Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph’s Dilemma
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 8, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday after the Super Bowl in the sports calendar. It is a big event for my children because it means that they can watch what they want to on TV after church. I’ve missed several Super Bowls in recent years, mainly because I’ve been away at church or academic conferences, and unfortunately I missed most of this one as well. We got to see the last five minutes of the first half, which meant that we did get to see the great interception, but the game ended as we were deplaning. Julie and I had a great time in San Antonio. We happened to be there when they had the parade to start the annual rodeo, so we got to see the longhorn steers being driven down one of the main streets of old San Antonio. We spent a lot of time in the old Mexican market and purchased a few items. The meals were fabulous. I had very memorable chili releno sitting by the river. My workshop on Comenius went well, and there are a few Presbyterians who know a little more about Comenius. There were over 1200 church educators at the conference, including 8 Moravians, and the organizers did a great job with the event. I want to thank Dr. Moore for filling in for me while I was away. I hear that folks loved her talk about Roman history. This week we are returning to our study of the birth narratives of Jesus in the New Testament. We’ll pick the story up with Joseph learning that his betrothed bride is pregnant.
Read: Matthew 1:18 – end
Adultery? Unlike Luke, Matthew begins the story of Jesus after his conception. You may recall that Luke described angelic messengers coming to Zachariah and Mary, and he gave almost as much attention to the birth of John the Baptist as to Jesus. Matthew, in contrast, focuses on Joseph. He describes him as a righteous man with a problem. He has agreed to marry a young woman named Mary, and he has probably sealed a legal agreement with her family, but he learns that she has gotten pregnant before the wedding. This would be a problem in our day, but image the scandal in an ancient patriarchal culture. According to ancient Mosaic law, a woman in this situation could be stoned to death. The actual practices had changed by Joseph’s day, but it was still a scandalous situation.
Matthew is clearly implying that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. We do not know a great deal about the actual social norms in Galilee in the first century, but it appears that it was permissible for a couple to have intimate relations after the betrothal and before the marriage. In other words, there was not stigma against a woman giving birth to a baby just a few months after the formal wedding, so long as the groom was the father. Since the primary purpose of marriage in pre-modern times was to have children, it is unlikely that Mary’s pregnancy would have been a cause for concern for Joseph if he thought he was the father. In fact, the opposite was probably true. Infertility was a common cause of divorce in ancient times.
The clear implication of verses 18 and 19 are that Mary discovered she was pregnant and Joseph was not the father. The author of Matthew’s gospel was clearly sympathetic to Joseph’s plight. What should a righteous man do in such a situation? Ancient Israel was more like modern Saudi Arabia or Pakistan in its approach to women and sexuality than like America. Even though the marriage was not formalized, this was viewed as adultery. Though the time was long past when a man could have a woman stoned to death for such a breach of trust, a shamed bridegroom could take her before the authorities and have her condemned publicly. He might do this to preserve his own good name or to force her to reveal who the father was, but he might do it simply to humiliate the girl and her future. A woman who was publicly identified as immoral or who had a child out of wedlock could be cast out by her family. She and her baby would be left to the mercy of the streets.
Unlike Luke, who leaves Joseph almost completely out of his account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew acknowledges what a problem Mary’s pregnancy posed for Joseph and Mary. Most modern biblical scholars reject the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus on the grounds that it is medically impossible and thus is legendary. There is really no way to resolve the issue of the virginal conception on medical grounds since miracles by their nature are outside the normal laws of nature. As with all accounts of miracles, it is up to you to decide for yourself what you believe.
Some scholars dispute the claim that Matthew simply made this whole story up or was repeating a legend. It appears that the author knew that Jesus was conceived before Joseph and Mary were wed since he acknowledges that this was embarrassing. Later Jewish sources claimed that Jesus was illegitimate, and it would have been simple for Matthew to answer such a charge by having Joseph and Mary get married earlier rather than later, if he was making this all up. Matthew seems to be working with a generally accepted tradition about Jesus, and he seems aware of problems with it..
