Well, I gave the reins of the blog over to my friend the senior software engineer last time, and it was one of the most popular posts of the year. So, we’re doing it again. I don’t know where he finds the time to write these things. This time, he has written a post analyzing the conduct of Joseph during the story of Mary becoming pregnant with a very special child.
If you haven’t heard it already, I encourage you to go listen to the classic holiday song “Mary Did You Know?”
Not because it is filled with inspirational content. Quite the opposite. It regularly gets panned, and rightfully so, as an example of a song with a great melody but terrible theology. More can be written about that song along, but I will simply leave you with this: Yes, Mary Knew.
But this post isn’t about Mary. It’s about Joseph. What did he know?
To find out, let’s turn to Matthew 1. Skip past the genealogy. Yes, it contains useful lessons on its own. And let’s look at verses 18-25:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,
25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
After genealogies, Matthew opens not with a focus on Mary, but with the focus on Joseph. We’re likely used to reading this passage in Church and especially at Christmas time knowing what’s going to happen next. But let’s step back and look at this from Joseph’s perspective.
First, we need to understand what Joseph’s relationship was with Mary. We are told that they were betrothed but not married. While we have those same distinctions today, our emphasis on weddings is the opposite to what the emphasis would have been in Joseph and Mary’s time. And that’s because marriage has historically been viewed as a financial transaction.
Until late in the Middle Ages, marriage consisted of two ceremonies that were marked by celebrations at two separate times, with an interval between. First came the betrothal [erusin]; and later, the wedding [nissuin].
[…]Marriage, as with any type of purchase, consisted of two acts. First the price was paid and an agreement reached on the conditions of sale. Sometime later the purchaser took possession of the object. In marriage, the mohar was paid and a detailed agreement reached between the families of the bride and groom. This betrothal was followed by the wedding, when the bride was brought into the home of the groom, who took actual possession of her.
There is no prescribed duration of time between betrothal and wedding but most of the sources I’ve read say the norm (and even recommended by some Rabbis) was a year. However, the interval between betrothal and wedding could be shortened depending on circumstances. So it’s reasonable to think that Matthew’s gospel opens up somewhere in the year between when Joseph and Mary, and their families, have hammered out, signed, and celebrated their betrothal and when Joseph took Mary into the home he was preparing for her.
It was in this time of waiting and anticipation that Mary comes to Joseph and tells him she’s pregnant. We may be tempted to read that in the modern sense of Mary telling Joseph privately, just between the two of them. But the reality is that Mary’s friends and family knew she was pregnant. This wasn’t something that could easily be hidden. Mary claims divine intervention. Although we, in the 21st century, know this is true, put yourself in Joseph’s position for a minute. Nothing like that had ever happened before. There is no prior reason to expect or believe such a claim. So, Joseph is right in rejecting this explanation and instead decides to dissolve the betrothal.
This is the right decision for Joseph to make. We tend to gloss over this point but I think it’s worth considering in our time where the very suggestion that men prefer debt-free virgins without tattoos is met with shock and rage.
It was not merely Joseph but Joseph’s family that had a contract with Mary’s family. In our time we treat engagements and marriages as if they were only the concern of the individuals who fell in love. The Jewish understanding of marriage is not focused on the individual and neither should we be when reading Matthew.
Joseph had three options for dissolving his unconsummated marriage. He could publicly accuse Mary of being promiscuous. He could quietly dissolve the contract by claiming he was displeased with her. And finally, he could move the taking-home ceremony up and claim the child as his own. Each one of these paths is distinctly different and deserves to be examined.
Public accusation and divorce
Since Joseph and Mary had already signed a contract, and the only thing left to do was take her home and consummate the marriage, Joseph could have made a big deal about Mary violating the terms of their contract. Deuteronomy 22:13-30 has a lot to say here and while it’s worth reading I’ll sum it up by saying this route involved an awful lot of drama. And again, unlike modern marriage dissolutions where the state tries to cover over the ugliness of tearing a one-flesh (i.e. consummated) union apart, the law in Deuteronomy 22 was to air all the grievances.
