Did St. Joseph Suspect Mary of Infidelity?

By Clement Harrold

March 22nd

Over the centuries, various theories have been proposed regarding how St. Joseph reacted to the news that Mary was pregnant (see Mt 1:18-21).

The first of these is sometimes known as the suspicion theory: Joseph suspects Mary of infidelity, and so he decides to divorce her quietly without exposing her to shame. A number of the Church Fathers maintained this view, including figures such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine.

A second perspective is sometimes called the perplexity theory. On this view, Joseph can’t bring himself to believe that Mary would have committed adultery, but he also can’t explain how she became pregnant, so he simply remains in a state of uncertainty.

In addition to these, there is a third perspective in the Catholic tradition which avoids some of the negative connotations of the suspicion theory while at the same time providing a more detailed explanation than the perplexity theory.

This third approach is known as the reverence theory, and it enjoys the support of figures such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas. On this view, Joseph realizes the miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy from the start, yet he is so overcome by a sense of his unworthiness that he decides he ought to separate from her quietly.

Whilst we can’t be sure whether this theory holds true, there are at least a couple of considerations that should be mentioned in its favor. For starters, the suspicion theory seems to be undermined by the fact that St. Joseph is explicitly described as “a just man” (Mt 1:19), i.e., someone who remains in relationship with God by following the law of Moses.

But this is a problem, because the law of Moses explicitly stated that men and women caught committing the sin of adultery were to be put to death (see Lev 20:10; Dt 22:22). This is precisely the situation in John 8, for example, when the Pharisees challenge Jesus as to whether the woman caught in adultery ought to be stoned to death.

All of this has the effect of making Matthew’s juxtaposition appear exceedingly odd. In one and the same breath, he assures us that Joseph is a just man while also informing us that he was “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame” and therefore “resolved to send her away quietly.” But this just doesn't follow!

If Joseph suspected Mary of adultery, then according to the law of Moses, the just thing would have been to bring her before the authorities, not send her away quietly. The fact that he does send her away without punishment is therefore suggestive that, in his heart of hearts, he doesn’t believe her to be guilty of this sin.

This consideration lends a certain amount of credibility to the reverence theory. But is there a reason to favor the reverence theory over and above the perplexity theory? Arguably there is. Consider this simple fact: St. Joseph was one of the holiest men who ever lived, and so it isn’t a stretch to infer that he would have been a very good judge of character. Given this, it seems improbable that he would easily succumb to the belief that his beloved betrothed could have betrayed him so callously.

In fact, Joseph knew Our Lady better than anyone, and he had already gotten a sense of her unfathomable purity and spiritual beauty. It seems plausible, then, that upon learning that she was with child, his mind might have turned to the ancient prophecy from Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14).

As a faithful Jew, Joseph would have known this Scripture well. It is therefore fair to wonder how many times he might have thought of this verse in the days that followed the Annunciation. Maybe—just maybe—he began to realize that he was implicated in something far bigger, far more profound, and far more mysterious than anything he had ever imagined.

Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

You Might Also Like

Though he speaks no words in Scripture, St. Joseph’s message to us is resounding: he wants to lead us to Jesus. In Through the Heart of St. Joseph, Fr. Boniface Hicks reveals the path St. Joseph has laid.

Discover how St. Joseph’s vulnerability, littleness, silence, and hiddenness can transform and heal us. Fr. Hicks also looks to the saints who lived the “Joseph Option” to show how we too can embrace a life of humble trust and steadfast courage.