the family that counts is the family of faith. In my denomination at least, and in most Christian denominations, we refer to our fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. And I do that sort of flippantly.
MOSS: I’m not necessarily planning to pick up a random Christian at 4 a.m. from a police station if they call. But if my biological sister called, I would certainly do that.
MOSS: But they mean that very seriously. It’s real family, real family responsibilities to be found in that bond. And that is the Christian family. And that might include your biological family, but it also includes all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, which means that we have heightened responsibility to others. But it also means that when it comes to thinking about having a family and what that means for Christians today, having a family means filling those responsibilities to other people. Not necessarily—although it can mean this—procreating.
HODGES: Right. So there’s this quote that sort of sums that entire part of the book where it says, “According to the four gospels, the genesis of Jesus is a case of either non-biological parenting or assisted reproduction.” So, Mark, the way that Jesus’s birth is depicted, or his adoption. And then you extend it to an idea of family which isn’t just about a mom and dad and kids but also about families that don’t include children at all, and they are part of this narrative of what a family can be.
And so for contemporary readers who value and cherish the Bible and who don’t have the sort of family that they’d want to, or they can’t have that sort of family, to see other models of family in the Bible is for them, I think, invaluable.
MOSS: Yeah, I agree. I think whether it’s Moses or Miriam or Paul, we have a lot of models of faithful followers of God who don’t have children and who aren’t judged for it.
Families According to the Apostle Paul
HODGES: And Paul extends the metaphor, right? Paul is working with people who—as you said, families are being divided, there’s a lot of difficulty going on with people sort of aligning themselves with a new type of faith in distinction with Judaism, but it grows out of Judaism—What kind of things does Paul say about family that you discuss in the book?
MOSS: Well, for Paul, the Christian community is so closely knit it’s actually a human body. [laughs]
MOSS: Which means that you’re that close. But when he talks about marriage and having children, it’s pretty clear he would just prefer you not do it. If you could not get married, it will be better to dedicate yourself to God.
And there are antecedents to this in the Greco-Roman world. Philosophers, despite their reputation, or reputation of Socrates in particular, philosophers didn’t have families and children and avoided sex if they could so that they could focus on God. Mostly because anyone who’s ever been in love knows it is quite consuming. All you can think about is your beloved and what they’re eating and what they’re doing and when you’ll see them. And that is a distraction from thinking about God.
So Paul would prefer that you not get married. But he does admit that this is tough for people. And so he says “it’s better to marry than to burn.” To burn with desire, he means. He doesn’t mean in hell.
HODGES: [laughs] Mm-hmm.
MOSS: He means with desire. And he recognizes that the trouble with family—he seems to think they’re living at the end of time. If you go and you have children, you’re going to worry about them in these last few years of the world’s existence, because it’s going to be a brutal conflict. So for Paul, having children is by no means a positive thing. What he wants you to focus on is the family of believers and being part of that.
HODGES: I really like that because as you said, Paul really expected it—it seems quite certain that he expected the end time to be just around the corner. So as you said, it would make sense not to try to start something. “Don’t try to put crops in the ground if there’s about to be this huge famine or something. Be prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”
But at the same time, he says if you’re going to get married, then it’s better to do that than have these other problems. But you still need to focus on the life of being a Christian. You still need to focus on living the gospel. And so there’s a sense in which all types of families in the New Testament, then, are depicted as being capable of living the Christian gospel regardless of what their family structure looks like. If it has children or not, if you’re single or not, and that sort of thing.
MOSS: Mm-hmm. That’s exactly right.
HODGES: That’s Candida Moss. She’s professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. We’re speaking today with her and her co-author Joel Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. The book is called Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness. We’ll take a brief break and be right back.
Writing for Academic and Popular Audiences
HODGES: We’re back with Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. We’re talking about the fascinating book Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness.
This is a book I think that a lot of different readers are going to be able to enjoy. Scholars, academics, but also lay believers, Christian, Jewish readers. As Biblical scholars, Joel and Candida, you both face professional expectations to publish scholarship that contributes to your field. And a lot of scholars find themselves writing books in specialized language to other specialists. But the first line of this book, in the Preface, says “This book is intended for a wide range of potential audiences.” Joel, why don’t you talk about who you had in mind and how that helped shape the voice of the book?
