Joseph & Mary: Supposed Fornication and the Betrothal Dilemma (Mt. 1:18-25)

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).

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