Joseph’s Dilemma With Mary
Joseph’s behavior affected the Nativity story in a very important way, much more than it may seem. His reactions to the extreme circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy reveals truths about her as well as himself.
Most likely Joseph knew Mary through community interactions in Nazareth such as during the harvest or through their Synagogue. He would have been familiar with her family’s reputation and had confidence that she was a marriageable virgin, a very important factor in their conservative Jewish society.
Betrothals typically lasted for a year during which time Joseph was expected to be very busy. As a bridegroom, in addition to paying the traditional bride-price, he had to make money for other financial obligations such as preparing their new home and sponsoring a 3-day wedding feast for their guests.
Initially, Joseph had few worries about the virtuous nature of his prospective bride. By law, a marriage contract called a Ketubah, legally declared Mary to be a virgin, included the terms of their marriage and was signed by the witnesses who vetted Mary.
Mary had less commitment pressures to prepare for the wedding … simply follow the rules of the process. A betrothed girl subject to Judaic Law was under strict supervision of her family and the watchful eye of the community. She was not allowed to be alone at any time with an adult male, not even a male family member.
Gabriel the archangel, during his appearance to Mary delivering God’s message that she was miraculously pregnant, also informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was 6 months pregnant. With a common unique situation, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to visit Elizabeth who lived in a village days away near Jerusalem. Mary would be gone for 3 months. Keeping in touch with Joseph would be very limited and delayed, if at all.
Joseph would not become aware of Mary’s pregnancy until sometime after her return to Nazareth. It is unclear exactly when he discovered that she was pregnant, but it is clear from Matthew‘s use of the Greek word heurisko meaning “to hit upon…to find (by chance)” that it was a big surprise when he did find out!
Overwhelming emotions by Joseph would be expected – hurt and anger followed by resentment, embarrassment, doubt, uncertainty, temptations of vengefulness and other mixed feelings. Then the big question – what to do next?
Moving forward with the marriage would be the expected behavior of a man who believed himself to be the father of his betrothal’s baby. Frowned upon by the Rabbis, accidental pregnancies during betrothals were a reality, even in those days. The Rabbi’s dealt with these instances by allowing the couple to move up their wedding date and get on with life as a married couple.
Knowing he was not the father of Mary’s baby presented two huge consequences to consider. First is the obvious, why would a bridegroom want to marry his bride-to-be who was carrying a child fathered by someone else?
According to Matthew, a divorce was indeed being contemplated by Joseph. It is perhaps the most telling evidence of a truth that Joseph was not the father of Mary’s child.
Consequences of a divorce weighed heavily on Joseph. Not only would it destroy Mary’s reputation and cause financial loss to both Mary and her family, a public accusation of infidelity could carry a charge of adultery – stoning would not have been out of the question.
Attesting to Joseph’s honorable character, he was seeking to quietly settle the divorce. It would, in effect, minimize embarrassment to Mary, her family and avoid the public charge of adultery.
On the other hand, if Joseph stayed with his pregnant betrothal, their community of family, friends and neighbors would assume the pregnancy was a result of his own doing, even if it wasn’t. Joseph would have to endure the undeserving consequences of facing public scorn and humiliation while swallowing his pride and overcoming his personal feelings. It would take a big man. Few men would do it.
Unexpectedly, Joseph suddenly changed his mind and decided not to pursue a divorce. He set aside all his negative emotions and feelings to honor his marriage commitment to Mary knowing he was not the father of her child while willingly accepting the consequences that would come with it. What caused this sudden change of heart was not to be expected.
Matthew reports the game-changing moment came from a visit by “an angel of the Lord.” He delivered a message from God telling Joseph that Mary’s conception was from the Holy Spirit, her child would be a boy to be named Immanuel which Joseph understood to mean “Jesus.”
Actions speak louder than words, volumes in this case. Something very unusual and significant happened. Did Joseph’s behavior play a key role in determining if the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy?
Updated November 25, 2022.
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