It is interesting that Matthew says nothing about what Mary said to Joseph. Presumably they talked about her awkward condition, but Matthew was not interested in Mary’s feelings. He was only concerned with Joseph’s actions. How would he deal with this crisis? Matthew tells us that Joseph chose to put Mary away quietly, which means that he planned to stop the marriage plans. In setting her aside quietly, he may have planned to give her some money to live on. The main concern for Joseph was hard to break off the engagement without hurting Mary or offering himself up to ridicule. Keep in mind that Joseph was living in a society in which a righteous person did not associate with “sinners.” In pondering Joseph’s dilemma, keep in mind how offended the Pharisee was when Jesus let a prostitute anoint him.
Dreams of a New Future: After Joseph made his decision to be merciful and deal with Mary as kindly as possible, he changes his mind. The gospel tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to reject Mary. This angelic appearance is different from those in Luke since it clearly states that Joseph was dreaming. This is consistent with the tendency in Judaism at that time to put greater distance between God and sinful humanity by adding intermediaries. For some Jews, even angels are too holy to appear in physical form to people. Instead they would appear in dreams, as in Matthew’s account. For modern interpreters, this adds to the realism of the story since it is easier for people today to believe in dreams of angels than in angels themselves. It is tempting to use modern psychology to understand Joseph’s dream of an angel telling him to do what his heart wanted to do, which was to take Mary as his wife.
It is worth noting that the appearance of angels in Luke and Matthew are consistent in that there were no witnesses. These were religious experiences, perhaps even mystical experiences that were outside the normal realm of reality. It is possible that the story of Joseph having a dream was suggested by the example of the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis. You may remember that the original Joseph was a righteous man who both had prophetic dreams and who could interpret the dreams of others. When I was in NY I heard a couple of good papers on the role of dreams in 17th century Protestantism (I know you are envying me) which pointed out that theologians used the dreams of both Josephs to justify dream interpretation in modern times. As we example Matthew’s birth narrative, we will see other parallels to the story of Joseph the patriarch, such as a journey to Egypt.
Jesus: Angels in the Bible are messengers, and so the most important thing is what the angel told Joseph. The reason he should take Mary as his wife is because her child comes from God. The angel says that the baby is “of the Holy Spirit.” The angel did not specifically say that it was the Holy Spirit who made Mary pregnant, but that may be implied. So far in the story, there has been nothing about Mary being a virgin. Many people have suggested that the question Joseph faced was whether to remain faithful to Mary and accept her child as a gift from God despite the implicit scandal. This is in contrast to Luke’s account where the virginity of Mary is central.
Keep in mind that many of the saints of the Old Testament were conceived through the power of God’s spirit, especially prophets of old. Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and others were conceived through the power of the spirit and were living signs of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel. The central part of the angel’s message was that the child would save his people; therefore he should be named Jesus. It would be Joseph’s role to name the child and give him his identity. By taking Mary as his wife and naming her son, Matthew would be publicly acknowledging the child as his and legally bringing him into the genealogy of David. By giving him the name revealed in the dream, Joseph would be acknowledging the child’s sacred destiny even though he knew he was not the biological father of the child.
The name “Jesus” is the anglicized form of the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshua. It is basically the same name as Joshua, a fact that gets lost in translation. Literally the name means “Yahweh helps,” but over the years the meaning was changed to God saves. It was a fairly common name in biblical times, which is why you shouldn’t get too excited when archaeologists find tombs with the name Jesus inscribed in them. Lots of people named Jesus or Joshua were buried in ancient Judea. Interpreters through the centuries have seen a connection between Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land and Jesus, but the gospels do not make an explicit identification of the two.
Isaiah’s Prophecy: I mentioned that the angel’s message did not say anything about Mary being a virgin, but the author of Matthew’s gospel clearly believed that she was. The narrator states that this was to fulfill a prophecy from the book of Isaiah about a virgin conceiving. This is the first of many times in the Gospel of Matthew that the narrator interrupts the story with a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew asserts that all of the key aspects of the biography of Jesus were in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, beginning with his conception. This intense interest in the Scriptures is one of the bits of evidence that Matthew was probably one of the scribes or a Pharisee, by the way.
