Somewhere along the line that divided happiness from obligation, history from insignificance, and head from heart, there were decisions made by individuals who struggled with the consequences of the situations they faced. Joseph, father of Jesus and husband of Mary, faced such a dilemma between Matthew 1:19 and 1:20.
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19, NIV)
What was Joseph’s Moral Dilemma?
The decision and its inherent obligations begin with the word righteous. In this instance, righteous does not simply mean that Joseph was a nice guy, a classy fellow, or a man of consequence. He may very well have been all three, but none are mentioned in Matthew 1:18-19. Righteous is an English translation of the Greek word dikaios, which means that Joseph is observant of Jewish religious law. It is not a statement of personality, nor is it a testament to his character.
Being observant, therefore, Joseph, upon finding out Mary was pregnant and knowing it was not biologically his own child, would have been obligated by Jewish law to follow the dictates in Numbers 5:11-31, also known as the “Test for an Unfaithful Wife.” It could eventually get worse. Stoning and purging of the “evil” are required if evidence of virginity can not be found (Deuteronomy 22:20-24). However, the Deuteronomy passages seem to indicate that Joseph must be the one to bring the accusations.
The Test for an Unfaithful Wife seems to be cultural as opposed to prosecutorial. Ironically, it also seems to be more witchcraft than science. At the very least, Jewish law is absent emotion, preference, or levels of love and devotion. It is not, however, an option, not for those who are observant.
Joseph, Mary, and the Jewish Marriage Process
The Jewish marriage of antiquity was a three-step process that had to be rigorously followed, with a few regional differences between sects.
- An agreement between both sets of parents that there would be a marriage
- A formal exchange of consent between witnesses (Malachi 2:14)
- Taking of the bride into the groom’s family home (Matthew 25:1-3)
The marriage would have been legal under Jewish law at step two, upon which
the husband would hold rights over the girl at 12 or 13 years of age. The marriage is not the practical marital relationship in the modern sense until step three. The scandalous tone of the pregnancy implied in Matthew is reminiscent of Galilean practice where there would have been no contact allowed, even between Joseph and Mary, until step three. Judean practice would have allowed some contact and therefore less scandal.
It is explicit in Matthew and implicit in Luke (both Infancy Gospels) that Joseph and Mary are between steps two and three. They are married legally and with the obligations thereof, but they are not yet living together under the same roof. Before considering the enacting of Numbers or Deuteronomy, a pregnancy would have broken the obvious commandment in Exodus 20:14: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
The Angelic Revelation of Matthew 1:20
Because, in reading time, the angelic revelation to Joseph occurs so quickly in the narrative, we often forget that there is no mention of duration between 1:19 and 1:20. It could have been hours or it could have been months. There is no indication one way or the other. Matthew just states that the revelation occurs after Joseph’s consideration of the issues at hand.
The Holy Spirit of Matthew 1:19 vs. The Holy Spirit of Matthew 1:20
While there is reference to Mary being with child “through the Holy Spirit” in 1:19, it is not a part of the narrative flow. Because Joseph does not have the immaculate conception revealed to him until 1:20, it is safe to assume the Holy Spirit reference in 1:19 is a writer’s note to the reader, potentially for religious safety or care. It is possible that the author wanted the reader to avoid believing Joseph had any suspicion of literal adultery. The capitalization of Holy Spirit is a relatively recent biblical custom of the 18th – 21st centuries.
Joseph’s Response: Mercy vs. Fear vs. Uprightness
Theologians have argued over Joseph’s reasoning for nearly twenty centuries.
The Mercy Hypothesis, favored by Clement of Alexandria and many Catholic scholars, states that 1:19 should be read that Joseph was righteous “and therefore” unwilling to expose Mary publicly. The Mercy Hypothesis cites Psalms 112:4, which links righteousness/justice to graciousness and mercy and names mercy as the key factor in Joseph’s decision to put Mary away quietly (which many translate as leniently).
Some argue that if uprightness is synonymous with mercy, then Joseph would not have been afraid to take Mary into his home (step three of the marriage process). The angel in 1:20 tells him not to be afraid to do so, which assumes that he was indeed afraid to do so.
The Fear Hypothesis, a view held by Eusebius, Ephraem, and many Catholic scholars, states that awe for God’s plan was the key factor in Joseph’s decision. He was not able to believe that he should take a wife that God had chosen as a vessel due to his respect and awe for God. The angelic revelation of 1:20, therefore, assured him that it is acceptable for him to take her home. That would have meant to Joseph that he was also a part of God’s plan, unknown to him until 1:20.
The detractors of the Fear Hypothesis point to the idea that for this to be true, Joseph would have to have known it was a divine act before 1:20, which does not seem to be the case.
The Uprightness Hypothesis, believed by Justin, Augustine, and many messianic Jews of the 1st and 2nd centuries, states that obedience to the law was the key factor for Joseph. Supporters believe 1:19 should be read in a way that states that Joseph was a righteous man “but” unwilling to expose her publicly.
The law made him move toward divorce, but it was mercy that caused Joseph to do so leniently or quietly without accusations being leveled against Mary. The angelic revelation of 1:20 would have assured him, then, that no Jewish law had been broken and that the virginity was still intact. That being so, he had no religious (legal) obligation to enact.
Jesus and the Marriage of His Parents
How much did Jesus know of this dilemma and the decision that followed? Did it impact his answer to the question posed to him in Matthew 19:3? Did it impact his view of Jewish law in regards to mercy? Did it have any bearing on his answer to the question regarding “the most important commandment”?
It was the first decision made in the New Testament and it was the first repudiation of Jewish law, “The Law.” It was a sign that love is paramount, that mercy is in itself divine, and that decisions are human. It was also a sign of things to come in the baby born from Mary and fathered by Joseph.