Michael Barber over at the Sacred Page has brought up an old interpretive question of why Joseph, upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, wanted to “send Mary away quietly,” not wanting to publicly shame her, asking whether Joseph actually thought the conception was the result of Mary’s unfaithfulness (which he terms the “Suspicion Theory”). Barber then pushes forward another interpretive option, one advocated by Origen, Aquinas, and Bernard of Clairvaux: the “Humility Theory,” that Joseph was intimidated by the idea of living with a woman who had conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The Humility Theory rests on the following assumption, as elucidated by Barber:
If you were an ancient Jew with proper reverence for God, his temple, and all that he had deemed holy and your wife had conceived by the Holy Spirit, would you not also be hesitant about living with her? … [Thus,] according to this approach then the angel’s instruction to Joseph is not understood as revealing Mary’s innocence as much as it is a revelation of God’s plan that Joseph should not be afraid because God has ordained it that he should play a part in the birth of the Messiah.
Barber argues that it makes more sense to think of Joseph—a righteous Jew with respect for God’s holiness—as intimidated by the notion of being the “foster father of the Messiah” and being the spouse of a woman who had just conceived by the Holy Spirit. It’s an interesting argument and one with a long history. But does it really cohere with a close read of Matthew? I’ll start with the problems Barber suggests are inherent to the Suspicion Theory.
Is the Suspicion Theory Riddled with Problems?
Barber suggests that the Suspicion Theory has several problems, which I will address in turn:
1) If Joseph were a “righteous man,” why would he not follow the Law of Moses, in which adultery was a capital offense? Why would he simply “send her away quietly,” giving “a suspected adulteress a pass.” Barber suggests that Joseph’s activity indicates that he didn’t question Mary’s fidelity; if he had, he would have wanted to have Mary stoned.
On the surface, this seems to be the most powerful “problem” with the standard interpretation; after all, the Law of Moses does indeed call for the stoning of adulterers. But the problem is that this does not seem to have been the standard practice in the first century or in later Rabbinic Judaism, especially not in cases in which the person was not caught in the act. Keep in mind that Jews like Joseph did not live under Mosaic civil law in such matters but Roman law, as John 18:31 asserts, with the Judaeans (at the very least) having no power of execution. A baraita in the Babylonian Talmud also suggests that the Romans had removed the right of execution sometime around this period (b. Sanhedrin 18a, 24b), and Josephus’ testimony that the Jews had permission to execute any non-Jew who went beyond the outer Court of the Gentiles likewise suggests the Jews did not have wholesale permission to execute according to the Mosaic Law. As such, Barber’s assertion that a “righteous Jew” would have pushed for the Mosaic punishment of execution if he had suspected adultery seems not to be the case, and this “problem” doesn’t seem much of a problem at all. Rather, it is a bit anachronistic to simply assume that any “righteous Jew” of the first century would have followed the Mosaic Law’s civil prescriptions to the letter.
2) Jesus’ teaching in Matthew intensifies the Law, so why would a righteous character right at the start relax it?
This too is a weaker protest than it initially seems. The practice for those not caught in the act in the Rabbinic period was not to punish via execution but through other means. In addition, this isn’t really relaxing the Law anyway, since it could be just as reasonable to have assigned the conception to rape or some other cause that might not lead to execution even under Mosaic proscriptions.
3) Matt 1:18 says not that Mary was simply “found to be pregnant” but “found to be pregnant of the Holy Spirit,” which Barber reads as suggesting Joseph knew not only that she was pregnant but that the child was “of the Holy Spirit.” Barber asserts that to suggest Joseph didn’t know the origin of the child “reads something into the text that is not there,” since “Joseph’s actions followed upon the discovery that Mary was “pregnant of the Holy Spirit,” indicating he must have known the child’s origin.
While it is true that the text says that Mary was “found to be pregnant of the Holy Spirit,” what it does not say is that Joseph knew she was pregnant “of the Holy Spirit.” On the contrary, Joseph plans to send her away only until he is notified that the child is of the Holy Spirit:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this: after His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 1:18–20)
So, if Barber (and Origen and Aquinas) are right, this verse makes no sense at all, as the very explanation the angel gives for why Joseph should not send Mary away is that the child “is of the Holy Spirit.” If Joseph already knew this (as the Humility Theory requires), why did the angel have to tell him this information? Even more damning for the Humility Theory is that the angel’s logic seems to work exactly reverse to that of the Humility Theory, which assumes that Joseph, once he knows that the child is “of the Holy Spirit,” will be afraid to take Mary for that reason. On the contrary, the angel seems to think that the fact that the child is “of the Holy Spirit” is exactly the reason Joseph shouldn’t be afraid to take Mary as his wife. So, if Matthew was trying to explain that Joseph was afraid to cohabit with Mary because of the holy nature of her conception, he does an awfully poor job of communicating this, since the logic of the passage works in exactly the opposite direction. (If the Humility Theory were correct, we would expect the angel to say, “although the child is of the Holy Spirit, you should not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” not “do not be afraid because the child is of the Holy Spirit.” And in Matthew’s narrative, once Joseph is reassured by the angel that Mary’s conception was indeed “of the Holy Spirit,” far from having concerns about approaching Mary, he seems to have no qualms at all about taking her as his wife and giving her several other children in the normal manner (Matt 1:25; 12:46–47).
My judgment is thus that the so-called Suspicion Theory remains the best and most natural reading of Matthew’s gospel. The Humility Theory is forced to read the text against the grain, to the point of making the angel’s message to Joseph redundant at best and backwards at worst. The Humility Theory also strikes me as anachronistic, striking me as more reflective of later centuries’ concerns with sexuality than of the context of early Judaism. It is far more plausible that Origen or Aquinas would feel “unworthy of being the spouse of a woman who had just conceived ‘of the Holy Spirit'” than that a standard Jew of the Second Temple period would share this feeling. In short, the Humility Theory seems to me to require later a later Christian theological perspective of which Matthew was unaware; the Suspicion Theory requires no such imposition on the text and is the better reading of Matthew’s Gospel.