The average modern reader of Matthew assumes Joseph disbelieved Mary and wanted to divorce her as an adulteress. Pictures come to the mind very easily of a Mary “pregnant out to there” and fumbling to explain to a skeptical Joseph that, well, it’s not the way it looks and there was this angel, you see . . .
But surprisingly, there’s another view of Joseph, one that I think Scripture supports better than the “suspicious Joseph” portrait commonly accepted by modernity. In fact, it’s a way of viewing Joseph’s actions that was remarked on with approval by such Church Fathers as Origen, Rabanus, and even Jerome, the greatest biblical scholar of antiquity.
Jerome: Or this may be considered a testimony to Mary, that Joseph, confident in her purity, and wondering at what had happened, covered in silence that mystery which he could not explain.
Rabanus: He beheld her to be with child, whom he knew to be chaste; and because he had read, “There shall come a Rod out of the stem of Jesse,” of which he knew that Mary was come [ed. note: Jerome in loc. Ambros. de Spir. S. ii. 5. and Pseudo-Augustine (t. vi. p. 570.) so apply these words, considering Christ the ‘Branch’ or flower (flos) which is spoken of in the clause following. Cyril Alex. et Theod. in loc. explain it of Christ, and had also read, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” he did not doubt that this prophecy should be fulfilled in her.
Origen: But if he had no suspicion of her, how could he be a just man, and yet seek to put her away, being immaculate? He sought to put her away, because he saw in her a great sacrament, to approach which he thought himself unworthy.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You are a first-century Jew, not a twenty-first-century materialist. Not just God, but angels, the afterlife, miracles, visions, and the whole supernatural world is, for you, as normal and real as daylight and sun on the flowers. Mary is a deeply godly woman you have known extremely well for years, whom you both love and trust. She tells you she received a visitation from an angel, hours—perhaps minutes—after the angel has departed, not months after she becomes pregnant. She is breathless and astonished. But she’s not given to hysteria or tall tales and she’s dead serious. She tells you the angel said she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit. She’s not “pregnant out to there” when she says this. She just says it. Perhaps she’s not even sure she’s pregnant, since the angel has given no timetable for when this shall happen. There’s no guilt or shame in her eyes. And you know her. The idea of her a) sleeping around (With whom? This is a small town!) and b) coming up with this wild story to cover is simply alien to her character. So, to your amazement and fear, you find Mary’s story is less incredible to you than the proposition of Mary’s unchastity.
Especially since (continuing our thought experiment) that’s not all Mary says. She also reports that the angel said her aged cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too. There’s been no news from Zechariah and Elizabeth for several months. Then, a few days later, word comes from the Judean hill country: Elizabeth is pregnant despite her advanced age. The hair stands up on the back of your neck. And as weeks and months roll on, you find that your beloved Mary is indeed pregnant, too. She looks at you with absolutely honest eyes and says, “Remember what I told you about the angel and his message?”
I don’t know about you, but if it were me and my wife, I would believe her—and feel deeply unworthy even to be in her presence. Incredible as it sounds, I would find it even more incredible to think that the Janet I’ve known all these years could be making all that up. I trust her that much.
I think Joseph trusted Mary that much, too—particularly since his behavior looks for all the world to signal that he believed Mary. He acts not like an outraged and betrayed man, but like a man who, as the months progress, feels more and more the crushing weight of his appointed task and the dread of the Holy One in the words Mary relayed to him from the angel:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32–33)
Joseph does not act angry at Mary. And he knows perfectly well there’s no danger of public disapproval because the assumption would have been—and was (John 6:42)—that the child was his. Only Joseph and Mary know that the child is . . . Whose? That appears to be the question weighing on Joseph. That appears to be why he contemplates finding some escape hatch, hoping to “send her away quietly” (Matt. 1:19) so that she won’t incur the public shame of his “rejection” while he avoids the terrifying burden God is laying on his feeble shoulders.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Joseph then has a dream in which an angel speaks to him. And remember, Joseph believes in dreams, visions, and the like. The dream confirms everything Mary told him: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21). But even more than that, the dream also strongly suggests that Joseph was grappling not with disbelief, but belief—and a profound sense of unworthiness. For the angel in the dream does not say, “Don’t suspect Mary of adultery.” Rather, the angel says, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife” (Matt. 1:20, emphasis added). He addresses Joseph as “son of David,” thereby reminding him that the Messiah is to come through David’s line. In short, I believe the angel reminds Joseph that this task has been appointed to him by God, despite Joseph’s sense of unworthiness.
Now, as we have already seen, it didn’t take long for the Jewish mind to discern the connection between Mary and the ark of the covenant. For Luke and John it’s an incredibly obvious connection because Mary and the ark were both the dwelling place of the living God among his people. How easy would it have been for Joseph, knowing what he knew, to make the same connection —and to remember what happens to people who touch the ark without the Lord’s permission?
And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God (2 Sam. 6:6–7).
So, even from a human perspective, it becomes very probable that Joseph would have chosen celibacy in this rather unusual situation. But beyond such negative factors influencing Joseph’s thought, it is also worth noting that he was a devout Jew who not only feared but loved God. Thus Joseph might very well have recognized another parallel between his stewardship of Mary and Moses’ stewardship of the “Holy of Holies” wherein the Lord dwelt:
Jewish tradition mentions that, although the people had to abstain from sexual relations with their wives for only three days prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex 19:15), Moses chose to remain continent the rest of his life with the full approval of God. The rabbis explained that this was so because Moses knew that he was appointed to personally commune with God, not only at Mount Sinai but in general throughout the forty years of sojourning in the wilderness. For this reason Moses kept himself “apart from woman,” remaining in the sanctity of separation to be at the beck and call of God at all times; they cited God’s command to Moses in Deuteronomy 5:28 (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19:3 and 46:3).
The weight of Scriptural evidence therefore suggests that, from motives of both holy fear (of illicitly touching the New Ark) and of love for God in imitation of Moses, Joseph realized he had been charged with foregoing marital relations in this wonderful and special case. Once again, Scripture winds up reflecting the Tradition preserved by the Church. Next time, we will look at what the Apostle John has to say about Mary's perpetual virginity.