Were Mary and Joseph Married or Engaged at Jesus’ Birth?

Mary and Joseph in the Bible

The atmosphere of our church service was pregnant with expectation: four candles of the Advent wreath and the colored lights from the tree and wreaths lit the darkened room. My wife and I were among the tens of millions gathered on Christmas Eve to rehearse the Nativity story again. As one of the readers read aloud Luke 2:5, I was struck by the New International Version (NIV) translation: “Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Chronologically, the narrative had advanced some eight months from Luke 1:26-27, where it stated that Gabriel was sent to a virgin named Mary “pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” The Greek verb mnēsteuō was translated identically in both verses.

The translation suggested to me that an unmarried Jewish couple was traveling a long distance unaccompanied by other family members. And the woman—still only pledged in marriage—was in an advanced state of pregnancy. If such a situation is still scandalous in the Middle East, how much more in first-century Judea!1

chora-church-mosaic

Were Mary and Joseph married or engaged when they traveled to Bethlehem? Seen here is a mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem from the Chora Church in Istanbul.

Later I checked other translations of Luke 2:5. The English Standard Version (ESV) uses “betrothed,” an archaic Middle English word. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) uses “engaged,” while the New Living Translation (NLT) says “fiancée.” Again, these English versions suggest that the couple’s marriage was incomplete. This discovery led me into an in-depth word study as well as a look at ancient marriage. And what I found was surprising.

Matthew’s Gospel seems to be clearer. In the genealogy, Joseph is called the “husband of Mary,” who gave birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:16). Describing the background of their relationship, Matthew 1:18 reads, “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” Here Matthew uses the same Greek verb as Luke. However, after Joseph decides to divorce Mary because of her unexpected pregnancy, an angel warns him in a dream not to do so. The angel advises him to “take Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:20). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel commanded him: He took Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:24). Luke’s version seemingly contradicts Matthew’s, according to present English translations.
 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
The Greek verb mnēsteuō is used eight times in the Septuagint (the third-century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Four uses in Deuteronomy (22:23, 25, 27, 28) deal with the legal issues surrounding an engaged woman having illicit sexual relations. If the incident happens in a city (22:23), both the man and the woman are to be stoned to death; if a rape happens in the country, only the man is to be stoned. The man is considered guilty because he has violated another man’s wife (22:24).

In the three uses in Hosea, God himself is speaking. Regarding Israel’s future day of redemption in 2:16, God declares: “You will call me ‘my husband.’” Then he states in verses 19–20: “And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” The NRSV translates “wife” here, while the NIV, ESV and New King James Version (NKJV) all read: “I will betroth you.” Because of the context wherein God declares that he is a husband forever, it is clear that his relationship with Israel extends beyond an engagement stage; they will metaphorically be husband and wife.

The Hebrew verb aras, translated mnēsteuō in Greek, refers to Jewish marriage practice in which the groom contractually pays a bride-price (mohar) to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12). According to Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart, “This was the final step in the courtship process, virtually equivalent in legal status to the wedding ceremony.”2 According to the Mishnah Ketubbot 5.2, the betrothal would last a year, with the bride remaining in the home of her father. Recalling the legal texts in Deuteronomy mentioned earlier plus the equation of David’s betrothal to Michal as marriage (2 Samuel 3:14), we see that under Jewish law, a betrothed woman was considered to be married.

