When I was young, and was only really familiar with Roman Catholicism as a form of Christianity, I often wondered just why the Virgin Mary was so heavily emphasized in the Christmas story. While her giving birth to the Incarnate Word is of course something that should be discussed (it was a vital part of the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century), I felt a slight tinge of sadness for Joseph, who seemed to almost be entirely overlooked. In most depictions of the family in art and movies, they tend to portray Mary as young, physically attractive, and full of life, whereas Joseph is almost just your average middle eastern man with nothing to make him stand out from any other character. Sometimes he’s even portrayed as appallingly ugly.
As I began to study the Gospel of Matthew, it became edifying to really study what scripture says of Joseph’s character and his contribution within what we know today as “the Christmas story.”
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. [Matthew 1:18-19; NASB]
This is the first place we encounter Joseph in the New Testament, wherein he discovers the pregnancy of Mary. It has been brought to my attention by a good friend that some pastors attempt to paint a bad picture of Joseph here. They attempt to portray him as a jerk, as if he’s just a big meanie for wanting to divorce Mary, like he’s a deadbeat dad. They portray Mary as being stuck with this abusive husband seeking to divorce her at the drop of a hat. Permit me to put some things in context:
Firstly, being betrothed at this time was the same as being married. It is not like today where you are still considered single and available until that ring goes on your finger, or an engagement can be called off with no problem whatsoever. Two people betrothed were essentially married before the ceremony, and were expected to be loyal to one another as if they were married. Adultery and divorce laws were relevant as soon as two people were engaged.
Secondly, Joseph didn’t know that Mary’s pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit. Joseph will not become aware of this until verses 20-23, where an angel tells him in a dream that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and her child will be the Messiah, which compels Joseph to accept Mary as his wife afterward (v. 24). Until then, he hadn’t the foggiest idea God was behind this pregnancy.
Thirdly, it had been some time since their last meeting. If we compare Matthew’s account with Luke’s, we see that, upon Mary’s visit by Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38), she goes to Elizabeth in Judah (Luke 1:39-40) where she stays for three months (Luke 1:56). In three months time, she probably looked pregnant to Joseph when they next met. Place yourself now in Joseph’s shoes: your betrothed has gone away for three months and has now returned pregnant, and all you know is the child isn’t yours – how would you react?
Fourthly, we have to understand Matthew’s use of “righteous man” and “not wanting to disgrace her.” These two terms are interconnected – Matthew calls Joseph one because of the other. By the Law of God, Mary could be stoned for supposed adultery (Deu 22:23-24) – the problem was, society had degenerated at that point. It had come to the point where someone who transgressed the law – especially an adulterer – was made an example of before everyone else. This is what is meant by the word “disgrace,” which in the original Greek refers to putting on display or on show. We see this first and foremost with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2-11. She was about to be stoned publicly despite the fact the man she was committing adultery with had not been taken along with her, and hence her stoning was being used as a display of punishment. It was this kind of situation that Joseph was seeking to avoid, hence his desire to divorce Mary secretly. This would have only required him giving a bill of divorce before two witnesses, and then she could go away without any harm done to her.
These four factors present a very different picture of Joseph. Contrary to the image of a cruel man looking to drop Mary out on the street barefoot and pregnant, we see the image of a man who sincerely cares for Mary and wants to protect her from the harm their society could have possibly inflicted upon her. Any fault on Joseph’s part in his desire for divorce was merely out of ignorance – once he was informed that her pregnancy was by the will of God and not the act of another man, he took her in and took care of her.
We see this care for Mary in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, where we also encounter King Herod’s maniacal obsession with killing the supposed Messiah. After the departure of the magi (Matt 2:12), Joseph is warned in a dream to get up and depart to Egypt, for Herod is seeking the child’s death (Matt 2:13). We see Joseph wake up and immediately take Mary and the infant Christ to Egypt (Matt 2:14). Joseph does not dally nor question God’s will – he gets up and goes literally in the middle of the night. Interestingly enough, the original Greek reads in verse 14 that Joseph took “the Child and His mother” (τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ), not “his child” or “their child” or even just “Jesus”. Remember, the child was not even Joseph’s – it had not come from a consummation between himself and Mary, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet Joseph, at the behest of God, takes Mary and the infant Christ in his arms and escapes with them to Egypt, saving them from the death that would afflict the infants of Bethlehem some time later (Matt 2:16). He treats the infant Christ with the same fatherly love and concern as he would have a son of his own, and Mary with the same tenderness as is owed her as his wife.
From all this, we find Joseph to be a man of respect. He was a man who served God faithfully as the adoptive father of the Incarnate Word and the husband of she from whom He took flesh. He wanted to do all things rightly, but without robbing the right to life from anyone else. We are to speak of Christ’s earthly family during His life, let us not forget to give Joseph the just appreciation due to him.