Joseph’s Significance in Matthew’s Nativity Narrative
Choosing a title for this post has proven to be a challenge. If I say it is about Joseph, many would assume I was writing about the famous figure from the Book of Genesis who was sold into slavery by his brothers, and who later delivered Egypt, as well as his family, from a severe famine. The Joseph I am talking about, however, needs a further tag placed on his name. If I speak about Joseph and Mary, then it is obvious who I mean. If I say, “Joseph, the husband of Mary,” or “Joseph the adoptive father of Jesus,” or “Joseph, the step-father of Jesus,” then it is equally clear who I have in mind. All of this suggests that Joseph is a relatively obscure figure in the Bible. His significance is based on his relationship to other important characters, especially Jesus. This is actually not a bad position to find oneself in. After all, I, and every Christian I know, finds their ultimate significance in their relationship to Jesus as well. Of course Joseph has a special kind of relationship that none of us can claim, and yet that relationship often seems to diminish his value in the eyes of some. After all, Joseph is not the real father of Jesus; he is only the adoptive father, or perhaps worse, the step-father.
In the Jewish world of the first century A.D., it was believed that you could know a lot about a person based on the character of his/her parents. If the parents were honourable people, then the child was probably honourable. If, however, the parents had a shameful reputation, or the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child were suspect or shameful, then the child would be considered a shameful individual.
The Gospels address the question of Jesus’ parentage in different ways, but all seek to demonstrate that he came from an honourable background. Although Joseph is mentioned in all of the Gospels, only the Gospel of Matthew gives us any kind of character portrait. One of the purposes of Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph is to demonstrate that Joseph is a man of exceptional character. Matthew pictures Joseph as a righteous, compassionate, and obedient person. These qualities are displayed in at least 4 different ways. In what follows, I adopt an outline on Joseph’s character, based on Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew. Keener uses his knowledge of New Testament Backgrounds to illuminate Matthew’s portrait of Joseph.
Matthew Portrays Joseph and Mary as a Model of Sexual Restraint
Whether living in ancient or modern times, there are only 3 known ways that an unmarried woman can normally become pregnant: 1) rape; 2) unfaithfulness; or 3) by a boyfriend or fiancée. The circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of Jesus would certainly have raised the suspicions of many. Matthew not only seeks to explain the unusual nature of Mary’s conception, but he also seeks to show the exemplary self-control exercised by this couple. Jewish couples were normally betrothed for the period of one year. During this year, the commitment was considered so legally binding that a divorce was necessary to break it. However, the couple was forbidden to have sexual relations until after the marriage. Any breach of the conduct expected would bring shame on the couple. Matthew seeks to demonstrate that neither Mary nor Joseph had transgressed in this matter. Mary’s conception was totally unique; it was of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20). Although Joseph was instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife, out of reverence for this unique occurrence, he did not have sexual relations with her until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25).
This statement is remarkable in at least two respects. First, Joseph and Mary appear to have been poor (compare Luke 2:24 with Lev. 12:8). This would most likely mean, not only sleeping in the same room, but also sleeping in the same bed! It is remarkable to think that a married couple could show such self-restraint. This is an important point that Matthew wants to make. Self-control was considered one of the great virtues of the first-century Roman world. A person who could control their desires and passions was considered honourable. The rest of the New Testament has a lot to say about the power of evil desires and passions (e.g., Rom. 1:24-32; 6:13; 7:5), and Paul extolls self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Therefore, far from being immoral, Matthew shows that Joseph and Mary are an example of exceptional self-control. Second, by waiting until after the birth of Jesus to have intercourse, neither Joseph nor Mary could produce evidence of her virginity on their wedding night (see Deut. 22:15). I will explore the significance of this later.
Joseph’s ability to resist temptation and practice self-control suggests a characteristic he shares with his namesake from the Book of Genesis. Genesis 39:7-10 highlights the virtue of this other Joseph who refuses to have sexual relations with his master’s wife. Upon closer examination, we also note that the Joseph in the Book of Matthew shares other similarities with the Joseph of Genesis: 1) the fathers of both Josephs are named Jacob (Gen. 37:2-3; Matt. 1:16); 2) both Josephs receive dreams through which God communicates to them (Gen. 37:6-10; Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19, 22); 3) both are righteous men (Joseph in Genesis forgives his brothers and seeks their welfare; Matt. 1:19); and both bring their families down to Egypt (Gen. 45:9-13; Matt. 2:13-15). All of these parallels between the two Josephs are another way in which Matthew demonstrates the uprightness of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
If Joseph Wanted to Maintain His Honor, He was Obligated to Divorce Mary
Matthew tells us that before the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, Joseph was contemplating how he should divorce Mary (Matt. 1:19). It is important to remember that since a betrothal was legally binding, a divorce was necessary to break it. It should also be noted that Joseph was not contemplating if he should divorce Mary, but how. “Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 91). Even Jesus allows for divorce in the case of adultery (Matt. 5:32). If Joseph does not divorce Mary, he faces one of two possible dilemmas. Keener states, “Mediterranean society viewed with contempt the weakness of a man who let his love for his wife outweigh his appropriate honor in repudiating her” (Keener, p. 91). The other possibility is that, if Joseph followed through with the wedding, then it would be an admission that he had slept with her. Either way, Joseph would experience the shame and contempt of his society. For Joseph to be considered a “just” man (Matt. 1:19), he must divorce Mary, and this is what he would have done had God not revealed himself in a dream.
