Joseph and Mary: Were They Married?

I was always a bit bothered (actually, more than a bit bothered) by the commonly understood interpretation of Matthew 1:18-20, and Luke 2:4-7.

It was, and perhaps still is, taught that Mary and Joseph were only engaged during this period. They were not actually married. In fact, I was told that they were somewhere in between, since an engagement during that era was taken more seriously than is common now. And when the Scripture says that Joseph “was minded to put her away privily,” instead of it meaning that he sought to divorce her, it really meant that he was seeking to break off the engagement. Indeed, my current Bible notes that “espoused” in Matthew 1:18, technically means “engaged to marry.” And “espoused wife” in Luke 2:5, means “engaged.”

There are a couple of problems with that interpretation, which, thankfully, is resolved by both the etymology of the word and the Word Itself—the Bible. One problem is the immoral message it sends about Joseph and Mary seeking “a room” in Bethlehem and receiving guests after Christ’s birth, presumably as a still unmarried couple. With never any mention of an official marriage, they eventually present their son JESUS in the temple at Jerusalem, when it could be said that they then effectively and officially presented themselves as a family.

We have no details of their sojourn in Egypt, where they fled from the murderous intent of King Herod and where some official marriage could then have happened. Nevertheless, finally “they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth” (Luke 2:39), while Jesus was still a child. Still, there was no mention of even a wedding feast for the extraordinary couple.

Another problem is that of discounting and even obliterating the message of the angel to Joseph. The angel clearly commands Joseph, “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife” (Matthew 1:20). Why wouldn’t the angel rather say something less definitive than wife? Maybe because there was no further need of explanation. Matthew, who quotes the angel, also definitively calls Joseph “her husband” in verse 18. That ought to be clear enough to mean that Mary and Joseph are already married, at least in the sight of the Holy and Almighty God. That must at least mean that their marriage is recorded in Heaven.

Consider this. Etymologically, “the words ‘espouse’ and ‘spouse’ are related, both deriving from the Latin verb spondēre, meaning ‘to promise or betroth.’ In fact, the two were once completely interchangeable, with each serving as a noun meaning ‘a newly married person’ or ‘a husband or wife’ and also as a verb meaning ‘to marry.’” [“Espouse.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Aug. 2021.]

Therefore the word “espoused” for both Matthew 1:18 and Luke 2:5, is better read “newlywed.” In both cases, they were married. They had not, however, sexually consummated the marriage. And Joseph, probably angry and hurt and disappointed with Mary and fearful to face the world under such circumstances, refused to keep her as his pregnant wife, when he knew for a fact that it wasn’t his child. He was convinced that he should divorce her. But to somehow “save” her (himself, really) from public embarrassment, he decided to do it in some secret way. That is when God stepped in to correct his near gross error.

Now some could retort that Joseph and Mary had not even lived together under one roof yet. That could be true. But it does not negate the fact a couple could indeed have been married, but for some reason had not made the physical move to live under one roof. For many various reasons, that still happens.

Interestingly, there is evidence of that very thing happening earlier. Espoused in the Old Testament appears once when David demands the presence of his wife Michal, for whom he had already fulfilled his marital obligation. He demanded that his wife be relocated to his place of residence. He wanted to receive his wife under his own roof and claim her as his own. (Read 2 Samuel 3:14.)

Espoused, substituted by either of these terms (married, newlywed, nuptially contracted, or given in marriage) works better than our usual understanding of the expression “engaged to marry.” Try it, prayerfully. Confirm for yourself that it makes sense. All other questions become immediately resolved.

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