Friday, December 10, 2010

Did Joseph "Know" Mary?

This week I'm preaching about Joseph in the story of the Jesus' birth.  The characters around Jesus give us plenty to think on and emulate in our own response to Jesus, as we encounter Him as Emmanuel, God with us.

In verse 25 of chapter 1 Matthew says about Joseph that he "had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son."  (NRSV)

Most of the translations say it something like this, that is they indicate that Joseph and Mary did not have the normal arrangement of marriage while Jesus was in the womb.  Christians across time and space and family (denominational/sect) concur on this.  What is less agreeable, since the Reformation, is what took place following the birth of Jesus.

Consulting Thomas Oden's wonderful work - Commentary on Matthew, vol. 1,  in the series, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, it is clear that the early church believed that there was never a "knowing" between Mary and Joseph.  It doesn't matter from what place or time, the early church believed Joseph viewed Mary's womb sacred ground, once inhabited by the Holy Spirit and Son of God and as such, a road he wouldn't go down.  They understood Jesus' brothers and sister, spoken of later when they come to see him and he's out of his mind, as Joseph's kids from a previous marriage, or his cousins.

Generally I was under the assumption that Protestants were uniformally headed in the opposite direction.  That after the birth of Jesus, they in fact had a "knowing" of one another and this produced the siblings of Jesus.

I am surprised to report that John Wesley does not track with the protestant persuasion.  In his Notes on the New Testament he writes:  He knew her not, till after she had brought forth - It cannot be inferred from hence, that he knew her afterward: no more than it can be inferred from that expression, 2Sam 6:23, Michal had no child till the day of her death, that she had children afterward. Nor do the words that follow, the first - born son, alter the case. For there are abundance of places, wherein the term first born is used, though there were no subsequent children. Luke 2:7

I'm intrigued by this differing perspective regarding the nature of Joseph and Mary's relationship.  What does it say about our view of marriage, of intimacy, of sexuality, of being devoted to God and to one another?  Maybe the discussion says more about us, than it does about them or even God.

I'm quite convinced that Joseph wouldn't fit in well in the current western world, Christian or not, but he does fit in well in the Kingdom of God.


rcwollan said...

You're a brave pastor to tackle this topic from the pulpit-- but it's time we Protestants stop dismissing Mary's perpetual virginity as mere Catholic silliness and superstition.

Now, I don't think our salvation is in jeopardy if the Fathers were wrong, but I have grown weary of Evangelicals who laugh, as one laughs at a naive child, at those who hold to the historical beliefs about Mary. It is high time Evangelicals set aside their chronological snobbery and engage seriously with the Fathers, Catholics and Orthodox on this issue. Fortunately, some Evangelicals are doing serious studies on this, like Tim Perry's "Mary for Evangelicals." He concludes the book by stating that he could not find adequate evidence to refute the claims and beliefs of the Fathers & Early Church.

I, myself, hold with Wesley and the Fathers-- I believe in Mary's perpetual virginity. Even if Joseph only had a few inklings about what had taken place in Mary (and Scripture indicates he had a lot more than a few inklings!) he would certainly be very reticent to engage in normal martial relations with her. Given their unique circumstances, I do not believe it is at all a stretch of the imagination to assert that Mary and Joseph lived chastely for the entirety of their marriage. If Evangelicals can step outside their overly sexualized culture for a minute-- for even 30 seconds, I do not believe they would be so quickly dismissive of the possibility.

"the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." (Luke 1:20). Joseph knew that the same Holy Spirit of God resided in the Temple and that the high priest would only go in there once a year-- with a rope tied around his ankle in case he died due to his unworthiness! No, it is no stretch at all to believe that Mary remained a virgin all her life!!

Sara M said...

