Monday, December 06, 2010

Was Joseph Really Suspicious of Mary? A Look at the Gospel Reading for Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 1. Here we read about the annunciation to Joseph. 
“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 1:18–21).
Here's the question I want to deal with here: why does Matthew tell us that Joseph wanted to "send [Mary] away quietly"? 

The most common interpretation is 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. In sum, he did not want to put her to shame by revealing her unfaithfulness and expose her to the authorities. As is well known, the penalty stipulated in the Torah 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, Thomas 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.

Some might object here on the grounds that I'm just hesitant to take such a view seriously because I'm a Catholic and such an interpretation might cause problems with Mariology. Actually, many Catholics do take this view though. So let's be clear; I'm not somehow dogmatically hamstrung here. 

Actually, the real issue is that the "suspicion" reading causes real problems for the text of Matthew. I'd just ask that the reader to be open here and consider how such a reading seems problematic in light of Matthew's larger narrative and theology.

Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a "just" (δίκαιος). 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, according to the evangelist, Joseph does not seek this course of action

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)! Jesus insists that no element of the law should be undermined.

And lest it be claimed that Joseph was simply showing mercy, note that if Matthew does present Joseph as suspicious of Mary, there is no indication that he thought Mary had repented of being unfaithful. Such an understanding would have to be read into the text!

With Child of the Holy Spirit

Moreover--and I think this is pretty significant--we should also point out that the text does not even say that Mary was simply "found to be with child". Look carefully and you'll see that Matthew says that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary after she had been "found to be with child of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 1:18). Who "found" her "with child of the Holy Spirit"? The only candidate, i.e., the only person mentioned in context, is Joseph. 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 simply "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 indication here that Joseph has no idea where the baby came from--in fact, the text suggests he knows exactly how Mary was with child.

The Humility Theory

So why did Joseph want a divorce in the Matthean story?  

There's one ancient view that is 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. Consider this: if you were an ancient Jew with proper reverence for God, his temple, and all that he had deemed holy and your wife had been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, 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? 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. To save Mary from the appearance of being rejected for being unfaithful, Joseph thus decided to divorce her "quietly".

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: Joseph should not be afraid because God has ordained he shall play a part in the birth of the Messiah.

The angel thus says, "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife because (gar) what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will call his name Jesus." 

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.


Bill Heroman said...

Definitely plausible, and worth thinking about some more. Thanks, Michael.

But, I have one point on which I must protest vehemently: This post was somehow truncated in my feed. (AAAaaahhh!)

Mike said...

Thanks, Michael.

John Bergsma said...

Good treatment, Mike. Only recently have I begun to take off my Protestant glasses on this passage and start to think with the Church on it. Incidently, Joseph's celibacy is very plausible once one sees the seriousness with which the Jews thought about sexuality. For example, in the 1QS, the celibate lifestyle is called "perfect holiness." I have a hard time thinking a pious Jewish man would charge in and use the womb that he believed God had just used to give birth to the Messiah! (yes, I know there's a debate about celibacy at Qumran, but no, I'm not convinced by the arguments that they weren't celibate.)

Matthew Kennel said...

I think that exegetically, though, there is a major problem with this interpretation in terms of the narrative flow of the story. For the humility interpretation to work the story would have to flow like this

A. Mary is found by Joseph to be with child by the Holy Spirit
B. Joseph, thinking himself unworthy of cohabitating with a woman who had conceived of the Holy Spirit, desires to put her away, but to do so quietly, since this action might make others suspect her of adultery.
C. The angel comes to tell him that he too is a part of God's plan, that it would not, in fact, be a breech of reverence in his case to take Mary as his wife (presumably with the implication that the marriage was to be a virginal one).

Now, I will admit that the humility interpretation is wholly consonant with Catholic doctrine, and if the narrative actually worked in the way outlined above, I might be convinced to go against Augustine and Chrysostom and with Aquinas and Origen. But I don't think that the humility interpretation actually fits with the narrative flow in Matthew 1:18-25, and for two reasons.

