Sunday, December 23, 2012

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

I have added an update below to respond to the objection that the angel's words to Joseph make it clear that he was unaware of the miraculous conception of Christ. See below. 

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 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, 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.

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 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 your wife had conceived 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? 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. To save Mary then from the appearance of being rejected for being unfaithful, Joseph 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.

**UPDATE: Do the angel's words prove Joseph was unaware of the virginal conception? 

Thanks for all the comments. I have to add something here though in light of some of the questions / objections raised. Specifically, to the argument that the angel's words (". . . do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. . ."), indicate that Joseph was unaware of the miraculous origin of the child, it should be observed that the word for (Gk. gar) may carry the meaning "because" (cf., e.g., BDAG). This, of course, is how Origen and Thomas (among others) would have read this. They weren't simply ignorant of the angel's words!

The angel then would be saying, "Do not fear to take Mary your wife because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . ." The point then would be then that Joseph should not fear because it was God's plan that Joseph would be the one--as his adopted father--to give him his name.

This is why Joseph is identified as "son of David"--to remind him that it was God's plan that the Messiah would be have the legal lineage of David. Joseph was necessary for that to happen, because Jesus is the son of David through Joseph in Matthew. Joseph was to play an important role then. Indeed, it is possible that Mary was a Levite herself since her cousin, Elizabeth, seems to have been associated with the priestly family (cf. Num 36:6-7).

In this view, then, the angel therefore is not telling Joseph not be afraid because the child is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph already knew that--remember, Mary was "found to be with child of the Holy Spirit." Rather, the angel is saying not fear because it was God's plan that Joseph would be his adopted father.  


Unknown said...

De la Potterie in Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant advances a similar reading in which he says, comparing the angelic message to both of them, that it was out of holy fear that Joseph wished to put Mary away (p. 55).

Good post!

Anonymous said...

Fr. Frederick Miller has a pamphlet / talk on this same topic taking this position. I have found it very helpful for understanding and preaching!

Pax et Bonum,
fr jpm

Fr. Andrew said...

MIchael, have you read the latest Jesus of Nazareth? Pope Benedict seems to take up the "anticipated Gospel" passage (pg 38ff). Also, he posits two options for divorce in the Torah, the public trial and a private version.


crazylikeknoxes said...

I've never been completely sold on the humility theory. Being a "just man," Joseph might have refrained from stoning the Blessed Virgin because she had not been caught in any act of adultery. It was, after all, a suspicion. And if Joseph recognized the divine origin of the Child and feared for his worthiness, how could putting Mary away make things better? A more reasonable reaction would be the one that came to pass: he took her into his home and knew her not - ever. Finally, an "ancient Jew with proper reverence for God, his temple, and all that he had deemed holy" would very likely have "not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost." Cf. Acts 19, 2. Just some thoughts. Augustine's, Aquinas', and Origen's guesses would all be (and are) better than mine. Merry Christmas.

Jay Burgherr said...

I feel very ill at ease to contradict Origen or Aquinas. However, the explanation of the angel 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..." would not have been necessary if there was no misunderstanding as to the origin of Mary's pregnancy.

If Joseph's concern was that of his worthiness in the role as husband to the "Ark of the New Covenant" and Step-Father to the Christ Child, the angel would have spoken directly to that concern.

It is OK to see Joseph as fully fallible and fully human with doubts.

Father Canu said...

Among Jewish contemporaries
of Mary and Joseph, what
was the fate of a woman who
became pregnant by being raped, but could not
prove it?

Nick said...

The old Greek suggests that instead of stoning, Joseph wanted a divorce. This is according to Jewish Law, just as it is according to the Law that a man may marry a consecrated virgin to protect her - and in Joseph's case, her child as well.

"Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit;"

Why would Joseph fear a child of the Holy Spirit if the angel told him the child was of the Holy Spirit in order to console him? Because the angel here is telling Joseph that Jesus is the Messiah.

Michael Barber said...

Thanks for all the comments. I can't respond to all of them, but I did include an "update" relating to the objection that the angel's words somehow make it clear that Joseph was unaware of the virginal conception.

Merry Christmas!

Fr. Kelly said...

It does my heart good to see Joseph taken seriously here and defended. So often he is dismissed as though he did not know his own wife or what was going on with her. And yet Scripture singles him out as being in tune with God in a unique way. He is, after all the only one the new testament calls "a just man."
The "suspicion " position is plainly untenable for the reasons that Michael brings up as well as a few others.
If Joseph thought Mary had been unfaithful, why would he be afraid to take her into his home? I could see him being angry, disgusted, even ashamed, but not afraid.
Our Liturgy teaches us that Mary was presented in the temple when she was 3 and was raised there as a temple virgin. By all accounts these privileged girls received a temple education until 12-ish (the onset of menses when the flow of blood would prevent her from being able to stay in the temple. ) At that point when she came home and was betrothed to Joseph, according to Numbers 30 he would have to be informed of her vow of virginity and be given an opportunity to nullify it. Judging from Mary's words to the angel in Luke, "I do not know man" it seems that Joseph did not choose to nullify her vow and so she would still be bound by it.
In addition, any "suspicion" theory presumes a freedom of movement highly unlikely in Mary"s case (or any betrothed young woman) When was she likely to have the opportunity to find someone to cheat on Joseph with? In the small town of Nazareth, she would be guarded in her father's house until it was tim to move in with Joseph. We are told she went in haste to the hill country of Judea to be with Elizabeth. But she would have been accompanied on this road by Joseph himself or someone he trusted as much as himself. Remember, this is, at least in part, the road on which in Jesus' parable, the man was beset by robbers. What are the chances that a young woman who had a man to protect her would be allowed to travel it unguarded. In that case Joseph would be aware of Elizabeth's greeting as well.
To reemphasize a point made well by Michael B above: It is important to read the whole text.
The problems in interpretation, it seems to me, arise from not recognizing that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and that the angels words to Joseph do not conclude by stating this. The angel begins by stating the reason for Joseph's fear and when he says, "she will bear a son and you are to name Him Jesus," he dispels Joseph's fear by assuring himthat it is God's doing that he Joseph should be in authority over God's Son. The just man Joseph then does as the Lord commands. It is this feat of his that we ought to stand in awe of.

Sam Schmitt said...

I am inclined to the humility theory, but also find it strange that Joseph would put Mary away - even if he tried to do so "quietly" - to leave Mary to raise the Child alone? How was this even charitable to her? How could she possibly avoid shame?

Also, another theory - one that in a way combines the humility and suspicion theories - would be that Joseph did not positively suspect Mary of wrongdoing, but was utterly perplexed at the reality of both Mary's innocence and her pregnancy. He judged that the reality was God's work far above him and considered that putting Mary away was the best solution under the circumstances (though certainly not ideal). A number of saints have said that Mary, in her humility, did not tell Joseph of the miraculous nature of her pregnancy, which would account for Joseph's ignorance.

Dim Bulb said...

Regarding this issue, Matthew 2:14 and 2:20 might be pertinent as indicative of Matthew's narrative style.

The narrator's comment in 2:14~"and he was there until the death of Herod" matches the narrator's comment in 1:18~"she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost." The angel's words in 2:20~"For they are dead that sought the life of the child" matches the angel's words in 1:20~" for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. "

Anonymous said...

I'm discussing this with a friend, and she's asking "what about the comma?" in verse 20 between wife and for. Could any of you Greek readers please tell me if this makes a difference in Greek? If it is there in Greek?
Thank you!