Quick thought experiment for the holiday season. How do we know that Joseph wasn’t Mary’s baby daddy? There’s only one logical answer: he blabbed.
We know from Matthew that Joseph had some options when he found out Mary was pregnant.
“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.Matthew 1:19
He could have 1) made her a public example, 2) put her away privily or 3) said nothing and just let people assume he impregnated her. The third option, the one not mentioned in Matthew, is the obvious default.
Making her a public example could have dire consequences, although it’s not a foregone conclusion that the consequence would be death by stoning as in the Old Testament. Some scholars state that the usual punishment for such a situation would be that she would be forced to marry the child’s natural father, or if she were raped, the father might be subject to the death penalty (Matthew Poole’s commentary). According to the Expositor’s Greek Testament [ibid], it is more likely that Joseph’s choice was between a public writ of divorcement or a private one (with only two or three selectively chosen witnesses. In this interpretation, his choices were roughly the same, but his attitude in executing the divorcement was the only difference. He chose the “kinder” option, but both options were a repudiation of her. One was just less harsh.
Putting her away privily was also no benefit to her, only to him, in that he would be able to find a different wife and start over, but of course, her life would be ruined. Nobody would marry such a woman, and women had no means to financially support themselves. His preference for this choice is considered evidence of him being “a just man,” because he’s unwilling to see her humiliated, but he also doesn’t wish to be burdened by her. Other scholars [ibid] point to the second option as being one that doesn’t assign a cause to her, kind of like a “no-fault” divorce today, whereas the first would require an indictment of her character. Even so, if she were “put away” yet also pregnant, unless she used an herbal remedy known to terminate pregnancy, she would still be saddled with single parenthood in a patriarchal society. It would be very difficult for her to cobble together a supported life after that.
It’s the intervention of an angel  who suggests to Joseph that he should just keep his mouth shut and marry her, raising her child as his own. Otherwise, Jesus wasn’t going to have a great childhood with a single mother with no financial resources and no means to remarry in their patriarchal culture. Note that the angel didn’t say, “Go tell all your friends what a great guy you are for doing this.”
So, what went wrong? How is it that everyone knows this story?
What I mean is, if Joseph didn’t blab, we wouldn’t even know that Jesus wasn’t his kid, but basically everybody knew it, and we all know it today, two thousand years later. Those who wrote the Bible, years after Jesus’ death knew about it. Was Joseph a just man? Or was he just trying to get credit for being a swell guy?
Some dude on Twitter mansplained to me that the pregnancy had already gotten them both in hot water because it was well known, to which I say, “Sources?” Basically, the fact that he had the option to put her away privily means he still held all the cards. He wasn’t obligated to make a scandal. There is no Biblical evidence to support the claim that it was already public knowledge at that time.
We also know that Mary wasn’t the one broadcasting her secrets. She was most likely a fairly obscure fourteen year old girl. We are told in Luke 2 that she kept these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds and wise men are also identified as likely culprits for gossip; the shepherds are specifically indicted as blabs in Luke 2:
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.Luke 2: 17-19
Even though the angels spilled the beans to the shepherds that the baby was the savior of mankind, paternity was not specifically addressed in what the shepherds were told, and while they marked the baby as special, they did not tie it to His parentage. He could have theoretically been the savior of mankind, but still have human parents. The record does not say they were told otherwise.
When it comes to paternity, there were only two people who knew firsthand that Joseph was not the baby’s father: Mary and Joseph. Mary had no reason to tell, and great incentive not to tell (having her husband’s child prematurely was by far the most respectable position for her), and she is explicitly described as tight-lipped. Joseph, however, got some credit for being so magnanimous in taking care of a baby that wasn’t his own and not ruining his young bride’s life. Therefore, he’s the only one with motive and opportunity. To me, it looks like he must have blabbed.
While that’s better than turning her over to the religious authorities or sticking her in the Jerusalem equivalent of a convent, it’s not quite as generous and genteel as just acting like the kid was his all along. It was the more merciful of the two options he considered, certainly, and within the context of those two choices, he chose the least unjust one. As a woman, it feels like a bit of a stretch to call him a “just man” for choosing the lesser of two evils in a patriarchal dystopia, but I can see why the men who wrote about it would do so, given their perspective and their lack of empathy for the plight of women–or in this case, young girls.