A) The humility interpretation doesn't make any sense of the angel's words in v. 20: "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." The angel's argument seems to be that (1) because the the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit then, (2) the proper course of action is for Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. But, on the humility interpretation, Joseph's very train of thought was that (1) because the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit then (2) reverence demands for him not to take Mary into his home. In other words, the angel's words don't address what, according to the humility interpretation, they should have addressed: Joseph's worries over reverence, but they would address what the "suspicion interpretation" points out as Joseph's problem, the tension between his trust in his admittedly very holy wife and the fact that every other child ever conceived was conceived through the sexual union and he knew full well that he had never touched the Virgin.

Which leads me to point B) The text does not actually say in v. 18 that Mary was found by Joseph to be with child of the Holy Spirit. That seems to me to be reading into the text, or, at very least, I don't believe that the above post has made a conclusive argument that the evangelist thought that Joseph knew the child to be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Rather, v. 18 seems to be a case of the narrator knowing more than one of the characters in the story, thus setting up the dramatic tension in which that character comes to share in the narrator's knowledge.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for an enjoyable post, Michael. I must admit that I had not heard of this reading before, so it is good to be made aware of it, and to see a coherent argument for it. I am inclined to agree with the previous commenter, though, about the narrative flow and I would be interested to see you address those points. It is the narrator in v. 18 is telling us that the child is of the holy spirit; Joseph does not seem to find this out until v. 20. And his reason for wishing to divorce her quietly is "not wishing to put her to shame", μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι. I'd be interested to hear how you read that on the humility theory. Thanks again, Mark

Michael Barber said...

Bill, Mike and John:

Thanks! I'm glad you agree.


Thanks for your thoughtful response. However, I think you're not fully seeing what I'm seeing. Let me suggest that you are so used to reading the passage according to the suspicion view that its affecting your reading.

The angel tells Joseph: "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. . . you shall call his name Jesus. . ."

The word "for" (gar) can carry the sense "because". So: "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit". In other words, "You are afraid because Mary has conceived of the Holy Spirit. Don't be!"

Second, if the text is not saying that Mary was found to be with child "of the Holy Spirit" by Joseph, who else do you suppose is in view? Her mother? Her father? Clearly some persons, or at least someone is in view. The most obvious answer is Joseph. His decision to put her away quietly immediately follows the account of her being found with child "of the Holy Spirit". The most natural way to read this would be that Joseph is included in that group.

Note: It does NOT say that Joseph was unaware of the fact that she was of child "of the Holy Spirit". It seems you would have to read that into the text.

I appreciate your response. But I must say, working through this has only reinforced my confidence in the humility interpretation. Again, though, I appreciate the time you took to offer your critique.

Michael Barber said...


Thanks for commenting. Your question only posted as I was writing my response to Matthew.

How do I account for Joseph's "not wishing to put her to shame" (μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι)? Good question. I think the idea is that Joseph knows that if he divorces a pregnant woman it will appear that she is somehow guilty of impropriety.

if this seems like a stretch realize that this makes more sense given Matthew's text than the reading in the suspicion theory, which holds that Joseph didn't want to expose his apparent belief in Mary's infidelity. I think that is really problematic given the rest of Matthew's Gospel. If Joseph is a just man, you would think he would follow the law and bring Mary up on charges. Again, as I pointed out in the post, in Matthew Jesus defines righteousness in terms of intensifying the law.

Take, for example, this from the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire" (Matt 5:21-22). Note here that the consequence of anger is the same as that of killing (the guilty is "liable to judgment) and the one who simply says "You fool!" is liable to "Gehenna." Wow!

Given the way the Gospel presents Jesus' teaching, to believe that Matthew is casting Joseph as upright because he does not want to enforce the law is really difficult. Jesus defines righteousness as not relaxing the least of the commandments in Matthew. If Matthew thinks Joseph is "upright" because he was unwilling to follow the Law than he apparently disagrees with Jesus' view of righteousness. Is that plausible?

Thanks for your question.

Michael Barber said...


