Joseph A Just Man
In Matthew’s Gospel we read about good Saint Joseph. When he found his wife Mary, whom he had not yet taken into his home, with child, he wanted to divorce her quietly. There are two theories to explain his motivation for wanting to do that.
The first is called the suspicion theory and it is the most popular. Joseph is thought to have suspected Mary of being unfaithful with another man in getting pregnant. Most English Bible translations reflect this line of thought.
However, there is another possible understanding of this event. This other perspective which is also compatible with the biblical text is more easily perceived when we look through eyes of love - meditating, perceiving, and expecting the best in all things and in all people.
God always looks through the eyes of love, and so we should open our
hearts also with love for God and His holy people through whom His powerful
grace and glory has been made manifest. Love opens the door to many
The Greek word that is translated as “shame” in Matthew’s Gospel above, or “disgrace” in some other translations, is one key point to consider. The Greek word is “deigmatizo,” Strong’s number 1165. However, this is not same Greek word that is usually translated as “shame.” In fact, all the other instances that we find the words “shame” or “disgrace” in the English Bible, it is the translation from a different Greek word.
This Greek word, “deigmatizo,”
If we put that definition back into Matthew’s Gospel we can see the second theory of why Joseph wanted to divorce Mary. This second theory is called the pious theory. The pious theory is based on the idea that Joseph realized that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he, Joseph, was so overwhelmed with the holiness of the situation and the responsibility of being a step-father to God’s child and of being a husband to His mother, that Joseph was afraid since he was a humble man and didn’t consider himself worthy to be part of that family.
We will also examine several clues as to why the context of this passage
actually lends more support to this second theory rather than the first
one, the suspicion theory. I suggest considering the following
translation that includes the above definition and which is based on a
comparison of the RSV and NAB Bibles:
Therefore, the text definitely seems to imply that Joseph was told, although we don’t know by whom, that the child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some people contend that this would have been just to difficult for Joseph to have accepted until the angel told him so.
However, we believe it today even though we were never told so by an angel, at least not directly. If we can trust and believe that this is so, then would it not be presumptuous and even arrogant to hold that Joseph could not have believed in God’s Word that Mary relayed to him ?
Mary, having seen and experienced the great Annunciation of the saving news of God, that was relayed to her by the Archangel Gabriel, would have had a burning desire to share this Good News with her closest friends and relatives. She most likely would have desired to share it with her cousin Elizabeth, and would she not also have wished to share it with her husband to whom she was betrothed ?
Joseph and Mary were not just two ordinary people. We are told in Matthew 1:19 that Joseph was a “just” man. In Luke 1:28, 42, 45, 48, 49 we read of how Mary was a woman of deep faith and especially graced by God. Is it reasonable to think that Joseph could *not* have trusted this holy woman with whom he was obviously deeply in love with ? We believe in the Church as to what constitutes the Word of God, so is it unthinkable that Joseph could have believed in Mary who is the perfect model and type of the Church ? Cf. CCC 967, 867, 492
Luke’s Gospel also tends to support this line of thinking that there was a great deal of trust between Joseph and Mary.
Luke Chapter One implies that Mary had taken a vow of virginity.
Mary was going to live with Joseph as his wife.
Lk 1: 31, 34
The original Greek verb in Luke 1: 34 is the Greek word for “shall,”
that is, a tense of the verb “to be” not the verb “can”
or “able” which is mistakenly used in the New King James
version of the Bible. So, “How can this be”
is a bad translation. [See RSV which also translates it as “How shall
this be ...” ]
And Mary’s reply to the angel is literally “since I know not man.” This suggests that Mary had taken a vow of virginity, that is, “to know not man.” [ “To know” is a polite metaphor that biblical writers used to refer to two people having sexual relations. Cf. Genesis 4:1 ] And Mary was wondering if the angel was informing her that God wanted to her to rescind this vow.
Mary was questioning how this pregnancy was to happen. Every new bride , under normal circumstances, would be anticipating at least the possibility of children. Now either Mary had made a vow of virginity or she did not. If she had not then this question of hers to the angel of how she was to become pregnant does not make sense since there had, up until this moment, only one way to get pregnant. Therefore, this questioning by Mary only makes sense if she had made a vow of virginity. Therefore, the text suggests that Mary was asking if God had wanted her to forgo a vow of virginity that she had already made to God.
In considering Mary’s question about how she would become pregnant, it is important to note that the archangel said that Mary “will” - the future tense - conceive a child. Mary would have assumed that the child would be conceived the only way any child had ever been conceived until then.
Therefore, since we can arrive at the reasonable conclusion that Mary had taken a vow of virginity, it follows that she would have discussed this with Joseph and that he would have consented to this before their marriage.
Having trusted Mary to be capable of keeping a life long vow of celibacy throughout their marriage, it seems unlikely that Joseph would have been inclined latter to distrust her or to be quick to think that Mary had committed adultery. And it is hard to imaging good Saint Joseph of wanting to desert her if it was possible that she had been raped. So, if Mary had not volunteered the good news of how she had gotten pregnant it is hard to imagine St. Joseph not asking her. And having built a strong enough relationship with her that was deep, loving, and devout as this mutual vow of celibacy would imply, it becomes very believable that he would have trusted her account of the events, especially since it was prophesied in the Sacred Scriptures. [ See below Isaiah 7:14, 11:1 f.] The conclusion that Joseph believed Mary to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit seems to match the beginning of the discourse in verse 18 which says that “When ... Mary ... was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.”
Saint Joseph was a good man, a “just” man. He
knew of God’s Omnipotent power to perform miracles through his reading
of the Old Testament. Some however, claim that Jesus’ conception
would have been just too miraculous to be believed. However, to the
contrary I believe that Saint Joseph, being a just man, would not have
put limits on the power of God.
Isaiah 11:1-2, 6, 11
Of course, I look to the judgment of the Catholic Church in regards to the legitimacy of the ideas and interpretations contained in this article. The suspicion theory mentioned above has certain merit in that many holy leaders in the Church have mentioned or have assumed it. I am not aware of any consideration, or rejection, given to the pious theory. To the best of my knowledge no infallible decree has been made one way or the other. It is my hope that the thoughts expressed above will help cultivate an ever growing love for God and His holy Saints in whom He has made His greatness known.