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 [1] 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.[2]

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?


[1] 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.

[2] Case in point, I’m pretty special, and I have human parents.