To intentionally navigate towards Christmas, I've been following an Advent devotional plan. Today was considering Matthew 1:18-24 and meditate on how loving was Joseph's posture. Got particularly curious with the verse 19

Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

In the costumes of that time, what does it mean to divorce someone quietly? Would any responsible entity also be aware such thing happened OR that would be a separation perhaps by moving to a different land OR that's just to say he wouldn't do a big fuss about it?

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    @ Tiago Martins Peres- Hi ,just to let you know, i am missing you on the site. I notice that this was the last question you posted. I have been reading all your questions with great interest .well over 181 to be exact., and i have also been reading all the answers to your questions. Really good question, and ANSWERS. It would be great if you would start contributing again. Maby in your job as a "software developer", you might just be a bit to busy. ,but try and find some spare time to get back on the site. Regards Bagpipes.
    – Bagpipes
    Feb 7, 2022 at 20:58
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    Thank you for the encouragement @Bagpipes, that made me smile! Know that's also my will to be back... FYI: Right before becoming less active had over 200 potential questions just from 2 Samuel to Isaiah. Job wise all is in order. In the local community, just had an outreach to the most simple a few days ago (Amazing!). Also working on changing to a new space ( en.fortedaluz.org ), planning some road trips, and want to do four new series this year... and they definitely will lead to more questions. Tough last days but lead to understand better these two words "Trust God". :) Feb 8, 2022 at 19:17
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    That is the bottom line-"Trust God". Thanks for the link. I will follow it. May the Spirit guide you.
    – Bagpipes
    Feb 8, 2022 at 20:06

2 Answers 2


The answer to this is found in Deut 22:20, 21 -

If, however, this accusation is true, and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 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.

"Divorce her quietly" meant that Joseph did not intend to have Mary stoned to death for her apparent precociousness. Ellicott observes:

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.

Benson goes into more detail:

Matthew 1:19. Joseph her husband, being a just [or righteous] man — That is, as many understand it, a strict observer of the law, and of the customs of his ancestors, and therefore not judging it right to retain her under these circumstances. But the following words, and not willing to make her a public example, seem manifestly to lead to another and even an opposite sense of the word here rendered just, or righteous. Hence some interpret the clause thus: Joseph, being a good-natured, merciful, and tender- hearted man, was unwilling to go to the utmost rigour of the law, but chose rather to treat her with as much lenity as the case allowed. But, Dr. Doddridge very well observes, it is without any good reason that δικαιος should be here rendered merciful or good-natured, because, “if we consider the information which Joseph might have received from persons of such an extraordinary character as Zachariah and Elizabeth, who would certainly think themselves obliged to interpose on such an occasion, and whose story so remarkably carried its own evidence along with it; besides the intimation the prophecy of Isaiah gave, and the satisfaction he undoubtedly had in the virtuous character of Mary herself; we must conclude that he would have acted a very severe and unrighteous part, had he proceeded to extremities without serious deliberation; and that putting her away privately would, in these circumstances, have been the hardest measure which justice would have suffered him to take. It seems the expression, παραδειγματισαι, here rendered to make her a public example, “may perhaps refer to that exemplary punishment which the law inflicted on those who had violated the faith of their espousals before the marriage was completed. See Deuteronomy 22:23-24, where it is expressly ordered that a betrothed virgin, if she lay with another man, should be stoned. We may suppose, however, that the infamy of a public divorce, though she had not been stoned, may also be expressed by the same word. But then there was besides a private kind of divorce, in which no reason was assigned, and the dowry was not forfeited as in the former case, and by this she would not have been so much defamed.”


What does it mean to "divorce her quietly"?

'Divorcing quietly' was not something that was prescribed within the Law. But the topic "Divorce" from the Insight on the Scriptures does help us understand what Joseph was contemplating and how he went about doing it:

Joseph’s Contemplated Divorce. While Mary was promised in marriage to Joseph, but before they were united, she was found to be pregnant by holy spirit, and the account states: “However, Joseph her husband, because he was righteous and did not want to make her a public spectacle, intended to divorce her secretly.” (Mt 1:18, 19) Since engagement was such a binding arrangement among the Jews at that time, the word “divorce” is properly used here.

If an engaged girl submitted to having relations with another man, she was stoned to death the same as an adulteress. (De 22:22-29) In cases that might result in stoning an individual to death, two witnesses were required in order to establish the person’s guilt. (De 17:6, 7) Obviously, Joseph had no witnesses against Mary. Mary was pregnant, but Joseph did not understand the matter thoroughly until Jehovah’s angel gave him the explanation. (Mt 1:20, 21) Whether the ‘secret divorce’ he contemplated would have included the giving of a certificate of divorce or not is not stated; but it is likely that Joseph was going to act in accord with the principles set out at Deuteronomy 24:1-4, possibly giving her the divorce in front of just two witnesses so the matter would be settled legally without bringing undue shame on her. While Matthew does not give every detail regarding the procedure Joseph intended to follow, he does indicate that Joseph wanted to deal mercifully with Mary. Joseph is not considered an unrighteous man for this, but rather, it was “because he was righteous and did not want to make her a public spectacle” that he “intended to divorce her secretly.”​—Mt 1:19.

In addition, the Watchtower of December 1, 2009 section called "Did You Know?" has a question entitled "Why did Joseph contemplate giving Mary a certificate of divorce when the two were only engaged?" The last paragraph provides an interesting point:

Joseph evidently pondered the consequences of Mary’s becoming a public spectacle. Though he felt obligated to bring the matter to the proper authorities, he wanted to protect her and avoid scandal. Thus, he decided to divorce her quietly. A single mother’s possession of a divorce certificate would, after all, indicate that she had already been married.

As Matthew 1:19 brought out, Joseph was "faithful to the law", or "righteous", "just" as other Bibles translate it, so his concern was for upholding the Law but also not to burden Mary after releasing her from their union. With the certificate of divorce, Mary would be seen as previously married as opposed to being a prostitute.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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