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