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Joseph and Mary—Married or Engaged?
Unraveling the Mess of Modern Translations

(Reprinted from the Christian Voyager Compass, Jan 2006)

The first Christmas Eve - what a wondrous night it was! It was a night in Bethlehem where shepherds tended their flocks in the open fields under a deep and starry canopy, where clans and families had already scurried with their caravans to prepare to register for the official census under Caesar Augustus, and now, where every inn was brimming with occupants and every conceivable lodging space was already taken. Quite beyond the notice of the busy hubbub, a simple man enters through the town gate with a donkey carrying a young woman ready to give birth. And though the couple searches franticly, inn after inn, for a place to lodge, it is to no avail-there is no room. At last they are allowed to shelter in a meager stable… And we know the rest of the story.

Now somewhere in all the accounts of this special night, read to us in our churches every Christmas Eve, something has changed—something very small and inconspicuous, but something terribly important. And like the couple entering Bethlehem that night, it has gone virtuously unnoticed.

For centuries, English speaking Christians recounted the nativity of Christ from the Bible of the English language, the King James Version (KJV). It begins, "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." (Luke 2:4-5 KJV) It was, among many others, a beloved text, one memorized by young and old alike. And there was never any confusion as to what it meant, only a reverent awe at the implications of it all.

But things have changed in the last few decades. The English Bible has been set on the proverbial shelf, since its archaic language is becoming more difficult for modern readers. And in its place have come a host of heralded new versions, each touted to be ever-truer to the "original," though, in actuality, each is further away from objective translation and verifiable source than the one previous to it.

A New Interpretation

Not so very long ago, I chanced to hear a Christmas Eve sermon at what was termed a "seeker sensitive" service. The speaker did his best not to alienate non-Christian listeners with undo moral injunctions, and the modern Bible he preached from worked perfectly to incorporate this inclusiveness. From the New International Version (NIV) he read the following:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Luke 2:4-5 NIV)

For the first time, I noticed a most subtle change in the verse: it was no longer Joseph's "espoused wife" who was with him, but rather one just "pledged to be married" to him. My, that was odd. Were we to believe that Mary was only engaged to Joseph yet traveling alone with him? Could it truly be said that the couple was only engaged, not married, and yet living together (albeit without sexual relations) until after Jesus was born?! The speaker that night seemed to think so!

He went on to contend that in Matthew's account of these events family members or townspeople had actually found out Mary's condition ahead of time so that she became the topic of gossip in Nazareth. He then explained that Joseph, though not yet married, would have had to enact a divorce in order to get out of the arrangement since in those days engagement was virtually as binding as marriage. Could all this be true? Have you heard these things too, dear Reader? If so, keep following this trail as we will soon come to some very interesting discoveries!

To all the claims made by the speaker that evening, we shall unapologetically reply, nonsense! We will subsequently show why this is so. But we should note here that, in all fairness, the speaker may have simply been confused by the wording in these new translations, namely the NIV. After all, in the Luke 2:5 reading, the Greek text underlying the NIV (and not only the NIV but all the new versions) completely leaves out the word, "wife" in regards to Mary's status! An amazing omission, since the word is unquestionably behind the Received Greek Text of the KJV. But not so surprising, since these newer Greek texts are merely "eclectic," chosen piece-meal by modern Biblical scholars from various manuscripts like so many bits of a mosaic. Thus they cannot effectually be authorized from any traceable text tradition. Dear me! What irresponsible action has gone on behind the scenes and what a mess of affairs these translations have made for us! It's time to investigate this matter for ourselves.