Joseph Tempers Justice with Mercy
Although still contemplating divorce, Matthew tells us that Joseph desired to put Mary away “secretly” or “privately” (Matt. 1:19). The fact that Joseph is willing to put Mary away privately suggests that he is a man who puts compassion above his own hurt and shame. It is also important that the modern reader understands that the primary foundation for ancient marriages was not love but financial considerations. Parents usually contracted the marriage of their children and this was done with a view of what would mutually benefit each family. Inheritance was an important issue and no family wanted to make a poor financial arrangement through marriage that would harm them. Part of the betrothal included the prospective groom giving the bride’s family a bride price. This consisted of gifts given to the bride and her family. It was a way of showing the value of the bride and that she would be provided for. An example of this can be found in Genesis 24:53 when Abraham’s servant contracts a marriage for Isaac. We are told, “Then the servant brought out jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold and clothing, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave precious things to her brother and to her mother.” The family of the bride would reciprocate by giving the bride a dowry. This would be her portion of the family inheritance meant to help her in the start of her new life with her husband. Dowrys and bride prices varied depending on the wealth of a family. They might consist of animals (sheep and goats), jewelry, household items, servants, and even land (For further information on bride prices and dowrys, see K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts, p. 37ff. Pictured in the box to the right.).
The point of all this is that there would have been a financial investment of some kind on Joseph’s part. By means of a public divorce he could have recouped the bride price, and possibly been justified in keeping Mary’s dowry as well. The fact that Joseph is willing to divorce Mary privately demonstrates that he is not concerned with financial gain or loss, or in exacting revenge on her. Rather, his concern is for her reputation (and possibly her family’s as well). This kind of compassion reflects the very attitude that Jesus will later say is pleasing to God. When questioned about eating with sinners, Jesus says that it is the sick who need a physician. He then challenges the Pharisees to “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice‘” (Matt. 9:12-13). My colleague, Richard Tamburro, has suggested to me that Joseph’s compassion shows him to be a man with a heart like God’s, and that this is precisely why God chose Joseph to be an earthly father for Jesus. Indeed, Joseph’s ability to temper righteousness with compassion is truly a characteristic of God.
Joseph is an Obedient Man
Matthew goes to great lengths to emphasize the obedience of Joseph. Each time God commands Joseph to do something (take Mary as his wife, flee to Egypt, return from Egypt, don’t go back to Judea), Joseph faithfully obeys (Matt. 1:24; 2:13-14, 19-21, 22). The same “command and obedience” language that is found here in Matthew is reminiscent of many of the saints of the Old Testament. Noah, Moses, Elijah, and others receive commands from God and faithfully carry them out. This obedience is described in two ways: 1) A command is given and then we read in identical language how the command is obeyed. For example, Elijah is told “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan” (1 Kgs. 17:3). We are then informed, “So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan” (1 Kgs. 17:5). 2) After receiving a command, the statement is frequently made that that person “did all that the Lord commanded.” An example of this is found in Genesis 6:22 which states, “Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did.” Joseph, therefore, like the saints of old, is faithful and obedient.
Recalling a point made earlier, Joseph’s obedience to God was costly. First, as noted earlier, to not have intercourse until after the birth of Jesus meant giving up the opportunity to prove that Mary was indeed a virgin. Furthermore, for Joseph to move ahead and take Mary as his wife was tantamount to an admission that he had slept with her. Speaking of the dream that reveals Mary’s innocence, Keener writes, “Because Joseph alone received this revelation, outsiders in the story world would still think that he had gotten Mary pregnant before the wedding. He would remain an object of shame in a society dominated by the value of honor. Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation” (Keener, pp. 94-95).
When one summarizes the portrait of Joseph according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is seen as a righteous man, who tempers that righteousness with mercy. He is also a man who willingly lays his own reputation on the line for the sake of being obedient to God. Like the Joseph of Genesis, the Joseph of Matthew provides a pattern of life worthy of imitating. Perhaps, most importantly, he foreshadows his greater adopted son Jesus, the ultimate picture of One who made Himself of no reputation and who was the perfect depiction of righteousness, mercy, and obedience.