- Do you think Joseph was a “just man” or “just a man”?
- Do you see an alternative to Joseph as the source for the information?
- Given that Joseph didn’t write any scripture, was this account of his actions inserted by later male authors to justify his position?
- Did later authors use this story to bolster Jesus’ divine mission? Does the story add anything important to that claim?
 Same angel that came to Joseph Smith with a flaming sword? If so, this angel’s a bit of a busybody about people’s sex lives.
 Case in point, I’m pretty special, and I have human parents.
History is riddled with stories of Virgin Births.
Because the gospels were an oral history that was written down later — And Joseph did none of the writing — I assume the details of His birth were embellished by people who had no personal knowledge of any of it.
Given that the gospels were written a very long time after Christ’s birth and death, the written story doesn’t have the requirement of being locked into the time period being reported.
So isn’t it possible that it was Mary, much later in her life, who told this story to others, and was then written based on her reports? Perhaps at that later time, when there are several hundreds of Christian followers she feels a bit more safe in doing so and wants people to know the true divinity of Jesus’ conception and birth?
I could be missing something but I don’t see an absolute proof that it was Joseph the carpenter who blabs. However, the theory presented in the OP has just as much possibility of being accurate.
By the way, the footnote concerning the “sex Nazi” angel. . . that was genius!
We Mormons are duelists: humanity is body and spirit. And we have no theology that states when the 2 are joined. Maybe Joseph is the father of the body and God is the Father of the spirit. But I guess that wouldn’t differentiate Christ from us. But maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe Christ was a special spirit. Joseph, as father of the body, would negate the idea of a virgin birth.
Roger, many times I’ve wanted to be a Mormon duelist, usually near the end of pointless meetings, fortunately for everyone there’s never a gun handy when I feel that way.
Sorry, I probably meant dualist.
Of course he talked Have you ever been in a situation where you discover the girl who you are engaged to has been unfaithful to you? I have Did I consult with people whose judgement I trusted about what I should do . ?Yes. I would not consider that blabbing I was in pain and uncertain what I should do so sought help . Soon without any disclosure from me or my trusted advisors it became evident to lots of other people what was going on. Your analysis is faulty and fails to reflect emotional realities
Elizabeth and possibly Zechariah knew the circumstance, indicating Mary’s family, direct and extended, probably knew what was going on. Jesus was born in the home of Joseph’s extended family, and I expect they could do the math. Maybe Joseph’s family, to save face with the locals, told the Book of Matthew’s version of events.
Based on what happened at the synagogue in Nazareth, the locals there all assumed Jesus was Joseph’s son, which may be why Mary and Joseph set up shop there. So perhaps after that brouhaha, Jesus siblings defended Jesus’s assertion of divinity by relating what their father had done Heck, Jesus could have just have easily relayed the story to his closest disciples to both teach them about his own divinity and defend his step father.
In short, between the intervening years between the conception and his ascension, there were many individuals who were likely in the know with opportunity and motive to share the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. I think your analysis is flawed.
I enjoyed your analysis as food for further thought. My first notion was to wonder what nuance the earliest Greek NT writings may have, and then if there are different nuances that show up in early alternate Bible translations. Not being a scholar, along with the impending arrival of the proverbial freight train of duties that is Christmas, I’m not going to go there any further.
But based on my unscholarly knowledge and experience with historical patriarchy, I think it prudent to assume that Joseph blabbed, along with all the gossips in the immediate family/neighborhood/synagogue. And as the holy child grew to fulfill his mission, people continued to blab, and sometimes get defensive about the issues surrounding the possible less-than-immaculate conceiving of a baby.
And down through the centuries of the development of Christianity and biblical scholarship, the rather minor issue of Joseph’s contribution remained important enough, from the point of view of said developers, for all the markers of his magnanimity to remain firmly embedded in the accounts of the story of the Christ child and His mother, who was there for the conception of the baby, and the foster dad, who was not.
