Matthew 1:19, Mary’s Betrothal

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.

//This verse is often confusing to readers unfamiliar with Bible customs. Joseph is not yet married to Mary when she is found pregnant, but he is called her husband because they are betrothed. Typically, betrothal was arranged by the parents of the youngsters (the woman usually about age 14, the man about 18), but with the approval of those to be married.

Betrothal means the two were pledged to each other, usually for a period of about a year. In Galilee (though not necessarily in Judea), it was expected that the man and woman would remain separate, never seen alone together.

The husband-to-be pays a bride price to the father of the bride, and the father of the bride sets aside a dowry for her. Thus, even though they were not officially married, Joseph and Mary were legally bound and divorce was required to break the pledge. If Joseph chose to publicly charge Mary of infidelity before a judge, he would have been able to recover the bride price and even acquire the dowry she had been given.

On the other hand, for Joseph to do this, he would need to publicly shame Mary before a judge. The punishment for adultery was stoning, though it was rarely enforced by this time in Israel’s history, but the dishonor she would earn would be punishment aplenty; she would most likely never be able to find another husband, leaving her without support if she ever left her parents or if they died.

It’s not unlikely that Joseph cared enough about Mary to want to spare her this, especially if the child was his. Whether Joseph was the father, or another man, or the Holy Spirit, the two put their heads together and decided on a story. God, they apparently decided to say, came down to earth and impregnated Mary. (This is Matthew’s version of the virgin birth.)

So bizarre is their concocted story that it’s hard to believe the two would make this up. Does that mean we should believe in the virgin birth?

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