Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Was Joseph really suspicious of Mary? Another view from the Early Church

 On Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading is taken from once again from Matthew 1.
“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).
Instead of rehashing the last Sunday readings reflection let's focus on a different aspect of the story: Joseph's desire to divorce Mary quietly. 

Why was Joseph, in the angel's words, "afraid" to marry Mary?
The most common reading involves finding Joseph suspicious of Mary's pregnancy; Joseph believed Mary had somehow been unfaithful. Joseph wanted to divorce Mary quietly to keep her from being executed according to the Law of Moses.

This view has some support in Christian tradition. Advocates of this view include Augustine and John Chrysostom.

Notably, though, the earliest Christian sources give us a somewhat different reading.

Protoevangelium of James (2nd cent.)

In the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal second century work, Joseph, upon discovering his betrothed with child, immediately assumes Mary had been unfaithful. He says, 
"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,9 and the serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her, so it has happened to me also." (Prot. Jas. 13; all quotations from ANF 8). 
It is worth pointing out that in this ancient work Mary is said to have been consecrated to God as a temple-virgin.

When Joseph confronts Mary, she insists that she has not been unfaithful:
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 thy womb? And she said: As the Lord my God liveth, I do not know whence it is to me. (Prot. Jas. 13).
The Protoevangelium tells us that, incredibly, Mary had forgotten what the angel had told her at the Annunciation (cf. Prot. Jas. 12)!

And so we read about Joseph's deliberation over whether he should divorce Mary:
And Joseph was greatly afraid, and retired from her, and considered what he should do in regard to her. 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. (Prot. Jas. 14)
Notice here that Joseph is unclear about Mary's mysterious pregnancy. Joseph does not simply want to divorce her because he assumes she has been unfaithful. Joseph considers the possibility that the child is somehow of supernatural origin. While he considers it possible that she had been unfaithful, he considers it equally possible that she is not guilty of a sin at all!  

The Humility Theory

There's another ancient take that's also 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 quoting Origen).
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).

Jerome takes a position similar to that of the Protoevangelium of James:
"There is also a precept in the law that not only the accused but also the confidants of evil deeds are guilty of sin. If this is so, why is Joseph recorded to be just, when he is concealing the crime of his wife? This is a testimony to Mary that Joseph, knowing her chastity and perplexed by what had taken place, conceals in silence the mystery that he did not know about." (Commentary on Matthew at 1:20). 
Notice that for Jerome Joseph was not suspicious of Mary's fidelity. 

Problems with the Suspicion Theory
Some might like to excuse these ancient sources as simply ignoring the plain sense of Matthew. Clearly Matthew is clear that Joseph was suspicious of Mary, right?

I think we often dismiss early interpreters too quickly. 

In fact, the view the standard view, i.e., that Joseph was simply suspicious of Mary, seems to have problems.

For one thing, Joseph, as 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". 

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 a view 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.

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

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 is likely how Origen would have read it, a man hardly ignorant of Greek.

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.

Something to Think About

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 Origen and others, 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.

I agree that this reading may not be convincing to everyone. And, again, later fathers simply though Joseph was suspicious of Mary's fidelity.

Still, I don't think this view should be summarily dismissed. 

Anyways, at least you've got something to think about while you're waiting for midnight Mass to begin! 

Merry Christmas! 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Priest through Mary.
Prophet through the Holy Spirit.
King through Joseph.

Why have I never put that together before? :-)