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Bible Gem 749 - Joseph and Mary – Married or still Engaged? (Luke 1:5 / Matt 1:24-25)

May 6, 2019


He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. (Luke 1:5)


When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 

But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named Him Jesus. (Matt 1:24-25)



Here is one of those contradictions between Luke and Matthew. So which is it? Is Mary still just the fiancee of Joseph or are they indeed married? Who is right Matthew or Luke?


The word "mnaomai" which is used here means "to be betrothed, to be engaged, to be promised in marriage" 



In Gemz 742 I said the following: This betrothal period was like a virtual marriage and all that was needed was for the groom to come at the set time and claim his bride and close the deal under the chuppah, in a ceremony symbolizing their setting up house together. . .  The betrothed at that point could be called husband and wife, so strong was the pledge to agree to marry. Both families were intricately bound together to see this agreement honored. Betrothal was as binding as marriage according to Jewish law. The groom could claim his bride at any time.


It appears then that according to Matthew that Joseph and Mary were living together as husband and wife although the marriage had not been consummated and the chuppah had not been undertaken. She would not have accompanied Joseph on the journey if that had not been the case. Although it is clear from Matt 1:25 that this marriage would not be consummated until the baby was born. Joseph was not going to make this complicated by interfering with what God was doing. In the early stages Joseph must have had doubts as to whether what Mary was saying was true or not. "How can it be that you claim to be a virgin but you say you are pregnant. You don't look pregnant."  But no longer is that the case. Luke tells us he was now obviously pregnant. The time for doubt has passed and so Joseph says away from having sexual relations with Mary in order to allow what has "come upon her" to take its course. 


So why the discrepancy between Matt and Luke. The same verb is in focus which has as we have seen a sense of both – engaged through to the point of marriage. In Matt 1:24 the word [γυναῖκα  wife] is added to make the fact that they were now considered married explicit. Luke the Doctor is making explicit, in the terms of the meaning of the verb, what Matt then states in verse 25 – no sexual relations had taken place. I think it all hinges on the meaning and sense of a continuum contained in the verb - from engaged all the way through to married. But in this case the specific act of intercourse which usually consummates a marriage in this society is not going to happen. It won't happen until the baby is born. Now they can't keep on being "engaged" up until that point. That would certainly not be right. So at a particular point in time they begin acting as though they are married even though "nothing is happening between them of a sexual nature". 


The vows of marriage were made at the betrothal and Joseph had only to come and claim his bride. Those vows were publicly stated back then and he just had to come and claim his bride. So it is not a big deal really as to the fact that they are now traveling together and given the fact that Mary was now obviously pregnant it was in her best interests for the Joseph to claim her as his bride. The timing of their betrothal and Mary's pregnancy is not clear either. How much of that was she obviously pregnant. Well it must have been enough time for her to become obviously pregnant and for Joseph to be motivated to divorce her privately and not make a big thing about it. But God via the angel tells him what is going on behind the scenes and so Joseph sticks by her and extends to her the cover of marriage that was promise to her at brothal.  Whether you like my explanation or not you have to admit this marriage was certainly a different one. No one man has ever had to deal with what Joseph had to deal with. He should be inducted into the husband's hall of fame. 


Either way you look at it is difficult situation socially and ethically. Thus Matthew looks at the verb from one end of the spectrum and Luke looks at it from the other. But both of them in their own way make clear what is going on here.  Between Luke 1:27 and 2:5 lies Matt 1:25. All is true in this very complicated situation.  Matthew and Luke are simply coming at it from different perspectives. Matthew from the purely Jewish perspective where assumedly no Chuppah has taken place and Luke from a gynecological perspective, highlighting the irregularity of it all – she was after all a virgin who was having a baby. 


Feel free to add your comments to my take on this if you have another one. I will share that too. 


Yesterday a friend and translator colleague offer the following comments on my take on the journey to Bethlehem. I include Michael's comment to give you a fuller, more well rounded coverage of the events. 


Luke says that Mary laid her baby in a manger. But nowhere does he say that the manger was in a stable. It is possible that some of the poorer Jews in small towns kept their few livestock in the yard of the house. So Jesus could have been born at the home of relatives of Joseph's, but because the house was so full of guests, they cleaned up and used the manger. Could have been a stable outside of town too. -- though the shepherds were outside Bethlehem and went to town to find the Baby, so His birthplace must have been in town or close by.


The timing of the census in relation to Jesus birth is also unclear. It

seems likely that the government arranged things so that Jews could register over a several-months period. And so Joseph may have waited a while until one of the annual feasts came at which all Jewish males were to congregate at Jerusalem if possible. Passover, Tabernacles .. and I forget the third. Bethlehem would have been crowded because so many Jews came to Jerusalem at those times, and Bethelem was just a few km away, walking distance from Jerusalem.


One theory I have read, based on the timing of the Abia priests' time of

duty (immediately after which Elizabeth got pregnant) is that Jesus was born around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. Just a theory. 


The events we are dealing with here had never been encountered before or since. No one else has gone through a virgin birth. So allow Matthew and Luke some room for freedom of expression as well and Michael and me. And just be grateful that God didn’t ask it of you. Remember the consequences to Mary especially, and to Joseph, of the VIRGIN BIRTH. A biggie to have to deal with. Just as Matthew and Luke were on opposite sides of the divide so too I am sure were Mary and Joseph. That much is clear. But don't conclude only one of them were right, in fact both Matt and Luke were right, strange as it may seem.  



Be prepared to hold in tension the apparent contradictions of Scripture. God will often step outside of the natural laws that govern His universe. After it all is HIS universe. Ian


If God says it and it seems impossible accept it anyway. God doesn't know the meaning of "impossible". Ian 


We forget that "impossible" is one of God's favourite words. Max Lucado


Whether it's possible or impossible makes little difference to God. He just does his will! Brian Houston


Keep dreaming God's dream for you. “At first, dreams seem impossible, then improbable, and eventually inevitable” C. Reeve













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