The "Home As" Problem

First, let's read the nativity account in Matthew from the NIV and see how this translation carefully alters the text to place Joseph and Mary in a pre-married status:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:18-21 NIV)

A bit further on, in verse 24, we read, "when Joseph woke up, he did what the Angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." (NIV)

Leaving aside verses 18 and 19 for a moment, let's begin by examining verse 20. Here the angel is telling Joseph not to fear taking Mary "home as" his wife. Verse 24 reiterates this, saying Joseph obeyed the angel and took Mary "home as his wife." Yet neither of the words, "home" or "as," are even in the Greek text which underlies the NIV. Not at all! This is very disturbing because with the purely fabricated word, "home," inserted, the reader gets the impression that indeed Mary's situation must have been found out prior to the marriage, since, if she is not at Joseph's residence then she must still be at home with her family. Furthermore, the clever addition of the word, "as," to form the phrase, "as a wife," gives the reader the strong indication that Mary at that point was certainly not yet Joseph's spouse, although the underlying Greek text for the NIV explicitly states that she was indeed his wife! Going one further, since Joseph is then seen contemplating having to divorce Mary to end the "engagement," the reader is left concluding that such engagements were indeed binding! And perhaps the speaker that night had even reasoned that Joseph taking Mary home "as his wife" actually meant that she would simply appear as a wife to those outside (though the idea goes beyond the normal boundaries of interpretation). That is, it would seem that they were married to all looking on, although they would still only be engaged, though refraining from sexual union. But again, we must emphatically state, the underlying Greek text of this passage unambiguously shows that Mary was already Joseph's lawful wife.

The Long Slumber Problem

Continuing our research, we see next that the NIV states that "when Joseph woke up" he did what the angel commanded him. With this wording, the reader could easily assume that it was not until the following morning when Joseph finally arose and went to get Mary and bring her "home" with him "as his wife." However, the phrase "when Joseph woke up" is a rather ambiguous rendering of the underlying Greek which has a much more immediate sense to it. The KJV has it perfectly, stating that, "then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the Angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife," (literally, "took to his side" or "took into his embrace") his wife." This accurate reading implies that Joseph was awakened right away and took Mary (who was already his wife and who was already abiding with him) to be next to him bodily.

The Meaning of Betrothed

Now let's go back to the beginning of our passage in verse 18. "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (NIV)

Let's stop here. Mary was "pledged to be married," or as the KJV has it, "espoused" to Joseph. That is, she was "given in marriage" transactionally, legally spoken for and "betrothed," set apart as Joseph's wife at that time. All that remained was for Joseph, once he was ready with finances and housing arrangements, to come and escort his bride to their new home, with all their friends joining along in wedding procession to congratulate the new couple. Though there might be some kind of feasting, this would not have been any long or elaborate affair for a poorer couple, but rather may well have been simply a celebratory evening of song and cheer. Nor was there any rabbi on the scene to "bless" or "formalize" the marriage, since marriage in those days was a decidedly secular event.
Marriage was binding, not because it was connected with any religious service, priest, or place of worship-as is the case in our day-but because it had been ordained by God from the beginning of creation (see Genesis 39:9; Matthew 19:4-6). Once the legal protocols were taken care of through the betrothal, it was considered final: all that remained was the consummation of the new relationship by the couples' sexual cohabitation, the two becoming one flesh. Remember that Isaac, when he married Rebekah, simply took her into his tent and "she became his wife." (Genesis 24:67) That is, she entered into full wifehood when they had sexual relations, but the transactional legalities had already been secured when the marriage betrothal was authorized by her father, Bethuel and her brother, Laban. (See Genesis 24:49-54)

This is a far cry from how Christians are married today. Though the laws of the state regulate the secular transactions of the marriage arrangement, yet in the Church, marriage is not considered inaugurated nor acceptable to God until a religious ceremony is performed by a clergy member. There is a longstanding tradition of this in Christianity, although there is no basis of the practice from Scripture-either from the Old or the New Testament. This separation of the betrothal (that is, the pledging one's commitment to marry another) from the actual marriage contract itself has resulted in the more modern understanding of engagement, which is socially viewed as the serious-but breakable-courtship phase prior to marriage. We see clearly that today's engagement is not the same as the Biblical espousal/betrothal of marriage and that to equate the two only brings confusion to the student of Scripture.

