18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story and the angelic visit leading to it takes a different tack than Luke’s more familiar story. For Matthew, the angel does not visit Mary, but Joseph. And that visit comes in the middle of quite a dilemma. The story begins with Mary being found pregnant by a holy spirit—with no explanation given to explain that curious condition. Right off the bat, then, Matthew’s story of Jesus is picking at the seams of our “family values” quilt. The story of Jesus begins with an extramarital pregnancy and Mary’s fiancé is not the father.
In a culture where engagement was a covenantal agreement between families, one option for Joseph to choose regarding his pregnant fiancée was public shaming. It might be too much to assume that this includes “stoning,” but at the very least it would be a very public demonstration of the sacredness of marital fidelity that would cast Mary in the worst possible light and leave her homeless or bring shame to her family if they were to welcome her back into their home. Publicly shaming Mary would be one way of naming her assumed infidelity as, in today’s parlance, “a threat to the institution of traditional marriage.”
Joseph was aiming for a different, private response to Mary’s pregnancy, which the narrator attributes to him being a “just” man. That response is usually translated that Joseph’s desire was “to divorce her” privately (1:19). The verb in that sentence, apoluo, has the primary meaning of loosening, letting one go, or setting one free. It may indeed be translated as “divorce” and is in several other places in Matthew. It may also be translated as “to release” someone from an obligation, even to “forgive.” It is context that determines which direction one ought to take when translating apoluo and most translators assume that Joseph has two options: divorce loudly by making Mary a public spectacle or divorce quietly. Perhaps the angel’s counsel, in verse 20, is what makes translators assume that Joseph was intending to ‘divorce’ Mary. The angel says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” But, what if the accent of the angel’s counsel is not upon “take Mary as your wife” so as much as “do not be afraid”?
This moment could be translated this way: “Joseph, being a just man, was not willing to make Mary a public spectacle, but intended to forgive her privately.” Such an intention would require a tender, forgiving heart—which may well be what the narrator means by calling Joseph a “just” man. It would also take courage (hence, “Do not be afraid”) since Joseph’s own reputation is at stake in a culture where honor and shame have great significance. Whether we see apoluo as “divorce” or “forgive,” Joseph—as a demonstration of being “just”—chooses not to publicly shame Mary. That choice alone challenges the self-righteousness of “shaming” women who are victimized by a rape culture, rather than addressing the culture of rape itself. The angel’s visit begins by encouraging him in this risky choice.
The angel gives Joseph a threefold description of what will happen and how he is to play a role in it: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt.1:21). Joseph is not being told to stand aside and let Mary handle this curious birth. By being the one who names the child, Joseph is being instructed to step into the role of a father for a child whom he did not father. He might easily have named this bastard child “Barabbas,” a curious name that literally means “son of a father.” Instead, he is told to name the child “Jesus.” “Jesus” was not an uncommon name at the time, but it was a significant name, etymologically connected to the Hebrew “Joshua” and pointing—as the angel says—to salvation. It is Joseph who is to assume the role of the child’s father and to name him appropriately. The angel’s commission changes Joseph’s role from handling the matter privately to making a theological statement.
Joseph is utterly unknown in the New Testament outside of Matthew’s and Luke’s birth and childhood stories. He is apparently deceased by the time of Jesus’ public ministry. Yet his role in the birth story should not be underappreciated. He fills the role of father to a child who is not his—an act that necessarily involves a complex of emotions and risks. Many parents who end up raising their grandchildren, many parents who have adopted children, many foster parents who fill the parental role for a time, then let it go—these folks know the complexity of Joseph’s story. Even if he virtually disappears from the scene before Jesus’ ministry begins, Joseph’s story is a story of righteousness made known by parenting someone else’s child.