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Since Joseph wanted to divorce Mary in Matthew 1:19 yet they were already betrothed, does that mean he did not trust her?

Matthew 1:19 NIV "Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[a] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly".

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According to Torah, if a betrothed bride is found to have been promiscuous, the punishment was clear:

Deut 22:21 - she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her city will stone her to death. For she has committed an outrage in Israel by being promiscuous in her father’s house. So you must purge the evil from among you.

Since Joseph was a righteous man, he would have been within the law to have arranged such an execution for his betrothed bride, Mary. However, he was also a very compassionate man and wanted to divorce her quietly (ie, without stoning).

Ellicott puts it this way:

Being a just man. . . .—The glimpse given us into the character of Joseph is one of singular tenderness and beauty. To him, conscious of being of the house of David, and cherishing Messianic hopes, what he heard would seem to come as blighting those hopes. He dared not, as a “righteous” man, take to himself one who seemed thus to have sinned. But love and pity alike hindered him from pressing the law, which made death by stoning the punishment of such a sin (Deuteronomy 22:21), or even from publicly breaking off the marriage on the ground of the apparent guilt. There remained the alternative, which the growing frequency of divorce made easy, of availing himself of a “writ of divorcement,” which did not necessarily specify the ground of repudiation, except in vague language implying disagreement (Matthew 19:3). Thus the matter would be settled quietly without exposure. The “bill of divorcement” was as necessary for the betrothed as for those who were fully man and wife.

Thus, it was not a matter of trust, but simply of legal evidence. How quickly things changed after the visit of the angel (Matt 1:20-24) - Joseph did precisely as instructed and took Mary home as his wife - Jesus was born several month later.

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  • Ellicott fails to notice that Joseph's letting Mary go with a dignity in a legal way necessarily implies Joseph lying in strict Aristotelian terms ("truth is to say about what is "is", and about what is not "is not""), but Joseph clearly and unequivocally "said" by his legal divorce that the child was his. Thus, he said a clear lie. And this is the gist of the matter: pereat Kantian morality, vivat life in Holy Spirit when one can lie and not only be still righteous, but be righteous exactly in virtue of this lying. – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 17 at 18:56
  • @LevanGigineishvili - interesting philosophy - all Greek to me. I am interested in what the Bible says rather than applying a layer of Greek thought or a Greek lens to it. – Dottard Oct 17 at 20:03
  • Thanks for the response! I was taught that Christian theology is an application of dialectics (of which the homeland incidentally became Greece, more exactly, Greek cities of Asia Minor in VI c. BC) to the Biblical text. This is the tradition of Origen and Capadocians. Church councils which defined Christian dogma was a competition in dialectics applied to the Biblical text. Moreover, even Greek philosophy is not devoid of the presence of the same Logos that enlightened the prophets. This is a tradition of Justin the Martyr who identified Socrates' "daimon" with the Logos of God. – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 17 at 21:09
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It was a matter of wisdom, not trust. Joseph must obey God above all things.

It is not wise to base decisions on a supernatural revelation given to someone else. So, whether Joseph wants to believe Mary's account of the angel or not, he should not make decisions based on it. Though sometimes forgotten today, this is a teaching in Scripture. For instance ...

Legitimate prophets received true warnings from God about the dangers Paul would experience when he went back to Jerusalem. Paul considered these revelations to be from the Holy Spirit ("in every city the Holy Spirit warns me" - Acts 20:23) yet he did not consider them God's guidance to change his plans.

Agabus dramatically told the warning the Holy Spirit had given him about Paul's impending capture, being believed by Luke and the others who pleaded with Paul to change his plans (Acts 21:12). But Paul, wisely, did not let that revelation change the plans he had made based on his mission from God and his understanding of Scripture.

Note that Paul would readily have changed his plans if God had given the revelation to him directly. The Holy Spirit had changed Paul's plans several times on his second missionary journey. See Acts 16:6-10 which culminates with the vision of a man saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Paul obeyed God's leading and went to Macedonia.

Of course there are occasions when someone claims to receive revelation from God but did not. How can one know the false from the true? To follow such "guidance" is dangerous and unwise.

The old prophet in Bethel lied to the man of God from Judah in 1 Kings 13:18. The man of God took this message to be God's guidance and it resulted in a lion killing him (1 Kings 13:24).

In effect, I believe Joseph, being righteous, chose to end the betrothal, based on his best understanding of Scripture. Then, being righteous, he decided to make the divorce as painless for Mary as possible. Her story of the angel, whether she was telling the truth or not, could not be considered in his plans.

But when God sent the angel directly to Joseph, he instantly submitted to God's command.

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  • Excellent answer. Many thanks. – Dottard Oct 17 at 20:33
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There are two traditional interpretations:

  1. Joseph realised that Mary was pregnant and he decided to rescue her from an accusation of an extra-marital sexual affair by a noble and indeed ennobling lie that he, Joseph was the impregnator and now simply wanted to divorce her in a lawful manner, by giving her a certificate of an official divorce. That's why it is said that Joseph was "righteous", which means that he did not obey to the letter of the Law and informed on Mary as on an dishonest person to be ostracised and banished by the society in a cruel way, or even killed in a sadistic manner by lapidation. In fact, he, Joseph, divined in his noble heart that cruelty cannot be a part of a real, divine justice and that's why acted in a spirit of mercifulness, which spirit is called here "righteous", and thus his lie is lie only objectively speaking - in the sense that the child was not his, but he claimed that it was - but in fact this lie was a righteousness in the face of Eternity.

Only when angelic apparition ensured him that the child was from God, he took upon his shoulders the mission of being a custodian of Mary and her divine child.

  1. Joseph knew that it was impossible for her to have been impregnated by anybody, and seeing her pregnant he was terrified to be a witness of a horrible mystery of God; not regarding himself as worthy of bearing it, he decided to divorce Mary in a great fear and awe.

I think, given the complexity of human heart and mind, those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, for Joseph could vacillate between the two.

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  • The second interpretation doesn't work, considering that Joseph gets reassured by the angel. – James Ajiduah yesterday
  • @James Ajiduah It works perfectly, for the angel can be said to embolden Joseph to undertake this frightening mission – Levan Gigineishvili yesterday
  • Not really. Why would the angel reassure him with words he already knew? The first reinterpretation is more natural. – James Ajiduah yesterday
  • @JamesAjiduah Yes, I tend to agree with you, the second option does not seem very logical. Yet, a combination of the two is possible, because human intellect is frail and can waver from one to another idea. Joseph could have known Mary and her chastity to be quite sure that it was impossible for her to fornicate, yet another impossibility was a natural impossibility of giving birth without a physical intercourse with a man. Thus hundreds of different ideas could have beset Joseph. – Levan Gigineishvili yesterday

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