Returning to Joseph, he would have paid the bride price to Mary’s father at their engagement (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:27). Despite his misgivings, Joseph then obeyed the angel’s command to marry Mary (Matthew 1:20). The time of formal engagement, whether a full year or not, had passed between them. So Joseph and Mary had begun to live together except for sexual relations (Matthew 1:25). Luke’s understanding of mnēsteuō must be expanded to include both the betrothal/engagement as well as marital cohabitation. Therefore a better translation of Luke 2:5 would be: “Mary his wife who was expecting a child.” (The NKJV attempts a hybrid with “betrothed wife.”) English translations that suggest the couple was still only in the engagement stage of fiancé/fiancée must be discarded. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem as a full husband and wife under ancient Jewish law.
 


 
mark-wilson-2013Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is a popular teacher on BAS Travel/Study tours. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a research fellow in Biblical archaeology. He is currently Associate Professor Extraordinary of New Testament at Stellenbosch University. He leads field studies in Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean for university, seminary and church groups. He is the author of Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor and Victory through the Lamb: A Guide to Revelation in Plain Language. He is a frequent lecturer at BAS’s Bible Fests.
 

 

Notes:

1. Joseph Fitzmyer anticipated my questions by suggesting that readers and listeners should not be overliteral because the account does not intend to answer questions such as: “What was she doing on a journey with Joseph, if she were merely his fiancée or betrothed? And worse still, pregnant as well”; see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 407. To ask such questions, according to Fitzmyer, is to miss the point of Luke’s story. But in liturgical use such authorial nuances are lost. He also notes that Luke never calls Mary the “wife” of Joseph and perhaps was not aware of Palestinian Jewish marriage customs. This blog post assumes that Luke, because of his knowledge of Jewish customs and possible interview with Mary herself (cf. Luke 1:2), used familiar marital language that had a broader semantic range than translators give it today.

2. Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 59.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith
How a Christmas carol links the modern Middle East and medieval England

The Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad by Mary Joan Winn Leith

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

Where Was Jesus Born?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?
 


 

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  1. Hilary says

    Do you really know anything about Jewish marriage? Even to this day, it involves a double ceremony – a betrothal (kiddushin or erusin) followed by a formal legal contract (ketubah, which simply means document). Usually these now take place together, one immediately following the other. A giveaway is that wine is blessed and drunk twice during the wedding service, once during each stage of the process.

    In the past, however, the two stages could be separate. The orthodox view is that betrothal is binding, such that sex with a woman betrothed to someone else is adultery and a formal divorce is required in order to dissolve a betrothal. Betrothal can be achieved either by giving and receiving a bride-gift or by the couple having intercourse.

    Only someone profoundly ignorant of Jewish law could have misunderstood what the gospels meant by “engaged” or “betrothed”. In fairness, this wasn’t <em.written down until the Mishnah was codified in the 2nd century CE but frankly it is basic Judaism 101 that any scholar of Jesus’s lifetime really ought to know.

  2. Bette says

    Jesus was married for several factors: 1) As a Jewish Rabbi, he would not have been let in to pray in the Temple without being married. To this day, Rabbis are married and it would have been a scandal for Jesus to reach the age of his early 30s and not be so. The fact that the Church wiped it out is because they were rewriting Jewish history to be acceptable to pagans whose gods were not often married. The belief that he and Magdalene had a daughter, instead of a son, is further proof. Jesus came from a well-to do family. There were laws to follow.

  3. Joseph says

    All speculation.

  4. Rich says

    The problem with using the texts contained in the finally codified canon of the church is that thet have been transformed over time by different translations, different scribes and changing theology. Case in point is at which point in history Mary Magdalene became a whore and Mary became immaculate in her conception.

    I suggest reading “the Rise and Fall of the Bible” by Timothy Beal and “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman to begin to understand the changing history of the gospels.

  5. gabriel says

    jesus was born of the “blessing” of the “holy spirirt” …. sure Gordon and not a miraculous birth

  6. Rabbi says

    Mary and Joseph had to be engaged/betrothed or Isaiah prophecy would have been incorrect. The reason that Isaiah prophesied that an “alma” (young woman) and not a “betulah” virgin would give birth in Isaiah 7:14 is because in Jewish culture, a woman under her father’s guardianship would be “betulah”. However, a woman engaged/betrothed would be under her fiancé’s guardianship and would be “alma”.

