|Carravagio, Annunciation (1608)|
The Gospel at tonight’s Christmas Vigil Mass begins (Matthew 1:18-19):
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 with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
These two verses are chock full of misunderstood information. Let me propose three major points of inquiry for careful reflection:
- What is the marital status of Mary and Joseph? Are they betrothed? Or is Joseph already her husband?
- What is the connection between Joseph’s justice and his unwillingness to expose Mary to shame?
- What is the connection between Joseph’s justice and his decision to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary? (Why does Matthew choose to include this detail here?)
These are questions that Christians often get incorrect. For example, to the first question, the Douay-Rheims version of Matthew 1:18 says that “Mary was espoused to Joseph,” while the New International Version of the same passage says that “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” That’s not a slight difference: is Mary an unwed mother or not?
As for the second question, there is another significant translation difference. The Douay version of v. 19 describes Joseph as “being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her” (Mt. 1:19 DRA), while the NAB describes him as “a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame” (Mt. 1:19 NAB). Again, that’s a significant difference. The NIV splits the difference, putting “was a righteous man yet” in the text, with a footnote that says “Or was a righteous man and.”
Again, this is a significant difference. If the NAB is right, Joseph’s justice appears to be in tension with his goodness: he wants to do what is right, but he also wants to be gracious towards Mary. A seeming conflict emerges: will Joseph violate the Law or his conscience? In the DRA, there’s no such tension: he wants to do the right thing and the gracious thing.
Finally, what’s the connection between Joseph’s justice, and his plan to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary? John Piper, a prominent Evangelical leader, has a generally-good position paper on divorce and remarriage that includes this line:
But most important of all, Matthew says that Joseph was “just” in making the decision to divorce Mary, presumably on account of her porneia, fornication.
This is also the assumption that the NAB footnotes makes, and that I imagine most readers make: that Joseph the Just suspected the Virgin Mary of fornication, and decided to divorce her instead of confronting her about it.
|Michelino da Besozzo, The Marriage of the Virgin (1430)|
A few weeks ago, Aric Nesheim at Logos Bible Software gave me a review copy of the new Verbum Plus Libraries to play with. It struck me that a good way of testing out the software would be to tackle these sort of questions, giving me the chance to simultaneously review this cool software and clear up some confusions about the Nativity account.
Since the reading in question is from tonight’s Gospel, I typed “today” into the lectionary search bar: it let me choose whether I meant the Mass in the morning or tonight’s Vigil, and then which reading I want. This is a quick way of finding the passage, if you heard something in Mass, but can’t remember the chapter and verse. Of course, you can also start the search by looking up a specific chapter and verse or doctrine (e.g., looking up everything about baptism).
Once I chose the Gospel for the Vigil, Matthew 1:18-25, four things came up: the Scriptural text (in RSV:CE, my preferred translation); the relevant passage of “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture,” a “cited by” window listing places in which this passage has been referenced, and an “explorer” bar tying the events mentioned in the passage with similar events from Scripture (like the birth of the Old Testament Patriarchs, etc.).
The Scriptural commentary that came up, “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture,” happened to have quick answers to all three questions. The section begins:
Betrothal (qiddûšîn) in Jewish law conferred the status of husband and wife (hence the terms of 19 f.). A child conceived during this period was regarded as legitimate unless disowned, but the marriage was regarded as incomplete until the husband formally ‘took possession’ (the niśśû’în) of his bride by taking her to his home. This he was free to do at any time, 2 Kg 3:14; cf. Edersheim, I, 353–5.
A few years ago, when I explored this question for the first time (after hearing about it in a homily), I eventually discovered this. But it took quite a bit of research on Jewish wedding practices, and I had a hard time finding anything directly addressing the question of whether sexual intercourse was permitted after qiddûšîn, or how children born during this interim period were treated. Here, I have the answer almost instantly, and more thoroughly than I had achieved on my own.
|Robert la Longe, Saint Joseph (17th c.)|
In the program, most of the citations are hyperlinked, so if you want to read the people your sources are quoting, you can, very easily. In this case, the citation is to a two-volume work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Rev. Alfred Edersheim. It doesn’t come standard, but I got a preview, and the option to buy. If it were a capstone project, I could easily see this tool coming in handy (even if it meant paying for a few additional sources).
