The Betrothal of Mary and Joseph



The origins of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel are all presented from Joseph’s point of view. It is as though Mary were completely passive. It rather fits into the way betrothals took place in that world then. The father of the family decided who his daughters would marry. He probably decided the same for the sons. Marriage was a commercial proposition, securing the economic future for the large extended families- probably the sort of thing that pertains today with traditional societies in Asia and Africa. In Roman law the husband decided which children should live. This was not allowed by the Old Testament Law- you shall not kill included protecting the unborn child. But in our narratives we are presented with what looks like the nuclear family- Elizabeth can only bear one child at her age- and she is blessed to be able to do so. Mothers were honoured while the sterile were despised. (We have only to recall the Abraham-Sarah saga). Matthew presents Joseph as faced with a terrible dilemma: had his betrothed Mary been unfaithful? Old Testament Law allowed divorce. Normally divorce would have been a rich man’s prerogative. In the case of adultery it would have been imperative- hence Joseph was a just man observing the dictates of the Law. The family of Jesus knew the awful problems that affect families. Later he would say: no divorce under any circumstance whatever! (Mk 10: 9-11). His foster father is presented as taking the most charitable approach possible: a private divorce not involving public litigation.

The Literary Stylised Approach

In the Old Testament Matthew had found many models for describing marriages that were wanted by God. The formula is the same. Angels appear in dreams, the reaction of the dreamer is fear, that is assuaged, and assurance is bestowed. Promises are made and promises are honoured.

The angel tells Joseph the name of the son that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit. It means the saviour of the people from their sins. All of this made real sense in the world of Judaism then. He is described as the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah. The Old Testament and the New Testament are intimately linked. What we read is a very sophisticated piece of theology told in the words of Matthew. (Luke has all these explanations presented as a private revelation to Mary).

The Contribution of Romans 1:1-7

Our second reading at Mass today shows us St Paul’s present-ation of the same fundamental data, writing to the new converts in Rome. Jesus was the son of God, and the descendant of David.

He would not have been so had Joseph not accepted to do so, which Matthew’s account affirmed. Jesus is saviour of all the nations. Not just of the Jews. Paul’s mission was to proclaim that. By the time Paul is writing- a mere thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and probably before Matthew’s gospel was written, the Christian message of good news was being believed all over the then known world. The rapidity of the spread of the gospel was phenomenal. And people are still trying to explain this.

Our Own Day

As we approach Christmas what is astonishing is how important the season is. The vast majority of people in this country have not the slightest idea of what it is all about. But yet they still see it as a time of joy and gladness, as a time for the family. Cribs and lights and family traditions, and foods, and cards and greeting and bells all make up Christmas, even in a secularised world. Many secular regimes tried to abolish it. Clever people have called the whole thing mythical while indulging in its happy entailments. Yet it taps deeply into the human heart. Life is about love and happiness. It is about family and friends. It is about connections and continuities and traditions. One of my Australian friends living abroad used to spend Christmas with cousins, not particularly religious. But they always watched Casa Blanca on Christmas Day. With their drinks and chocolates watching Bogart and Bergman honouring the old fashioned values: "Play it again, Sam." The beginning of a beautiful friendship in a war torn world, and yet the love of man and wife overrode all personal desire, even to assuage personal loneliness.

"This day and age we’re living in, Gives cause for apprehension,

With speed and new invention, And things like fourth dimension.

And no matter what the progress, Or what may yet be proved,

The simple facts of life are such, They cannot be removed. 

You must remember this…" Frank Sinatra- As Time Goes By

And all of us are humming this in our head now…an unsophisticated way of believing in absolutes!

Most decent people think of Christmas as a time of love and affection, and the music and the art adorn this marvellously.


Rev Richard Taylor

Spiritual Advisor

Borbank Hall, Cumbria, UK