Matthew does not hesitate to call Joseph and Mary “husband” (Mt 1:16,19) and “wife” (Mt 1:20,24) without qualification, despite the virginal conception of Jesus. In the only passage of the entire Gospel which speaks of their marriage, Matthew 1:18-25, the virginal conception is mentioned almost casually, as if the readers were already aware of it, but unaware of how it could be reconciled with Davidic messianism. If the word “origin” in the introductory verse 18 is to be translated any more specifically, it could read “Now the parentage of Jesus Christ was like this,” rather than “Now the birth of …,” since it explains the situation of Jesus’ human parents in relationship to the divine mystery, and does not actually describe the birth itself. This passage, which has been interpreted in a variety of ways, describes Joseph’s experience and may be correctly understood only in light of this fact.
There is no evidence whatsoever in the Gospel to support the image of an old widowed Joseph as presented in the Apocrypha, which merit no claim to historicity. The most likely presumption on reading that Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” (Mt 1:18) is that they were two youths of ordinary marriageable age. Common practice was to celebrate marriage in two main stages, the first being that of the contractual arrangements culminating in consent or “betrothal.” After a period of perhaps one year in which preparations were made to enter together into a new home, the second stage of actually “taking” one’s wife into that home occurred, and would be accompanied by a great feast such as that of the ten maidens (Mt 25:1-13) or that at Cana (Jn 2:1-11). The conception of Jesus occurred while Mary and Joseph were in that period between betrothal and cohabitation, thus “before they had come together” (Mt 1:18).
Betrothal was much more than modern day “engagement.” Its juridical consequences were similar to those of a Catholic marriage today for which the union has not yet been consummated, although the wedding was validly celebrated. The betrothed were already called “husband” and “wife,” enjoying the same legal rights as spouses who had already celebrated their marriage feast (cf. Dt 20:7; 25:5-10; Mt 22:24). Only cohabitation and conjugal relations were excluded during the period of betrothal. Infidelity carried all the consequences of adultery. Separation required a formal decree.
There were two manners of effecting a divorce during betrothal. The first was by means of a defamatory trial for suspected adultery, in which the husband publicly accused the woman, exposing her to the punishment of death prescribed by the law (Dt 22:23-24). A husband whose betrothed was certainly guilty of adultery could not retain her, but he could proceed with the second, less public manner of divorce. On his own initiative, in a domestic manner without public trial, he could give her a declaration before two witnesses and come to an agreement on financial matters. In the case of rape (which was presumed when relations took place outside the city), no public trial and condemnation was prescribed (Dt 22:25-27), and therefore the first manner of divorce would not apply, although the domestic type of divorce before two witnesses might still be enacted. Mere suspicion of adultery need not necessarily be resolved or acted upon. Lastly, it must be noted that a domestic divorce during betrothal did not necessarily imply any type of sexual infidelity or suspicion, but could proceed even for unspecified reasons.
Since the time of the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, many have interpreted Matthew 1:18-21 to say that Joseph suspected Mary of infidelity. Although Joseph is commonly the subject of active verbs in Matthew, verse 1:18 does not say that he found her with child. Instead we encounter the impersonal “she was found,” which can equally be translated “she found herself” or simply “it happened that she was.” The suspicion interpretation mentally separates the phrase “of the Holy Spirit” from its verb, as if those finding that she is pregnant do not know the origin of the pregnancy. Grammatically there is no reason for such a separation, since taken at face value the sentence seems to describe a single discovery, that she was “with child of the Holy Spirit.” This single discovery is in fact the central point the passage is explaining. We are not told how Joseph learned of the pregnancy. It is often supposed that he simply observed the fact of the pregnancy without being told of it first. Many have thought that it would not be Mary’s place to reveal this mystery to anyone, but even so she might still be obliged in fairness to her betrothed to state her innocence in advance, even though she might not be free to explain it. One might also hypothesize that out of trust, sensitivity, and fairness to her betrothed, Mary was obliged to reveal the mystery to Joseph, if to no one else, although she still was not able to reveal his vocation to him, since this could come only from God.
Whatever the manner of Joseph’s learning of Mary’s pregnancy, the Gospel says that, until the angel appeared to him, the reaction of Joseph, the just man, was to consider quietly separating from her. We are not told why he planned to divorce her, and it must be noted that Matthew makes no mention of any suspicion on the part of Joseph. Although the common suspicion hypothesis enjoys wide popularity, it is not the only interpretation. Nor is it without problems, for it depends on a number of assumptions that cannot be proved. Its assumption that “of the Holy Spirit” is added for the readers’ knowledge, while unknown to Joseph, makes the phrase an unusual, superfluous addition; whereas, taken at face value, the sentence indicates that Mary and Joseph knew of Mary’s pregnancy and of its divine origin. Nor does the suspicion interpretation lend itself to the best understanding of the phrases “just man” and “do not fear,” which occur in the passage and which we must examine in depth.