JLM: Good point about Elizabeth and Zechariah. Honestly, though, if a 14-year old girl disclosed the HG sex scene to me the way it is presented in the Bible, I would probably not take it at face value, but then again, I was raised on Law & Order Special Victims Unit, not two thousand year old superstition. Also, John the Baptist “leaping” in the womb is just what happens at that stage of fetal development, aka what they used to call “the quickening.” (Parenthetically, terminating pregnancies up to the point of quickening was pretty routine for millenia and not considered “abortion” or problematic. Until the quickening it was considered to be delayed menses, and remedies were used to return the menses).
As to the siblings being blabs, they may have been, but only if they were told by someone, and I still think Joseph (and possibly his kin) are the likely culprits. Did Joseph have doubts about standing by her? Did he worry he had been duped? Did he want to be sure everyone knew the kid was not his? These are all unanswered questions, although that last question could be answered partly by the Gospel of Jesus in which young Jesus was a bit of a hellion, disobeying parents and using his powers to zap kids he didn’t like. That particular gospel sounds a whole like like the Spiderman and Superman origin stories in which a young superhero first discovers his powers and has to learn to govern them. Apparently, there’s nothing new under the sun!
Bellamy: That certainly sucks, and I’m sorry that happened to you. The only caveat that applies to Joseph’s situation and not yours is that these were not love matches as they are today. Joseph’s heart was probably not really engaged with Mary. The way the Bible describes it, he’s trying to be “just” to her, maybe he cares what happens to her, but he doesn’t show any signs of personal heartbreak at being betrayed. It’s also likely he was several years older, and that she was probably around 14 years old. He may have felt protective of her, assuming she had been raped, which seems a more likely assumption than a fourteen year old girl juggling lovers.
Roger Hansen: Interesting thoughts. As to whether or not it was a virgin birth, some scholarship on that doesn’t consider it likely that it was. Obviously that’s not what Christian faiths believe, but there is textual evidence that it’s an afterthought. I’d have to go digging to find what I’m looking for, and I’m not that committed, but it’s something to look into if you are. There are many myths of virgin births in ancient cultures, probably for two reasons: 1) to make the individual’s origin more divine, and 2) to erase the connection to womanly weakness and sinful lust. Earliest Christianity could arguably be said to be pretty progressive on women (they were running Churches out of the homes and holding office), but pretty quickly, patriarchy took over, and the Catholic Church was sufficiently anti-woman to enforce (wink) a celibate clergy.
Just read a book that argued that the particular bit you refer to was intentionally there as part of a point that Matthew was trying to make in comparing Jesus to Moses. In other words – a total fabrication / parable for storytelling purposes not based on a real event. So if that’s true I guess I’m giving Joseph a pass. If not …
Reza Aslan – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
– wherein the author convincingly posits (or, if you prefer, posits convincingly) that the entire story is fiction
I’m very much in the camp of: the virgin birth story is a fable and Joseph was just Jesus’ dad. That said, I would love to have more historical details about both Joseph and Mary, the parents of the most influential figure in the history of the world.
Joseph doesn’t figure in the stories of Jesus’ ministry hence he probably died young, but one wonders what kind of influence he had on Jesus’ early years. And Mary! The most important mother in history, whether Jesus was the son of God or not. I’d love to know how she raised her son. It’s a shame they were all illiterate so almost everything we know about them comes from traditions and legends. Was Joseph the sort of 1st century Jewish man who saw Samaritans as equals or was he more traditionally xenophobic? Do we have mainly Mary to thank for Jesus’ radically egalitarian selflessness or did Joseph help instill that in him? Was Joseph “a just man?” We’ll probably never know.
Here is another thought. Let’s assume Joseph was very much into Mary, and had the three options before him when he found out about her pregnancy. The Bible seems to indicate that Josepb came from a devout family, perhaps scrupulously so. There is speculation that Jesus’s family was part of the Qumran group.
When the angel appeared to Jospeh, he said not to be afraid of taking Mary as a wife. So why was he afraid? I think the answer is obvious. He felt immerse social and perhaps family pressure not to marry her. Yet he still loved her so he tried the middle path. I beleive he wanted to still marry her and all it took was some reassurance that it was OK to defy the social norms of his community to the right thing.
JLM: Really interesting thoughts.
