Catholics are often accused of reading between the lines of Sacred Scripture, especially when it comes to her teachings regarding Our Lady’s role in the Incarnation. There is some truth to the accusation in that one way to look at Sacred Tradition is to see it as a reading between the lines. But this does not mean that we ignore the lines themselves. One place in particular where the lines are being ignored is directly related to the status of the marriage of Mary and Joseph at the time of the Annunciation.
Early in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:26-34), we are introduced to Mary, who is “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name is Joseph.” To the modern ear, it is assumed that the word betrothed means that Mary was engaged to Joseph, but not yet married. That is why some otherwise good translations (like the RSV Catholic Edition) have Mary responding to Gabriel’s proposal by saying, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” What follows is the assumption that Mary’s yes meant that she was to become an unwed mother and that Jesus is somehow illegitimate. Part of Our Lady’s share of the Cross would be to bear this shame. Despite the fact that this understanding is contrary to the perennial teaching of the Church, it is amazing how many Christians accept this unquestioningly.
By turning first to Matthew’s Gospel we can see that Joseph and Mary are in fact married when the Annunciation takes place. We are given an account of “how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph being a righteous man…resolved to divorce her quietly (Mt 1:18-19, emphasis added). Clearly, Mary and Joseph are in fact married and not merely “engaged.” The Evangelist introduces Joseph as Mary’s husband, Joseph contemplates divorce, and the angel tells Joseph not to fear to take Mary, “his wife” into his home. The use of the terms husband, divorce, and wife all make it pretty clear that they were married.
Some of the confusion stems from ignorance surrounding the Jewish marriage rite. The Jewish matrimonial procedure was normally is divided into two distinct phases—an initiating phase and a completing phase. The first phase consisted in the man presenting himself at the house of his desired bride to ask her (or her father) for her hand in marriage. Once he received consent, a marriage contract was drawn up and the two were officially married. This initiating phase was designated by the Rabbinic term kidushin, which referred to a marriage actually contracted. The problem is that in modern languages we do not have an equivalent term that describes an initial phase of marriage and it is rendered as espoused or betrothed. In this context however, it does not mean that they were merely engaged. At this stage the couple was married with all the rights and duties that come with it. The completing phase or nisuin, would occur when after a previously established time has passed, the man takes the wife into his home and fulfills all the promises of the marriage contract. This second phase can be seen as completing or sealing the marriage. Nothing new is added except the husband takes full possession of the wife and the wife is “husbanded” and given all the rights as his wife. This is also when the marriage was normally consummated.
Analogously we could look at these two phases of marriage in a similar way to what we do today. The couple exchange vows and are validly married (initiating phase) and the marriage is sealed through consummation that occurs sometime after the exchange of vows.
St. John Paul II affirms this understanding of the rite in his Apostolic Exhortation on St. Joseph, Guardian of the Redeemer saying, “according to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal, or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his own house. Thus, before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her ‘husband.’” (Guardian of the Redeemer, 18).
The reason why a proper understanding of the married state of Joseph and Mary is so important is because it serves as an example of the sanctity of marriage. Mary and Joseph were validly married and the natural fruit of marriage is a child. That is the place in God’s divine plan where a child is to be conceived and born. Now certainly Our Lord’s conception is altogether different than any other, but that does not change the fact that He is conceived and given as the fruit of Joseph and Mary’s marriage. What would it say if Jesus Himself were conceived out of wedlock and God performs a shotgun wedding of sorts through the Angel Gabriel? It would be an affirmation to many that having children outside of marriage is no big deal, especially because the Mother of God did it. Certainly there are many with diabolical intent who would like to promote this idea.
There was never any accusation against Jesus as illegitimate, which most certainly would have been the case had Joseph and Mary not been married. The Pharisees spent a lot of time trying to find dirt on Jesus and He was called many things, but a bastard was not one of them. Why would God allow the reputation of His Mother to be sullied in any way?
It is worth mentioning as well Joseph’s consideration of quietly divorcing Mary. This is not at all because he suspects her of adultery. Mary’s intention to remain a virgin was well known to Joseph prior to their marriage. A proper translation of Mary’s response to the angel reveals this. She asks “how can this be because I know not man?” (and not “how can this be because I do not have a husband?”) to indicate that she intends to remain perpetually a virgin, a vow that she assumed precluded her from having a child. The tense of the Greek suggests that her virginity was to be an enduring condition.
Given this knowledge Joseph would have had no reason to suspect her of adultery. In fact if you correctly read between the lines of Matthew’s text, you can conclude that if Joseph was in fact a “righteous man” then he would have followed every precept of the law of Moses including the requirement that if a wife was found in the act of infidelity by her husband then he was forced to divorce her and make her crimes known. Anyone who hid the crime was also guilty (see Lev 5:1).
He contemplated putting her away quietly because he did not think he was worthy of being married to her. He knew she was completely given to God, but he could not have known that it was to such a high degree. It is like a single man or woman who meets their ideal in a consecrated person and immediately knows they are not meant to be. They do not want to interfere in the life of someone given to God. As Aquinas says, “Holy Joseph pondered in his humility not to continue to dwell with so much sanctity.” This explains the angel’s response to Joseph that he should not “fear to take Mary his wife into his home.”
One might rightly wonder why, if Mary had been inspired by God from her youth to remain a virgin, she would have been given in marriage at all? This certainly speaks to the love and holiness of St. Joseph that he would take a woman with such a vow to be his wife. It could only be explained by Joseph himself being inspired to make a similar vow to live a life of wedded continence. Her father would have given her away because a father was obliged not to leave his daughter a virgin because it was seen as an inferior condition of a lack of fulfillment as a woman and mother. This is why the daughter of Jephthah mourns her virginity after she becomes a victim of her father’s rash vow. She is mourning not because of a lack of integrity but because of a lack of fulfilment (Judges 11:37-38).
In summary, Cardinal Burke as the following to say:
The reason for the virginal marriage of Mary with Saint Joseph was to secure the conception and birth of Jesus within wedlock, the normal context for all conception and birth. For all who are born of man and woman are intended eventually to be part of the Holy Family first constituted by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. For Jesus to have been born out of wedlock would, in fact, make the Holy Family something significantly less than holy. The fact that Jesus was virginally conceived and born after the marriage of Mary and Joseph means that Jesus was conceived and born within wedlock. This is contrary to what so many, even priests, are saying at the present time, namely, that Jesus was born out of wedlock, like the children of so many unmarried women today, and that this is not an ‘abnormal’ situation. A pregnant, un-wed mother is said to be, according to these people, in the same condition as Mary, who they claim was also un-wed at the time she conceived Jesus. This is false; it is indeed a very serious falsehood, for it undermines the sanctity of marriage and the reason for that sanctity. It is said by defenders of this position that Jesus was conceived after Mary and Joseph were engaged, but not yet married.