Joseph and Mary married during her pregnancy as the Gospel of Matthew reports

“Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.”

Matthew 1:18-19

We learn here that Mary was pledged (μνηστευθείσης) to Joseph, but they were not married yet. We find the same information in Luke, where the form ἐμνηστευμένῃ is used: “The word ἐμνηστευμένῃ which is often translated with betrothed shows that something is incomplete and that their marriage was not yet completely fulfilled.” [Timo Schmitz: Was Jesus born to an unmarried couple?.  Journal of Ethnophilosophical Questions and Global Ethics 2 (2), 2018, 7- 10] The thing is actually very tricky here, because engagements had different meanings in Antiquity. Back then, the woman lived in a patriarchal society and they were more or less “bought”, the groom had to the pay the family for the bride. When they were pledged to each other, she was considered his wife, but he did not have the marital privileges until the debt was paid. The mentioning of Joseph as her husband (ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς) in Matthew 1:19 therefore “might go back to the Jewish custom that engaged people were already considered husband and wife even if the ceremony did not take place yet and Mary could have been punished for adultery like a married woman.” [ibid.] And all this happened, before she came to him (πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν) as they did not live together yet. So she was found pregnant (εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα) before having the right to have sexual intercourse with her husband. And the reason why she was pregnant: she was conceived by the Holy Spirit (ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου). As Joseph did not know this (Matthew 1:19), he had a divorce in mind (which was possible as he was already pledged to her, though the “transfer” was not completed). We know that in the next verses, an angel appeared to Joseph to let him know that Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit. As such it is no adultery, and he can marry her. Now what did Joseph do?

“ἐγερθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῷ ὁ ἄγγελος Κυρίου, καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ·”

Matthew 1:24

After Joseph woke up, he did as the angel told him. Thus, he took his wife to him (παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ). And this is interesting, because it means that he married her while being pregnant. Taking a person to one’s house, especially when being pledged to each other, hints the marriage, because the couple was not allowed to live together before he paid her. Otherwise, the risk would have been too big that a man enters his future wife and let her fall before paying her, which would defile her. So taking one’s wife home means that he married his fiancée. But Matthew goes even more into detail:

“καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.”

Matthew 1:25

Matthew explains here that Joseph did not know (οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν) Mary before she bore a son (ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν), and knowing is equivalent to having sex in Hebrew. So Joseph did not perform the marriage night until Mary gave birth, leaving her a virgin despite being married – until that very point. Have you been aware that these few verses are so deep in its meaning before?

So what were the consequences? Did Joseph himself believe in all of this? – Actually, we do not know.

“Matthew’s Gospel asserts that Joseph did not father Jesus (Matt 1:18-25), but it is far from clear that Matthew believed in the virgin birth (despite the nearly universal use of “virgin” to translate, accurately or not, Matt 1:23). Whatever Matthew thought he knew about Jesus’ biological origins, he is careful to narrate that Joseph obeys the angel’s directives to go through with his marriage to Mary and to name Jesus (Matt 1:24-25).”

Robert Miller: Was Jesus Illegitimate?. Bible Odyssey, no date.

What is sure is that as a result, he accepted Jesus as his legal heir, so he adopted Jesus and Jesus could legally follow the family lineage. [cp. ibid.] And the genealogy plays a very important role here: Jesus was born into the family who descended from King David. Back then, Israel was a Roman colony, and the Jewish monarchy was defunct. Jesus, however, was the legal successor to continue the monarchy, if being re-established, so the king of the Jewish nation was born through the Holy Spirit. But to break down the story to the historical very hard facts, we can follow Stephanie Landsem:

“Mary of Nazareth, unwed and pregnant, knew the punishment she faced—stoning. She had nothing but the story of an angel to tell her parents and Joseph, the man she had promised to marry. Joseph would have been well within his rights—even within his duty—to expose her sin and witness her execution. It was only with the intervention of an angel and Joseph’s own faith-filled acceptance of the angel’s message, that saved both Mary’s life and the life of her unborn baby, the Incarnation of God.”

Stephanie Landsem: Unwed and Pregnant in Ancient Israel?. Illuminating History Through Fiction, 6 December 2013.

At the same time, we also have to see history through the historical glasses and remind ourselves that we live in a time of patriarchy where a stranger woman was married to a stranger man and why should a stranger man reject his duties in which he was educated and in which he believed? Therefore, I made clear that “from an Orthodox point of view, women were seen as men’s personal property and a woman committing adultery would never have been protected, especially since Joseph did not know Mary well and thus had no deep relation to her. This also means that in case that he was not the father, it is likely, that he must really have had a dream or something like this, confirming Mary’s story as otherwise any compassion to save her was rather unlikely if seen through historical glasses.” [Schmitz, 2018: 10] Or Joseph knew more than we know today and he really wanted to protect Mary. Whatever Joseph really knew and motivated his action, Matthew is careful in not tainting the noble descent and the mission of Jesus. If Mary was married and became pregnant, probably no one cared, but the fact that she was pregnant before being married exposed the actual scandal, and thus, Joseph must surely have been under pressure back then. When Mary gave birth, she was officially married as she moved to him, so she married while being pregnant, showing that Joseph really cared for her or had a vision. He did not consume the marriage until Jesus was born, but it is not said that Mary stayed a virgin after that, she is not proclaimed an eternal virgin here, but was just said to be so until Jesus’ birth.

Timo Schmitz, 21 November 2022


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