18 Jan 2015

Joseph, the Law, and Infidelity

Religious 22 Comments

I have heard a certain passage from the Bible many times (once a year, at least) but this last Christmas I realized something new about it. In Matthew 1: 18-19 it explains that Joseph was originally (of course) disheartened to discover that Mary was pregnant:

 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.

The different translations render it somewhat differently, for example some saying he was righteous, and some saying he followed the Law.

But what’s interesting is that the Law said Mary should be stoned. E.g. Deuteronomy 22: 13-21:

13 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, 14 and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ 15 then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. 17 Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.

20 “But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman,21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you.

So I think it’s interesting that the gospel account describes Joseph as righteous and then in the next breath says he is planning on ignoring the Law’s punishment for Mary. (Obviously this is quite similar to how his “son” would act when He grew up.)

As with most ideas I have, I googled it and saw this is old hat. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to ponder.

22 Responses to “Joseph, the Law, and Infidelity”

  1. Harold says:

    Notwithstanding the pregnancy, Mary was supposed to be a virgin. Presumably such “evidences of virginity” could be found for her. I presume this refers to “proof by blood” after consumation.

    I must say that the evidential standards are bit haphazard. Women are sometimes born without a hymen, and bleeding after first intercourse is not universal.

    • Z says:

      When it says ‘evidences for virginity are not found’, probably what it means is that she is pregnant and thus automatically considered not a virgin, not that they looked for any of those things. Just a guess, who knows, maybe Bob can tell us.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        As I recall they had some old woman who basically acted as a gynecologist to verify the intact hymen.

        • Harold says:

          Hey Andrew, you are older than I thought.

      • Harold says:

        It does say: ” ‘and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.” Doesn’t sound like a lay gynaecologist to me, what with the spreading the cloth and all.

        • Andrew_FL says:

          See now I’m wondering how young I come across.

          Anyway I’m not sure about the method being described in Deuteronomy, but what I recall is what I’ve heard (can’t remember where) about how they verified Mary’s virginity.

          • Andrew says:

            I believe Harold was joking when he said he you are older than he thought. When you said “As I recall” it sort of came across as if you have a first hand recollection of Biblical times.

            • Andrew_FL says:

              Ha! Got me pretty good, actually.

  2. Jim W K says:

    My friend Greg gave me this thought to ponder…

    It’s hard for some to square that up with the idea that God created us with an immediate gravitation toward disobedience, then sentenced us to what seems like undeserved death because of our disobedience. It’s like being created to fail, then condemning us for failing. That’s seems unfair since we are doomed from the start. Here are my thoughts:

    “What if the wages of sin is, indeed, death, as Romans 3:23 states, but since we are INCAPABLE of perfectly measuring up to a sinless existence, and we were CREATED that way, then death is actually what we DON’T deserve? Anything otherwise would mean that God created us to live an existence that is IMPOSSIBLE to live, then sentenced us to death because we couldn’t, something that would seem to be an injustice.

    What if, instead, God, in his perfect justice and mercy, through Jesus Christ, gave us a way to life, not because we DESERVED death, but because we were INCAPABLE of life, and God loved us so much that he made a way, not because he would otherwise condemn us, but in order that we would no longer condemn ourselves, and, in turn, because of God’s great gift, we might yield ourselves to God so that God might do God’s re-creating work within us, not by our own effort and ability, but through the transforming power of God’s grace, a “magical” thing that God freely gives to those who receive this gift of everlasting life through Jesus Christ, our Lord?

  3. GabbyD says:

    but isnt the real reason he is righteous is that the law doesnt really apply in this case, so he was right to help her not get penalized by a law that doesnt apply? strictly speaking, she is still a virgin, if u believe in the “found with child of the Holy Spirit.”

    • Bob Murphy says:

      GabbyD he didn’t know that at first.

      • GabbyD says:


        strange, i think he did know, but that he was afraid to marry her because of circumstances of the pregnancy AND he knew the law (and how the law doesnt have a special provision for “special pregnancies”).

        i think this coz later, the angel sets him straight an says “dont be afraid” of marrying mary. that this is a good thing, and god wants you (joseph) to be a part of it.

        “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.””

        if joseph really didnt know, then he would simply have followed the law. but he did, which gave him pause.

  4. Neil says:

    Maybe it was not so simple in Joseph’s view. He had not yet taken her as his wife, she was betrothed to him. Did she become pregnant before they became betrothed? Was she raped in the countryside? A good lawyer would get Mary off the hook easily for this.

  5. knoxharrington says:
  6. tom says:

    Attempted murder? $100 fine.
    Having sex before marriage? Death.
    Blible stories? Priceless.

  7. khodge says:

    There are many scrolls on the law and righteousness. You are judging Joseph as unrighteous based on a single scripture without speaking to the rest of the Old Testament and the Talmud. As you already know, you can “prove” mutually exclusive moral positions on just about any topic you can find by using competing verses in scripture. Jesus, himself, pulled in the big bucks by being a traveling preacher (rabbi) and passing judgment on various moral issues.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Either God, or the writers of that Deuteronomy passage , are mysoginistic creeps.

  9. Ivan says:

    Jesus is probably the 30th god or demi-god in Ancient times born to a mother virgin…

  10. John Mann says:

    Two observations.

    1) R. T. France, in his 2007 commentary on Matthew agrees that there is a tension between the fact that Joseph is righteous and the fact that he does not want Mary to be exposed to scandal, and chooses to translate this “Joseph her husband, because he was a righteous man and yet did not want to expose her to scandal . . .”

    He comments “That Joseph was righteous is sometimes thought to explain his avoidance of a public scandal because he was ‘merciful’ or ‘considerate’, but the more basic sense of the word is of one who is careful to keep the law. The law as then understood required the termination of the engagement in the case of adultery. in OT times the penalty for adultery was stoning . . . . But by the first century (when Roman rule had abolished Jewish death penalties) divorce was the normal course. John 8:5-7, if historical, would then be describing a deliberately extreme response. As a law-abiding man Joseph would be expected to repudiate his errant fiancee publicly in a trial for adultery . . . . If ‘righteous’ is to be understood in that sense, therefore, it stands in contrast with rather than as an explanation of his desire to spare her; hence my inclusion of the word ‘yet’ in the translation. The resultant dilemma suggests to him the course, still legally correct but more compassionate, of a ‘private’ annulment of the contract, avoiding a public accusation of adultery and the resultant trial; the Mishnah allows for divorce of a suspected adulteress before just two witnesses . . .”

    2) Note that France questions the fact that John 8:5-7 is historical. Michael Marlowe gives a good overview of why he, as an evangelical Christian, believes that the story does not belong in the Bible. see http://www.bible-researcher.com/adult.html . If it was not part of the gospel John wrote, if it isn’t part of the New Testament, then what basis do we have for believing that it actually happened.

  11. Hermonta Godwin says:

    Adultery etc did not automatically mean death. It was adultery under certain circumstances (Hence the need for witnesses etc). There was also a requirement to deal with both at the same time. If it did mean such then Nathan should have stoned David, when God revealed his great evil. This also explains how Jesus did not contradict the law in his dealing with the woman caught in adultery.

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