And What of Joseph?

Today’s Gospel is from Matthew and relates the story of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s determination to divorce her, and the appearance of the angel who explains to Joseph from whence came the child in Mary’s womb. (MT 1:18-24)

Poor Joseph is given little attention in the Gospels.  The event described in Matthew is not mentioned in Luke, Mark or John. In fact Mark and John ignore the entire birthing scenario altogether.

Given that Matthew and Luke both rely on at least some of the same sources, there is no explanation as to why Luke makes no mention of this extraordinary occurrence. Indeed, Luke moves from the annunciation to the visitation, and then to the birth sequence in Bethlehem.

It is hard to know what to make of this section in Matthew. Matthew entirely skips the annunciation and we aren’t sure if he is unaware of it, or if quite possibly it originated in the creative head of Luke and was not historical. This makes the textual understanding problematic.

If we conflate the two renditions we come up with this scenario. Luke describes the annunciation, followed by the visitation to Elizabeth, followed by Matthew’s explanation of how Joseph came to accept this pregnancy, and then the actual birth, recorded by both.

Again, we must proceed with caution  because of the errors that conflation can bring about. Still,  we have some interesting possibilities.

Matthew reports that “Mary is ‘found’ with child. (Both the NRSV and NJB use this word as does the interlinear translation.  Does this mean that Mary kept her pregnancy quiet until she was showing? This would be possible under the conflation that she went immediately to Elizabeth, for she “sat out at that time.” She stayed three months. But few women show a pregnancy at 3-4 months.

The alternative possibility it seems to me is that she told Joseph and apparently he did not believe her, and thus determined to put her “quietly away.”  The NJB renders this “divorce her informally”, the NRSV says “dismiss her quietly.”

In both cases Joseph is adjudged “righteous”  or “just”. My understanding of righteousness is one adjudged to be following God according to Torah.  In other words, Joseph was a faithful Jew, abiding by the standards laid out in the Torah. We can be bolstered in this claim since the infant was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem for “presentation” and Jesus apparently from very early on with comfortable and at home in the synagogue. We can assume that both Mary and Joseph were pious in so far as this was possible being amme ha-arets, or country folk.

Being just, or righteous would mean that it would be appropriate for Joseph to divorce Mary in the manner laid out in Jewish tradition. Yet, he determines to act “not justly” but rather out of deep compassion. Perhaps here we have a clue as to why Mary or Joseph were chosen for such an enormous task and honor.

In Joseph we see a man perhaps not persuaded that the Law is always meeting its objectives and so on occasion needs to be set aside. On the other hand, how this could be done quietly is anyone’s guess. These were exceedingly small communities, Nazareth perhaps having about 300 people. Everyone knows everyone’s business.

What comes next is truly interesting. In the Greek, the words are “while he was thinking” an angel comes to him “in a dream.”  Similarly, the NRSV uses the phrase, “just when he had resolved to do this,” the angel “appears in a dream.” Even more oddly, the NJB says, “He had made up  his mind to do this when suddenly. . .” the angel appears in a dream.

What is odd here, is this sounds less like a dream than a vision. In none of the cases does it appear that Joseph had retired to his bed, or fallen asleep at table. He is “thinking, deciding, resolving,” when out of nowhere, he is in a dream.

I conclude that it was more vision than actual dream. But in any case, something extraordinary is occurring here. Joseph, like Mary is asked to make a leap of faith, and each, independent of the other, does so. God has chosen well it seems.

Of course we are treated to many such occurrences in the Hebrew Testament as well as the New Testament. In each case, a person is asked to accept beyond the knowable world they inhabit. They are asked to accept what they cannot see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Faith is required, and a good deal of it.

Why? Because in all such instances, there will be those who will question. Certainly in this event of Mary and Joseph and the mysterious pregnancy, people in their town could count. They knew when Joseph and Mary began co-habiting. They knew when she was clearly pregnant. Both of these people knew they would be required to stand by their faith, in the face of petty gossip.

And both did so quite willingly.

To be fair, they lived in a time, when the break between the touchable world and the transcendent was much more blurred. People without question believed in miracles,  prophets and that God directed events and intervened in their lives with clear regularity.

Today, we find this all much harder to swallow. We are inclined to search for “answers” explicable by our senses. We forego demons for “epilepsy” and, we deny walking on water for tricks of the eye.  We need natural explanations in order not to appear foolish to modern-day skeptics.

So our leaps of faith are tiny and ordinary, not risking much most of the time. Would we respond to such a leap of faith as God called both Mary and Joseph to? Would I? Would you?


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Dec 19, 2010 @ 20:38:58

    Such good stuff here, Sherry. Here’s an interesting fillip to add to your astute observation about Joseph being “righteous”–i.e., a Torah-observant–man who ultimately ignored the Law to do as God instructed. Today our pastor suggested Joseph’s understanding that obedience often requires bypassing religious code and convention very well could have been a major influence on Jesus, Who also practiced His faith in the same manner. It’s amazing how we see His earthly father’s behavior anticipate His teaching.

    Thanks, as always, for your insights and erudition. You’ve become a Sunday habit for me!!

    Happiest of Christmases to you and yours,


    • Sherry
      Dec 20, 2010 @ 13:04:45

      Oh Tim, what a great idea–Poor Joseph gets so little press its often tempting to not see him as having much of any influence on Jesus. Not a word is spoken for sure. I love the idea that Jesus learned his radicalness from Dad!

      I love your reflections so much too Tim. I find so much to reflect on. Often they become my “question to myself” for the day.

      You and Walt have a great Christmas and stay warm and dry. We just got another 3 inches…and more to come Thursday I guess. We are still getting out, but this may end that! lol…we are tucked in with food and wood. So no problem.

      Blessings, Sherry


  2. Jon
    Dec 21, 2010 @ 16:55:42

    Kenneth Bailey points out that the appropriate action in this situation if you are following the Torah strictly is to have Mary stoned. John 8 suggests this was still a live practice in Jesus’ day, as it is in some places now. Joseph, however, being a “righteous man”, “did not want to expose her to public disgrace (and) had in mind to divorce her quietly”. That is, he could hardly go ahead with the marriage but tries to protect her nonetheless. His justice consists not of rigidly enforcing the law but of showing mercy. Fuller treatment at


    • Sherry
      Dec 22, 2010 @ 12:20:03

      You know, I think I read the same thing. But I think righteousness would entail following the dictates of the time, so his act of courageous refusal to do as he should was an act as brave as Mary’s acceptance of God’s offer to her. Both would pay penalties for their “yes” but both were doing real justice by doing so. Thanks for your contribution!


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