Matthew 1:19 follows by stating that Joseph, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Adherence to the suspicion theory results in trying to interpret Joseph’s “justice” simply in terms of his reaction to the law in the face of this suspicion. If Joseph knew of the virginal conception from the start, however, then his justice can be understood in the fuller sense of trusting, obedient faith in the Lord. Matthew uses the Greek word meaning “just” more than the other evangelists. From reading the translations, one may not always realize that this same word is being used, since in different places it is also rendered as “righteous,” “upright,” or “innocent.” Matthew applies the word to those people of faith of the Old Testament who longed for the fulfillment of the promise (Mt 13:17; 23:29), and to those disciples who will see the fulfillment of salvation (Mt 13:43,49; 25:37,46). New Testament letters also refer to the just as those who live by faith (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38).
Matthew, who is most familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, is certainly aware of the meaning of this same word used throughout the Old Testament, wherein God who is preeminently “just” or “righteous” calls his people to emulate his holiness. In the Psalms the righteous shall possess the land (Ps 37:29), shall flourish like the palm tree (Ps 92:12), shall have light rise for them in darkness (Ps 112:4). Three specific people to whom the word is applied are Noah, who is the instrument of a purifying new creation (Gen 6:9; 7:1); Tamar, who is one of the irregularities entering into Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Gen 38:26; Mt 1:3); and king David, to whom Matthew has given so much attention (1 Sam 24:17). Without mentioning specific names, chapter 10 of the Wisdom of Solomon gives a resume with unmistakable references to the just men of salvation history: Noah (Wis 10:4), Abraham (Wis 10:5), Lot (Wis 10:6; cf. 2 Pt 2:7), Jacob (Wis 10:10), Joseph (Wis 10:13), and the people led out of Egypt by Moses (Wis 10:15,20). The Wisdom reference to Cain as unrighteous, is paralleled by Matthew’s characterization of Abel, his brother, as righteous (Wis 10:3; Mt 23:35; cf. Heb 11:4; 1 Jn 3:12).
Those who hold that Joseph suspected Mary of infidelity then interpret his justice as simple obedience to the law by not marrying an adulteress, or as compassion by doing it quietly rather than publicly, or as a combination of the two. Either of these explanations is quite weak: Matthew is not emphasizing Joseph’s obedience to the law here, stating rather that Joseph was “unwilling” to expose her to the punishment of the law; and compassion or leniency are not normally signified by the word “just” in Scripture. A variant interpretation is that Joseph suspected not that Mary was unfaithful, but that she was the innocent victim of rape, and that he decided to separate so as to allow her to marry the father of her child. In this hypothesis, it is even more difficult to explain what type of justice is involved in quietly leaving a raped betrothed to marry her rapist. Furthermore, in the case of a raped betrothed the law prescribes death for the rapist, rather than divorce from the betrothed (Dt 22:25-27).
It seems, rather, that Joseph is a “just man” in the same sense used for the examples cited throughout the rest of Scripture. Joseph is preeminently a man of faith. Like the people listed above, he awaits the fulfillment of the promise. Like them he believes God and places himself at his disposition as one of the final humble instruments for the promised fulfillment of salvation. He believes that the pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, and his reaction before the mystery is one of reverent awe. His response is like that of Moses removing his sandals before the burning bush (Ex 3:5), of Isaiah terrified by the appearance of the thrice holy God (Is 6:5), of Elizabeth before the mother of the Lord (Lk 2:43), of the centurion whom Jesus offers to visit (Mt 8:8), and of Peter who seeing his nets filled exclaims: “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinner” (Lk 5:8). Joseph decides to divorce Mary in the private, domestic, “no fault” manner before two witnesses (or perhaps with none at all) not out of suspicion, but in order to cooperate with God’s plan. Given the Incarnation, he cannot presume to continue with this marriage, to appropriate to himself and to act as father of the divine child engendered by the Holy Spirit. His uprightness, based on deep faith, thus carries throughout the whole passage that follows, and is not limited to the one act of deciding to divorce Mary.
As Joseph “considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream,” and indicated to him his vocation with respect to this awesome mystery (Mt 1:20-23). This passage contains many elements that are characteristic of annunciations of births and of commissionings, as found in other parts of Scripture. One of these elements is that the Lord’s messenger addresses him by name and by the title that indicates the role he is to play in guaranteeing Davidic descent to the child, as already indicated in the genealogy. The angel’s first words of address are, “Joseph, son of David” (Mt 1:20), in the same way that Gideon was addressed as “you mighty man of valor” (Jgs 6:12) to indicate the role he would be sent to play in God’s plan.
