As we’re beginning the Year of St. Joseph, and Christmas is near, consider with me the role of St. Joseph in the Annunciation. This verse in particular: “Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” (Matt. 1:19) If you attended Mass last Friday, you heard this verse in the Gospel. And perhaps like me, you heard a homily that gave a common interpretation of this verse.
That common interpretation begins by assuming that Joseph believed Mary had relations with another man. It’s natural to assume this. But is it really true? This is the premise I wish to challenge.
The common interpretation continues as follows: A betrothal was a formal contract similar to marriage. Infidelity during betrothal was equivalent to adultery. As Joseph was a “righteous man,” he did not wish to take into his home an adulterer – an unrepentant adulterer, since Mary had in no way admitted her infidelity. Or asked his forgiveness.
As he was the merciful sort of righteous man, he did not want to see her punished or humiliated or even possibly stoned. Therefore, he decided to divorce her discreetly, rather than make a big public display of it, as was his option.
This common interpretation was favored by St. John Chrysostom and appears in the notes to the New American Bible. But is it true?
If so, first, why would Matthew have taken care to stipulate that “Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit”? If he’s telling the story from Joseph’s point of view, why wouldn’t he tell this crucial detail, too, from Joseph’s point of view, say, “Joseph was downcast to find that she was with child”?
Second, why would the angel have begun, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home”? Fear had nothing to do with Joseph’s decision, on the common interpretation. Moreover, on that interpretation, please note, Joseph would not be “suspecting” or “fearing that” Mary had committed adultery – he would be absolutely certain of it!
Third, Joseph had moral certainty of Mary’s virtue, and there were no grounds to believe that infidelity was possible. Even decent Christians today, wholesome, good-intentioned, sometimes find that they know each other’s character so well as to be certain that infidelity is excluded. Joseph and Mary were like this always. Then, Mary had no faults, which in an innocent person are necessary preparations or preconditions of adultery. She didn’t drink to excess or flirt. She wasn’t susceptible to seduction from need of affirmation or praise.
She wouldn’t even be alone with another man. Her relationship to Joseph itself had no “drives” toward sexual immorality. They had compacted not even to have relations after marriage. Add that Nazareth was a small town of dozen tiny stone houses on a hill. (I’ve seen the excavation). Few things happen in such a place unobserved.
Fourth, to the extent that we love, we trust, and we are obliged to trust. It can be a serious sin to suspect sin in someone whom we have come to love over time on good grounds. If a husband out of jealousy reads something disreputable into his wife’s innocent behavior, he sins against her. If Joseph had believed Mary guilty of gross infidelity, he would have sinned against her and needed to ask her forgiveness before taking her as his wife.
“But she was with child!” – you will say – “surely that’s evidence.” Not necessarily: Innocent people do not think of sex and pregnancy in this way. Joseph was shown no anatomical charts in health class. He had no “experience with women.” To an innocent person, there is no necessary connection between pregnancy and sex; it was possible for him to hold these apart.
Fifth, surely St. Joseph had at least as much faith as other saints. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, while he also told Abraham that through Isaac he would be the father of many nations. St. Paul praises Abraham’s faith precisely in holding these two truths together. Abraham’s faith is even a paradigm for Christians. “Mary is innocent. Mary is with child.” Can we credit Joseph with at least as much faith as Abraham? Would God have passed over the opportunity to give Joseph this particular test? Surely this was the “contradiction” that was troubling Joseph, not “Mary was innocent. Mary is no longer innocent.”
Then, too, St. Paul praises Abraham for how he resolved the contradiction, reasoning that God must be planning to raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19) – as it were, discovering the doctrine of the Resurrection.
Which leads to the sixth consideration: Joseph surely knew Scripture at least as well as others, and the prophecy that (in the interpretation of the Septuagint), “A virgin will conceive and bear a son.” (Isaiah 7:14) In a time of widespread expectation of the Messiah, would Joseph be unfamiliar with this prophecy? Is it an accident that the angel’s words to Joseph track this prophecy exactly? Would it have been incredible for him to suppose that Mary – Mary! – was that virgin?
If he had reached that conclusion, as he was a righteous man and therefore humble, would he not have been afraid, out of humility, to presume to join himself to her as husband, absent divine warrant?
St. Jerome adopts this other interpretation: “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.” Also Rabanus: “He beheld her to be with child, whom he knew to be chaste; and because he had read, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive,’ he did not doubt that this prophecy should be fulfilled in her.” “He sought to put her away,” says Origen, “because he saw in her a great sacrament, to approach which he thought himself unworthy.”
Just a few reflections with which to begin the Year of the remarkable St. Joseph.
*Image: The Dream of St. Joseph by Luca Giordano, c. 1700 [Indianapolis Museum of Art]