One more thought. Note that in the Greek δειγματίζω can simply mean to "disgrace" or to bring someone to a public disgrace. If Joseph divorced Mary and she was with child, that would certainly lead people to think that she had been unfaithful. Whatever the truth, it would certainly have brought some disgrace to her.

Consider this: even in our modern society a kind of taboo is attached to divorce--how much more so in first century Judaism?!

Furthermore, certainly a public divorce would lead many to doubt the claim that the child was indeed "of the Holy Spirit". Hence all the greater reason for secrecy.

Rosary Guy said...

Why was Joseph afraid? If he thought Mary was unfaithful, he might be embarrassed or ashamed; he might be angry. But unless he realized that Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant, why would he be afraid?

But why does the inspired writer use the passive voice in v 18? Why doesn't he tell us who found Mary to be pregnant through the holy Spirit?

Although whoever it was, the text says he (they?) found her to be pregnant through the holy Spirit. On careful reading it doesn't work as a narrator's aside to the reader.

Michael Barber said...

Rosary Guy:

You make a great point: why would it say Joseph was "afraid" to take Mary as his wife--if he suspected her of adultery, I suspect another word might have been used!

petebrown said...

Interesting idea Mike. One problem I see with it though is that it overlooks the possibility that the present participle ων might be concessive rather than causal as you seem to be taking it. Or in English….maybe it should be ”although Joseph was a just man….” rather than “because Joseph was a just man..” or “Joseph, being a just man…” If the concessive reading is in view, Matthew maybe wants to prepare us for our Lord’s teachings on marriage later in the gospel when Jesus forbids divorce except for πορνεια (Matt 5:32; 19:9). Obviously it is a big debate over what constitutes πορνεια but perhaps becoming pregnant in the period before one’s betrothal was consummated is what is envisioned. Indeed only Matthew features any exception to Jesus’ teachings on divorce. And perhaps the πορνεια clauses appear for the literary reasons internal to Matthew to show how Joseph can contemplate a quiet divorce but still be “just.” So forget the Matthean community…perhaps the exception was carved out for Joseph‼!

Lisa, ofs said...

Yay -- thank you so much for sharing the "reverent awe" theory! If you want to read a splendidly in-depth look at this theory, I highly recommend Joseph in the New Testament, by Fr. Larry Toschi, OSJ. It's spectacular. :-)

Dismas said...

The humility angle in this article is truly inspired. I'm certainly grateful that I am graced with the opportunity to read it. The comments fascinate me as well. It's another incredible grace to see how you guys chew on and hash out the translation and verb tense, etc.

Sancte Ioseph prudentissime, ora pro nobis!

Bill Heroman said...

Michael, are there any other constructions in Matthew where 'gar' does what you're talking about here? Also, where does 'gar' follow other forms of 'fear not', and how do they compare?

Sorry I don't have time to go check all that myself, but as you know, I work for a living. ;-) ;-p

Anyway, at the moment I'm less convinced by your interpretation of what the term "just" should or shouldn't implicitly require. Most persuasive for me is that the scenario seems to fit plausibly. Still, it seems like a lot hinges on this particular 'gar'.

PS: please publish "full posts" back into your feed!

Michael Barber said...


Good question. Of course, gar can mean what I am saying. There are numerous examples. But here's one within Matthew: " But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for [gar] all hold that John was a prophet” (Matt 21:26). They were afraid "because" all held that John was a prophet.

In Matthew 1, the angel says, "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for [gar] that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." Joseph is afraid to take her as his wife because she has conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel is saying: Don't. It is God's plan that you will name him, i.e., you are to be married to Mary.

I'm curious: what is not convincing about my argument concerning Joseph's being "just"? Would not Joseph to be "just" have to follow the Law? Is it not hard to believe that Matthew--who elsewhere indicates that Jesus taught that righteousness meant intensifying the demands of the law (cf. Matt 5:17-20)--held out for us Joseph as a "just man" because he relaxed it?

petebrown said...

