A common understanding of Joseph’s dilemma when he discovers Mary is pregnant is that it puts him in two minds about whether or not to go ahead with marrying her. We usually read Matthew 1:19 through modern lenses and suppose Joseph here is wondering whether to call off the engagement.
For example, the New Living Translation renders the verse as follows:
Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. (Matthew 1:19)
While most other English translations preserve the original text’s idea that Joseph resolved “to divorce her”, in the very next verse they choose to render the angel’s speech as follows:
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife…” (Matthew 1:20)
So what’s going on? Is she or isn’t she Joseph’s wife?
My hunch is that modern marriage norms (you can get engaged, but also choose to break it off) have seeped into the translation of this verse over time. For example, consider the following English translations, arranged by date of publication:
- Geneva (1560): “feare not to take Mary thy wife”
- KJV (1611): “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”
- RV (1885): “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”
- DR (1899): “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”
- RSV (1952): “do not fear to take Mary your wife”
- NIV (1984, 2011): “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife”
- NRSV (1989): “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”
- NLT (1996): do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife
- ESV (2003, 07, 11): do not fear to take Mary as your wife
Joseph ponders on the situation—fully knowing the cost to his reputation and community standing—yet obeys the angel’s instructions and keeps his vows to Mary, his wife
So there seems to have been a recent and subtle shift from Joseph “taking Mary, your wife” to Joseph “taking Mary as your wife” (even though the original Greek doesn’t really support it). The current translations reflect our late-modern assumptions about how marriages begin and end, instead of letting the text speak from its original first-century context.
So is it important to leave “as” out in verse 20? I think so. Here’s why:
- It makes it clearer that Joseph was already legally bound to Mary (hence the quaint but accurate “betrothed” in some translations of verse 18).
- It heightens the gravity of his dilemma—he was fully within his rights to divorce Mary, if she really was pregnant with another man (also punishable by death and stoning in Jewish law). By being pledged to Joseph, Mary was as good as married to him (which isn’t how we normally understand marriage in an individualistic society).
- It strengthens the angel’s appeal to Joseph in verse 20. Basically, Mary is already Joseph’s wife, and he should stay with her and help her to deliver the Christ child.
Personally, I love that Joseph ponders on the situation—fully knowing the cost to his reputation and community standing—yet obeys the angel’s instructions and keeps his vows to Mary, his wife. In an age where it’s hard to find good role models, Matthew makes the point that righteousness isn’t necessarily seen in the lives of kings and celebrities, but in ordinary people like a poor carpenter who’s merciful to his wife amidst a difficult situation. Without this kind of selfless ethic, perhaps Jesus wouldn’t even have been born!
Perhaps too, Joseph’s story can remind us this Christmas to look out for the ordinary people, the “good blokes” in our neighbourhood that show this kind of costly obedience and virtue as they love God and the people in their lives—and to thank them for their good deeds that glorify our Father in heaven.
Thank God for righteous Joseph—and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness like him!