    Deut. 22:23 has to do with an engaged woman who is adulterous. She should be stoned. That is the “trap” of John 8 when the rabbis brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus and said that the Law of Moses demands that we stone her, what do you say? Jesus agrees that she should be stoned–but stoning is not prescribed for regular adultery in the Scriptures–only adultery by an engaged woman.

    Under Jewish law, there were only 4 ways to execute someone; stoning, beheading, strangulation and burning. The rabbis determined that since we are created in the image of God, so when the Scripture requires someone to be put to death but does not prescribe the manner of death, the rabbis determined that they should be strangled–to do the least amount of damage to the image of God.

    Deut. 22:22 requires that the adulterous evil be purged–which would have the adulterous people strangled. The reason for a more violent death by stoning for adultery by an engaged woman is that her husband had not yet taken her virginity–a serious offense.

    However, in John 8, the rabbis knew the history of Jesus–they knew that his mother had been engaged when she conceived him. They wanted Jesus to disagree (trap him) with the Law of Moses and not agree that the woman should be stoned because he would be “admitting” that his mother should have been stoned.

  7. david says

    Matthew 1:18-25 says that Joseph was going to divorce Mary in secret as to not expose her to public shame… this was when they were engaged, way before Jesus’ birth which in the first century Israel was the same as married. If they hadn’t been married there would be no reason for him to consider divorce.

  8. GENE says

    As to the wedding itself, the central and characteristic feature was the solemn bringing of the bride from her father’s home to her husband’s home on the date agreed upon, in which act the significance of marriage as representing admission of the bride into the family of her husband found expression. (Mt 1:24) This constituted the wedding in patriarchal days before the Law. It was altogether a civil affair. There was no religious ceremony or form, and no priest or clergyman officiated or validated the marriage. The bridegroom took the bride to his house or to the tent or house of his parents. The matter was publicly made known, acknowledged, and recorded, and the marriage was binding.—Ge 24:67.

  9. GENE says

    Source for above-http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200002912#h=

  10. RINDA M says

    Just a quick observation: The miracle in Isaiah 7:14 is not that a young woman or a virgin gives birth, all very ordinary, everyday stuff for a virgin birthing a first baby, the miracle is to Whom does she give birth……God incarnate…..!!!!

    The question I have about Deuteronomy…..how do they know the woman has been adulterous with another man….because she got pregnant? It does not specify how others found out about the adultery or how they proved it…?

    —anonymous

  11. edward says

    The passage in Deuteronomy deals with a woman who was raped. If it happened in the city it was not a “legitimate rape, She should be stoned because she did not scream loud enough

  12. Jason K says

    Issues involving daily Jewish life and doctrine existing at that time were not included in the gospel text because they were generally known and regarded at the time. So the knowledge has been lost in context over the Centuries. Now-a-days, Christians are not Jews, unlike Jesus’ original followers. In fact over the years, and lost in translation is the fact that Jesus’s real name in translation would be Joshua, not Jesus.

