Note: An adapted version of this article is published at https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/good-bloke-joseph/.
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, NLT
While most other English translations preserve the original text’s idea that Joseph resolved “to divorce her” (Greek: ἀπολῦσαι), 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, NIV
So what’s going on? Is she or isn’t she Joseph’s wife?
What’s interesting is that the word “as” isn’t in the original text:
Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυείδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαριὰμ τὴν γυναῖκά σου ·Matthew 1:20, GNT
A literalish translation: “Joseph son of David, don’t fear to take Mary your wife” (both Μαριὰμ and τὴν γυναῖκά are accusative).
So why the addition of “as”?
Part of me wondered if modern marriage norms (you can get engaged, but also choose to break it off) have seeped into the translation of this verse over time. So I did a quick search of English translations over time:
- 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
So the addition of “as” is pretty recent. It probably needs more digging (perhaps including translations from non-Western backgrounds), but I wonder if the shift to Joseph “taking Mary as your wife” rather than “taking Mary, your wife” seems to fit our late-modern assumptions about the permanence of a marriage agreement, instead of letting the text speak from it’s original 1st-century context.
Is there any exegetical significance to leaving the “as” out? I think so. It makes it clearer that Joseph was already legally bound to Mary (hence “betrothed”, or “pledged to be married” in verse 18). It heightens the gravity of his dilemma – he was fully in the right to divorce Mary, if she really was pregnant with another man (punishable by death and stoning in Jewish law). This is because 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). And so a key part of the angel’s appeal in verse 20 is that 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. Matthew also makes a lovely contrast between Joseph — who ponders secretly (λάθρα) about divorcing his wife but then chooses selfless service instead — with Herod in chapter 2 who secretly (λάθρα) calls a counsel (2:7) to find out information to worship the boy Jesus, but then chooses self-centred murder instead. One helped to protect the Christ, the other tried to kill Him.
Thank God for righteous Joseph!