JOEL BADEN: We have both written our share of, as you say, intensely academic books for a specialized audience, and also books for a more general public. And this was a book that we really wanted to sort of straddle both categories. We think that the book does make a real contribution to academic study of the Bible. But because the topic is relatively dear to both of our hearts and personal lives, we also wanted to make sure that this was a book that was read by people outside the academy, both read and made understandable to those people.
We were looking to speak to people who are experiencing infertility and for whom the Bible or Biblical tradition is a way that shapes the way they think about the world. So because—as you said—the master narrative, the general perception of the biblical approach to infertility, is relatively negative, we really wanted to provide a resource for people—people who take the Bible seriously, who take their faith seriously—a resource for them to not feel like the Bible was an enemy or oppressive. We wanted to retain for them the Bible’s position in their lives by opening the Bible up to them in ways that they may not have been exposed to.
At the same time, we wanted to provide a resource, not just for the people suffering from infertility, but also for those in positions to help people who are infertile. So clergy, counselors, therapists, doctors, or anybody who engages with an infertile individual, we hope this book provides them with ways of navigating the Biblical material in a way that can be more comforting than it is oppressing or shaming.
HODGES: And Candida mentioned why the topic is especially pressing for her as a Catholic individual who doesn’t have children, and the cultural pressures that surround her and some of the ways she hopes the book can speak to that community. From your side, were there any—What sort of reasons did you bring to the book that helped make you interested in the project to begin with. And also, how did you find each other to do it?
BADEN: So my personal attachment to the project—I have two daughters now, but there was a significant period, a time where it was not clear that my wife and I were going to be able to have children, and where we had some sort of traumatically failed pregnancies. And so the experience of infertility or at least the difficulty in childbirth and what that feels like, this was very much part of my personal experience also.
As for how we found each other, this is not the first thing we have written together. We’ve been writing together now for many years as we’ve discovered both common academic interests and a common style of writing [laughs] which is always really important when you have a co-author. So this is just the first book we’ve written together, not the first thing we’ve ever done together.
HODGES: I don’t know how you did it, but the narrative itself is very seamless. It’s not a book where you can really tell, “Oh I can see who’s writing this part.” It’s a very unified voice.
BADEN: Right I think that’s very much a product of a considerable amount of practice. I think the first thing we wrote together anybody could pick apart into our two voices [laughs] But as I said, we’ve been doing this for quite some time now. We’ve gotten good practice at writing together.
HODGES: Well I’ve started to develop a little documentary hypothesis. There’s the “C source” and the “J source.” And I’m sort of trying to piece together where they are. I’m sure I’ll publish the findings of that sometime in the future, we’ll break apart who wrote what.
BADEN: It’s really not that complicated. I’m a Hebrew Bible scholar. She’s a New Testament scholar.
Old and New Testament Scholars Working Together
HODGES: Yeah. So Part A, Part B. One thing I also wanted to ask before we go is, Joel, as you’re working with a New Testament scholar, was there anything that her perspectives brought to the project that made you see something new in the Hebrew scriptures? Or as you’re working with the New Testament, sort of seeing something new in your own area of expertise.
BADEN: I guess I would start by saying that Candida introduced me to the world of disability studies in the first place. And so all of my interests in bringing this question to bear on the Hebrew Bible is due to learning from her and her work on New Testament texts.
But I mean specifically I would say, one of the things—as you were just talking about it—is these different models of the family, which is a very clear issue in New Testament texts, but is not so often seen when we look at the Hebrew Bible. But that perspective, thinking about what kinds of families are being modeled, the Hebrew Bible actually has a remarkable variety. And it simply wasn’t the sort of thing I was looking for before we started working on this. But when I saw what she was doing with it, it became clear to me that from Miriam, to Sarah, to all these other figures, there’s a really wide range of a family model even in the Hebrew Bible and I think that’s a real contribution.
HODGES: Candida, same question to you about working with a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and what that brings to your vision of the New Testament.
