During this Advent/Christmas season we will turn again and again to introductory chapters of Matthew and Luke. Here I’d like to look at one passage in particular.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18–21).
Here’s the question: why does Matthew tell us that Joseph wanted to “send [Mary] away quietly”?
The most common interpretation is of course that Matthew’s story implies that Joseph was suspicious of Mary’s pregnancy. In this view, Matthew’s narrative insinuates that Joseph thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him and that the child was likely from another man. He did not want to put her to shame by revealing her unfaithfulness and expose her to the authorities. The penalty, of course, for such actions would have been capital punishment.
This view has some support in Christian tradition. Advocates, for example, include Augustine and John Chrysostom.
However, not all shared this view, which we might call “the suspicion theory”. Here I want to highlight another approach, whose advocates include Origen, Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.
Problems with the Suspicion Theory
First, let’s be honest: the view that Matthew intends us to think that Joseph was simply suspicious of Mary seems to have problems.
Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a “just man” (δίκαιος ὢν). If Joseph truly thought Mary had been unfaithful would he not be required to follow the Law of Moses? According to the Law, adultery was a capital crime! Could Joseph really simply look at the other way? It seems unlikely that Matthew describes Joseph as upright because he fails to keep the Law!
In fact, according to the Torah there was a specific rite available to suspicious husbands concerned about their wives’ fidelity (cf. Num 5). Yet Joseph does not invoke it according to the evangelist.
Matthew simply says that Joseph tried to “send her away quietly”.
Anticipating Jesus’ Teaching
Some have argued that for Matthew Joseph’s actions anticipate Jesus’ teaching—i.e., Joseph sees a need to relax the law here which he might have viewed as too harsh. Such seems highly unlikely. Jesus intensifies the law in Matthew: he does not relax it (cf. Matt 5:17-20; Matt 23:2)!
And lest it be claimed that Joseph was simply showing mercy—note that Matthew gives us no indication that Joseph thought Mary had repented of being unfaithful. Such would have to be read into the text.
With Child of the Holy Spirit
Moreover, we might point out that the text does not even say that Mary was simply “found to be with child”. It says that Joseph wanted to separate from her after she had been “found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). In other words, the text seems to suggest that Joseph knew that the child was “of the Holy Spirit”.
Put another way, Matthew notably does not say that Mary was “found to be with child” and that Joseph had no idea where the baby had come from. Again, that reads something into the text that is not there. Instead, Matthew says that Joseph’s actions followed upon the discovery that Mary was with child “of the Holy Spirit.” There doesn’t seem to be any suspicion here.
The Humility Theory
So why did Joseph want a divorce in the Matthean story?
There’s one ancient view that’s often overlooked: Origen’s. Although his commentary on the first few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel has been lost, Aquinas preserves some of it in his famous Catena Aurea. This work is essentially a running anthology of patristic opinions on the Gospel texts. There, along with other interpretations, Thomas gives us Origen’s view.
“He sought to put her away, because he saw in her a great sacrament, to approach which he thought himself unworthy.” (Catena Aurea at Matt 1:19).
Though Aquinas does cite from fathers who hold to the suspicion theory in the Catena, he later adopts Origen’s view as his own. In the Summa Theologica we read:
“Joseph was minded to put away the Blessed Virgin not as suspected of fornication, but because in reverence for her sanctity, he feared to cohabit with her” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 3, a. 3 ad 2).
Indeed, this view seems at least historically plausible. If you were an ancient Jew with proper reverence for God, his temple, and all that he had deemed holy and if your wife had conceived by the Holy Spirit and would you not also be hesitant about living with her?
So why then does it say Joseph did not want to expose Mary to shame? Well, according to this view Joseph knew that, given her pregnancy, some—not knowing where the child had come from—would conclude the worst when they heard Joseph had divorced her. He thus decided to do so “quietly”.
In addition, according to this approach then the angel’s instruction to Joseph is not understood as revealing Mary’s innocence as much as it is a revelation of God’s plan that Joseph should not be afraid because God has ordained it that he should play a part in the birth of the Messiah.
Humility vs. Suspicion
It seems to me that the “suspicion theory” has more problems than the view taken by Origen and Aquinas, which we might call the “humility” theory. The former fails to explain why Joseph as a just man would not keep the Law and give a suspected adulteress a pass. In addition, it has to ignore the flow of the text: Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.
The humility theory, however, does not suffer from these problems. It reads the text as it flows. It also makes clear how Joseph’s identity as a “just man” informed his decision to put Mary away quietly: he was a humble man who did not deem himself worthy to play the role of the foster father of the Messiah, who was born “of the Holy Spirit”.
And, finally, it resonates—at least it does with me. It makes sense to me that an ancient Jew who was “just” would feel unworthy of being the spouse of a woman who had just conceived “of the Holy Spirit.”
That’s got to be just a little intimidating.