There only seem to be three options I’ve heard or seem possible:

  • Adultery (Post-marriage)
  • Fornication (Pre-marriage)
  • He knew the child was born of the Holy Spirit and want to remove himself from the relationship because he though he was unworthy.

If there are any others please mention and provide verses for them. I've left out rape as it seems inconsistent with the narrative.

Here is the story that seems (to me) to point to Joseph suspecting (or in His mind knowing) Mary had slept with another man.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. - Matthew 1:18-25

However, there doesn’t seem to be a simple way to explain all the details that seem to come up that make this hard to fit into any specific model.

My Notes So Far:

Mary and Joseph were “espoused” or “betrothed” all the way up to Jesus birth. This is important because they were not quite “married” nor “single”. Espousal/Betrothal is a binding covenant prior to the marriage feast and consummation - which is why separate rules are given for it in Deuteronomy 22. Joseph is legally her “husband” and she is is “wife” though they are not yet “married”.

“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. - Luke 1:26-27

“To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. - Luke 2:5-6

“Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. - Matthew 1:24-25

People both thought Jesus was legitimately Joseph's son (the statement in John 8:41 is sometimes readinto against this idea, but nothing supports that view)

Is not this the carpenter's son? - Matthew 13:55

And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, - Luke 3:23

Joseph was a “just man”:

“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, - Matthew 1:19

Knew his action would make her a publick example (either death or shame)

“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. - Matthew 1:19

Worth noting that the “exception” clause for divorce is only mentioned in Matthew where this situation with Joseph thinking about putting away Mary comes up.

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication - Matthew 5:32

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. - Matthew 19:9

Divorce only seems legal under fornication:

“The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” - Matthew 19:3 “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication” - Matthew 19:9

If the “public example” was the death penalty, it seems to require three specific situations.

The death penalty once married (which they were not yet):

“If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:...” - Deuteronomy 22:13-14 “...if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you. - Deuteronomy 22:20-21

Also death if already married:

“If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. - Deuteronomy 22:22

Also death if betrothed and in a city:

“If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. - Deuteronomy 22:23-24

This last one is interesting because perhaps this is what Joseph was thinking happened (Mary had just gone to the “country” to visit Elizabeth.

And no death if betrothed, but it happened in the country:

“But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her. - Deuteronomy 22:25-27

If Joseph thought this last case might have happened, then what is the whole “make a public example” about since there is no fault of her’s here? Also, how could he legally divorce her (even quietly)? Perhaps he ascribed to the standard teaching Jesus refuted about divorce for any reason?

  • 2
    Friend, you answered your own question. The winning answer is a combination of a and b. For an engaged woman, sex prior to marriage with a man other than her husband-to-be was considered adultery. For that reason, Joseph, being the honorable man he was, determined to annul the betrothal quietly, since making the "divorce" public would shame Mary and perhaps even prove fatal to her (death by stoning)! Don Jan 28, 2016 at 0:39
  • How could he still be righteous or “just” in ignoring God’s commands to stone her for her actions?
    – Xeoncross
    Jan 28, 2016 at 1:06
  • Because an angel of the Lord told Joseph she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit! The baby Jesus, in other words, did not have an earthly father, so how could Mary have been stoned if she did not have sex with a mortal man? Mary simply allowed God to perform a miraculous, supernatural conception in her womb. Joseph was informed of this, but only after he entertained the idea of divorce. Once he believed what the angel told him, Joseph seemed to "get with the program," although I'm sure he found very few--if any--people to believe his story! Don Jan 28, 2016 at 1:51
  • I mean before the angel told Joseph. He "was minded to put her away privily" because he thought _____. (hence this question)
    – Xeoncross
    Jan 28, 2016 at 23:16
  • 1
    Isn't this question theological, rather than linguistic or hermeneutical? May 27, 2017 at 13:44

5 Answers 5


In the context of a Second Temple Period Jewish wedding, Joseph and Mary were in a legally binding marriage in spite of the fact that they had not consummated the marriage. In that time period, (a Jewish marriage consisted of a) Betrothal (Kiddushin or Erusin) and Seclusion (Nissuin) which occured at separate times unlike in this day and age where the [Jewish] betrothal and seclusion take place in the same ceremony.

Because he had not been "secluded with her privately" he suspected her of Adultery.

