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Matthew in Slow Motion 12

Joseph Mary Marriage

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)

τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.

The frame for this section is Deuteronomy 22:23-24:

If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Translating one word differently to the way it is rendered above changes the whole way it is read and understood. As the translation is rendered, Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace because he was a righteous man. That may not be what is going on in this text at all. It may be that Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace in spite of being a righteous man! This rendering of the text actually fits far better with Matthew’s overture so far.

So far, we have seen in the previous posts (check links below), Matthew has presented a “genealogy” that shows that David, in being the King, was breaking what was written in the Bible. And Jesus, in being the Messiah, is breaking what was written in the Bible.

Engaged (Μνηστευθείσης), in Joseph’s context, was far stronger than our current understanding of engagement in contemporary western culture.

Now, if Joseph was a righteous (δίκαιος) person, this means he kept the law as per the written scriptures. The Deuteronomy text I provided above declares that Joseph shall bring Mary to the gate of the town so that she is stoned to death.

The original uses the conjunction καὶ which is translated as “and”. Yes, καὶ is usually “and”. In this case, however, I am suggesting that the text only really makes sense if καὶ is translated as “but”.

A Greek Grammar, such as by Wallace, makes clear that καὶ can mean ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘even’ etc. To translate καὶ as “but” is seeing καὶ as a contrastive conjunction. It is the context that determines whether to translate καὶ as “and” or as “but”. “But”, in this context, makes more sense:

Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man BUT unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

The easiest way to research contrastive uses of καὶ is here. [Matthew 1:25; 6:30; 7:26; 8:8; 10:30; 10:39; 12:39…]

Joseph certainly didn’t want to subject Mary to public humiliation, let alone being stoned to death. He also “would not usurp the right of another by taking it. By divorcing Mary, Joseph offered the real father of Jesus the opportunity of retrieving his child by marrying the mother.” (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels page 26). The story allows for the possibility that Mary might really love the child’s father and so Joseph is offering her the possibility of life with the child’s father.

This is the twelfth post in a series – you can begin here:
Matthew in Slow Motion 1
Matthew in Slow Motion 2
Matthew in Slow Motion 3
Matthew in Slow Motion 4
Matthew in Slow Motion 5
Matthew in Slow Motion 6
Matthew in Slow Motion 7
Matthew in Slow Motion 8
Matthew in Slow Motion 9
Matthew in Slow Motion 10
Matthew in Slow Motion 11

As this year the Sunday Gospel readings’ focus is on St Matthew’s Gospel, I thought I’d start some of my personal study and Lectio Divina with that Gospel. [NB. I am using ‘Matthew’ as a convenient term for the author of the first Gospel in the order of the Christian canon].

If you appreciated this post, do remember to like the liturgy facebook page, use the RSS feed, and sign up for a not-very-often email, …

image source: Marriage to the Virgin, Perugino, c. 1448

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30 Responses to Matthew in Slow Motion 12

    • I am not speculating on how Joseph felt, Kevin. He knew the requirement in the scriptures. But he did not follow this. Easter Season Greetings.

  1. “Now, if Joseph was a righteous (δίκαιος) person, this means he kept the law as per the written scriptures. The Deuteronomy text I provided above declares that Joseph shall bring Mary to the gate of the town so that she is stoned to death.”

    Not really Bosco, Jewish law had already put aside laws like putting a son to death for disobedience, and “an eye for an eye” in favour of monetary compensation. However Deuteronomy might be literalistically misread, stoning a woman to death is not the law, as Jesus will latter demonstrate. And neither is it Jewish law today.

    A righteous man does get people stoned to death. That would contradict the 5th commandment “thou shalt not kill”, not to mention many other Torah laws.

    Many Blessings

    • Thanks, Chris. There’s much that is debatable in your comment – I do not have the time for all the details. But I would note that your “thou shalt not kill” is also interpretation. [Let’s not even debate which number commandment it is!] Are you advocating pacifism on behalf of a god who, in the First Testament, gets pretty irate when his command to kill people isn’t obeyed? Let alone doing quite a bit of killing himself? Easter Season Blessings.

    • Oops. I meant to say “A righteous man does NOT get people stoned to death”.

      There is no command of God in the Old Testament to kill anyone.

      The Law, as famously summarised, is “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

      Clearly St Joseph followed that Torah, as did Jesus.

      I think that Christians often have trouble understanding the Law and frequently make it out to be something much more problematic than it actually is.

      Easter Blessings

      • This is not a Christian “making the Law out to be something much more problematic than it actually is”, Chris. We must be reading VERY different Old Testaments if yours has “command of God in the Old Testament to kill anyone”.

        Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:2-3)

        Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18)

        Blessings.

      • Bosco, those are not commands of God to kill anyone. You need to distinguish between what God said, what Moses said, and what the sacred authors wrote.

        God bless

        • So, Chris, for you, when Moses and the sacred authors say that God said to kill people, those are “not commands of God in the Old Testament to kill anyone”. That certainly is one way to resolve your “Christians often have trouble understanding the Law and frequently make it out to be something much more problematic than it actually is”. Blessings.

        • Bosco,

          In your 2 passages, it says earlier that an angry Moses said, and Samuel said. Not God said. Samuel said “thus says the Lord …” is a very different thing to “God said…”.

          FWIW, nowhere in the bible does God say anything about same sex activity, which may be helpful in the interminable Anglican debates on the matter.

          Easter blessings

          • I personally don’t see any difference in “thus says the Lord,” & “God said,” they have identical meanings, a writer is stating with either phrase that God said something.

