An Alabama state official on Thursday dismissed a Washington Post report alleging that GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore had initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl decades ago, saying there was an age gap between the biblical Joseph and Mary.
The Post also alleged that Moore had pursued three others when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s.
"Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus," Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler told The Washington Examiner.
"There's just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual."
In the Bible, Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Joseph became her husband.
Beliefs about the specific story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus' birth vary widely in Christian history and across traditions.
Mary is referred to in scripture as a virgin, but there is disagreement about what that means.
Generally, however, Christians believe that Mary was a virgin when he was born. Joseph is usually referred to as Jesus' "father" or a father figure.
The Bible does not state Mary and Joseph's specific ages, but she is usually understood to be a teenager, and Joseph was an adult.
Moore is a judge and the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Alabama, one of the most solidly evangelical states in the country.
He was twice elected to and twice removed from the state Supreme Court after refusing to follow church-state laws.
In 2003, he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
In 2016, he was suspended after ordering judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Multiple evangelical leaders slammed Ziegler.
"Bringing Joseph and Mary into a modern-day molestation accusation, where a 32-year-old prosecutor is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl, is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor and church consultant who chairs the Billy Graham Center of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College.
"Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage."
"Women were chattel back then, they were traded - of course they married men who were much older and had multiple wives," said the Rev. Amy Butler, senior minister of the Riverside Church, a historical and prominent interdenominational church in New York City.
"It's completely ludicrous to equate the sex assault of a minor with an ancient culture. It's ludicrous . . . It makes me want to rip the church back from these people."
The topic is addressed in the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) - "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.
The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'
Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.'"
Earlier this year, Moore received high-profile endorsements from conservative leaders such as psychologist and radio host James Dobson, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins and National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown.
In an email to supporters on Thursday, Moore told his supporters, "the forces of evil are on the march in our country.
We are in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message."
Moore, who is Southern Baptist, has denied the allegations.
"Their goal is to frustrate and slow down our campaign's progress to help the Obama-Clinton Machine silence our conservative message," he wrote in his email to supporters.
"That's why I must be able to count on the help of God-fearing conservatives like you to stand with me at this critical moment."
According to the Pew Research Center, 86 percent of Alabama residents identify as Christian, and 49 percent are evangelical.
White evangelicals have become much more likely to say a person who commits an "immoral" act can behave ethically in a public role.
In 2011, 30 percent of these evangelicals said this, but that shot up to 72 percent, according to a survey published last year by Public Religion Research Institute.