Was Joseph Suspicious of Mary’s Pregnancy?

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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.

Joseph and Mary in bed
This picture seems to approximate the Humility Theory from at least one angle (hopefully I don't get struck by lightning for this).

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.

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Stephen C. Carlson
    December 15, 2010 10:55 pm

    Yeah, the angel’s message to Joseph makes hardly any sense under the Humility Theory.

  • First your picture is awful, even blasphemous! Mary was a virgin before, during , and after birth. She did not have other children as you seem to suggest in your reference to Matt. 12:46-7. The word is translated brothers and sisters, but in the Jewish understanding this word would mean cousin. You would think for someone so familiar with the Jewish culture of the Second Temple period, you would know this?
    Second, you say … “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.” So in essence, that Aquinas and Origen would not be able to say what a Jew of the Second Temple period would say or do. Yet, you yourself feel perfectly comfortable in saying, “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.” So you, even father removed from the second temple period than Origen and Aquinas were, are able to say what Joseph would have done or not done? Before looking at Matthew’s logic or people’s interpretation of it, I suggest looking at your own.
    The way you speak it as if the “righteous Jew” was a common occurrence… the term “righteous man” or “just man” is used very selectively in the biblical tradition. While there may have been many devote Jews, in the biblical sense, not many were righteous/just.
    Third, 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 it was Joseph who found her to be with child, that it was the Holy Spirit’s child. The fact that the angle says the child is of the Holy Spirit to Joseph is not so much to remind him of how Mary conceived, but rather who’s initiative and plan it was, a plan that included Joseph. To remind him that God wanted him to be a part of this plan, despite his own feelings of unworthiness. That is why the angle says do not be afraid, in reference to his feeling unworthy, not how Mary became pregnant. 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.
    You say “My judgment is thus that the so-called Suspicion Theory remains the best and most natural reading of Matthew’s gospel.” And how does one come to the “most natural reading” of the most supernatural event known to man, i.e. the incarnation?

    • Thanks for your comments, Jim. A few quick points:
      1) Matthew wasn’t aware of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which came years after Matthew was written. Joseph doesn’t seem to have been aware of this doctrine, either—at least according to Matthew’s narrative. Matt 1:25 says, “And he didn’t have sex with her until she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.” If I told you that I didn’t eat yesterday “until dinnertime,” that would indicate that I did eat at dinnertime. If I hadn’t eaten at all, I wouldn’t have said, “until,” would I? But since I did eat—and had an extremely tasty burrito, in fact—I have to limit the statement with “until.” Likewise, Matthew 1:25 asserts that Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ conception/birth, but (happily and vigorously) consummated his marriage with Mary after she gave birth to Jesus—hence the “until,” which makes no sense unless this was the case. Again, Matthew might simply have been wrong and Mary was in fact a perpetual virgin, but he seems blissfully ignorant of that doctrine.
      2) ἀδελφός means “brother,” not “cousin.” The passage in Matt 12:46–47 says “brothers,” not “cousins.” This “Jewish understanding” you’re referring to doesn’t really exist. Yes, the word “brother” could be used flexibly—much like it is in English, when you call someone close to you a “brother,” but it simply doesn’t mean “cousins” in that passage.

  • You say “The passage in Matt 12:46–47 says “brothers,” not “cousins.” This “Jewish understanding” you’re referring to doesn’t really exist.”… Interesting theory, if only Matthew himself did not contradict it. See Matt. 13: 55 ” Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?” cross reference that with Matt. 27: 56 “Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (who John says was the virgin Mary’s cousin see Jn. 19:25) Matt. Himself says “brothers” and means cousins. So even if this Jewish understanding did not exist, it did for Matt. And since he is the author of the disputed question, I think your argument is weak.
    Matt 1:25 does not say, “And he didn’t have sex with her until she gave birth to a son” it is more correct to say “He had no relations with her until she bore a son”. The point is not to imply that they then had sex, it is to over emphasize, that the child is not Joseph’s and was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
    The word “till” or “until” does not suggest anything about the point after, it only informs us
    about something that happened before that point. For instance, when we say, “God loved
    Enoch till the day he was taken by God,” we do not mean to imply that God at anytime
    stopped loving Enoch. This device (“till”) is used to emphasize the fact that God loved
    For instance, consider Deuteronomy 34:6, “And he buried him [Moses] in a valley in the
    land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.”
    In this instance, are we to assume that after “this day” people knew where Moses was