Personally, I find the story of the virgin conception disturbing, and I think it’s far more likely that the idea of a virgin birth was a later addition to bolster the story. There are quite a few stories in the Bible that appear to me at least to be totally plagiarized from other ancient sources and inserted as an embellishment of what is unique. The story still exists, though, so I do think it’s worth taking a close look at how these individuals are presented. I was surprised at how many Biblical commentaries were committed to turning this into a Hallmark movie about Joseph’s obvious love for her. No, if he loved her in that way, as so many insist, he would have kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t a callous monster either, but she was basically a child. I don’t see this as a tender meetcute. But JLM’s theory makes sense as to why he might be conflicted.
The Bible? If you can believe that an ass (donkey) literally spoke, you can believe anything.
I should preface my remarks by saying I think it’s more likely that Joseph was Jesus’s actual father. But assuming it was birth by HG and/or heavenly conception:
I think it’s a stretch to think Joseph must have been the one who blabbed. Just because Mary is said to be right-lipped after the shepherds visited her does not mean she necessarily told no one about how she ended up pregnant. Perhaps she confided in a close friend or told her mother (who likely would have told told her father) or as JLM points out maybe it was Elisabeth. Or maybe Mary or Joseph told Jesus (or his siblings). Or maybe John the Baptist knew (or figured it out). Or Simeon or the prophet Anna who may have figured it out and is explicitly a noted blabber (“ and [she] spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”)
Regardless, I think Jospeh was just a man who may have also been just even if he was a blabber
I understand that the veracity of the biblical accounts, to us modern folks, ranges somewhere between completely fictional to God’s Miraculous Truth In Every Word. In my comment, I addressed the internal logic of the historical account, without accounting for accuracy. I admit I don’t know what really took place, and nobody else does either. But speculation, like gossip, is fun.
However, Kirkstall’s approach makes clear that there are at least some parts of the account with strong credibility. Also, I claim fidelity to my battered faith, messy and broken, repaired and repurposed many times, to inform my understanding. I’m still trying to make sense of it, and so I really liked the new thoughts presented in the OP and comments, and summarized in Angela’s comment above. (HT to JLM)
I agree that Joseph’s motives and reputation have been burnished (by an all-male panel) over the historical interval, and currently have an iridescent, glittery sheen that reflects our culture much more than whatever reality.
I enjoy digging for something more plausible that satisfies my eye-rolling tendency. But eventually, to keep my balance, I must recall that I don’t know what really happened, and nobody else does either.
Merry Christmas everyone!
I hope this isn’t hijacking the OP. I think it contains important information.
A Feminist Critique of BYU
Salt Lake Tribune Sunday 12/19/2021
“… the associate dean, Sarah Westerberg, “knew a lot of details about my sexual assault that I hadn’t shared with them,” Wilson said. And Westerberg used that information, Wilson said, to confront her about whether she had broken the religious school’s rules.”
Down the page a ways,
“Westerberg, who also served as BYU’s part-time Title IX coordinator, left that office as part of widespread reforms the university announced in fall 2016. … She kept her role as associate dean of students. She has since been promoted to dean of students, the office that oversees the Honor Code Office.”
Seventh ¶ from the top, “Records recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed campus police Lt. Aaron Rhoades inappropriately accessed not only Wilson’s report to Provo police, but reports related to nearly a dozen other students. And they show Rhoades’ surveillance of students was part of a de facto system, with university employees in several school departments asking him for information and welcoming his reports.”
Scroll down a ways,
“Rhoades avoided criminal prosecution, but he did retire from BYU’s police department in 2018 and gave up his policing license. He was given a year’s salary when he retired, according to the documents, which was unusual in that department. Stott, his boss, said he had never heard of that happening before.
“I’d like to know where to get one of those,” said Stott, who also retired that same year.
The deposition also reveals that BYU paid for Rhoades’ defense lawyer.”
I am okay with taking the story at face value, and seeing Joseph as a just man. That’s my choice — I choose faith.
Hey, I think you are proving the point of the entire article perfectly! As a woman, it feels like a bit of a stretch to call him a “just man” for choosing the lesser of two evils in a patriarchal dystopia.