Well Mike it seems like our knowledge of exactly what halakah would have required in this situation is a little sketchy. Jews of this day weren't living only by written Torah but by oral one as well–as you know. The idea Mary would have had to have been put to death to satisfy the law might be assuming too much here, certainly more than the text actually says. Do we know for instance in the betrothal period that sexual sin carried the same penalty as adultery or even that Jews of the day would actually have wanted to stone such a person had they known she was an adulteress or that it was considered incumbent upon the other spouse to reveal the infidelity to the authorities??

It seems to me the more natural way of reading the verse is that Joseph's justice was seen in his willingness to handle the matter discreetly.

But even if your reading is correct that the law required death for an adulteress, Joseph's justice could have come in spite of his willingness to spare her. I don't think justice in Matthew means only or even mainly obedience to the old law. One verse you cite 23:2 where Jesus tells his disciples to follow the authorities who sit on Moses' seat is obviated a little by what he says about them in 16:11-12, no? And Joseph here in not exposing Mary but seeking to divorce quietly not only anticipates Jesus' new law for marriage as given in Matthew but also the fifth beatitude in 5:7–blessed are the merciful. He thus anticipated and embodies the new law– a pattern seen in other characters in the gospel. How about that as an alternative :)

Michael Barber said...


Thanks for your reply. Are we going to suppose that because we don't have a clear second Temple source on this particular issue (i.e., the case of a woman who is betrothed being unfaithful) that it is unlikely that she would have been held to the usual standards of the Torah? I can't say for sure, but I can talk about probability.

I think it fair to say at the very least that in all probability the woman would have been publicly disgraced, punished in some way, if not stoned.

Let's just say for sake of argument Joseph is being presented as being "merciful" here. How does that fit the angel's declaration: "Do not be afraid"? Wouldn't that fit a humility interpretation much better?

Bill Heroman said...

I mean places where gar comes after the infinitive like that, and joins its clause directly to the infinitive (rather than to the initial verb).

On the "just", I'm simply not well-versed enough to be sure either way. It might be enough support for the suspicion theory to say that a "just" man wouldn't marry a girl who'd been despoiled. For instance, perhaps an unjust man might have taken her in [and dishonestly claimed the baby as his own], perhaps for no other reason than to avoid being associated with scandal, himself.

Your argument here, however, seems to say it was either stone her or become unjust. And I'm (perhaps sadly in my ignorance) unaware of any conclusive evidence/arguments showing that capital crimes were or weren't always punished "justly".

Unknown said...

What do you make of the Protoevangelium of James?

13. And she was in her sixth month; and, behold, Joseph came back from his building, and, entering into his house, he discovered that she was big with child. And he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying: With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? And what prayer shall I make about this maiden? Because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her. Who is it that has hunted me down? Who has done this evil thing in my house, and defiled the virgin? Has not the history of Adam been repeated in me? For just as Adam was in the hour of his singing praise, and the serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her, so it has happened to me also. And Joseph stood up from the sackcloth, and called Mary, and said to her: O you who hast been cared for by God, why have you done this and forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you brought low your soul, you that wast brought up in the holy of holies, and that received food from the hand of an angel? And she wept bitterly, saying: I am innocent, and have known no man. And Joseph said to her: Whence then is that which is in your womb? And she said: As the Lord my God lives, I do not know whence it is to me.

14. And Joseph was greatly afraid, and retired from her, and considered what he should do in regard to her. Matthew 1:19 And Joseph said: If I conceal her sin, I find myself fighting against the law of the Lord; and if I expose her to the sons of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel, and I shall be found giving up innocent blood to the doom of death. What then shall I do with her? I will put her away from me secretly. And night came upon him; and, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, saying: Be not afraid for this maiden, for that which is in her is of the Holy Spirit; and she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And Joseph arose from sleep, and glorified the God of Israel, who had given him this grace; and he kept her.

The Protoevangelium is not inspired but is it consistent with Jewish custom of day? Mary would have been a consecrated Virgin and Joseph a widower who was charged with her protection.

Bill Heroman said...

Pete's comment just showed up for me. Weird. But yeah. What he said.

Anyway, your reply to Pete shows what I'm trying to say. I think a lot more depends on the grammar of the angel's statement.

