Matthew 1 and Luke 2 describe the birth narrative of Christ, and give some fascinating details that point to just how shocking, how inappropriate, how unfitting an arrival this was for the long-awaited king of Israel.
The nativity involved a surprising amount of humiliation and shame. Read the account of Matthew 1:18–25 below, and then ponder with me a few surprising elements of the birth narrative over the next couple of days.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Joseph and Mary were betrothed, as we see in verse eighteen. Some translations use the word “engaged,” and that’s a little misleading. Engagement in modern times just means you’re planning to get married. But what does it take to get out of an engagement? Just break up, right? With betrothal, in the ancient world, you were legally man and wife. And to end a betrothal, you had to get a divorce.
The process of Jewish marriages involved (1) the betrothal, and (2) the wedding feast. When you became betrothed, you were legally married, but you were not to come together to have relations until after the wedding feast. So there was a betrothal period, during which time the bride readied herself for the groom to come get her, and the groom went and built and prepared their house. When the groom was done with all of his preparations, he would come and fetch his bride, and there would be dancing and singing as they paraded to the wedding feast (which would usually last for seven days).
Okay, what’s the point?
During that betrothal period, although they were legally man and wife, they were not to come together physically—it was not an option. So, for Mary to be found pregnant during the betrothal, before the wedding feast, would have been one of the most shameful, humiliating things for her to go through. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of shame that would have been present here—we don’t really work in categories of public honor and shame anymore—but this would have been utterly devastating. It would have shamed not only Mary, but also her family, her husband, and the child.
As far as anyone knew, there was no explanation for Jesus’ birth other than impurity (and, in Joseph’s mind, unfaithfulness) on the part of Mary. So, Matthew 19:1 says, “her husband Joseph, being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” What’s being said here is probably that although he was just man (and therefore of right ought to divorce her before the wedding feast), but also unwilling to put her to further public shame (which he would be fully within his rights to do), he decided to divorce her quietly—in other words not to make a public spectacle of it.
But, verse 20 says, as he was considering these things, an angel appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife.” Now, the Greek doesn’t say, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” which we read as meaning, “don’t be afraid to marry her.” Remember, she already was his wife, as we see in verses 19 and 24. What it says is, “don’t be afraid to take your wife.” In other words, “Go fetch your bride. Don’t divorce her; she’s remained pure; this is of God. So bring her to your house, finish the wedding process. There’s not going to be any celebrating. There will be no parade of dancing and singing. But don’t be afraid, don’t divorce her, don’t delay anymore—go get your bride.”
Right from the start of his life, Jesus’ first advent is characterized by hushed tones, shame, and scandal. This continues in the birth narrative itself, which we’ll look at next time.
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