Skip to comments.Was Joseph Really Suspicious of Mary's Pregnancy?
Posted on 12/06/2010 11:14:40 AM PST by Mighty_Quinn
During this Advent/Christmas season we will turn again and again to introductory chapters of Matthew and Luke. Here I'd like to look at one passage in particular.
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 of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of 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 (Matthew 1:1821).
Here's the question: why does Matthew tell us that Joseph wanted to "send [Mary] away quietly"?
The most common interpretation is of course that Matthew's story implies that Joseph was suspicious of Mary's pregnancy. In this view, Matthew's narrative insinuates that Joseph thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him and that the child was likely from another man. He did not want to put her to shame by revealing her unfaithfulness and expose her to the authorities. The penalty, of course, for such actions would have been capital punishment.
This view has some support in Christian tradition. Advocates, for example, include Augustine and John Chrysostom.
However, not all shared this view, which we might call "the suspicion theory". Here I want to highlight another approach, whose advocates include Origen, Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.
Problems with the Suspicion Theory
First, let's be honest: the view that Matthew intends us to think that Joseph was simply suspicious of Mary seems to have problems.
Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a "just man" (δίκαιος ὢν). If Joseph truly thought Mary had been unfaithful would he not be required to follow the Law of Moses? According to the Law, adultery was a capital crime! Could Joseph really simply look at the other way? It seems unlikely that Matthew describes Joseph as upright because he fails to keep the Law!
In fact, according to the Torah there was a specific rite available to suspicious husbands concerned about their wives' fidelity (cf. Num 5). Yet Joseph does not invoke it according to the evangelist.
Matthew simply says that Joseph tried to "send her away quietly".
Anticipating Jesus' Teaching?
Some have argued that for Matthew Joseph's actions anticipate Jesus' teaching--i.e., Joseph sees a need to relax the law here which he might have viewed as too harsh. Such seems highly unlikely. Jesus intensifies the law in Matthew: he does not relax it (cf. Matt 5:17-20; Matt 23:2)!
And lest it be claimed that Joseph was simply showing mercy--note that Matthew gives us no indication that Joseph thought Mary had repented of being unfaithful. Such would have to be read into the text.
With Child of the Holy Spirit
Moreover, we might point out that the text does not even say that Mary was simply "found to be with child". It says that Joseph wanted to separate from her after she had been "found to be with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 1:18). In other words, the text seems to suggest that Joseph knew that the child was "of the Holy Spirit".
Put another way, Matthew notably does not say that Mary was "found to be with child" and that Joseph had no idea where the baby had come from. Again, that reads something into the text that is not there. Instead, Matthew says that Joseph's actions followed upon the discovery that Mary was with child "of the Holy Spirit." There doesn't seem to be any suspicion here.
The Humility Theory
So why did Joseph want a divorce in the Matthean story?
There's one ancient view that's often overlooked: Origen's. Although his commentary on the first few chapters of Matthew's Gospel has been lost, Aquinas preserves some of it in his famous Catena Aurea. This work is essentially a running anthology of patristic opinions on the Gospel texts. There, along with other interpretations, Thomas gives us Origen's view. "He sought to put her away, because he saw in her a great sacrament, to approach which he thought himself unworthy." (Catena Aurea at Matt 1:19). Though Aquinas does cite from fathers who hold to the suspicion theory in the Catena, he later adopts Origen's view as his own. In the Summa Theologica we read: Joseph was minded to put away the Blessed Virgin not as suspected of fornication, but because in reverence for her sanctity, he feared to cohabit with her (Summa Theologica, III, q. 3, a. 3 ad 2). Indeed, this view seems at least historically plausible. If you were an ancient Jew with proper reverence for God, his temple, and all that he had deemed holy and if your wife had conceived by the Holy Spirit and would you not also be hesitant about living with her?
So why then does it say Joseph did not want to expose Mary to shame? Well, according to this view Joseph knew that, given her pregnancy, some--not knowing where the child had come from--would conclude the worst when they heard Joseph had divorced her. He thus decided to do so "quietly".
In addition, according to this approach then the angel's instruction to Joseph is not understood as revealing Mary's innocence as much as it is a revelation of God's plan that Joseph should not be afraid because God has ordained it that he should play a part in the birth of the Messiah.
Humility vs. Suspicion
It seems to me that the "suspicion theory" has more problems than the view taken by Origen and Aquinas, which we might call the "humility" theory. The former fails to explain why Joseph as a just man would not keep the Law and give a suspected adulteress a pass. In addition, it has to ignore the flow of the text: Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.
The humility theory, however, does not suffer from these problems. It reads the text as it flows. It also makes clear how Joseph's identity as a "just man" informed his decision to put Mary away quietly: he was a humble man who did not deem himself worthy to play the role of the foster father of the Messiah, who was born "of the Holy Spirit".