And again on the gar, my 'clarification' above suddenly seems to me horribly unclear. But I'll try again. If memory serves, the normal phrase is something like "don't fear - and here's why!", but you're suggesting that in this case it's "don't fear just because of X". So, then... What I'm wondering is if the infinitive structure here (or parallels to it) would be an argument in your favor. Are there other places where the gar working your way comes within specific syntax(es)?

Just spit-balling, maybe...

petebrown said...

But Mike you bypass the issue of Joseph's legal duties in the situation and this is what your interpretation depends on–at least in part.

Is it really his obligation to expose her–a duty which if neglected would stand in tension with him being just? We simply can't assume that.

And the "fear" of going through with the marriage which the angel instructs against could be 1) his fear of contracting ritual impurity or 2) fear that the true paternity of the baby might be revealed or 3) his fear that like Hosea he is about to marry who he thinks is a harlot, and he doesn't relish living out his days as a cuckold. It's not hard to come up with any number of reasons why a guy –first century Jew or otherwise–would want to skedaddle in that situation...but do so in a face saving way both for him and Mary :)

Your reading is certainly possible but it just seems a little implausible.

Unknown said...

The conjunction γαρ is a post-positive ("[1] γαρ" must occur at the start of the phrase and it means "for [1]", specifically "for the reason that [1]") which has a different meaning from οτι, which is not a post-positive and means "because", and which would probably be used here if the sentence was supposed to mean "( Do not be ( ( afraid to take Mary your wife ) because ( that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit ) ) )" γαρ cannot have this meaning, therefore the sentence must mean "( Do not be ( afraid to take Mary your wife ) ) ( for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit )". As to why he feared to take to himself Mary his wife, there could be these or other reasons:
(1) He thought Mary was unfaithful
(2) He believed Mary was not unfaithful but could not understand why she was with child
In either case, he feared that he might bring judgement upon himself in marrying her, for he who takes to be his wife one in whom indecency had been found commits an abominable sin (Deut 24:1-4)
Therefore he decided to secretly release her (from the bethrothal).
(1) If he thought Mary was unfaithful, he did not want to openly shame her. Although he, being righteous, could not take her as his wife, he, being merciful, did not will to shame her, shadowing the Lord's righteousness yet mercy in John 8 (notice that Deut 24 did not mention stoning the wife that was found to have indecency, for because of the hardness of heart of the children of Israel, God let Moses allow divorce)
(2) If he was not sure or did not believe that Mary was unfaithful, he still did not want to investigate, lest others, seeing that he was not the father, conclude that Mary was indeed unfaithful.
Thus the messenger's answer to him was that "the one who was begotten in her is out of the holy spirit." (not out of flesh)

Martin said...

I’m with Mr. Barber:

Because Joseph deserves our utmost respect – he only ever converses with angels, Our Lady and our Creator – we must understand that he is more likely than not to have recognised the honour, regality, purity, sanctity and faithfulness of God’s greatest creation.

And so, though his eyes would tell him one thing – his fiancé was pregnant by another, his mind prompted by his trust in God’s Providence and his knowledge of scripture, and his heart, given wholly to the most beautiful creature ever betrothed, would be compelling him otherwise: “hope against hope” [Rom 4, 18].

We have scripture on our side here in a verse long associated with Our Lady and St Joseph, “The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he shall have no need of spoils. She will render him good, and not evil all the days of her life [Prov 31, 11].

Paul Rimmer said...

I avoid commenting on the issue itself. It is interesting, but something that will take greater consideration than I have time right now.

I do recall that there had been a debate about the punishment for adultery in this way. If one man owes another man money, and refuses to pay, the debtor sins (trangresses) against the lender. It is just for the lender to force payment, or to demand punishment, if payment cannot be made. It is also just for the lender to forgive the debt, because the transgression is against the lender.

To work on the Sabbath is to transgress against God. Only God can forgive that transgression, and God already does so based upon a covenant he has established. God has already set up the terms for offenses against him in the Law.