The Nonexistent "But" and Obscured Meaning of "Come Together"

The very next clause in our verse 18 reads, "but before they came together…." The word "but," like so many other words in the NIV, is merely inserted; the underlying Greek text here for the NIV does not have the word "but" nor any word at all! To insert such a word here when there is not even a hint of it in the Greek is completely without linguistic integrity. Yet this is done to give the impression that the marriage did not yet take place due to Mary being found to be pregnant. In other words, the NIV rendering indicates that Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, but something happened to prevent that marriage from occurring. That something was: Mary was found to be pregnant. In actuality though, there is no such disjuncture linguistically. As we have already shown, the first part of this verse states that Mary was already legally wedded to Joseph; there did not have to be some further "marriage ceremony" to authenticate their relationship. And since in reality there is no "but" in front of following phrase, it reads exactly as the KJV renders it: "before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost." The plain reading of the passage then is that Mary was already lawfully espoused/wedded to Joseph and they were about to consummate their marriage by sexual intercourse-which is here rendered as "before they came together"-when Mary is discovered to be pregnant. This "coming together" is not a reference to any marriage ceremony or even celebration (as the NIV rendering intimates) but rather to sexual relations. We can see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:5 where Paul is using this exact Greek word when exhorting married couples not to refrain from sexual relations for long: "Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency." (KJV) In the man/woman context, this term is always used to denote the sexual union. Thus, the straightforward translation of verse 18 simply indicates that Joseph discovers Mary's pregnancy (presumably in the privacy of their own room) on the very night they were to consummate their marriage by conjugal love.

The Unwarranted Birth Scandal Claims

But the reader may ask, would not Mary's pregnancy have begun to show by then? Would not people close to her have been making remarks? First of all let us consider that there were people already in her family that knew Mary's situation from the beginning. Luke 1:39-45 recounts how Mary's cousin Elizabeth discerned by the Holy Spirit that Mary was already carrying the Messiah! It is probable that Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah was also made aware of it. And could it be that the mother of Mary knew as well? Or perhaps Mary was without a mother at that time, and even without sisters, so that her times of bathing would have been completely private. Mary, it seems, never announced it to anyone, since the Scripture says that she "treasured up all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:19); no doubt a very good idea to keep herself hidden and let God work out the PR-even with regards to Joseph!

Realistically, Mary would not have begun to show signs of pregnancy outwardly for at least three to four months from the time Jesus was conceived. Interestingly, it could well have been just over three months that Mary was carrying Jesus before she and Joseph were to "come together" since Luke 1:26-56 details the angel's enunciation to Mary and Mary's subsequent visit to Elizabeth for that precise amount of time. So it is not hard to imagine that the generously modest clothing of that era could easily have concealed an early pregnancy from those not "in the know"-including even Joseph, at least until he and Mary were alone in the marriage chamber.

We should note as well, that had there been any hints publicly of an indiscretion on Mary's part in such a small community, Jesus' ministry would have been constantly met with such accusations by those who wanted to destroy Him. Remember, Joseph and Mary were married in Nazareth (Luke 2:4) and later returned to that very town when Jesus was still a small child (Matthew 2:22-23), so people most certainly knew who they were. When we search the Gospels for any trace of accusations against Jesus' birth, we find none whatsoever. Instead, we find great admiration of Jesus among the townsfolk. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man." (Luke 2:52) Illegitimate births in those days were not something easily tolerated among the devout, and certainly never accepted. Jesus would have been the laughing stock of his fellow Jews during His miraculous ministry if there had been any question of His mother's marital fidelity.

That there was absolutely no indication of such a question can be seen in Matthew 13:55-56, where, after hearing Him teach, those in Jesus' hometown area incredulously ask, "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? and his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?" Nor in all the accounts of Jesus' ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection is there any trace of such claims leveled against His conception or birth, though it is obvious that the religious rulers who condemned Him to death would have eagerly latched on to such "information" in their desperate attempt to discredit Him. In fact, it is only after Christ rose from the dead and inaugurated His Church do we begin to see in history this insidious slander crop up from among those who hated Him. By then, of course, the whole story of His miraculous birth would have come to the fore, verified by Mary herself and others close to the events, as believers would need to know just who this wonderful Savior actually was!