And, finally, it resonates--at least it does with me. It makes sense to me that an ancient Jew who was "just" would feel unworthy of being the spouse of a woman who had just conceived "of the Holy Spirit."
That's got to be just a little intimidating.
What a crazy thing to argue about. The text is absolutely clear. No point of doctrine hinges on Joseph’s state of mine about it.
To me such a love for her made him imminently qualified to be a father to Jesus and able to protect them both..
Origen on St. Matthew’s account of Joseph & Mary
Makes sense too ~ I've known fellows who were awarded the Silver Star ~ they have this "humility issue" ~ we could discuss that all day long and into the night, but it's so much better to just ask one of the awardees what he feels about it ~ particularly if it were a circumstance where others died.
This discussion illuminates what I've heard directly from my friends.
The answer is that it is St. Joseph's state of mind that must be considered if we are to fully understand the message. It is also another one of those Biblical ying/yang things, but here it's 3D and over time.
Imagine that we have a "just man" who is betrothed to the beautiful young woman and he is really looking forward to normal married life. Then God comes along and she is pregnant with the Messiah. Joseph sees that he must look forward to something other than normal married life. God steels his resolve by pointing him toward the future (which some interpret as God's Plan).
There, suits me fine ~ God's Plan antipodal yet integrated within the whole concept of Life subject to quantum uncertainty.
Did someone say that was rather "intimidating"?
It would be logical for a man to believe his betrothed was unfaithful if she became pregnant before they came together. There was no reason for Joseph to know this child was of the Spirit, as there had been nothing in scripture nor any message to him at that point that Mary specifically was to bear the Messiah.
Matthew 1:19 says "Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." He wanted to put her away quietly because he was a man of mercy as well as righteousness under the law. (Even the Old Testament tells us that God requires us to love mercy.)
It was only after the angel visited Joseph and told him that the child was of the Holy Spirit that he knew Mary had not been unfaithful. I thank God that Joseph was willing to serve the Lord by taking care of Mary and the Christ child.
Well said. And there is every reason to believe he was an exemplary father and husband. Why take that away from him for the sake of some theory not supported by the text?
Perhaps Joseph felt left out of the process and needed the reassurance from the Angel. Knowing more about his emotions and reactions would be a helpful guide to all.
I sure it was at least intimidating after the Angel verified the facts. It would take divine intervention for any man to believe Mary’s story. Such a think had never happened in the history or mankind.
Actually, the text does not explicitly tell us that Mary told Joseph how she got pregnant.
I never found it confusing. His suspicions would have been quite normal. It would be like a guy who had had a vasectomy and found out his wife was pregnant two or three years later. On the one hand, it might be a miracle. On the other hand ....
You know there's a lot of that going around these days ~
In the East the Messianic prophecies are considered to be part of a continuum where the older promises of a Messiah can be used to "predict" or "identify" the future appearances of a Messiah.
In the West we think of this as a set of prophecies specifically pointing toward Jesus of Nazareth and the philosophy he preached to us.
At the same time I haven't found any reason to believe the former prophecies are not valid for use in identifying the time of the Messiah, or his identity, in a future time.
Should be the same Jesus every single time, right?
Apparently God disagrees since He did not inspire Matthew to include anything about it in his narrative.
No. All of God’s great truths have distorted echoes in pagan religions. The best lies have a kernel of Truth.
Considering the fact that sometimes the Scriptures are like the election of 1876 reduced to a telegraphic message, I think there's enough information in the Scriptures as a whole to deduce the idea that somebody in the community"knew" ~ and maybe enough information to figure out who that might be.
On the other hand, He has inspired many people to consider the question that is raised precisely because of the paucity of information in Matthew's narrative.
So following your logic, those who aren't asking questions as a result of Matthew's narrative aren't following the curiosity that God wants them to follow - otherwise God would have made the narrative perfectly clear to everyone.
So in this case, questioning the deeper meaning of the narrative is following the will of God. In fact, it is possible God desires such investigation as a matter of course. What a concept - that God gives His children curiosity in order for them to use it.
We are not discussing them ~ fortunately ~ but they discovered Dwarka a couple of weeks ago ~ kind of like finding "The True Cross" or "The Holy Grail" or "The Ark of the Covenant" ~
Let's put it this way, there are truths in all the traditions ~ because they are now or were "an amnesty from oblivion".
The problem lies in Mankind's inability to Hear God. That's why discussions like this are worthwhile.
Yes, it is. But if Joseph was "just man", would he not have followed the law of Moses and turned her into the authorities?
Fortunately we are all in synch with the Fathers of the Church ~ (cited in the references)
In a dream the Angle told Joseph:
Matthew 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel[g] (which means God with us).
Why would the angle tell him that if he already know it?