The answers to the latter two questions came just as easily, from the same commentary:
That denunciation was a legal duty in the circumstances cannot be proved; nor does the text suggest that Joseph sacrificed legal scruples (‘and’—not ‘but’—‘not willing to make her case public’). It suggests rather (Lagrange) that precisely because Joseph was ‘just’ (i.e. aware of duties to God and neighbour and, in this case, to Mary) he did not place the matter before the village-court. Such a course, though not necessarily involving condemnation (a woman might be pronounced blameless in such cases, Deut 23:25 f.) meant publicity for Mary, unwelcome and evidently incompatible with Joseph’s ‘justness’.
In other words, the Douay-Rheims translation is superior to the NAB on this score, and there is no basis to conclude that Joseph’s justness was incompatible with the mercy he showed his wife. Under the law, Joseph had three options: divorce Mary publicly, accusing her of adultery; divorce her quietly, before two witnesses; or acknowledge the child as his own. The first of these options doesn’t just seem unkind, but unjust. Particularly if Joseph has reason to believe that Mary is a Virgin, it would be unjust to publicly denounce her. This gets to the third question, showing why Piper’s interpretation is erroneous:
Why incompatible? Presumably because ignorance of the facts coupled with knowledge of Mary’s character made of mere publicity an injustice. St Joseph’s attitude is to be observed: there is no word of complaint or even of inquiry. The evangelist leaves us with the impression of a patient instrument of God. […] His delicacy is admirable—communicated to him, no doubt, from his knowledge of Mary. He cannot believe her blameworthy; he knows nothing of the Annunciation (Mary had been silent and absent for three months, Lk 1:39 ff.); he can think only of some unknown cause, perhaps supernatural, certainly consistent with Mary’s character.
In Piper’s explanation of the text, Joseph doesn’t assume that Mary was the prophesied Virgin of Isaiah 7:14, or even that she might be an innocent rape victim. Rather, without consulting her, he assumes the worst: that she has cheated on her new husband. And for this, Piper tells us, “Matthew says that Joseph was ‘just’.” This explanation manages to besmirch the reputations of both Mary and Joseph, despite the clear Biblical evidence that both of them were holy and devout believers.
The explanation that Jones gives in the commentary that I’ve been quoting does a much better job of accounting for the evidence, and the character of the individuals involved.
Nevertheless, this is just a single source. So what else can we pull from the Verbum Libraries?
|Anton Raphael Mengs, The Dream of St. Joseph (1774)|
Well, if you hover over the Scriptural passages, it tells us what the Greek word being translated is. You can then go from there to a Strong’s lexicon. In this way, we quickly find out that the word in question in v. 18 is μνηστεύω: “mnēsteuō; from 3415 (in the sense of to court a bride); to espouse, betroth.” And the word in question in v. 19 is καί, a conjunctive generally meaning “and, even, also,” and only translated as “yet” nine ties in the NASB (compared to 535 times that it was translated as “even”). This supports our earlier conclusions.
But let’s go even deeper: what do the Church Fathers say? The “cited by” window brings up 23 results in 18 separate places in 13 resources for Matthew 1:18, and about half that many for Matthew 1:19. Most of these are general references to the Virgin Birth, but there is some fruit. For example, St. Jerome’s treatise The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, Against Helvidius, lists a couple other areas in Scripture in which a betrothed spouse is called a wife (Deut. 20:7; Deut. 22:23-25).