          • I think that the use of “thus says the Lord” as a standard prophetic introductory clause is quite different to the use of “God said” in the Genesis creation stories. Prophetic claims require careful discernment, and are always mixed with human interpretation, and even error, on the prophet’s side.

            Many Blessings

          • With respect, Chris, I think you are building an eccentric interpretation upon English idioms that cannot bear this weight in the original texts. “Thus says” and “said” in both cases are simply the verb אָמַר (perfect and imperfect). All that is changing is the title for the Deity: “Lord” (אֲדֹנָי) or “God” (אֱלֹהִים). Blessings.

          • I appreciate your point Bosco, but I am trying to identify the special role of the standard term “thus says the Lord” as a prophetic preamble to a prophet’s claim. That’s quite different to its use in the Noah story.

            There are times when the bible claims a direct divine communication eg the Noah verse or God writing on the stone tablets at Sinai.

            There are other times where a prophet claims to speak in the name of God and says various things, some of which are clearly not in accord with the divine will.

            As far as I can tell, the first set of divine revelations quite clearly contain strict divine commands against killing human beings. Period, no ifs buts maybes or exceptions. (Jesus also taught and practiced this).

            Whereas prophetic claims are inevitably mixed up with the prophet’s own limited worldview.

            In modern terms, that is expressed by the contrast between what the Church teaches and what Christian nations do.

            Easter Blessings

          • Most, Chris, would see different titles for the Deity, that you highlight, as simply different traditions expressed in those different titles. Also, most would treat the Scriptures as the locus for God addressing us regardless of which of the titles for God are used. Blessings.

        • Interestingly, in Genesis God does say “let there be life”. And Exodus has God carving the commandment “do not kill” into stone (unchangeable). But in the bible it is only people who say “kill”.

          Many Blessings

        • David,

          The NAB puts your verse

          “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed;

          For in the image of God
          have human beings been made.”

          Which seems to be more a statement that violence begets violence, or “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” as Jesus put it, than a command to go out and kill anyone.

          Christians and Jews today do not read this as a commandment that murderers must be put to death.

          Many Blessings

          • Which seems to be more a statement that violence begets violence…

            For in the image of God
            have human beings been made.

            So we are violent because we are made in God’s image?

            This has become the pretzel approach to exegesis!

          • Because we are all made in the image of God is precisely why we should not kill one another. We need to stop the endless cycle of revenge killing by refusing to participate in it. As St Joseph did.

            I find the idea that St Joseph would even contemplate stoning anyone to death to be incomprehensible.

            Easter Blessings

          • No one is saying, Chris, that St Joseph contemplated stoning anyone to death. Blessings.

      • It appears to me that God is the one speaking in Gen 9:6, as God establishes the Noahic covenant, wherein God states that anyone who kills someone should be also killed.

    • According to Torah, there would need to be two or three eyewitnesses testifying to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s alleged adultery :

      “One witness alone shall not stand against someone in regard to any crime or any offense that may have been committed; a charge shall stand only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Deut 19:15

      Under Torah, St Joseph simply could not have charged the Blessed Virgin Mary with this.

      Not to mention the following verse to Deut 22:23-4 about being out of town, in the fields:

      “But if it is in the open fields that a man comes upon the betrothed young woman, seizes her and lies with her, only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman, since the young woman is not guilty of a capital offense.”

      It was well said that “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

      Many Blessings

      • You are correct, Chris. Joseph, by himself, would not be sufficient to stone Mary to death – it would require a second person to agree with that. [This seems to be a shift in your argument from your previous “There is no command of God in the Old Testament to kill anyone.”] I can’t see the relevance of your “Not to mention” paragraph – nowhere is there a suggestion that Mary’s conception happened “out of town, in the fields”. Blessings.

      • How would Joseph, or any other potential stoner, know where the fantastically alleged adultery took place? The Torah’s point is that there is a LOT more to proving adultery than mere evidence of pregnancy.

        Many blessings

        • The point, Chris, about Deut 22:23-4 to which you draw attention (and which has no bearing in the story we are examining) is that it shows a distinction between rape as a criminal assault against the woman and a sex crime (as understood by the First Testament). I don’t see any value in continuing the distraction of a rape in the open country where witnesses are unlikely and where planned malice would be suggested. There is no implication of such an event in the text we are dealing with.

          Your certainty of there being “a LOT more in the Torah to proving adultery than mere evidence of pregnancy” is responded to clearly in Numbers 5:11-31.

          Blessings.

  2. I ask because I am interested in what a `righteous` man would do? Of course it’s all speculation, but Joseph’s actions indicate a Christian sense of mercy and forgiveness (not unknown to others, of course) that the author of the gospel would understand and perhaps wish to emphasize. Joseph can be both righteous and act as he did.

    • I think what you might be saying, Kevin, is that after Jesus, mercy and forgiveness trumps First Testament righteousness. Blessings.

  3. Perhaps *Matthew’s* sense of δικαος had evolved in the light of Christ in such a way that *he* did not feel strictly bound by Deuteronomic law and this was reflected in his choice of words as he retrospectively told this story.

    • It is reflected in the original word choice, Daniel. We have simply ignored your point in the translation into English. Easter Season Blessings.

  4. The “kai”-“but” translation makes contextual sense. And (kai) while I’m not always on board with the Social Science commentary, I find the quote you use worth pondering. A righteous man indeed, by our lights today:

    “By divorcing Mary, Joseph offered the real father of Jesus the opportunity of retrieving his child by marrying the mother.”

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