  13. Martha says

    The Interlinear Bible uses “betulah” to describe Mary at the time of her conception with Jesus. This leaves no room for doubt that the young woman was a virgin. However, customs of the time, as have been frequently noted elsewhere, make it clear that parents sought husbands for their adolescent daughters and that the signing of the ketubah, or marriage contract, ensured that the couple were married even though for various reasons they frequently were still not cohabiting. A year or more might pass before the bridegroom arrived to take his bride to her new home. The reasons might be, among others, the bridegroom being away working, having been conscripted by the Romans for their army, not being able to support a wife yet, or still in the process of building an addition to his father’s house where the young couple could live in something resembling privacy. Another reason could be that the bride was simply too young and it would be dangerous for her to have children. Compare this with the later European custom among royalty in particular of children being engaged to each other in childhood or even infancy, to secure the marriage. Since no mention is made of a brother or even a father in the Gospels for Mary, she may have been the child of a widowed mother who was anxious to secure a permanent place in society for her child by an early espousal. The word “espousal” is not synonymous with “engagement.” Once espoused, the girl was legally married regardless of age or whether she was cohabiting with her husband. The signing of the marriage contract was the act by which the couple was legally married; a wedding ceremony might follow month or even more than a year later. So Mary was officially “espoused” to Joseph but not living with him at the time the angel announced to her that that Holy Spirit would impregnate her. It was important that the young woman be a virgin, and of the House of David. Mary was both. Joseph was also of the House of David, so for the sake of appearances, the child would be his son and belong to the same Davidic branch as his father as well as his mother. We know that Mary was from at least a Levitical family because her cousin Elizabeth, who became pregnant in old age at least six months earlier, was married to a Levite. It is not clear in the Greek translation whether she was related to Elizabeth on her mother’s or father’s side. As for Jesus being married, there is silence on that issue in the Gospels. It was not necessary for a man to be married to take part in many religious ceremonies in the first century. Jesus’ cousin John likewise was not married, yet he was conducting rituals of immersion in the Jordan River. Unfortunately, a great deal of pietitistic effluvia has entered the Nativity story, mainly from anti-Semitic sources in the early and medieval periods. Also, a great deal has been borrowed from extra-canonical sources as to Mary’s family, though not so much as the names of her parents appear in the canonical Gospels. It is my sincere hope that these things will be expunged, because they are nothing but superstition and embroidery to the basic story, which reveals a marriage that was strictly according to Jewish law at the time.

  14. Avinoam says

    You use the term: “Palestinian Jewish marriage”
    May I remind you that the name Palestine was given to Judea only in the year 125 CE about 92-96 years after Yeshua was crucified.

  15. Avinoam says

    135 CE

  16. GENE says

    (Jeʹsus) [Lat. form of the Gr. I·e·sousʹ, which corresponds to the Heb. Ye·shuʹaʽ or Yehoh·shuʹaʽ and means “Jehovah Is Salvation”].

  17. Krzysztof says

    What’s new? A kid in religious class knows Bible(and NewTestament)is not a textbook of history or physics or biology but has a preisemeaning like a derivation symbole d/dx in maths though incomplete; complete: dy/dx. themntioned J.Fitzmayer, R.E.Brown,J.P.Meier – RC biblical scholars in details explained it.
    Read for ex.1965, RC Catholic Commentary on Matthew 19:12 (Jesus rejecting his family and wife)for the sake of preaching the arriving kingdom of God
    ps. BAR maybe should ask someone to clarify the meaning of such terms like “Joseph”,”Nazareth” – historical or just nicknames “nazarine” (like Samuel or john The BAptist)
    We must know the perfect one meaning(andtruth) before the End (1 Cor 15:24) very near finally because of the glorius stupidity in the Universe esp. in Akademia

  18. Michael says

    More than engaged, less than married.

  19. Bill says

    It is written this man Jesus was a rebel among the Jews. He protested many Jewish Laws and Customs one of which was requirements of men. This is why in certain places the question arises among the people and even ask of Jesus by a religious group having legal authority. The question was “By What Authority Do You Do And Say These Things?” Further indication that he was in fact not Married. It is Important to remember that was a social and political activist that Started and Lead a protest against The mainstream Jewish religious Community on many points of the law. For this reason despised then killed by his enemies as a protest against Roman taxes “In reality”.

  20. Bill says

    Thank you for the article as believers tend to not think about the situation or treat it as a “gray” area. It is not a “gray” area as you have so made the case.
    I recently listened to a message that did touch on this subject and then more so on the specific birthplace of Jesus as foretold in the scriptures. http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11171029155

  21. Latayne says

    More information about Bible marriage customs in the book, Shout of the Bridegroom (Covenant Publishing, 2002.) Dr. Glenn Greenwood, now deceased, spent his lifetime studying the customs, and I was privileged to help him write his final book.


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