The most helpful resource for Patristic opinions turned out to be the Catena by St. Thomas Aquinas, which contains Fathers arguing both sides of the question. Many of the Fathers, including Augustine and Chyrsostom, read the passage as Joseph suspecting Mary, and wanting to handle it quietly to preserve her reputation (or even her life). But Jerome proposed an alternative reading, that “this may be considered a testimony to Mary, that Joseph, confident in her purity, and wondering at what had happened, covered in silence that mystery which he could not explain.” Rabanus likewise says that Joseph:
beheld her to be with child, whom he knew to be chaste; and because he had read, There shall come a Rod out of the stem of Jesse, (Is. 11:1.) of which he knew that Mary was come, and had also read, Behold, a virgin shall conceive, (Is. 7:14.) he did not doubt that this prophecy should be fulfilled in her.
And Origen asked:
But if he had no suspicion of her, how could he be a just man, and yet seek to put her away, being immaculate? He sought, to put her away, because he saw in her a great sacrament, to approach which he thought himself unworthy.
All of this also explains why Matthew tells us that Mary and Joseph didn’t consummate the marriage throughout her pregnancy, even after they moved in together, the second stage of the wedding (niśśû’în; see Mt. 1:24-25).
Hovering over any of the names tells us who these men were. For example, “Rabanus” refers to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mayence, A.D. 847. The program also offers helpful doctrinal connections with a Catholic Topical Index, so I can explore how these verses are related to conception, Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Joseph, and a range of other topics. It also tipped me off to a wealth of Magisterial assistance, like Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Custos, which is all about St. Joseph. This encyclical has a whole chapter dedicated to how Joseph is a just man.
For the three questions proposed, we can safely conclude first that Mary and Joseph had undergone the first of the two stages of a Jewish wedding (qiddûšîn), and were husband and wife in the eyes of the Law, capable of having intercourse and bearing legitimate children. That they weren’t having intercourse is ascribable to Mary’s perpetual Virginity.
Second, we can conclude that Joseph’s justness isn’t incompatible with his desire to protect Mary’s reputation, but consistent with it. This is particularly true if he is aware (given her character and perpetual virginity) that her conception couldn’t have been the result of fornication. These conclusions are supported by some of the Church Fathers, and do a far better job accounting for the whole of the Scriptural evidence than the alternate interpretation.
Third, Joseph’s desire for a quiet divorce is probably because he recognizes Mary as the Virgin Mother of the Messiah prophesied in Scripture, and a sort of “Great Sacrament,” as Origen tells us. Anyone familiar with the Ark of the Covenant (so holy that it could not be touched) would have been justly frightened to be married to Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant.
Having put Verbum Plus Library, what are my reactions to it as software? Well, it’s a large program running a lot of operations at once, and I was concerned about it working on my laptop (I bought the cheapest one that Best Buy sells), but it actually ran fairly well — and it wasn’t the only program running at the time, either.
I mentioned that it runs a lot of operations at once: this takes some getting used to. It has a large library that it downloads the first time you use it, and it periodically updates, indexes, etc. When you first use it, the whole experience can seem overwhelming: there are five windows, and each of these have multiple tabs you can flip through. After a while, it starts to feel more intuitive, once you know what you’re trying to do with it. Still, I only scratched the surface of the available tools: there’s everything from a Sentence Diagram tool to an image search feature.
All that said, this software isn’t cheap. It’s $934.95, although it’s 10% off during Christmastime. Logos claims that the software has a print value of over $10,000, although I’m not overly persuaded by that figure. After all, if I weren’t using Verbum, I wouldn’t be buying $10,000 in books. I’d either be using online resources, or at a library. And many of the Patristic and Magisterial documents are freely available online (although the same isn’t true of many of the modern resources that Verbum has). Still, they do boast a wealth of resources that are hard to find anywhere else, so I view the chief trade-off as time vs. money. With enough time and expertise, you could probably replicate Verbum’s results without spending any money. It’s just quicker and easier with Verbum. It’s like going to the mechanic’s instead of fixing the car yourself.
So I enjoyed it, but I can’t in good conscience tell everyone reading this to go spend a thousand dollars on a piece of software (even a very helpful piece of software). But I don’t think it’s intended for everyone. Rather, I think it’s for universities, professors, theologians, grad students, apologists, perhaps seminarians and some undergrads. And in those cases, I think it’s certainly worth the consideration.