During the Christmas season, our thoughts turn naturally to the Holy Family: the birth of Jesus, the feast of the Holy Family, the solemnity of Mary’s motherhood, and the Epiphany. The foundation of Christmas starts nine months earlier with Mary’s fiat. Joseph has his fiat as well, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Some have even called it the Annunciation to Joseph.

Joseph’s Annunciation may be more difficult to decipher than we realize. The common assumption, and one that we hear repeated often from the pulpit, holds that Joseph thought Mary had committed adultery. Think about that for a second. Joseph knew Mary well. Do you really think that Joseph thought his sinless bride (he knew her sinlessness not as dogma, but as lived experience) had committed adultery?

Let’s look at the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and see what it implies:

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; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.

First, the text explicitly states that Mary “was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” The Gospel’s words are few and packed with meaning. Matthew specifically tells us that she was not just found to be with child, but found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. Second, the text tells us that Joseph is a just man, meaning he would do what he knew to be right, not acting out of fear or emotion. Third, he wanted to spare Mary of shame and therefore wanted to find a quiet solution.

Now let’s look at what I think are the three main possibilities to explain Joseph’s choice in this passage.

First, maybe the common assumption is correct. Joseph suspected that Mary had committed adultery against him during their betrothal. There are a few problems with this assertion though. First, it contradicts what the text states about Mary being found with child of the Holy Spirit. Also, it contradicts Joseph’s justice, which would have required him to follow the Mosaic Law on adultery. Justice requires one to follow the Law, to do what it commands. When it comes to the Mosaic Law, the author of the Law is God Himself.

Here is what justice requires for adultery, according to the Law: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). If Joseph decided not to act according to the Law, we might consider him merciful, but not just. The just response would be to bring the culprits to light so that they could receive the punishment God had commanded. If Mary had willingly committed adultery (a thought that should make us shudder with horror) then she would deserve punishment.

Second, maybe Joseph thought Mary had been raped. The Law also has commands in this regard. Deuteronomy 22 specifies death to both parties when a betrothed woman willingly sleeps with a man. It goes on to speak of rape:

But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.  But to the young woman you shall do nothing; in the young woman there is no offense punishable by death, for this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor; because he came upon her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her (vv 25-27).

I find this scenario much more likely than the first. It is possible that Joseph thought Mary had been grievously wronged and like Deuteronomy states he decided to “do nothing” to her to harm her, but simply decided to break off the betrothal quietly.

There are a couple of problems with this scenario as well. Justice demanded more than simply calling off the betrothal. Justice required punishment for the man. Also, simply to put Mary away when she was pregnant with the child of another man would do her immense harm and would expose her to much shame, which he did not want to do. A just man would care for a woman in this situation, who needed much help and support. With his justice, he would have brought the perpetrator to punishment and taken Mary as his wife to care for her.

Third, there is another possibility put forward by tradition. As Matthew states, Joseph found Mary to be with child of the Holy Spirit. He was just and recognized that nothing in the Law of Moses addressed this problem. He was betrothed to a sinless woman, who miraculously conceived a child. In justice, he could not fathom his role as spouse to the very tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. He did not want to bring attention to Mary’s situation, but would quietly remove himself to allow God to continue acting directly in Mary’s life.

But then the angel came and made God’s will known to Joseph. He would have a role in God’s plan and his justice would be put to good use, caring not only for Mary but the divine Son she bore. Joseph would pass on the Davidic line to his adopted son and create a just household for the child.

We praise Joseph for his justice and courage. He knew Mary and could think no ill of her. In a family of the God-man and a perfect spouse, Joseph, though singularly graced as well, definitely felt himself to be the odd man out. His Annunciation story reflects this humble position, but also the grace God gave him to exercise his justice in a supernatural way.

Reflecting on Joseph’s role helps us to give him the praise and honor he deserves for his justice and obedience. He continues to be the steward of God’s house, caring for the Church and our families. If you didn’t see the new prayer to St. Joseph I proposed to help us to honor his virtues and his role in the Church, here it is again:

Joseph, Son of David, you are the just man the Lord placed over His house. You did what the angel commanded and so we go to you in time of need.  O foster father of Jesus, pray to your Son for us. 

  • Matthew Grote

    I have a question with your possible rape scenario. I was under the impression that if a woman lost her virginity for any reason, other than being previously married, she couldn’t be betrothed / wed… Not sure where I picked that up. Do you know if that was ever a civil law of the day?

    • R. Jared Staudt

      Deuteronomy 22 does discuss cases of disputed virginity of the bride. I’m not sure on specific laws at the time, but in general marrying a virgin was considered of the utmost importance, for determining the paternity of a child that would be conceived after marriage and consequent property inheritance.

      • Br. Matthew Paul, Novice O.P.

        Firstly, thanks for responding so quickly. 🙂 Secondly, if that’s the case, then I’m not sure how your explanation of what someone *would* have done (as a just man) works out, in the case of supposed rape. You suggest that the just / righteous man would have taken the raped woman as his wife and cared for her. That doesn’t seem likely, given what you’re saying here.

      • R. Jared Staudt

        Brother, it’s an important point. Thanks for pressing it. I think the key that unlocks this point for me is quietly putting her away to avoid shame. Justice would demand death for the assailant, but if she were innocent what would it demand for her? The Bible says nothing should be done against her, but doesn’t say more. For Joseph to marry her in this case would mean accepting the child of the perpetrator as his own (not in ambiguity as in Deuteronomy 22 with disputed virginity). The alternative would be to expose her to shame, which the Bible says he did not want to do. It would be just in the sense of responding to the injustice against Mary and not allowing her to raise a child without hopes of future marriage on her own. Can we imagine Joseph doing this? He would not have to marry her in this case according to the Law, but would not be prevented (which relates to your original question).

      • Br. Matthew Paul, Novice O.P.

        Yes, thank you for your reply. I think what originally struck me as incongruous was the suggestion that he “marry” her, as your article mentions, in the case of suspected rape. This is not to say I disagreed, but was not aware of whether or not that was actually a possibility – whereas, if one could not marry a rape victim, even though they were not subject to legal penalty, he could easily put her away quietly in the case of suspected rape, and this would be just by Mosaic law. That would (in my ignorance of the specifics of the law) have been my conclusion. So, simply to clarify, I was not disputing his putting her away vs. taking her into his house, only taking her into his house by way of *marriage.* You answered my question with your last remark (“He would not have to marry her in this case…”) I hope to become more familiar with the particulars of the legal systems of the O.T. in my future studies, so I appreciate your speed and willingness to engage here in the comments. And, thanks for the article. (As an aside, I also hold the opinion that he understood the Child to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit.) 😉 God bless the rest of your Christmas season!

  • Tony Devlin

    There is a lot more to this discussion. For example, it seems clear that Mary told Joseph about the Visitation, prior to leaving to help Elizabeth. They were betrothed. How could she not tell her fiancee, before leaving town for three months? For more on this topic and this interpretation, I recommend Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Guardian of the Redeemer. It really is the definitive work on the subject.

    • R. Jared Staudt

      Also, I agree that Mary most likely bore testimony to her Annunciation to Joseph. That would be how she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.

    • R. Jared Staudt

      It’s a wonderful exhortation on Joseph. He only mentions this issue briefly though: “In these circumstances, ‘her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly’ (Mt 1:19). He did not know how to deal with Mary’s ‘astonishing’ motherhood. He certainly sought an answer to this unsettling question, but above all he sought a way out of what was for him a difficult situation” (3).