Many non-Catholics believe that Jesus’s mother was a sinner. One of the proofs they put forth to justify this belief is her sin offering in Luke 2:22,24. If Mary was sinless, then why in the world would she make a sin offering? The logical explanation would be that she was a sinner. As Geisler and MacKenzie put it, “she offered a sacrifice for her sinful condition” (p. 324).
However, this is a misunderstanding of what a sin offering is. Mary’s particular offering was for ritual uncleanness, not moral imperfection.
The text reads,
And when the time came for their [Joseph’s and Mary’s] purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem . . . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
When the holy family traveled to the center of Jewish worship, Jerusalem, they followed a specific law of Moses. That specific law, which is found in Leviticus 12, was to offer a sacrifice of two pigeons.
To understand if Mary’s sacrifice was for her sins, we need to analyze Leviticus 12. The question of Mary’s sinfulness in Luke 2 hinges on this Old Testament chapter.
Leviticus 12 states that mothers will be ritually unclean for forty days after giving birth. Once that period ends, the mother needs to provide a sin offering. The text reads,
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. . . . Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. . . . 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 (vv. 2,4,6,8).
Mary followed this Jewish purity law regarding uncleanness.
On the surface, it would seem that “uncleanness” is equal to “sinfulness.” However, this is a misunderstanding of the context. Who would guess that twenty-first-century Americans would misunderstand the issues common to the ancient Near Eastern background of Israel?
To help with the context, let’s read what Protestant biblical scholar L. Michael Morales’s Commentary on Leviticus has to say: “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)” (p. 159). Morales’s point is that Leviticus 12 is talking about an ancient, temporary state of ritual impurity—not a permanent state of sinfulness. So the offering of two pigeons was not for healing a sinful relationship with God.
So why did Leviticus 12 say “sin offering”? Surely, if the sacrifice was only for ritual cleansing, then it would avoid using the word “sin”!
To understand this, we must understand the dual purpose of sin offerings. They are for actual sins (demanding forgiveness), but also for ritual uncleanness (demanding cleansing). This is clear based on the different groupings of law codes in Leviticus. Whereas Leviticus 4-5 is about sins, Leviticus 11-15 is about ritual uncleanness.
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 the specific law that, according to Luke 2:24, is within Leviticus 12. This falls under the purity law category of Leviticus 11-15, not the purification offerings for sin category in Leviticus 4-5. Leviticus 11-15 is not about forgiveness for moral faults, so the topic of Mary’s sinlessness is being read into Luke 2:24.
Even one of the founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther, recognized that Mary’s sin offering did not entail her personal sinfulness. In his famous pamphlet “The Freedom of a Christian,” he pointed to the example of Mary as a model for Christians to do good works out of love, rather than out of necessity or to be justified. He pointed to Mary because she offered a sin offering even though she “did not need to be purified” (p. 52). Mary obeyed the law out of “free and willing love,” even though “she was not bound by that law.” So, for Luther, Mary’s sin offering was not an indication of her moral imperfection. Rather, Luther seems to have operated from the starting point that Mary had no imperfections, and thus had no need to be justified by her works.
So Mary’s sin offering was for ritual uncleanness, and for the Jews in the time of Christ, uncleanness was not the same as sinfulness. That is obvious based on the terminology utilized in Leviticus 4-5 versus Leviticus 11-15. If Mary had followed the sin offering from Leviticus 4-5 instead of Leviticus 11-15, then Protestants would have an argument.
But she didn’t.