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Joseph  A  Just  Man

Suspicion Theory or Pious Theory

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.

Matthew 1:18-19
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 divorce her quietly.”

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 mysteries.


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,”   
is defined as:  to expose, make a show of.
[It is based on word number 1164 which means:   a thing shown, specimen.]

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. 

St. Thomas Aquinas commentary on Matthew’s Gospel
But according to Jerome and Origen, he (Joseph) had no suspicion of adultery. For Joseph knew Mary’s purity and had read in the Scripture that a virgin would conceive (Is 7:14) and in 11:1): “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  He had also known that Mary had descended from David. Hence, it was easier for him to believe that this had been fulfilled in her than that she had fornicated. And so, considering himself unworthy to live together with such holiness, he wanted to put her away secretly; just as Peter said: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man”  (Lk 5:8). Hence, he was unwilling to put her away, i.e., bring her to him and take her in marriage, for he thought himself unworthy.  1  See commentary on Matthew 1:19
or above verse 1:20 


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:

Matthew 1:18-21
“Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.
19 Joseph her husband, being a just man, and unwilling to put her on public display, decided to divorce her quietly.
20 Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home on account  it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
21 She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,  because he will save his people from their sins.”  

Item  1
If we use the actual definition of the key Greek word, “deigmatizo,”   without reading into the translation process the premise of the suspicion theory we can see that the text seems to suggest that Joseph was not wanting to show Mary and her child off, as if they were some kind of trophy demonstrating Joseph’s own unique role in God’s salvation plan.

Item  2
If Joseph had been reacting toward Mary with suspicion, then we would be more likely to expect the angel to tell Joseph not to be enraged against Mary, or embarrassed about her, or even ashamed to have Mary as a wife.  But instead the angel says don’t be afraid.

Item  3
The passage can be translated as above, with Joseph being afraid on account that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The responsibilities of fatherhood is enough to make any man a little anxious, but the responsibility to be a foster-father for God, whom no one is worthy to see face to face had to be overwhelming.

Item  4
If the suspicion theory was the operating factor in this event it would seem that the Gospel writer would have mentioned in verse 18 only that Mary was found with child, and not have mentioned that it was by the Holy Spirit.   The fact that Matthew includes  “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit”   seems to suggest that, that is precisely what Joseph found out about, that is, it was the Holy Spirit’s child.

Item  5
If the pious theory is right, that Joseph regarded himself to be unworthy to be involved in this holy family, then the words of the archangel in verse 20 fit quite nicely.  Here the archangel reaffirms Joseph’s special calling and status in being a descendant and of the royal lineage of King David.

Item  6
Again in verse 21 the Archangel Gabriel reaffirms the special privilege of not only Mary, but Joseph as well.  Just as Mary’s role in giving birth is mentioned so also is Joseph’s role in naming the child.  To name something or someone is an honor or an authority in regards to that being named.  Gen. 2:20.   [Jesus respected their temporal authority by being obedient to them, Luke 2:51]

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

Mary’s Response

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.
Mary knew how babies were brought into the world.
Mary was surprised to hear that she was going to (future tense) have a child, and so she asks God’s messenger how this was going to happen.
Mary’s question only makes sense if she had taken a vow virginity

Luke 1: 31, 34
31 “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. ...
34 And Mary said to the angel: How  *shall*  this be done, because I know not man?”            Douay-Rheims Version, Challoner Revision

Luke 1:34  
“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How  *can*  this be, since I do not know a man?’ ”           NKJ        [asterisks added for emphasis]

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 ...”   ]
Mary was not doubting whether or not it could happen, but rather she was asking how it was going to happen, by what method shall this happen. We can see from Elizabeth’s statement in verse 45 that Mary did not doubt God’s message from the angel like Zechariah did.
Luke 1:45 “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” 

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 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” 

Isaiah 11:1-2, 6, 11
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him .. ..
6 Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them. .. ..
11 On that day, The Lord shall again take it in hand
to reclaim the remnant of his people .. ..” 

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.


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