Mary's Sin Offering (Lk 2:24) vs. Mary's Sinlessness
By Luke Lancaster
Many non-Catholics believe that Jesus's mother was a sinner and will base this argument on her sin offering in Luke 2:24. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Mary was sinless (see this article explaining why). In light of Luke 2:24, though, who is right? First, let's consider the text in question. Joseph and Mary are travelling to the Jerusalem Temple with their newborn son, Jesus. The text reads:
"And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons'" (Luke 2:22-24).
Does this text indicate that Mary was a sinner? Well, for starters, I could dismiss this tongue-in-cheek by saying that the text does not say "Mary sinned." Yet certainly sin offerings were only offered up to God because someone sinned, right? Not quite. There is a difference between ritual uncleanness and sinfulness. The text only proves that Mary was ritually unclean and does not prove her sinfulness. According to Leviticus 12, a mother who gave birth was considered ritually unclean for forty days after the birth, and after that period she offered up a sin offering. It says,
"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed...And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb...[but] if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean'" (Lev. 12:1-4, 6, 8).
Mary followed this Jewish purity law regarding uncleanness. Yet ritual uncleanness does not equal sinfulness. Protestant biblical scholar L. Michael Morales explains this concept in his footnote on page 159 to his book, “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord”: “Moral impurity should be distinguished from ritual impurity. Ritual impurity is impermanent...while requiring cleansing, [it] does not require forgiveness (cf. Hayes 2006: 746, 748-749).” Lev. 12 is talking about being "clean" and not about being "forgiven."
Some may object still and say that Mary had to give a sin offering, not just any old offering, so she must have sinned. Yet again, this objection does not understand the different chapters of Leviticus. Sin offerings are for both actual sins (demanding forgiveness) and for ritual uncleanness (demanding cleansing). The differences lie between the different groups of laws: Leviticus 4-5 is about sins, and Lev. 11-15 is about ritual uncleanness. Lev. 12 is in the section about ritual uncleanness, so Mary was only ritually unclean. As Morales continues, “And even though sometimes the remedy [for ritual uncleanness] involves a purification offering (also dubbed ‘sin offering’), the text is quite clear in distinguishing the uncleanness rituals of chapters 11-15 from that of the purification offering for sins detailed in chapter 4 and 5. In Leviticus 4 and 5 we read the common refrain ‘So the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him’ (4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10). In the clean/unclean laws of Leviticus 11-15, however, one finds instead ‘So the priest shall make atonement for her and she will be clean’ (12:8), or ‘So the priest shall make atonement for him who is to be cleansed before YHWH’ (14:31), demonstrating that the status of unclean is not one that necessarily calls for the forgiveness of sin” (p. 160). Mary followed Lev. 12, which falls under the purity laws of Lev. 11-15, not the purification offerings for sin in Lev. 4-5.
Yet even if, hypothetically, Mary's sin offering was actually found in Lev. 4-5 instead of Lev. 11-15, it still would not prove that Mary was a sinner. For then Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist would have meant that Jesus was a sinner. For John's baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). No Protestant would believe this, though, and would say that Jesus was an exception to the rule. Jesus was baptized, not because He had sinned, but because He wanted to show us the path to receiving the Holy Spirit (Lk. 3:22). Yet if Jesus were an exception, then there would have to be at least the possibility that Mary was an exception to the rule as well.
At this point you might be wondering, "why does childbirth in Lev. 12 even make you unclean?" The answer is multi-factorial. First off, when a woman gives birth, she loses blood. This is considered a problem in Scripture, for blood is sacred - one's life is synonymous with one's blood (Lev. 17:14). To lose blood means to move in the direction of death. Now, God is superabundant life (Ps. 16:11, 36:9, etc.), so humans who lose blood are ritually unclean in Judaism. They have taken a step away from the superabundant life of God. Purity laws emphasize this reality. Another reason for this law is that it emphasizes the need to be different (as all of the weird purity laws do). Israel lived in the ancient Near East, where nations were committing heinous evils left and right (ex. child sacrifices). Because of this, God gave the Jews laws which combed through almost every aspect of their life, making Israel live differently than the other nations. Changing the culture of the Jews would make it easier for them to avoid the practices of the pagan nations around them. Isolating them would make them live a godly life - for they already were so different from everybody else. What other nation required mothers to offer sacrifice after childbirth, or required its citizens to avoid idols (Lev. 19:4) and pigs (Lev. 11:7)? Heck, the other nations associated pigs "with underworld deities" (Morales, p. 158)! As Morales puts it, purity laws emphasize the need for Israel to "keep themselves separate from the uncleanness of those nations...[the laws become] a sign of Israel's identity and calling, a wall of separation between Israel and the nations" (p. 163).
Suffice it to say, Mary was unclean. But uncleanliness does not equal sinfulness. That is obvious based on the terminology used in Lev. 4-5 vs. Lev. 11-15. So, Protestants will have to come up with a better argument to disprove the sinlessness of Mary.