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


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.



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

Is the Earliest Image of the Virgin Mary in the Dura-Europos Church?

Where Was Jesus Born?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

What Does the Bible Say About Infertility?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 12, 2017.


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  • Robodie says

    Tom — first look the definition of “prerequisite”. I think you will find that you are grossly misinterpreting it, which still doesn’t explain the rest of your nonsense.

    In each of the scenarios that you quoted, if the man were to lay with a virgin he would then pay the price and marry her…i.e.”must pay the bride-price”, 50 shekels of silver, seven years of servitude, etc.

    I won’t continue to dissect your rambling nonsense. I’m not even religious, and it’s quite apparent to me that in any translation taking a woman’s virginity does not equate instant marriage. You sound like a rapist.

  • Rob says

    What, no dowry? The groom has to pay the father for the girl? How did they ever come up with this arrangement? Possibly the dowry arrangement was only initiated with truly homely girls.

  • Tom says

    Everyone in the West is overlooking the more ancient prerequisite for marriage: virginity is a prerequisite to marriage. Sex with a virgin is instant marriage. A non-virgin having sex with other men is harlotry. Since a woman has only one virginity, she can have only one TRUE husband. Study the following in context:
    1. Deut. 22:13-22
    2. Num. 31:17-18
    3. Exodus 22:16
    “If a man entices (seduces) a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her (he
    marries her), he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife (they are married, since he broke her virginity). ”
    4. Isaiah 62:5
    “For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you (God:
    Hosea 2:19-20); and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride (a virgin), so shall
    your God rejoice over you.”
    5. Deut. 22:28-29
    ” If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he
    seizes her and lies with her (rape of a virgin), and they are found out,
    “Then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty
    shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall
    not be permitted to divorce her all his days.”
    6. Gen: 24:67
    “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent; and he took Rebekah (sex with a virgin) and she became his wife, and he loved her.”
    7. Gen. 29:18-30
    “Now Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you (Laban, Rachel’s father) seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.’
    “And Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.’
    “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.
    “Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her’ (intercourse and marry her).
    “And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast.
    “Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his (other) daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her (intercourse consummated the marriage).
    “And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid.
    “So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. (Jacob had been
    fooled) And he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?’ (Jacob was forever married to Leah, whether he wanted to be or not, because he had “gone into her”, intercourse.) “And Laban said, ‘It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. “‘Fulfill her week (Leah’s honeymoon), and we will give you this one also (Rachel) for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.’ “Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. (Jacob and Rachel held out for 7 years before having sex.) “And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. “Then Jacob also went in to Rachel (consummated their marriage), and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years.”
    8. Gen.38:8-9 “And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to (have intercourse with) your (dead) brother’s (Er’s) wife and marry her (i.e. take her as a concubine), and raise up an heir to your brother”. (sex with a virgin = instant marriage)
    9. Ruth 4:10; Rom. 7:2-3; 1Cor. 7:39
    10. Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12
    11. I Cor. 11:3 A man may have more than one legitimate wife. There is NO commandment in the Scriptures against it, only various opinions from many.

  • James says

    Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
    1 Strong’s Number: g3423 Greek: mnesteuo


    in the Active Voice, signifies “to woo a woman and ask for her in marriage;” in the NT, only in the Passive Voice, “to be promised in marriage, to be betrothed,” Mat 1:18; Luk 1:27; 2:5, RV, “betrothed,” (AV, “espoused”).


    “to fit, join” (from harmos, “a joint, joining;” the root ar–, signifying “to fit,” is in evidence in various languages; cp. arthron, “a joint,” arithmos, “a number,” etc.), is used in the Middle Voice, of marrying or giving in marriage; in 2Cr 11:2 it is rendered “espoused,” metaphorically of the relationship established between Christ and the local church, through the Apostle’s instrumentality. The thought may be that of “fitting” or “joining” to one husband, the Middle Voice expressing the Apostle’s interest or desire in doing so.
    2 Strong’s Number: g3423 Greek: mnesteuo


    “to woo and win, to espouse or promise in marriage,” is used in the Passive Voice in Mat 1:18; Luk 1:27; 2:5, all with reference to the Virgin Mary, RV, “betrothed,” for AV, “espoused,” in each case.

  • James says

    Strong’s Number: g3423 Greek: mnesteuo


    in the Active Voice, signifies “to woo a woman and ask for her in marriage;” in the NT, only in the Passive Voice, “to be promised in marriage, to be betrothed,” Mat 1:18; Luk 1:27; 2:5, RV, “betrothed,” (AV, “espoused”).
    mnā-styü’-ō (Key)
    Part of Speech
    Root Word (Etymology)
    From a derivative of μνάομαι (G3415)
    Greek Inflections of μνηστεύω
    mGNT — 3x in 3 unique form(s) TR — 3x in 3 unique form(s)
    μεμνηστευμένῃ — 1x
    μεμνηστευμένην — 1x
    Μνηστευθείσης — 1x
    Dictionary Aids

    Vine’s Expository Dictionary: View Entry
    KJV Translation Count — Total: 3x
    The KJV translates Strong’s G3423 in the following manner: espouse (3x).
    Outline of Biblical Usage [?]

    to woo her and ask her in marriage

    to be promised in marriage, be betrothed

    Strong’s Definitions [?](Strong’s Definitions Legend)
    μνηστεύω mnēsteúō, mnace-tyoo’-o; from a derivative of G3415; to give a souvenir (engagement present), i.e. betroth:—espouse.
    Thayer’s Greek Lexicon [?] (Jump to Scripture Index)
    STRONGS NT 3423: μνηστεύω
    μνηστεύω: passive, perfect participle μεμνηστευμενος (R G) and ἐμνηστευμενος (L T Tr WH) (cf. Winers Grammar, § 12, 10; Veitch, under the word; Tdf. Proleg., p. 121); 1 aorist participle μνηστευθεις; (μνηστός betrothed, espoused); from Homer down; the Sept. for אֵרֵשׂ; τινα (γυναῖκα), to woo her and ask her in marriage; passive to be promised in marriage, be betrothed: τίνι, Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27; Luke 2:5.
    THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, Electronic Database.
    Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2006, 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc.
    All rights reserved. Used by permission. BibleSoft.com
    BLB Scripture Index of Thayer’s

    1:27; 2:5

    Word / Phrase / Strong’s Search
    Next Strong’s G3424 ››
    ‹‹ Previous Strong’s G3422
    Concordance Results Using NKJV

    Strong’s Number G3423 matches the Greek μνηστεύω (mnēsteuō),
    which occurs 3 times in 3 verses in the Greek concordance of the KJV

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