The words that follow, “do not fear,” are a common formula uttered by angels in the New Testament, but only on momentous occasions, such as the annunciations of the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus (Lk 1:13,30), the declaration that Peter “will be catching men” (Lk 5:10), the announcement to the women that Jesus is risen and that they are sent to tell the brethren (Mt 28:5,10), and the commission for Paul to “speak up and not be silent” (Acts 18:9). The angel’s words are meant to directly dispel the overwhelming awe that Joseph feels before the mystery of the Incarnation, now blended with his awe at the appearance of the angel. The “do not fear” is not spoken to simply relieve whatever feelings might accompany suspicion. Such feelings would perhaps be more like hurt, sorrow, anger, or jealousy, but not “fear” as understood in the other situations addressed by the angel. Like Gideon (Jgs 6:22-23, cf. Ex 33:20) Joseph must be reassured, and like Tobias (Tob 6:15-17) he needs a communication from God to know that he is divinely chosen for this marriage.
Current translations of Matthew 1:20 are based on the suspicion hypothesis and therefore separate “do not fear to take Mary your wife” from what follows by a comma and by a conjunction such as “for,” thus interpreting that the angel is telling Joseph what he does not know: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” To learn of the divine conception for the first time, however, would seem reason to experience fear in the biblical sense seen in the examples above, rather than reason to allay fear. The Greek text uses no such punctuation, and grammatical analysis of the conjunctions used shows that instead of being translated as “for . and,” they could also be rendered “indeed . but.” If Joseph already knows that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and if this very knowledge is the reason for his planning to separate from her out of reverential fear, then the angel’s words are understood to respond directly to that reality, by telling him not to hesitate about continuing with the marriage. He is to have an important role in this work of God: to act as Mary’s husband and to name the child. The translation could thus read: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife even though that which is conceived in her is indeed of the Spirit that is Holy. She will bear a son, whom you will give the name Jesus .” With these words Joseph is given his vocation and mission. The angel is telling him to continue with his original plan to take Mary his wife into his home, in accord with the normal final stage of marriage for which they had been preparing. The importance of giving the child a name in the line of David has already been shown. The call to name the child “Jesus” is an invitation to righteous Joseph to base his life on faith in the salvation promised. As soon as the message is communicated to Joseph, he obeys in the tradition of the patriarchs. He is the just man of faith who “on rising from sleep” immediately does as the angel commands, taking Mary as his wife and naming the child “Jesus” (Mt 1:24-25).
Although Joseph and Mary were truly married and formed a family together, Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Mt 1:25). This is the biblical way of saying that they refrained from normal conjugal relations. Although we are not told why they did so, we may presume that it was out of respect for this unique mystery of virginal conception and divine Incarnation. In this they were in fulfillment of the Greek version of the Old Testament prophecy about a virgin bearing a son (Is 7:14), as cited in Matthew 1:23. The biblical expression for “until” makes absolutely no implication about sexual relations after the birth, as our English word does. In Matthew 28:20, for example, Jesus’ promise to be with his disciples until the close of the age does not imply that he will not be with them thereafter. In 2 Samuel 6:23 (2 Kgs 6:23 of the Greek Old Testament), Michal’s having no child until the day of her death certainly does not mean that she has any afterwards. Both references use the same conjunction for “until.” The tradition of the Fathers of the Church firmly rejected the interpretation that the “brothers of the Lord” listed in Matthew 13:55 and elsewhere were children of Mary, and largely disputed the Apocryphal version that they could be children of Joseph by a former marriage. The Catholic position has been and is that the unique marriage of Mary and Joseph remained permanently virginal. Matthew does not pronounce either in favor of this or against it. Neither does he see that virginity in any way diminishes the marriage of Mary and Joseph, which was willed by God and was necessary not only for Davidic descent, as already shown, but also for the protection of Mary and the rearing of the child in a loving home.
Mary and Joseph are truly “husband” and “wife” by divine decree. In Matthew 2 it is Joseph whom the angel addresses to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, and then again to go to Nazareth and establish a permanent home there. As husband and wife, Joseph and Mary share in their respective manners the experiences of the virginal conception, of the birth and naming of the child, of a home in Bethlehem, of the journey into Egypt to escape from Herod, and of domestic life at Nazareth. Most of all, they share a deep faith in being able to participate so closely in the work of salvation. It would be difficult to imagine that their virginal love and affection could be second to that of any married couple, considering the greatness of what they share. As husband and wife, they serve as parents to the Son of God.