The following are historical comments surrounding the debate over whether or not Mary and Joseph were full-blown married, or engaged, the time Jesus was born. However, I do not answer this question, but rather confronts the false historical claim (by Jewish and Christian “scholars”) that Jewish betrothals allowed for sexual relations, as the couple was already considered married. What we may learn from this whole situation is that scholars are mistaken when they put so much weight into rabbinic Judaism in order to glean the meanings of Biblical practices. For all intents and purposes, rabbinic Judaism is a completely different religion.

Ed: This was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts have evolved.


Joe writes:

They assume that Mary and Joseph couldn’t have had sex at the time of the Annunciation, because they were only “betrothed.” But the Jewish kiddushin was quite different from an American engagement. As Dr. Lynn Cohick (a Protestant professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College and Northern Seminary) explains in Christianity Today:

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm. Later rabbinic writings allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father’s house was not guilty of immoral behavior.

It may be of some interest here that in first century Judaism, as indicated by Josephus, there was a profound difference between being betrothed/engaged and married. They were not the same thing.

This stems from Judaism going all the way back to Moses, who wrote in Deut 20:7– “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married [“taken”] her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her” (NRSVCE).

Obviously, if they were already married as Joe posits, the sentence does not make sense. The following are from Antiquities:

As for that damsel which the king had betrothed to his brother Pheroras, but he had not taken [married] her, as I have before related, because he was enamored on his former wife (Book 16, Chap 7).

As we can see, the term “taken” is a euphemism, when it pertains to marriage, for physical consummation as it is a reference to the groom taking the bride into his house (something that would be scandalous for an unmarried couple.) In the Catholic translation above, they simply translate the term as “marry.”

he prayed that no such ill fortune would befall these who were their children, but that they might improve in virtue, and obtain what they justly deserved, and might make him amends for his care of their education. He also caused them to be betrothed against they should come to the proper age of marriage; the elder of Alexander’s sons to Pheroras’s daughter, and Antipater’s daughter to Aristobulus’s eldest son. (Book 17 Chap 1).

Here, we see Josephus specifically say the betrothed couple is not yet married. Obviously, rabbinic and more modern Jewish customs were not the same as that in Josephus’ day–which was roughly contemporary with the birth of Jesus.

So, the Protestant view vis a vis Joe (which I am not necessarily endorsing) that Mary was engaged and not married is actually the historical view presented in Deut 20:7 and Josephus. Sure, Joe quotes a modern Protestant and Jewish scholar alike to say that this is not possible–but they are wrong.

Joe follows up the point by adding:

The Bible agrees with this, which is why Matthew 1:19 already refers to Joseph as her “husband,” and says that he contemplated “divorce.” You’ll note that Mary was also regularly in the Temple (Luke 2:22-27, 41-52), which would have been impossible if she were (or was believed to be) a fornicator.

The above is wrong on three counts:

1. Joe argues that St. Joe being a husband in Matt 1:19 means he s already married, and not a fiancee. However, Book 16 Chap 7 essentially calls the betrothed “damsel” a “wife.” So, engaged couples can be called husband/wife without being married. The Greek language also allowed for this, as the Greek word “gunaikos” meant both wife/woman. In Matt 1:19 the Greek term “aner” is used for the word “husband,” is also translated simply as “man.” (

We have the same thing in English: “I pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

2. Joe implies unmarried/betrothed people cannot get divorced in 1st century Jewish culture. This is incorrect. In Wars Book 1 Chap 28 par 2-3 Josephus writes:

“And I pray God that he will join these children together in marriage, to the advantage of my kingdom, and of my posterity, and may he look down with eyes more serene upon them than he looked upon their fathers.” While he spake these words, he wept, and joined the childrens right hands together; after which he embraced them every one after an affectionate manner, and dismissed the assembly. Upon this, Antipater was in great disorder immediately, and lamented publicly at what was done;..So he resolved by all the ways possible to get these espousals dissolved.

3. Joe believes Mary could have not been allowed in the temple given the circumstances, but this position is untenable. For one, being that we do not know Mary and Joseph’s wedding day, they could have been legally married without fanfare as soon as Joseph had his first night alone with her before they left for Bethlehem (this was how Rebekah and Leah were married to their husbands after all.) This marriage would have not been physically consummated because of Mary being about to give birth. The marriage could have also happened as soon as Mary returned from Jerusalem. The angel telling Joseph she was pregnant with God’s Son is one thing that might have persuaded him not to physical consummate the marriage. Another more practical reason was that being that Mary was already showing by then (with a child not from his own seed), Joseph might have figured to wait out the pregnancy.

I find further speculation not to be all that useful, but I hope the above clears up some historical misconceptions, even if they are repeated by men with degrees.