Continuing with Matthew’s story we learn Mary is “pledged to be married,” or betrothed to Joseph. In first century Palestine “adultery” was narrowly defined as sex between a married person and someone other than a spouse. “Betrothal” was actually the formal beginning of the marriage relationship, matrimonially binding in all ways except for physical consummation.

Jews took betrothal status extremely seriously, both in a legal sense and in terms of the spiritual.

Consider that the Hebrew word for “betrothal” or “engagement” is kiddushin, which comes from the same root as kadosh, meaning “set apart,” or “holy.” Indeed, there is an entire tractate in the Mishnah (part of the Talmud) called Kiddushin. This spiritual and cultural context may explain why Jesus often chose to speak in terms of betrothal when teaching fellow Jews about his purpose on the earth. It may also explain the particular miracle he chose to begin his earthly ministry.

In a culture that placed such importance on betrothal, virtually interlinking it with the concept of holiness, if Jesus had been the product of adultery he would certainly have been deemed unworthy to function as the Messiah. Indeed, this very argument was used much later in Sanhedrin 43a and 63a of Rabbinic Judaism’s Babylonian Talmud, where it is said that Mary (her true name, Miriam, is used of course) became pregnant by a Roman soldier named Panera, who is alleged to be the actual adulterous father of Jesus. Jesus is called “Yeshu ben Panera” in several places in the Talmud, which means “Jesus, son of Panera.”

So we have a third reason for the virgin birth in addition to the others mentioned last week. As we have already seen in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, God chose to use prostitutes, adulteresses and pagans to bring the Messiah to earth, but the virgin birth instructs Matthew’s Jewish readers not to place him in the same category as his ancestors. The virgin birth means Jesus himself was not himself the direct result of sin. On the contrary, his miraculous conception gives new meaning to the holiness associated with betrothal and marriage, and provides another hint that this messiah is not be the kind of king the Jews expect. He is both less, and more.

This miraculous conception, like many other miracles, came with a great price which served to test and strengthen faith. Note Matthew’s comment about Joseph’s state of mind: he is afraid. Why this fear? The answer can no doubt be found in Jewish law. Joseph has nothing to fear for his own sake, but Mary’s life might be forfeit if her “adultery” comes to light. Surely Joseph’s fear is evidence of a great love. We should remember that Joseph has only Mary’s word in explanation of her pregnancy at this point in the narrative. Who among us would believe such an extravagant claim? He has every reason to respond with bitter acrimony, and legally, her life is in his hands. Yet Joseph intends to divorce Mary “quietly.”

With a modicum of faith in human charity, we might believe a cuckold would stop short at demanding his betrayer’s death, but here we find a man betrayed who does not even wish his betrayer’s reputation to be sullied. Although the protection afforded by a quiet divorce is unlikely to succeed in the tight-knit Jewish culture of first century Palestine, still Joseph hopes to minimize Mary’s suffering.

This is surely “turn the other cheek” in action, and ample reason for Matthew to call this good man “righteous.” Many give lip services to forgiveness, but in Joseph we find a true rarity: a man who has every reason to believe he has been severely wronged, yet manages to prove his forgiveness with his actions. Anyone this obviously in love surely would be heartbroken, yet Joseph's gentle response to Mary's "sin" is perfectly in line with what the scriptures teach us here, and here.

Consider the judgmental, hard-hearted reactions Christians often have when a brother or a sister falls. We can learn much from the humble example set by our Savior’s step-father.

Next week I will explore a final, most compelling reason for the virgin birth found in the Hebrew scriptures, and a question: Is it necessary to believe Mary was a virgin?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:10 PM  


Dayle James Arceneaux said... July 27, 2007 at 7:25 PM  

Thanks again, Athol. I'm loving this series.

Athol Dickson said... July 28, 2007 at 6:52 AM  

Thank you for posting your comment, Mr. Arceneaux. This blogging business is like teaching in a totally dark room. It's good to know there is somebody out there listening. I do appreciate your taking the time to tell me so.

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