Franciscan Focus

Just a simple blog of a Secular Franciscan trying to live with a Franciscan focus.
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13 December 2007

Josephology: On Joseph and Mary's Marriage 

The Betrothal of Joseph and MaryAs Christmas approaches and we contemplate the birth of our Savior, I think it's a good time to clear up the confusion over what led up to His birth -- namely, that Mary wasn't married at the time of the Annunciation.

Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Mary was not an "unwed mother" at the moment of the Incarnation, nor was she merely "engaged" to Joseph -- she was truly and legally married to him; a wife. Jesus was conceived, as is proper, within the bond of Holy Matrimony, not outside it. Following are some resources that address the nature and validity of Joseph and Mary's marriage.

Joseph and Mary's Marriage and the Incarnation

"In Hebrew Law the betrothal was not a simple promise of marriage in the future, but, with binding force, was equivalent to it. In Deuteronomy, as in the Gospel, the betrothed was called 'wife' because she was indeed that. Accused of infidelity, she would be obliged to suffer the punishment for adultery, and she would be stoned to death. Did her betrothed die, she would be looked upon as a widow. Nor could she be rejected except through the same process of divorce as the Law required for a married woman.

"Cohabitation, however, was generally postponed for some months, perhaps a year. The rabbis held the bride should be given the time to prepare her trousseau, the groom, to fulfill the promises of the [marriage] contract and prepare the home.

"Actually, the betrothed could have marital relations and if the bride conceived a child by her groom, no fault would be found. Because of these facts, the endless controversies carried on later about Mary's conception of the Incarnate Word, some affirming that she was truly married, others denying it, are absolutely pointless -- a mere war of words." [emphasis added]
~ Michel Gasnier, OP; Joseph the Silent

* * *

"In the Book of Luke we read that the Angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph. From the point of view of our own time and culture, this seems to tell us that, at the time the angel announced the conception of the Son of God, Mary and Joseph were merely engaged.

"Was this really so? ... According to Jewish custom, the betrothal was not merely an engagement but had the force of marriage, including the marital rights.

"... Lest there be any doubt about this understanding of 'betrothal,' the Church herself has given us an explanation of the 'betrothal' of Joseph and Mary. 'According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal, or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought his wife into his own house. Thus, before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her 'husband.' " (Op. cit., Redemptoris Custos, n. 18)

"Thus the betrothal of Joseph and Mary refers to an actual marriage. Yet there was a period of possibly [up to] one year following the betrothal in which the couple did not live together. ... The Jews did not consider it unlawful or even necessarily unusual for a woman to conceive a child during the one-year period. This explains why no one thought it was unusual or at least unlawful for Mary to be with child during this time. Otherwise, it would have been a great scandal in the little town of Nazareth, and it could have made her subject to the law and its punishment."
~ Dominic De Domenico, OP; True Devotion to St. Joseph and the Church

* * *

"Nor let the word 'espoused' be understood, as by some it has been understood, as if Mary were at the time only promised in marriage, that is, betrothed. No. The nuptials had already been celebrated, according to the true sense of Scripture, a point which has been clearly established by the Holy Fathers and Doctors, and, in particular, by the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas. Thus we find St. Matthew calling Joseph the husband of Mary, and Mary the wife of Joseph."
~ Edward Healy Thompson, MA; The Life and Glories of St. Joseph

The Validity of Joseph and Mary's Marriage

"The Scripture testifies clearly that Joseph was the husband of Mary and that Mary was his wife. One could not be a husband or a wife if one did not marry. The Scripture would not call him husband if it meant that he was not Mary's husband. (Cf. Mt. 1:18-20)

"Still, one should not wish to rely here on a private interpretation of the Scripture unless it is consistent with Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. The Fathers of the Church, including St. Augustine, have unanimously upheld the genuineness of this marriage. It is also the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the universal Doctor of the Church. Besides, the teaching has been upheld by papal encyclicals in more recent times.

"According to the view of St. Augustine, there are three goods of marriage: offspring, fidelity, and sacrament. All three of these, he says, have fulfillment in the marriage of Joseph and Mary. ... Offspring is more perfectly fulfilled in the marriage of Joseph and Mary because the offspring is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who infinitely surpasses all created persons.

