Why Did Joseph Plan to Divorce Mary?

God sent an angel to convince St. Joseph not to divorce Mary. But why was he planning to divorce her in the first place?
God sent an angel to convince St. Joseph not to divorce Mary. But why was he planning to divorce her in the first place? (photo: Register Files)

Matthew tells us that when "Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."

Why did Joseph intend to divorce Mary?

The view that suggests itself to most people is that Joseph thought Mary had been unfaithful to him.

But there is another theory: that Joseph knew the Child had been conceived "of the Holy Spirit" and so Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife.

What are we to make of this issue?

And what does Pope Benedict have to say in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives?


What Did Joseph Know & When Did He Know It?

The idea that Joseph did not think Mary had been unfaithful to him may be suggested by the fact that Matthew mentions the miraculous conception of Jesus before he introduces Joseph's idea of divorce.

He says: "before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit."

Found by whom? Who knew that the Holy Spirit was responsible for the pregnancy?

Presumably, Joseph would have been one of the first to be told.

If he believed this then one could understand why he would be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

Who wouldn't hesitate to take to wife someone who, in later centuries, would be called "the spouse of the Holy Spirit"?

Thus, as a "just man" he might seek to quietly sever the legal bond between them and would need the assurance of the angel telling him "do not fear to take Mary your wife."


On the Other Hand . . .

The angel didn't stop by saying Joseph shouldn't fear to take Mary as his wife. The angel continued "...for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."

If Joseph already believed that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Mary's condition, why would the angel say this?

The fact the angel says it suggests that Joseph did not yet believe this about Mary's pregnancy. If he already believed it, why tell him as an explanation of why it's okay to take Mary home as his wife?

It suggests that either he had not heard that the Holy Spirit was responsible or he had heard it but not yet come to accept it.


An Intermediate Position?

According another view, which is in some ways between the two just mentioned, Joseph simply did not know what to think.

On the one hand, he did not think that Mary had been unfaithful, but he also did not know how to explain her pregnancy. He thus left open the question of how she became pregnant . . . chastely.

While Joseph might have had such a view pass through his mind, it is difficult to see this as a settled position.

(Unless, God forbid, he thought Mary had been raped, which there is no suggestion of in the text and would not be grounds for a just man to divorce her.)

In any event, the "Joseph did not know what to think" view, like the "Joseph thought Mary was unfaithful" view, presupposes that he did not (yet) believe that the Child was of the Holy Spirit.

The fundamental question is still: Did he believe this yet or not?


The Fathers Know Best?

This is a case where the Church Fathers do not have a united opinion.

A quick check of St. Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea, reveals individuals on both sides of the issue.

Some fathers clearly understand Joseph did not yet believe in the Child's miraculous origin. In fact, some think that Joseph believed Mary had been unfaithful.

In fact, here are four doctors of the Church writing in that vein:

Ambrose. (in Luc. ii. 5.) St. Matthew has beautifully taught how a righteous man ought to act, who has detected his wife’s disgrace; so as at once to keep himself guiltless of her blood, and yet pure from her defilements; therefore it is he says, Being a just man. Thus is preserved throughout in Joseph the gracious character of a righteous man, that his testimony may be the more approved; for, the tongue of the just speaketh the judgment of truth.

Jerome. But how is Joseph thus called just, when he is ready to hide his wife’s sin? For the Law enacts, that not only the doers of evil, but they who are privy to any evil done, shall be held to be guilty.

Chrysostom. But it should be known, that just here is used to denote one who is in all things virtuous. For there is a particular justice, namely, the being free from covetousness; and another universal virtue, in which sense Scripture generally uses the word justice. Therefore being just, that is kind, merciful, he was minded to put away privily her who according to the Law was liable not only to dismissal, but to death. But Joseph remitted both, as though living above the Law. For as the sun lightens up the world, before he shews his rays, so Christ before He was born caused many wonders to be seen.

Augustine. Otherwise; if you alone have knowledge of a sin that any has committed against you, and desire to accuse him thereof before men, you do not herein correct, but rather betray him. But Joseph, being a just man, with great mercy spared his wife, in this great crime of which he suspected her. The seeming certainty of her unchastity tormented him, and yet because he alone knew of it, he was willing not to publish it, but to send her away privily; seeking rather the benefit than the punishment of the sinner.

Note in particular: St. John Chrysostom's comment that Mary's alleged crime was potentially punishable by death. That is a subject we've discussed before.


On the other hand . . .

We also find early authors taking the opposite position. St. Jerome, having proposed the first theory (see above), proposes the second as an alternative:

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, (Is. 11:1.) of which he knew that Mary was come, and had also read, Behold, a virgin shall conceive, (Is. 7:14.) 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.


What does Pope Benedict say?

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict takes the position that Joseph did not yet believe that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. He writes:

Joseph had to come to terms with the fact that Mary “was with child of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18).

With regard to the child’s origin, Matthew is anticipating something here that Joseph does not yet know. Joseph has to assume that Mary has broken their engagement, and according to the law he must dismiss her. He has a choice between a public juridical act and a private form. He can bring Mary before the court or he can issue her with a private writ of divorce. Joseph decides on the latter option, in order not “to put her to shame” (1:19). Matthew sees in this choice an indication that Joseph was “a just man.” . . .

After the discovery that Joseph made, his task was to interpret and apply the law correctly. He does so with love: he does not want to give Mary up to public shame. He wishes her well, even in the hour of his great disappointment. He does not embody the form of externalized legalism that Jesus denounces in Mt 23 and that Paul opposes so strenuously. He lives the law as Gospel. He seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity. And so he is inwardly prepared for the new, unexpected and humanly speaking incredible news that comes to him from God. . . .

The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth—a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men? Matthew has already said that Joseph “inwardly considered” (enthymẽthéntos) the right way to respond to Mary’s pregnancy. So we can well imagine his inner struggle now to make sense of this breathtaking dream-message: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20).


Is This View Mandated?

Pope Benedict famously wrote in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

One thus can maintain either theory.

At the same time, if one thinks that Joseph already believed that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, one should acknowledge that the other view can also be held by a pious Catholic.

Otherwise one would run the risk of being "more Catholic than the pope."


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