Doctrinal Matters: Difficult Passages
The Marriage of Joseph and Mary
Were Mary and Joseph actually married, just not in a consummated relationship, before they travelled to Bethlehem, or had they only had the betrothal ceremony of marriage?
The Jewish concept of betrothal is unique and unlike the American concept of “engaged.” Under Mosaic Law, unfaithfulness during the betrothal period was tantamount to adultery and elicited the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:23-28; Leviticus 20:10; Ezekiel 16:38; cf. John 8:5). A betrothed couple were essentially considered to be husband and wife—as evident from the fact that during the betrothal period Joseph is identified as “her husband” (Matthew 1:20). The angel instructed Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife” (vs. 20). This phrase means to “recognize her as such, and to treat her as such.”1 Did he obey the angel and proceed to take her as his wife? He did: “Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife” (vs. 24, emp. added). This action of marriage preceded Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, as McGarvey observed, “several months prior to the birth of Jesus.”2 Though the couple was officially married prior to Jesus’ birth, the text makes clear that the couple refrained from sexual relations: he “did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son” (Matthew 1:25).
1 Albert Barnes (2005), Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 6, emp. added. By “treat,” Barnes meant to treat her as his wife rather than as a non-wife, with no intention to refer to the sexual relationship.
2 J.W. McGarvey (no date), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: Standard), p. 27.