To commit adultery, is this a sin against the husband, or is this a sin against God, or both? I remember this was debated, I think in the Mishnah, and I will look up the debate when and if I can find it.

But the idea is that, if you are part of the school that says it's a transgression against God, then justice involves following the letter of the Law. If it's a transgression against the husband, then the husband is justified in demanding the full punishment in the law, or he can forgive the transgression and demand a lesser penalty, or none at all. If the transgression is against both God and the husband, then there's a legal "bargaining." Some of the punishment can be forgiven, but not the punishment for transgressing against God.

So this is a possible answer to how Joseph could have been just and also could have wanted to resolve the matter quietly, in order to protect Mary's honor. Something to think about.

I'll look for the commentary.

Alessandro said...

Dear Michael,
I have read with much interest your article, but I don't agree. Matthew Kennel correctly explained how the answer of the Angel strictly shows some connection between the choice of Joseph and the fact he didn't know for sure whether Mary had committed adultery or not.

Anyway, I don't think the "Suspicion Theory" as you proposed it may be the right solution. It seems your version puts everything in the negative. I'll try and put it in the positive.

Let's take for a moment Joseph's place. Your girlfriend tells you she's pregnant of the Holy Spirit. You'll be put to face two alternative solutions:
1) she betrayed you, so she's telling a very innovative lie
2) she's right, but you can't be sure.

Personally, it'd be very difficult to choose either! Joseph knew Mary was a good person and a faithful lover of God; nevertheless, such a miracle is so unusual that the even the most faithful Jew would have doubted it. So, the matter isn't that Joseph believed Mary to be an adulteress (on that occasion, possibly he would have her punished by the Law of Moses!), but on the contrary he just didn't want to punish by death a girl who was possibly right, though he couldn't verify whether she was telling the truth. So, Joseph just wanted a "possible" innocent to be saved; to this, we can add that Joseph may have respected the coming child, who wasn't responsible for his mother's sinful condition but would have died with her in case of death penalty.

I would call this theory the "Pious Suspicion Theory", if you like: not a suspicion of guilt that lead Joseph to divorce Mary to prevent a scandal, but a suspicion of innocence that lead Joseph to divorce Mary to save her in case she wasn't guilty, and her Son with her!

Hope you may like this third alternative hypothesis.

John Kearney said...

I have always beleived that a supernatural explanation only suffices if a natural explanation does not. So here we have a young man finding that his future wife is with child. He knows two things about this girl. She is good living and if there is a child he is not the father. so what does he deduce. that someone else is the faither but her virginity would have been lost against her will. She had been raped, in other words. Now there is a dilemma for any young man, Jewish or not. He would have to bring a child with no known lineage into his family and as the eldest child keep the family name going. A real deception that would be. He certainly needed the angel to give him advice.

petebrown said...

I agree with P and Bill. I don't think it works grammatically. One would have expected a hoti clause to say what you want. See for instance Matt 14:5 or Luke 19:21. It's not impossible of course--NT writers don't always use good grammar--but very unlikely Matt wanted to say that. Thanks for the food for thought though.

Unknown said...

During the Middle Ages, when Passion and Mystery Plays were performed by guilds for whole towns, The York Mystery Cycle presented Joseph's dilemma as a combination of both Suspicion theory and the Humility theory. His lines before the appearance of the Angel, as I recall, go something like this:

"Oh God, I'm sorry I've been so foolish. Why would I think that a pretty young thing like Mary would be interested in an old coot like me? My hair is gray and my beard is scraggly. I wouldn't have the energy to be the kind of husband a young woman wants these days. I'll just quietly send her away, and do my best to provide for her so that she and the Baby don't come to any harm."

So he is suspicious of Mary's fidelity, but humbled by his recognition of his own inadequacy. Rather than punishing her for what this play presents as Joseph's doubt's, he decides to send her away.

I wish I could do justice to how funny Joseph's lines are. Every man in the audience would have howling at Joseph's lament.

So maybe the answer is not suspicion or humility, but both as part of the human condition. It certainly makes for a deeper performance by actor's, and is a more human response.

Anonymous said...

