Monday, December 26, 2016

Josephology Appendix 2: Why Divorce Mary?

The Christmas season has brought out a fresh set of reflections on the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, and with them comes a lot of the usual speculation about the motivations of the acting parties. The motivation of St. Joseph when he was “minded to put [Mary] away privately” (Mt. 1:19) is a special subject of concern. If Joseph was a just man and suspicious of her faithfulness, they ask, why did he not have her tried and stoned as the Mosaic Law demanded? Does this not constitute consent to her sin?

Thomas Aquinas posits three possible reasons for Joseph’s decision to quietly and privately divorce the Blessed Virgin in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. He does not here give an opinion on the truth of any of these options.

The first interpretation is based on the opinion of John Chrysostom, that justice is twofold. Justice can exist as the cardinal virtue (special justice), which is a rendering to each man what is right; or as a general virtue (legal or general justice), in the sense that “justice” can serve as a synecdoche of all virtues, because it is just to be directed towards the common good. St. Joseph would then be called a “just man” in the general sense, which would include the virtues of piety, clemency, and mercy, and not only in the sense that demands strict restitution for sin.

The second interpretation is from Augustine, who observes that sins are of two kinds: private and public. A private or hidden sin is not to be made public knowledge without a grave reason, and should be dealt with privately. Since only Joseph knew of Mary’s supposed sin, there was no reason yet to expose her to public condemnation. And if or when others discovered her pregnancy, they would assume that Joseph was the father, and would not ascribe to her any sin.

The third interpretation is from Rabanus (via Jerome), who believed that Joseph knew Mary to be pure and faithful, and, having already concluded that she was bearing the Christ, considered himself unworthy to take her in marriage. He had decided to put her away out of holy fear. (This opinion is approved by Thomas in his Summa Theologiae.)

Now, the first and second interpretations are harmonious and need not exclude the other. They also agree well with the earliest extra-scriptural accounts of the Nativity, especially the Proto-Gospel of James. This interpretation is of St. Joseph as confused and hurt, but unwilling to rashly throw his young betrothed to the brutality of the Law. The Proto-Gospel suggests that Joseph was uncertain that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of adultery, so the accusation of St. Jerome in his Matthean commentary that Joseph would be guilty of her sin if he did not accuse her publicly—“There is also a precept in the law that not only the accused but also the confidants of evil deeds are guilty of sin”—would not be entirely applicable.

St. Matthew does not do much to explain the inner workings of Joseph’s mind, and any deeper exegesis is going to lack the certainty of revelation, but I have long agreed with the early interpretation of Joseph as a conflicted man who was trying to do his best in a very confusing situation. He may have been mindful of the recent miraculous pregnancy of Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth but, as yet lacking any angelic visitation, chose as best he could using his own judgment. He was just, not only in the sense of the letter of the law, but of its spirit. He was not given to rash judgments, but deliberate and considerate. When commanded to take Mary as wife by the angel, he was swiftly obedient.

In a sense, then, I think that all three interpretations are right. Joseph considered the possibility that Mary’s pregnancy was of supernatural origin, but also had reason to suspect fornication and adultery. He was wise and deliberate, and the interjection of the angel is an image of the divine assistance God gives to those who seek wisdom but lack the knowledge to choose with complete rightness.


  1. But all comentaries by some illustruos theologians and one Bishop (Augustine) doubt St. Joseph personal faith? He was chosen by God from many other men, the dove set on him. He doubts Mary and then Archangel Gabriel changes his heart. To me it looks very sad that so many men of faith have done such a horizontal effort to explain the mysteries of God and thus diminish them. It's like my favorite Christmas toy that I've just received just broke. I'm sorry I can't help it. Will definitely cry on this one.

  2. Well Joseph had no special revelations concerning Mary being the Virgin God-bearer, so he had plenty of room for doubt. After all he was human. In a sense he was more just than Peter because he [Joseph] wanted to join justice and mercy and act accordingly but didn't know how since he lacked some crucial information, so he wanted to be prudent, while Peter, even after knowing the Messiah, denied him under pressure.

  3. Doubting God and doubting his young bride are not the same thing.

  4. Galatians ch 3- before Christ, there is a series of Saints who put Faith above the Law. Yiakem does not take a second wife even if Hanna can't conceive, Hanna receives a rich garment from an unknown woman before her succesful Passover prayer, first she refuses the robe saying it may be payment for whoredom, the woman replies that if this is how she receives charity she deserves her miserable fate, Anna feels ashamed accepts the garment and prays and receives a child. St. John The Baptist also btings forgiveness for sinners, St. Joseph does not divorce Mary, and Christ speaks of iconomy, the prodigal son, and the good shepherd.
    All makes sense within the Testament that St. Paul describes in ch. 2-3 of Galatians.
    Now we all mostly want to condemn each other... in the name of The New Law... love... yea.. well whose not to tell that Christ will demand iconomy from us like He asked from the Pharisees?
    Faith above Law.. Galatians 2-3.. I am a tireless parrot on this one.

  5. St Bernard, the Breviarium romanum, and Pope John Johnson Paul II, hold to the "Depart from me for I am a sinful man" thesis. The BVM was "found" to be with child "of the Holy Spirit". Who found her and what did he find? Joseph found her to be with child of the Holy Spirit. That's what the text says.