    Also, consider 2 Samuel 6:23, “Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto
    the day of her death.” Are we to assume that Michal had children after the day of her
    death? And yet the instance of the word (“unto”) is used for the same purpose as in
    Matthew 1:25: to emphasize that Michal had not children before that point!

    The correct context of this verse is that Matthew wanted to emphasize Mary’s virginity prior
    to the birth of Christ in order to clarify that our Lord’s birth was a miraculous one. How
    ridiculous would it have been, in the midst of Matthew’s account of our Lord’s miraculous
    birth, for Matthew to make a side note regarding the status of Mary’s virginity after the birth
    of Christ! That would have been very irrelevant and contrary to the flow of the narrative.

    • 1) Matt 1:25 actually says the following:
      καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.
      Translated more woodenly without regard for idiom, this says the following: “And he did not ‘know’ her until she gave birth to a son, and he called his name ‘Jesus.'” But to “know” one’s wife meant to have sex with one’s wife, not just to have interpersonal relations. The translation you’re citing means “sex” by “relations,” but uses a modern English idiom for sexual intercourse rather than the biblical idiom (that is, to “have relations” with someone of the opposite sex = to have sex with them). Either way, it means to have sex, not just “hanging out.”

      2) Your “until” examples are not of the same kind as what we have in Matt 1:25. And either way, you’re only demonstrating my point: Matthew asserts that Joseph and Mary didn’t have sex before Mary gave birth to Jesus—but if he had intended to suggest that Mary remained a virgin afterwards, why would he only limit it to “before” instead of just saying, “Joseph didn’t know [have sex] with her”? Again, your position requires that you read a theological perspective into the text through interpretive gymnastics, and it requires that Matthew be a rotten communicator, since he limits Joseph and Mary’s sexual abstinence to the period before Jesus’ birth (and has to go out of his way to limit it to this period!). You concede in your last paragraph that Matthew only says that Mary was a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus—and yet you want to insist that Matthew upholds her perpetual virginity. This seems a contradiction.

      3) James (Heb. “Jacob”) and Joseph were two of the most common Jewish names in the first century. Your immediate assumption that the James and Joseph in 27:56 are the same two as 13:15 is thus on quite shaky ground, especially since we know of multiple characters in Matthew by these names. That two of Jesus’ brothers are not mentioned when it mentions Mary the mother of James and Joseph is also telling—it’s likely that these are simply a different James and Joseph (that they’re related would also make sense, since closer family tended towards similar names). Also note that your reference, Jn 19:25, provides a way to reference a “cousin” outside of what you’re saying here.

      At bottom, you can certainly try to read perpetual virginity into the biblical texts, but it requires imposing an outside view on the texts and reading things “against the grain.” And the “Humility Theory” still makes no sense of the angel’s comments to Joseph. It’s pretty plain that Matthew at least knew nothing of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and if he did, he did a terrible job communicating it.

  • That picture is sucky and disgustingly blatant attempt to offend…no, I dont beleive that mary was a perpetual virgin, and the NT clearly states that Jesus had brothers (catholic doctrines aside, lol) however, that picture is a deliberate attempt to upset religious folks. That’s your right, to be disgustingly offensive, but please, dont try to pretend that it makes you smarter or funnier then others..

    • Really? I didn’t find it offensive at all, and I am quite the prude by nearly all accounts. I think it is a very human thing for Joseph to worry about consumating his marriage to a woman who just gave birth to God’s son. Unless I am such a prude that I am missing some crude joke?

  • since joseph was a just man before god he then must have read the prophecy’s about mary a virgin to be conceived by the holy spirit with child. thats probably how he knew.


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