This would necessitate that Joseph accuse not Mary but Mary’s father of not doing his job in guarding Mary’s virtue.
20 If, however, this accusation is true, and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found,
21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her city will stone her to death. For she has committed an outrage in Israel by being promiscuous in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.
To go down this route Joseph would first have to come to the conclusion that Mary was evil.
Instead, Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly not only spared Mary’s life. It also spared Mary’s father from a world of pain and shame.
For years I thought this was the only alternative to simply continuing on with the wedding and that Joseph’s decision to put Mary away quietly was a cop-out. But it turns out that a quiet divorce was allowed for exactly this in Deuteronomy 24:1-4
1 If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds some indecency in her, he may write her a certificate of divorce,a hand it to her, and send her away from his house.
2 If, after leaving his house, she goes and becomes another man’s wife,
3 and the second man hates her, writes her a certificate of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house, or if he dies,
4 the husband who divorced her first may not marry her again after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination to the LORD. You must not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
This could have been either before the wedding or after but there is a strong indication here that this is before the marriage has been consummated. I would argue that Joseph was still wisely holding this option in reserve even after the angel visited him by refusing to have sex with Mary until after the child was born. We know that Joseph eventually fully accepted Mary and the Angel’s explanation for Jesus’s conception, since he went on to have more children, that were fully his own, with Mary.
It’s not uncommon for couples to fail in resisting the urge to come together sexually prior to their wedding night. As a response, most cultures have an acceptable way to fast-track marriages between couples who fail to wait until the wedding to consummate their union (e.g. Exodus 22:16-17). While such a situation is certainly shameful, it is not irreconcilable. It is certainly more desirable for the couple to go ahead and get married and form a family than it is for the child to be born outside of wedlock in a broken home.
I think it’s worth highlighting that Joseph’s initial decision to divorce Mary on the grounds of displeasure was counted to him as both righteous and loving. Righteous in the sense that he couldn’t simply ignore the fact that his wife had been unfaithful as far as he knew. And loving because, while the evidence of being with child wasn’t hard to deny, he didn’t have the other half of the equation needed to bring a solid charge against Mary. Presumably Mary had not acted dishonorably before and had offered him an explanation, no matter how odd or implausible, for her condition. So in light of this complicated circumstance Joseph decided not to act on the righteous fury he was no doubt feeling.
Enter into this the angel of God.
The angel that appeared to Joseph provided an additional witness and evidence to corroborate Mary’s account of her pregnancy. It’s not that Mary’s word was untrustworthy because she was a woman. Though that is certainly a factor. It’s that without evidence of divine intervention her story makes no sense. And like all miracles in Scripture, Mary’s conception of Jesus comes with God proclaiming his handiwork.
God provided the seeds of doubt in the circumstances of Jesus’s birth for anyone looking for an excuse to not believe Jesus is the promised Messiah. That’s likely why Matthew opens up with a robust genealogy. Because I imagine the #1 argument against Jesus by the Jews of the day was that he wasn’t pure enough to be what they were looking for in the promised messiah. In the New Testament, Christ regularly hides himself and invites men to seek him out. It’s incredible to think that even the circumstance surrounding his birth presents a stumbling block to the hard hearted.
What else did we expect from the promise made in Isaiah 17:14 quoted by Matthew in verse 23? The Hebrew grammar in Isaiah indicates that it will be the child’s mother who provides her son with a name. There’s no socially acceptable way for the promised sign in Isaiah to come about. From the beginning the promised messiah would be controversial.
And that controversy would start in the most intimate human relationship. Between husband and wife. Like Martha and Mary, Joseph was presented a choice. He had to decide whether to trust the angel and take the risk of accepting Mary into his house and the child he knew was not his.
And to counter the terrible song this post started with. Here’s a Christmas song featuring Joseph.