What great dialogue! Thanks for presenting this view of Matthew 1--I had never heard this or considered it (big surprise...I'm protestant;-).

As you said and many others have reiterated, Joseph being "just" needs to be addressed if the suspicion theory is held. I'm not sure what to think of the "oti" in verse 20, either.

However, what about the euriskw in verse 18? The humility theory suggests that she was literally "found by someone" to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. However, the verb may not be used here so rigidly. Zerwick's grammatical analysis of the GNT indicates that this passive may have a weakened sense, as in "become." If so, it is not necessary to interpret Joseph as actually "discovering" that she was pregnant.

Unknown said...

I can't see if anyone has corrected this already, but the quote from Aquinas is in III.62.3.ad2 (not III.3.3.ad2).

Great article

Patrick Coffin said...

If there really was a St. Joseph....

Shamby said...

I appreciate the literary and grammatical observations expressed so far, but thought I'd approach from a historical angle. To call my biases, I am Protestant.

Mr. Barber seems to identify Torah observance as the essence of a "diakaiosone" but then dismisses it as not only a liability for the suspicion theory but as an irrelevant meaning for the humility theory. I think his dismissal is premature and his evidence somewhat lacking thoroughness.

Joseph's righteousness would indeed have meant a faithful obedience to Torah. This is consistent with Matthew's reverence for the Mosaic Law. However, Roman law prohibited the carrying out of death sentences for Jewish crimes. That being the case, Joseph's righteousness is not conditioned on his obedience to Dt. 22:23-25.

Instead the Mishnah Sotah dealt with alternatives to deal with the realities of the times, and to offer a more "humane" option to capital punishment. Joseph therefore had the option of public accusation, the details of which are described in Sotah ch.1:1-7. Matthew knew that this punishment mean public disgrace, which is why he references that Joseph desired to avoid it, explicitly in v.19.

Nevertheless, Joseph was inclined to put her away, for the sake of righteousness. To not do so would have been an abomination (Dt. 24:1-4) and would have chafed against the shame-honor system. In other words, Joseph was already shamed by Mary's apparent betrayal, and divorcing Mary was the only way of regain Joseph's honor and preserving his righteousness.

Therefore, "phobos" seems an appropriate word for the angel to give Joseph--he had both the fear of disobeying the Law in Dt. 24:1-4 and of accepting a degree of social humiliation by keeping Mary.

All of this is to say that Joseph's suspicion fits the historical context and cannot be dismissed so easily, with all due respect to Mr. Barber's very thoughtful alternative.

CM7 said...

I think that the debate over Joseph being "just" or "righteous" and what that really means is irrelevant to the humility theory put forth. The text read faithfully speaks of zero suspicion about sin or adultery. Joseph and Mary likely took vows of celibacy and Joseph knew that Mary was pregnant via the power of God. It says right in the beginning that she was found with child "from the Holy Spirit". The angel simply told Joseph not to be afraid of this miracle and to move forward with taking Mary as his wife. God would shield them from any disgrace. Also, Joseph took Jesus as his own to squash all public outcry. I think "divorce" is an unfaithful translation and is what leads most astray on this topic.


CM7 said...


Would the fact that one died in the OT if they touched the Ark shed light on what Joseph may have been afraid of?


Fr. Larry said...

Never heard of the 'humilty"theory before. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

... All of you do realize that "Virgin" did not mean the virgin as "a woman who never had sex" in our language today, but "virgin: A young maiden of purity and choice", right?

Mary wasn't REALLY a virgin. It was just a term roman emporers used for their "royalty" and that's why the term "virgin" was used in the sense of Jesus' mother, that she was "prime choice" as the mother of the "king of kings".

Also, I don't think the question is "Whether or not Joseph knew she was pregnant with the Holy Spirit" I think the question should be "If Joseph BELIEVED that she was pregnant with the holy spirit or not." That's the argument you should be having. you people seem to forget how human beings work, and because of that, you neglect to give credit to the human mind. Maybe you should think about the flaws a man goes through and what he's willing to question rather than what he's willing to blindly follow.