MOSS: I would say for this project in particular, I think a real lightbulb moment for me was the realization that in ancient Mesopotamian societies and in the Hebrew Bible, the idea that God has to remember to open the womb and close it again so you can get pregnant. So just the basic understanding that probably infertility is the default and God has to make you fertile. That was remarkable for me and really changed the way I thought about pregnancy in the ancient world and how people thought about fertility in the ancient world.
HODGES: This speaks to the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary work I think, where it’s not very common I think for scholars of the New Testament and scholars of the Hebrew scriptures to come together on a project like this. And to see the kind of work that can result from that is pretty inspiring. And hopefully other people will see that and build on that type of work.
MOSS: Yeah, I hope so. I think, as Joel said, we’ve published a lot together and the nature of the field is if you want to get promoted and get tenure, you need to publish—
MOSS: —and we’re fortunate enough that we’ve done enough publishing alone and we’re both full professors that we have the luxury of being able to work on projects like this. And I think it meant a lot to both of us to be able to write this book and we now have a lot of practice writing with one another.
HODGES: And as I said, the book came out about a year ago, so you have little space between the time it came out and now. Are there any points of criticisms that you’ve seen raised since the book came out that you appreciated or that you think would be good for people to keep in mind as they read this book?
MOSS: Actually, really, I think maybe you’ve done more Googling than we have. But for this book in particular, I haven’t seen a lot of criticism about, say, the argumentation of the book.
MOSS: I have seen pushback against the idea that you should be critical of religious authorities and a defensiveness about the family. But we’re not criticizing the family. We’re trying to create space for people who are excluded from modern discussions about what it means to have a family in Christianity.
HODGES: And you’re not putting that onto the text, I think is the important part, is that as scholars you’re just saying “let’s look at what the text says and see what models are there, and then talk about that.”
And it’s nice, it’s icing on the cake, if there’s present day application where people can take a devotional takeaway from the book, but that didn’t drive the interpretation. Rather, the scholarship did. And it’s just nice that you can also get some takeaways as well.
And like you said, I actually haven’t seen much criticism aside from the type you described as well. So before we wrap things up though—that’s Candida Moss. She’s a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. And we’re also speaking with Joel Baden from Yale Divinity School, I wanted to ask before we go what kind of projects you both have going right now. Joel, talk about what you’re working on now, what we can look forward to. And then Candida, you as well.
BADEN: Sure. My next project is a biography of Exodus in a series that I think you’re familiar with, “Lives of Great Religious Books” from Princeton University Press. I think you’ve done a couple of podcasts with authors who were in the series before. So a look at the way the story of Exodus has been received over the last two-plus millennia across space and time, its various cultural influences, where it crops up and in what various forms.
HODGES: That’ll be great. I look forward to that. The series itself is phenomenal, so congratulations on being included in it. I love those books.
BADEN: Thank you.
HODGES: Candida, how about you? What have you got working?
MOSS: I am writing a book for Yale University Press on the resurrection of the body, about what early Christians and the authors of the New Testament thought about the resurrection and how they thought bodies would be resurrected. Whether they would have their abilities, whether gender would be the same, things like race. And I’m interested in the way that that constructed the notion of an ideal Christian.
HODGES: And if I remember correctly, you’ve published on that in the AAR Journal? Is that right?
MOSS: That is right. That was sort of my first look at this and I’ve done a lot more work since then and I’m excited about it.
HODGES: It was really helpful—I used it a little bit in my master’s thesis on intellectual disabilities in Mormon thought and history, and to look at some of the Mormon discussions about the resurrection using your work as a model, so it was really useful.
MOSS: Oh, thank you. I’m glad that somebody read it.
HODGES: Yeah. It was really good! It arrived right as I was writing the thesis so it was perfect timing.
That’s Candida Moss. She’s a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Joel Baden joined us as well from Yale Divinity School, a professor of Hebrew Bible. And the book we talked about today—which is an excellent book—Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness from Princeton University Press. Candida, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MOSS: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
HODGES: And it was good to have you as well, Joel.
BADEN: Great to be here. Thanks.