  • Your answer fails to address the questions raised. Most of us understand this basic outline, the problem is that there are a number of issues with this (generally accepted) view that need to be resolved. Please look back over the question.
    – Xeoncross
    Jan 31, 2018 at 2:21

The tradition offers 2 answers:

1) He suspected that Mary was impregnated in a pre-marital sexual affair, which was considered a sin by Joseph, and by the traditional religious/moral establishment of Jews, and, since he was "a just man" (and "just" here does not mean a Kantian understanding of "just" as always adhering to the categorical imperative and never saying anything at odds with objective reality; or "just" in any callous and formal judicial meaning), being just, implied also kindness, empathy and magnanimity towards a strayed woman, who would have lost all reputation and perspective of future normal life due to only one mistake; therefore he found it apt to be prepared to say a lie and confirm that the child was his, however to let Mary leave him with an official confirmation of divorce, called the "get" גט‎‎, that would allow her to re-marry in a dignified and decent way in the future; and also, he did not want to have as a wife a strayed woman; but only through the angel's apparition in his dream he was assured to take her as his wife, for he was deigned worthy to become a minister of the divine mystery.

2) He suspected from the outset that a horrible and awesome mystery was there at hand, and being afraid of becoming a custodian and attendant of such a horrible mystery, in great fear he asked her to leave him for the reason of his unworthiness, and the false letter of dismissal and that the child was his would serve a possibility of this alleviation for Joseph (just like Peter, who asked Jesus to leave him, when he saw His miracle /Luke 5:8/), and only angel fortified and convinced Joseph in dream to take this heavy cross on his shoulders.

We do not have a clue as to which of the two is objectively true, my intuition more inclines towards the first version. However, I also think that both are possible to be true simultaneously, for when such a situation comes at hand, many ideas can come into human heart, many suspicions, fears, "yes"-es and "no"-s, thus Joseph could have both of them risen in his heart.


In reading this story we tend to project a modern idea of betrothal onto the ancient Jewish practice. A betrothal involved a formal marriage contract. To be free from it, the husband had to provide his betrothed wife with a get, a certificate of divorce.

The term "betrothal" in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law. (From Betrothal in the Jewish Encyclopedia.)

That being the case, what Joseph suspected about Mary was that she had committed adultery during her recent stay of several months in the home of the priest Zechariah or on her journey. Being a child conceived in adultery would also would make Jesus a mamzer, not just a child conceived through fornication. This status carried significant legal consequences, including not being able to marry a fellow Jew in good standing.


Some situations require simplicity.

Joseph was being fair, the biblical writing is not inconsistent. Joseph thought that the embryo conceived in Mary was the son Angel, male gender, therefore, thought of leaving her, as someone preserving a possession, not as some translations that use the term reject. When the angel visit Joseph, says clearly that the embryo is conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, of neutral article in Greek and feminine in Hebrew, so Joseph should not feel fear of committing adultery against the celestial digniti. In addition, the relatives were aware of the prophecies about Mary.

And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.
-- Luke 1:45 NET

  • Formatting a quote is done by using '>' as the first character of a new paragraph. Doing so makes the quote clearly stand apart from your own words.
    – enegue
    Jun 26, 2017 at 10:13

The simple logic of the real answer is to understand that both Joseph and Mary were human beings. They had known each other for some time. Mary was in fact a very pious young lady. She would never have thought of marriage to a man who only talked about the scriptures but did not live them in his life. So she was fussy about who she would become betrothed to. At their first opportunity, since they were human beings after all, after their betrothal they naturally spent time together alone (i.e. before the actual marriage). She became pregnant. They both knew that stoning to death was a possible punishment for being found out so they made up a story which would avoid this. It is also part of the reason why Mary went away for three months immediately after their marriage. To cover for possible discovery part of their story was about their visions and the Angel Gabriel. Later all this was interpreted into the idea that she was a virgin when she conceived. This came about because of the knowledge that Jesus was a Divine Incarnation and that the concept of a virgin spirit or soul was associated with that idea. (i.e. his soul was completely pure at birth) A Divine Incarnation is actually a virgin part of the being of the Creator incarnated into the human fetus. Whereas the soul of most of us is not virgin (i.e. we have previous 'karma' from previous incarnations). Don't forget that the knowledge of the rebirth of the soul, including the concept of 'karma', was Christian doctrine until about AD 550, then it was removed by a Christian Council meeting.

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