"There is fidelity because there is no adultery. ... As the offspring of the marriage, Jesus is also the final end or cause of this marriage. In this sense, the marriage is a sacrament of the New Testament. Following the appearance of an angel in a dream to Joseph, we see that their previously valid marriage becomes a marriage of two people who believe in Christ, a new reality."
~ Dominic De Domenico, OP; True Devotion to St. Joseph and the Church

* * *

"It is clear from more than one passage in the Holy Gospel that Mary was truly Joseph's wife, and Joseph truly Mary's husband, for she is expressly called the wife of Joseph, as Joseph is called the husband of Mary. If Joseph be sometimes styled by the Fathers simply the guardian, not the husband, of Mary, this way of speaking was not intended to exclude the reality of the matrimonial bond which united them, but only to rebut any possible surmise which might arise against their virginal purity."
~ Edward Healy Thompson, MA; The Life and Glories of St. Joseph

See also: Josephology: On Joseph and Mary's Marriage, Part II

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Blogger CSS said...

Hi Lisa, thank you for taking your time to respond to my comment on 'Ask Sister Mary Martha'. I thought I should post my response here as well as it is not fair to assume that you are tracking comments there and the comment was a response to you.

I understand that we come from different backgrounds and value opinion of different religious leaders and thus may never see eye to eye on some topics, but I think that as long as we both treasure Jesus Christ, those differences do not matter.

So here is what I left on "Ask Sister Mary Martha" comment roll:

Dear Lisa,sfo: Thank you for taking time to respond. After reading your post I think I see where the difference in opinions comes from. You thought I meant by 'engagement' the light-hearted agreement that it is nowadays. I didn't. In fact, I said 'betrothed'. To me, the difference between betrothal and marriage is whether the couple is having sex or not. You seem to say that they are essentially the same. The Bible, however, does make a whole big deal by saying that Joseph and Mary were betrothed before the Gabriel's announcement and married later on. I suspect the terms are not quite the same.

As long as we are quoting Bible, the occasional 'husband', 'wife' and 'divorce' do throw some people off into thinking that Joseph and Mary were actually married (in the Jewish sense of the word). But they could, and I believe they do, also reflect the seriousness of the betrothal: once two people are betrothed, they are bound forever just as husband and wife, yet they still might get divorced. After the marriage, i.e. consummation of marriage, divorce (according to Jesus) is no longer an option. But I digress.

I do wonder how you explain Mary's words "How shall this be, since I have no husband?"? To me that's pretty clear indication of where things are between Mary and Joseph.

Nowadays a pure meaning of engagement is to commit to each other, just as in marriage, but with no sexual relationship. So I was correcting precisely that: Mary and Joseph were not married, i.e. not having sex. Were they commited to each other before God, much stronger than many of us married people are? Yes, absolutely. Married? No.

P.S. I can see how some equate 'conceived before marriage' and 'illegitimate' and it could be offensive but simply not applicable to Jesus. Conceiving before marriage points to woman's (and man's) sinful behavior, but Jesus was conceived immaculately and Mary was never married to God so the logic does not apply...

13 December, 2007 22:24  
Blogger Micki said...

Oh, I do so love St. Joseph and you have gathered together so much information here. What a treat! Thanks for all the work you put into this.

14 December, 2007 15:06  
Blogger Lisa, ofs said...

Micki: Glad you like the Josephy Goodness I've been sharin'. :-) Thanks for readin' my lil' blog, too. :-D

Christian Student Scientist: The quotes you cite from the Bible as supporting Mary and Joseph only being betrothed and not married prior to the Annunciation are a result of POOR TRANSLATIONS, not historical reality.

It is a MISTRANSLATION when you read Mary say, "I'm not married". A more accurate translation is, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (NAB) or "How shall this be done, because I know not man?" (Douay-Rheims); you also find this in many other translations. Also, the angel commands Joseph to take Mary into his home to complete the final stage of marriage; it is again a mistranslation when you read versions that tell him to "not be afraid to marry" her.

The fact that Joseph and Mary were married, not betrothed prior to the Annunciation has absolutely, positively nothing to do with opinions or religious differences. It is simply a case of the historical reality of Jewish marriage customs at the time, which is clearly documented by a variety of sources; I've only shared just a few examples in my blog post.

And 'cause I don't wanna clog up the comments here, I just posted some more, some of which specifically address the translation issue. :-D

14 December, 2007 15:33  
Blogger Katie said...

Thank you for this wonderful article, and also Part II! I have found this to be very englightening. Really, I should have seen it because why would God allow the public to think that Mary had committed such a terrible sin? Why would He allow her the risk of being stoned to death? Thank you very much for taking the time to explain this to us. God bless and a joyful Christmas.

24 December, 2007 08:39  

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