Joseph’s Dilemma With Mary
Joseph’s behavior played a key role in the Nativity story, much more than it may seem. His reactions to the extreme circumstances reveal truths about Mary’s pregnancy.
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 full 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 expected to be very busy. As a bridegroom, in addition to paying the traditional bride-price, he had to hold a job to meet other financial obligations such as preparing their new home and sponsor a 3-day wedding feast for their guests.
Mary, on the other hand, had less commitment pressures to prepare for the wedding. 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 secret appearance to Mary, informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was 6 months pregnant. 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. No phones, texts or emails…keeping in touch with Joseph would be very limited.
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 to begin with, then 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. As such, these things were dealt with by allowing the couple to move up their wedding date and get on with life as a married couple.
Not being the father of Mary’s baby presented a major set of conflicting circumstances. Why would a bridegroom want to marry his bride-to-be who was carrying the child conceived by someone else? 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.
Knowing he was innocent of premarital sex with Mary, 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.
Indeed, according to Matthew, Joseph was contemplating the divorce option, an expected reaction of a man who knew he was not the father of his betrothal’s child. It serves as 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 her 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 another truth was Joseph’s honorable character. Rising above any negative feelings, he sought to quietly settle the divorce which would, in effect, minimize embarrassment to Mary, her family and potentially avoid the public charge of adultery.
Unexpectedly, Joseph suddenly changed his mind – he inexplicably decided to continue with his marriage. What caused this sudden change of heart and willingness to pay the huge personal price of staying with Mary is key.
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 had conceived of the Holy Spirit and her child, a boy to be named Jesus.
Actions speak louder than words, volumes in this case. Something very unusual and significant happened. Joseph suddenly 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.
Updated December 10, 2021.
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