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From a comparison of various translations of Luke 2:5 it seems there might be some ambiguity in this verse as to whether Mary and Joseph were married by the time they were traveling to Bethlehem. Some translations say they were merely "engaged," "betrothed," "promised in marriage," or a "fiancée." On the other hand, the KJV and several similar translations use "espoused wife" in their translation of Luke 2:5.

My understanding from the definition in Strong's Concordance is that word 3423 means "betrothed" or "espoused" (which seems ambiguous because "espoused" usually means married).

According to this article by Mark Wilson, it would have been scandalous for an unmarried Jewish couple to go unaccompanied by family members on a long-distance trip. Matthew 1:20, 24 also indicates that Joseph and Mary were already cohabitating, which, according to Jewish law, would constitute full marriage.

Is this an inconsistency in the Biblical account, or does Luke 2:5 admit that Mary and Joseph could have been married already by this time?

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There are three variants of the Greek text here:

(a) ... τῇ μεμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ γυναικί ... ("his betrothed wife")

(b) ... τῇ μεμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ ... ("his betrothed")

(c) ... τῇ γυναικί αυτου ... ("his wife")

Variant (a) is found in the majority of Greek manuscripts, including the Codex Alexandrinus (early 5th century). It is the reading chosen by the Textus Receptus, upon which the King James translation is based.

Variant (b) is supported principally by corrected versions of the Sinaiticus (4th c.), Vaticanus (4th c.), Ephraimi (5th c.), and Bezae (5th c.) manuscripts. It is the reading opted by the Nestle-Aland "Critical Text" edition, upon which most modern Protestant Bibles are largely based. It is also the reading selected in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Text.

The last variant, (c), is not found in any Greek text, but is implied in certain manuscripts of early Latin and Syriac translations.

The word μεμνηστευμένῃ is the perfect passive participle form of the verb μνηστεύω (mnēsteuō) which most lexicons translate as "betroth", but, to your point, also ambiguously define as "espouse".

It is not a common word. It appears only 3 times in the New Testament and only 8 times in the whole of the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament. According to the classical Greek references provided by Perseus, the word never meant any sense of "marry" or "be married", but related to courtship (seeking marriage). This can also be seen in the use of the word in Luke 1:27:

Εν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ὑπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας, ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρέτ, πρὸς παρθένον μεμνηστευμένην ἀνδρί, ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσήφ

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph

"Betrothed" and married are not mutually exclusive here. As stated above, μεμνηστευμένῃ is a perfect participle; the meaning is that Mary had been betrothed at some point in the past. Since someone now married had once been betrothed, there is nothing strictly inconsistent by qualifying "wife" with "betrothed", even if it seems a bit redundant. I would suggest, though, that in choosing the words he did, Luke was sensitive to the fact that although Mary appeared to be a conventional wife to those who saw her and Joseph traveling together, their marriage had not been consummated as a "normal" marriage would have.


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    Good point about non-consummation.(+1). – Nigel J Jan 28 '18 at 17:22

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