Mary, Joseph, and the virgin birth of Jesus — Matthew 1:18-25

Ancient biographers sometimes praised the miraculous births of their subjects (especially prominent in the Old Testa­ ment),  but there are no close parallels to the virgin  birth.  Greeks told stories of gods impregnating women, but the text indicates that   Mary’s conception was not sexual; nor does the Old Testament  (or Jewish tradition) ascribe sexual characteristics to God. Many miraculous birth stories in the ancient world (including Jewish  accounts,  e.g., 1 Enoch 106) are heavily embroidered with mythical imagery (e.g., babies filling houses with light), in contrast with the straightforward narrative style  of this passage.

1:18.    Betrothal (erusin) then was more binding than most engagements are today and was normally accompanied by the groom’s payment of at least part of the bride price. Betrothal, which commonly lasted a year, meant that  bride and groom were officially  pledged to each other but had not yet consummated the marriage; advances toward anyone else were thus regarded as adulterous (Deut 22:23-27). Two witnesses, mutual consent (normally) and the groom’s declaration were necessary to establish Jewish  betrothals (in Roman betrothals, consent alone sufficed).

Mary would  have probably  been between the ages of twelve and fourteen (sixteen at the oldest), Joseph perhaps between eighteen and twenty; their parents likely arranged their  marriage, with Mary and Joseph’s consent. Pre­marital privacy between  betrothed persons was permitted in Judea but apparently frowned upon in Galilee, so Mary and Joseph may well not have had any time alone together at this point.

1:19.    The  penalty for adultery under Old Testament law was death by stoning, and this penalty applied to infidelity during betrothal as well  (Deut 22:23-24). In New Testament times, Joseph would have merely been required to divorce Mary and expose her to shame; the death penalty was rarely if ever executed for this offense. (Betrothals were so binding that if a woman’s fiancé died, she was considered a widow;  betrothals could otherwise be terminated only by divorce.) But a woman with a child, divorced for such infidelity, would be hard pressed ever to find another husband, leaving her without means  of support if her  parents died.

But because divorces could be effected by a simple document with two witnesses, Joseph could have divorced her without making her shame  more widely known.  (It was necessary  to involve a judge only if the wife were the one requesting  that the husband divorce her.) Much later rabbinic tradition charges  that  Mary slept with another man, but Joseph’s marrying her  (v. 24) demonstrates that he did not believe this was the case.

1:24-25.   Joseph acts like Old Testament men and  women of God who obeyed God’s call even when  it went against all human common sense. Marriage consisted of covenant  (at the betrothal;  the marital contract also involved a monetary transaction between families), a ceremony and consummation, which ratified  the marriage, normally on the first night of the seven-day wedding. Joseph here officially marries Mary but abstains from con­summating the marriage until after Jesus is born. Jewish teachers thought that  men  had  to marry young because they could not resist temptation (many even blamed a woman’s uncovered hair for  inducing lust).  Joseph, who lives with Mary but exercises self-control, thus provides a strong role model for sexual  purity.

(Adapted from The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Buy the book here.)


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