By Timothy Sparks
If we allow ourselves to indulge in speculating as some do about what might have been if God had not stopped Joseph from the course of action he was thinking about, and if God had favorably allowed Joseph to dismiss Mary for her supposed fornication, the following scenario may have likely transpired if we reverse the actual course of events detailed in Scripture. Please remember that we are merely indulging ourselves in what might have been in the following scenario since not a few have based some of their beliefs on their assumption that Joseph would have remained righteous if he had dismissed Mary for her supposed fornication. Here is a picture of what might have been. . . .
Joseph dismisses Mary for her fornication. Joseph does so because he refuses to take headship responsibility for her. In doing so, the headship responsibility of Mary remains under her father. Her father is now left with the dilemma of God’s commanded death penalty because Mary has played the harlot in her father’s house (Deut 22:21).
Back to reality, we understand that what Joseph was thinking about doing was the opposite of a public divorce. Joseph was not thinking about publicly shaming Mary. He was considering a private dismissal, which is what the text states of Joseph’s intentions. God does not judge/condemn a person for thinking about a course of action that may seem right but is nevertheless wrong. Some would view what Joseph was thinking about as a temptation/trial. Joseph did not yield to the temptation.
In fact, we do not know for sure what Joseph would have done if God had not intervened. We do know that Joseph obeyed God’s command, diverting him from any further thoughts of following through with dismissing Mary. Joseph remained righteous. God was not going to give Joseph favorable approval to dismiss Mary, and God did not. God’s will for Joseph was to become Mary’s husband.
Mary did not commit fornication. Joseph could not put her to death. Additionally, if Mary had committed fornication, then her death would not have been Joseph’s responsibility but her father’s as she was then still in her father’s house.
To clarify, in Joseph’s case there was no consideration of divorce of a God-joined union as they were not yet united by God. Joseph was simply considering dismissing her, not taking headship responsibility for her and leaving her in the hands of her father. It would have been her father’s responsibility to see the death penalty carried out upon her (Deut. 22:20-21).
Joseph became her husband before they had a sexual relationship (Mt. 1:24-25). While the Jews may not have recognized such a nonsexual union to be a God-joined union, God recognized it, just as he did when Adam received Eve as his wife and they were one flesh before they had a sexual relationship.
It is clear that if Joseph had followed through with what he was thinking about, he would not have remained righteous. Joseph did not divorce her publicly nor dismiss her privately. There is a lot of speculation among some, going so far as to infuse betrothal into a clear discussion of a God-joined union, as is the context of Matthew 19.
God’s Hebrew law stated the death penalty, not the divorce penalty for betrothal fornication (Deut. 22:20-21). So any teaching (such as the betrothal interpretation of Mt. 19:9) that requires God’s death penalty (which then existed under God’s Hebrew law) to be changed is not a correct interpretation. Jesus did not change his Father’s law while he was on the earth teaching it (Jn. 7:16-19; Heb. 9:16-17). He upheld it not just to the smallest letter (the yod), but even to the smallest part of a letter (Mt. 5:17-19).
By Timothy Sparks
The philological evidence during the Koine period indicates that one can fornicate in marriage. For example, the root word πόρνη, porné (the Greek word translated into English as fornicator/ prostitute) is used in the LXX of Jer. 3:1 , 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9. Notice specifically in Jer. 3:8-9 both επόρνευσε (committed fornication/prostitution)[verse 8], πορνεία (fornication/prostitution) [verse 9] and εμοιχάτο (committed adultery) [verse 8], εμοίχευσε (she committed adultery) [verse 9] show that a married woman can commit both fornication and adultery. If a married person can become a πόρνη (prostitute) then a married person can commit πορνεία (fornication/ prostitution).
Hauck and Schulz in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Volume VI, page 587) state that during later Judaism (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, the Rabbis) “the use of πορνεία etc. gradually broadened as compared with the original usage. In the first instance πορνεία is mostly ‘harlotry,’ ‘extra-marital intercourse,’ . . . . Materially, however, it often means ‘adultery,’ cf. ἐν πορνείᾳ ἐμοιχεύθη, Sir. 23:23.” They give additional evidence as well from passages such as Sir. 23:16-27.
Here is the Greek text of Sirach 23:23 (also known as Ecclesiasticus 23:23)–πρῶτον μὲν γὰρ ἐν νόμῳ ὑψίστου ἠπείθησεν καὶ δεύτερον εἰς ἄνδρα αὐτῆς ἐπλημμέλησεν καὶ τὸ τρίτον ἐν πορνείᾳ ἐμοιχεύθη καὶ ἐξ ἀλλοτρίου ἀνδρὸς τέκνα παρέστησεν (http://en.katabiblon.com/us/index.php?text=LXX&book=Sir&ch=23)
English translations of Sirach 23:23 (also known as Ecclesiasticus 23:23):
22 So it is with a woman who leaves her husband
and presents him with an heir by another man.
23 For first of all, she has disobeyed the law of the Most High;
second, she has committed an offense against her husband;
and third, through her fornication she has committed adultery
and brought forth children by another man.
RSV For first of all, she has disobeyed the law of the Most High; second, she has committed an offense against her husband; and third, she has committed adultery through harlotry and brought forth children by another man.
22 The same is true of a woman who is unfaithful to her husband and presents him with a child by another man. 23 In the first place, she has broken the Law of the Most High. In the second place, she has wronged her husband. And in the third place, she has made a whore of herself by committing adultery and bearing the child of a man not her husband.
CEBA: “First, she’s disobeyed the Law of the Most High; second, she’s wronged her husband; third, she’s committed adultery by her illicit sexual behavior and produced children by another man” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/ceba/sirach/23.html).
KJV of Ecclesiasticus 23:22-23–
22 Thus shall it go also with the wife that leaveth her husband, and bringeth in an heir by another.
23 For first, she hath disobeyed the law of the most High; and secondly, she hath trespassed against her own husband; and thirdly, she hath played the whore in adultery, and brought children by another man.
By Timothy Sparks
Jesus brought a new covenant. The new covenant went into effect after Jesus’ death, not before his death: “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives” (Heb. 9:15-17, NASB).
The new covenant had no strength at all before his death. Jesus lived and died under the old covenant. “For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth” (Heb. 9:17, KJV). “For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives” (Heb. 9.17, NASB).
Some seem to have difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the Jews could not divorce for betrothal fornication or for marital adultery, as the penalty was death (Deut. 22:13ff). Jesus lived and died under God’s law.
The new covenant had no strength at all before Jesus died. Jesus did not give a different law concerning marriage and divorce than the law God established in the beginning (Mt. 19:4, 8). There was no divorce in the beginning. Jesus did not introduce divorce into God’s law of marriage.