Joseph's Resolve to Divorce

As we continue down our Matthew passage, verse 19 reveals that, upon surveying the situation, Joseph was convinced that Mary must have been unfaithful to him. "Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man…" (NIV); that is, being a devout Jew, Joseph wanted out of what he deemed to be an ungodly marriage union, yet he loved Mary and did not want her to come to harm. Being legally wed, he only had two options by which to end their marriage. First, he could expose her supposed infidelity publicly according to Deuteronomy 22:20-21 and have her stoned to death for being promiscuous (thus no need to divorce her). Or second, he could claim he had found some personal "indecency" in her and divorce her in a very low-key, behind-the scenes manner which was the fashion of some rabbis of the day. (Deuteronomy 24:1-2). He chose option number two. Following the closer rendering of the KJV we read,

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. (KJV, vs. 19)

Joseph Embraces Mary his Wife

Verses 20-22 tell us that while Joseph was contemplating what to do, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream telling him not to be afraid to take to himself (to his side) Mary his wife, since it was God's own child that she carried. Again, following the KJV rendering, we read in verses 24 and 25, "Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. In other words, Joseph, now understanding the situation accurately, took Mary to his side to sleep together with him. Because of God's intervention, Joseph had a complete turnaround! He now could accept Mary as his wife without reservation and although they no doubt embraced, Joseph decided he would not have sexual intercourse with her until after she bore God's Son.

How discretely the Scripture deals with what happened. It does not go into unnecessary personal detail but gives just enough information to explain the gist of the situation. God had protected Mary and His holy plan from any outside prying or harassment, while informing only those few whom He had chosen to know ahead of time. He is a master of perfect timing! And Mary truly exemplifies a woman of "faith" who trusted in God to accomplish His most amazing purposes through what seemed quite precarious circumstances! How ever would she explain this to Joseph? Yet she knew God would intervene. And how faithfully God did intervene while Mary quietly waited for His promises to come to fruition.

The Happy Conclusion

Thus when we find Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem five or six months later in Luke's account (Luke 2:4-5), we now understand that the English Bible was right all along: Mary is here referred to as the "espoused wife" of Joseph rather than as one "pledged to be married" to him, as the NIV states. The Greek text which underlies the KJV in the passage includes both the words, "espoused" and "wife," conveying that Mary was Joseph's "legally wedded" but "not yet known" wife. They were indeed married, but they had not yet consummated their marriage through physical union. And Matthew's wonderful account has shown us why not: they decided to postpone the intimacy of their marriage out of reverence for God until His Holy Son was delivered into the world! What an amazing couple.

So, dear reader, rest assured, Joseph and Mary were most certainly married when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant and later when they traveled together to register in Bethlehem. And no, it is not accurate to state (as many commentaries do) that engagement in those days was as binding as marriage, because engagement as we know it (as a pre-marriage courtship) did not even exist. Rather the espousal was the marriage, at least from a legal standpoint, enabling the couple to then "come together" in physical union once all the material preparations were ready. And that time could arrive whenever the bridegroom chose! And no again, Mary was not exposed to contempt or slanderous accusations regarding her pregnancy with Jesus as we have clearly shown from Scripture.

Thankfully, a close look at the Greek text and the faithful rendering of the text in the English Bible have put all these misunderstandings to naught. And so we have been brought full circle, back again to that simple purity of the first nativity eve wherein we read:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. (KJV Luke 2:4-5)

*Note: So filled with inaccuracies is the NIV that it would take years of careful study to detect the bulk of them. The errors here exposed are some of the least significant in comparison to all the known errors of the NIV. If you use a Bible for study it is best to use the KJV as it is invariably closest to the Greek text, or at the very least use the NKJV or even the NASB. You will be glad you did in the end.


*Copyright © 2006 by Diana Rosdail. All rights reserved.