All right. You know your Eastern Orthodox Christian sister-in-law could not possibly keep quiet about this. The Ever-Virginity of Mary is the only thing that makes sense! The poor translations of the post-reformation yahoos make this absurdity almost blasphemous in my opinion. First of all, do you and I actually use the word 'know' to mean "have marital relations"? This is maddening! When you say, "oh, yes I know her, or I know him," you are not saying you that you have an intimate sexual relationship with that person. That is ridiculous. The definition of know is: 1. To be well informed about 2. to be aware of 3. to be acquainted with 4. to recognize or distinguish (Webster's New World Dictionary) So, in short, you should go back to the Septuagint and get yourself an Orthodox Study Bible or the New Oxford Annotated Bible, learn Greek and burn the NRSV.

We also agree with your first commenter. Joseph was an old man and a widow when Mary was betrothed to him. He was being obedient to God as was the Theotokos. (He wanted to divorce her until an angel told him what was going on). He knew that the Theotokos was Holy and special. I see him as more of a protector for her and Jesus.
Also, we believe as Christians that Mary miraculously conceived Christ as a virgin by the Holy Spirit, why is it so hard to believe that she remained a virgin after the birth until the end of her life?

And how could we possibly lump together, a purely human act with something so Holy and pure as the actual living Christ being physically in the womb of Mary? Don't you think that this alone saved her? People were healed just touching the hem of Christ's robe and he was fully human INSIDE her!! One of the Trinity! Just dwell on that for a few minutes. It's almost incomprehensible to our puny little brains! The Orthodox church has always believed in Mary's Ever-Virginity and always will. Just let us know when your Chrismation is!

Anonymous said...

AMEN, Sara!

Sara M said...

So how did it go?

Sara said...

Hey--found a little booklet from Conciliar Press for you. I also have a pretty decent link I'll send you on Facebook.

Duke said...


The focus for preaching this advent has been "bringing our best to Jesus." In that vein I've been looking at the characters who make up the story of Christmas and highlight something they bring. The propehts bring hope and waiting. Mary brings a whopping yes to be a "God bearer." Jospeh I suggested brought "righteousness." And a little different from that described by most as being, "a keeper of the law."
His righteousness I would suggest was his heart and mind and life that was receptive to the active presence of God in his life. Jospeh believed that God was not silent, and that God's plan was actively unfolding and when the angels came to him, he understood how he could be part of it. Joseph is known for his loving action. And it was something that went beyond protector, I like what one of the fathers said, it was the little Christ child who protected Joseph and Mary. Joseph's primary givt to the Christ was his righteousnuess, displayed in action.

Given this theme, I didn't have the kind of time to set up the question about ever virgin. Given the fruitful discussion here, I suppose I will find a way to address it.

Just so you know, I am with Wesley, and the ancients on this - I too believe in the ever virginity of Mary.

I think the re-writing by protestants and current Catholic commentators displays more about us and them, than about Joseph & Mary. Too many of us have listened too long to Dr. Ruth, Phizer & Co., and to little to the Doctors of the Church.

Sara said...

Why did you post this if you already believe in the ever-virginity of Mary? Your sermon doesn't sound like it touched on this at all.

Duke said...


I posted on this because there's something we readers of the scripture do with scripture that we should own up to and be challenged by, that is the first person reading of the scriptures. While it is helpful to put ourselves in the story, we often bring our assumptions, our "settled matters" about life with us, and instead of us bending toward scripture, we bend the scripture toward us. This is how great atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus.
My question about Joseph and Mary asks those who take the vastly protestant wing of interpretation of the text if we're reading the text to justify ourselves, to make Joseph and Mary like us?
Plus there's enough to unpack here a couple of books could be written on the subject.
See you soon.

Sara said...

OK-like I said, let us know when you've scheduled your Chrismations.

Dave said...

I won't call it Catholic silliness and superstition, but I will call it "religion", and in the most pejorative way I can use that term.

Jason, can you tell us why you believe in the (tortured?) explanation that Mary somehow didn't have kids when the Bible doesn't really ask for such circumlocutions? Is it solely b/c you defer to those a) early church fathers and b) Wesley (are you positive that blurb encapsulates his whole position)? If so, wouldn't you diagnose their anti-physical or anti-body or pre-medieval presuppositions as off, as Roman?