Commentary for: Matthew 1:19   

Now Joseph her husband, being righteous and yet not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

“husband.” The Greek word is anēr (#435 ἀνήρ), and generally refers to an adult male. It can refer to a man in contrast to a woman (Acts 5:1; 8:12); a man in his role as a husband (Mark 10:12; Luke 2:36; Acts 5:9; thus sometimes the translation “husband” is acceptable); and a man in contrast to a boy (1 Cor. 13:11). Sometimes it was used universally when both men and women were present, “men” being inclusive of men and women because men were more visible in the culture and women were sheltered (Luke 11:31; James 1:20). Similarly, “man” was used in a way equivalent to “someone” or “a person” even if there was no specific need to refer to the sex of the person (Luke 9:38; John 1:30; Rom. 4:8). Matthew 1:19 is a case where culturally “man” (or “husband”) is used because in the conservative Eastern biblical culture to which Joseph and Mary belonged, a betrothal (engagement) was as strong as the marriage, so strong, in fact, that it had to be dissolved by divorce, as this verse makes clear. Thus, in the eyes of the people, Joseph was the “husband” of Mary, even though the two had not yet been through the marriage ceremony. This verse is a case where trying to translate anēr as “fiancée” or “betrothed” causes problems because then the reader is left wondering why a divorce was necessary to break the engagement. It is better to translate the Greek more literally and then learn the biblical culture, which promotes a better understanding of the entire Bible.

“and yet.” From Joseph’s point of view, his betrothed had unfaithfully slept with another man while still out of wedlock. He is now facing his legal options, out of his just nature desiring to fulfill the Law, and yet also desiring not to shame Mary. His options would be to either institute a lawsuit against Mary or issue her a certificate of divorce, dismissing her quietly. According to the Law, if a husband finds his new wife has had premarital sex, she should be stoned (Deut. 22:20-21). Joseph does not seem to be afraid that Mary will be stoned to death, however, instead he wished to save her from “public disgrace.” The reason for this is that by this time, death by stoning could not be accomplished in court (cp. John 18:31: “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death”). As Hendriksen explains: “This law had been modified by so many man-made restrictions that this possibility could be safely dismissed, [yet, instituting a lawsuit] would nevertheless have exposed Mary to public disgrace and scorn, the very thing which Joseph wanted by all means to avoid.” The only other option for Joseph is what is described in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. He could quietly issue her a certificate of divorce because he “found indecency” in her, and Mary could leave him and “become another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:1-2). Joseph wanted to allow her to go quietly and marry whom he presumed to be the man she had slept with. This would preserve her from public disgrace and, technically, fulfill the righteousness of the law prescribed in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.


Commentary for: Matthew 1:19