The prophecy he quotes is from Isaiah 7:14, and there are few verses that have been more debated in modern biblical study. We don’t have time to go into all of the details on the scholarly and not so scholarly debate, but we can summarize the controversy. First, there is an issue of translation. Second is an issue of interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy itself, and third is Matthew’s use of that prophecy to explain the birth of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that the modern debate is not all that different from debates between Jewish and Christian scholars in the 3rd and 4th century.
The passage in question is part of a longer prophecy recorded in Isaiah 7:10-25. The LORD spoke to Ahaz (presumably through the prophet Isaiah) during the Syro-Ephraim war. The prophecy began with the phrase “Hear O house of David,” which may have been what drew Matthew’s attention to it as a messianic prophecy. The LORD said that a young woman would have a son who would be named Immanuel, which is not a common name. By the time the child would be old enough to distinguish good and bad foods, the war would be over and Judah would be spared. Ahaz’s enemies would be destroyed. There is little doubt among biblical scholars that this prophecy referred to a particular woman in the royal palace, perhaps even a young girl in Ahaz’s harem, and that the events predicted were to take place not long after the prophecy. Until Matthew wrote his gospel, no one had suggested that this was a prediction about the birth of the Messiah.
The Hebrew word used to describe the young woman is Alma, which refers to a woman who has just finished puberty and can get married. Such a woman was considered a virgin since she was only just old enough for marriage and would have been kept away from men until this time. The Hebrew word for a mature woman who has not had sexual relations was Betula. When Isaiah was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translator used the word Parthenos to translate Alma. Parthenos does mean virgin. Matthew, like most of the New Testament authors, quoted from the Greek Septuagint. Thus, he probably thought that the passage did refer to a virgin conceiving.
For centuries scholars have known about the discrepancy between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Isaiah 7:14, and Christian scholars even accused Jews of changing the Hebrew text as a way to discredit idea of a virginal conception of Jesus. When the Bible was translator into Latin, the word virgin was used, and most later translations followed suit. Some English Bibles were more accurate and said “maiden” which preserved the ambiguity. A maiden was a young unmarried that was presumably also a virgin biologically as well as sociologically. When the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s the translators boldly translated the Hebrew literally and Alma became a “young woman”. A preacher was so incensed by this that he publicly burned the Bible outside of his church in North Carolina and sent the ashes to the editor. The editor of the New Revised Version of the Bible, Bruce Metzger told me that he was given the jar of ashes as a reminder of the dangers of translation.
Born of the Spirit and a Woman: Regardless of the translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew believed that the prophecy was about a virgin, and so he chose it to support the idea that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without the assistance of a man. We talked at length about the idea of a virginal conception when we discussed the birth narrative in Luke. Though it is never mentioned again in Matthew’s Gospel, he also goes out of his way to assert that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after Jesus was born. Aside from the fact that the Jewish law discouraged sex during pregnancy, one wonders how Matthew could have known such an intimate detail from the private life of Mary and Joseph.
Immanuel: Even though no mention is made of a virginal conception elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, it is interesting that Luke and Matthew give two independent witnesses to this claim. That indicates it had become an important idea in Christianity from early days. There is no indication that the idea of a virginal conception was association with a view that sex itself is sinful. On the contrary, it was to emphasis that Jesus was indeed the divine agent destined to be the savior. That was also part of the prophecy that Matthew quoted. The young woman was to name her child Immanuel, which was a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us.” That was not the name Joseph gave to Mary’s baby. He was named Jesus, but the phrase Immanuel revealed his true identity for the church. Matthew was writing long after the resurrection when it was made clear to the disciples that Jesus was more than just a prophet from Nazareth. He was, and is, and will be God with us.
Conclusion: Before Christmas we discussed the importance of Mary’s decision in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew leaves Mary almost entirely out of the story, but he reminds us that Matthew also had a decision to make. He chose to take her and the baby into his home despite the risk of scandal. Men today can learn something about love and responsibility from Joseph. True righteousness is not a matter of keeping ourselves free from criticism; it is remaining faithful to those God has given us to love. I will leave you with this thought from Martin Luther. There were three miracles of Christmas. First was that God took human form as a baby in a manger. Second was that a virgin conceived. And the third was that Joseph believed, and that was the most astounding.