The virgin birth — the betrothal of Joseph and Mary

(This is a continuation of the notes for Matthew chapter 1.)

One way that ancient biographers sometimes honored their subjects was by describing their virtuous background, and any extraordinary circumstances surrounding their births that could suggest divine interest. The parents who raised Jesus were certainly virtuous, and the birth described here is the most divine in all history. Scripture already noted miraculous births, such as those of Samson, Samuel, and especially Isaac, but no one else narrated a virgin birth. (By the way, against the protestations of some, Greek mythology included no virgin births. Gods seducing and raping virgins are an idea quite different from the virgin birth here—Mary is not impregnated and remains a virgin until after Jesus’ birth.)

Betrothal in ancient Israel meant more than engagement means today. Although the couple was not allowed to have intercourse until the end of the betrothal period (typically a year), they were pledged to each other by an agreement between their families. Jewish tradition suggests that betrothed couples in Galilee could not be together alone, unchaperoned, until the wedding. Betrothal normally included some economic arrangements; the groom might offer a down payment on the money he would pay the bride’s father for the marriage; this could help defray the father’s expense of having raised the groom’s future wife. In this period, the bride’s father also gave a gift of money to his daughter when she married to help provide for her (in the event of harm to the husband or divorce).

Betrothal could be broken only one of two ways: by means of divorce or one of the partners dying. Once an agreement was made between families, divorce was not normally desirable; if, however, the wife or fiancée was thought to have been unfaithful, this would shame the husband. This behavior would constitute a legal charge.