The Virgin Mary: An Unwed Mother?

We often hear that the Virgin Mary was “an unwed Mother,” because while She was still unmarried (only “betrothed”), the angel Gabriel announced that She was pregnant. It’s an inspiring story for unwed mothers, but it happens to be not true.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply “betrothed,” in the sense we imagine that term (as fiancées). They were already married. That’s why Matthew 1:19 refers to Joseph as Her “husband,” and says he contemplated “divorce.” Needless to say, if they weren’t married, neither of those details would make sense.

The source of the confusion is that traditional Jewish weddings were in two stages; first, the couple would wed, and then, the husband would then have a certain amount of time to prepare a place for his new wife. Jesus uses this to describe His own relationship to His Bride, the Church, in John 14:2. He goes before us (to Heaven) to prepare a place for His Wife.

That’s the short answer to the question, “Was Mary an Unwed Mother?”  For a longer, more detailed answer, explaining the traditional Jewish wedding practices in more detail, check out this post.


    1. I am writing a series of monologs for worship, and I agree with your post. I don’t have a problem with either the idea or the rationale. My issue is this: if Joseph knew that Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, then why did he marry her? Do you have any info on that? When I was in Italy, I went to a small chapel that was full of Giotto murals. The murals showed the process of choosing a husband for Mary, who had been chosen as a virgin in the Temple. She needed a husband for those times when she was ceremonially unclean and therefore couldn’t be in the Temple. Joseph was chosen when the rod he was carrying burst into bloom, and a lily appeared. When I spoke to someone about this, they laughed and said that it was superstition and believed by no Catholic. So what’s the story? (By the way, if you want to check out my monolog on Joseph, my blog is I’d love to get your opinion. I have 2 versions and am starting a 3rd. Just can’t get it right yet 🙂

  1. point taken Joe. I’m guessing you must have heard that again recently to post on it again.

    I might have mistakingly said that Mary was a unwed mother in passing a time or two. But my broader point has always been that for Mary her pregnancy would be considered a sin, and death sentence, from the outsider since it looks like adultery from the casual observer.

    Would this be true. Was Mary in danger of being stoned to death, if Joseph had announced that the child was not his?

  2. If Joseph had announced that the child was not his, that is definately true–she would have died.

    An interesting facet to Joe’s take–one I recently adopted–is that to the casual outside it doesn’t look like adultery. They’ve already undergone the first stage of the marriage process and can legally have sex. Our modern approach to marriage does not work like this, so we see a contradiction in the two lines–they are only bethrothed, but Joseph is considering a divorce anyways?

    I think the text actually speaks to the casual outsider believing the child would be Joseph’s. Prior to Joseph’s dream, he is contemplating whether or not he should divorce her. I read this to mean that if he did not divorce her, there was no reason for her to die. If she were unwed, she would have been an adulterer. People would have known she was pregnant and unwed when her pregnancy became visible. Adulterer’s were stoned to death. Joseph did not marry her to hide the truth of her pregnancy from the outside world.

    He didn’t know whether to divorce her, because by remaining married to her he was insinuating to the outside world that the child was his. It also insinuated that they were engaging in sexual acts. Both lies by omission. If they had publicly consecrated their lives to God as virgins, this would destroy their credibility. As a holy and righteous man this must have been quite the burden.

  3. Daniel,

    Your comment about Mary’s relationship to St. Joseph and to the Holy Spirit reminded me of an interesting fact I learned recently. In Spanish, my name is José, as a result, my mother sometimes called me “José” or “Pepe” growing up. I thought that Pepe this was a strange nickname for José, and asked one of my friends from Mexico about. It turns out, “Pepe” means “P.P.,” and stands for padre putativo (putative father). It’s a reference, of course, to St. Joseph, Christ’s putative Father.


    Mary’s well-being (Her life, or at least Her reputation) was in serious danger if Joseph had announced that the Child was not his. That’s why he was going to “divorce Her quietly” (Mt. 1:19), in an attempt to save Her life. But even that fact suggests that it was considered okay if Mary was pregnant by St. Joseph.

    This fact points to Mary’s perpetual Virginity. If it was okay (and even good) for them to be having marital sex, why weren’t they? Yet She’s stunned when the angel Gabriel tells Her She’ll bear a Child, asking, “How will this be, since I am a Virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The obvious question is: why was She a Virgin?

    Mary’s perpetual Virginity also explains everything that happens next. After all, it isn’t as if Gabriel told Her not to have sex during Her pregnancy, yet we know She didn’t (Mt. 1:25). Yet by all accounts, the marriage was never consummated.

    There are all sorts of prophesies related to the fact that the Mother of Christ would be a Virgin. But why was that important to God? Simple: because it was an external symbol of Her interior purity. And given the prophesies related to Mary, like Ezekiel 44:1-2, we can say with confidence that She never lost either Her interior or exterior purity.

    In Christ,


  4. Daniel,

    We know that, because we know Who the true Father of Jesus is. But St. Joseph wouldn’t have known whether other witnesses existed or not.

    That said, Mt. 1:19 says, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” So it sounds like he was more worried about humiliating Her than about exposing Her to death by stoning.

    I should point out that there’s a second theory as to why St. Joseph was planning to divorce Mary. Namely, that as an observant Jew aware of the Messianic prophesies, he had enough of an inkling of what was happening to feel unworthy to be there, the way that Moses (Ex. 3:6) and St. Peter (Luke 5:8) reacted to encounters with God. In this view, he didn’t doubt Mary’s faithfulness, but the role he was supposed to play in bringing about the Messiah.

    Mt. 1:20 can be read in either way: why does the angel tell him not to be “afraid,” for example? That sounds like he’s reacting similarly to the way Mary reacted to the news that the LORD was with Her, suggesting a healthy fear of the LORD (Luke 1:29-30). If that’s the case, maybe it’s this second theory. But then the angel says that the Child is from the Holy Spirit, which suggests it’s the first. Like I said, you can read it either way.

    In Christ,


  5. I would imagine it virtually impossible to stone someone for adultery without catching them in the act. And if that happened, everyone would know.

  6. Daniel, do you think it matters that Joseph and Mary did not have sex prior to Mary’s pregnancy for that punishment? All Joseph would have to do is say, “We have never had sex. I don’t need two witnesses to prove adultery because I was never with her. The fact that she is pregnant is proof enough.”

  7. If she would commit adultery, then you would think she would lie to save her skin.

    And if hypothetically Joseph thought her guilty & wanted to have her killed then she would be honest and there still would only be one witness: Joseph.

  8. not if they asked her whether she had had sex with Joseph.

    OTOH, Jewish scholars argued about what flaw in the wife would make divorce acceptable. One school held only adultery, which argued for a less than stringent application of the penalty.

  9. Ah! I get it.

    Good thing St. Joseph was born without sin. If he would have doubted the angel, then Mary’s honesty would have made her the 2nd witness….

    Thank you all for steering me in the right direction.

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