In light of Joseph being called a righteous man in Matthew 1:19, does this mean that divorce because one of the two was not a virgin at the time of marriage is biblically valid?

  • 2
    Are you assuming Mary wasn't a virgin? The question reads that way... Nov 15 '12 at 13:16
  • 1
    I think he's assuming that Joseph thought Mary wasn't a virgin. Nov 15 '12 at 17:23
  • @DJClayworth Did he think that? Or did he just think others would think that?
    – Geremia
    Jan 3 '16 at 4:37

I know of no doctrine held by any Christian tradition based on this passages that speaks to virginity at the time of marriage in relation to possible divorce. It is simply not the subject matter of the passage and drawing such a conclusion from it would be bad hermeneutics. You would need to find other teachings on previous relationships or extra-marital relationships in order to address that issue in a Biblical fashion.

If you look at other Biblical passages, you will note that basically the only valid grounds for divorce is the case of adultery. Even then it is not prescribed / required, only possible allowed.

If you look into the marriage traditions of the time, you will find that the issue of divorce was as relevant to Betrothal (engagement of sorts) as it was to marriage. A betrothal could not just be broken off for any reason, it was as good as a marriage vow as far as being binding on the parties, but the relationship was not to be consummated until after the wedding.

Mary getting pregnant during the betrothal was (barring the supernatural) obvious proof of adultery. Having committed herself to marry and be faithful to one man and entering a binding contract with him, Joseph would know he hadn't slept with her so she must have slept with another man.

With this understanding, we see that the only thing this passage could teach us about divorce is to reinforce the teaching that says adultery is possible grounds for divorce, but that it is not unlawful to NOT divorce even cases of adultery.

  • I like this, but you have to remember also that Joseph is basing his decision on pre-Christian rules. What he did, or what he thought was right, is not binding on Christians Nov 15 '12 at 17:24
  • @DJClayworth The entire point of my answer is that if the event speaks to anything, it is to a different topic than the one the OP was trying to apply it to. However Biblical examples both positive and negative should not be so easily dismissed for being before Christ. Christ himself and the Apostles clearly taught that the OT scriptures were relevant and binding on life for NT Christians. Certainly what we learn about God's character and what pleases or displeases him is relevant no matter what era it's from.
    – Caleb
    Nov 16 '12 at 8:54

This is a good question. Joseph and Mary had entered into the covenant of betrothal for marriage. The terms of that covenant were that each would maintain purity until their wedding. When it was found that Mary was pregnant, Joseph knew quite well that the child was not his. The conclusion was that Mary had been unfaithful to him, even though this turned out to be an invalid conclusion.

So, the issue was that Mary was thought to have broken the covenant of marriage by being unfaithful--not necessarily that she was no longer a virgin. Indeed, Boaz married Ruth, who had already been the wife of another. David married Bathsheba, who had been the wife of Urriah.

So, again, virginity was not the issue per se, but unfaithfulness was.

  • I agree with your conclusion, but before he married her David also committed adultery with Bathsheba so I fail to see how that whole situation adds any relevant veneration.
    – Caleb
    Nov 15 '12 at 15:12
  • @Caleb That's true.
    – Narnian
    Nov 15 '12 at 15:19
  • @Caleb - it could just as easily have been pointed-out that David married Abigail who, before he died, was Nabal's wife.
    – warren
    Nov 15 '12 at 15:37
  • 1
    @warren: That example would make sense and perhaps add something to the argument. The other example seems to detract from it more than build it up.
    – Caleb
    Nov 16 '12 at 8:55

Two possible answers:

  1. Mt 1:18 says "his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph" (KJV), which indicates they were betrothed/engaged, but not yet legally married. "Divorce" then is referring, not to a literal divorce, but to breaking off an engagement. So this passage is not relevant to the question of divorce, just to a breaking of an engagement, which everyone must agree is a matter of much greater freedom than divorce is
  2. Until the angel appears to Joseph (v. 20), Joseph must have assumed, that if his fiance was pregnant, and knowing that he himself had not slept with her, that she must have been with another man. And yet, while other men would become enraged and make a public scene about this apparent discovery, Joseph is mindful to end things quietly - that is his righteousness - when he thinks another has wronged him severely, he nonetheless seeks to deal with matters calmly and mercifully. And his righteousness is rewarded with the revelation that the perceived slight in fact was not

So I don't think this passage tells us anything about virginity as a grounds for divorce. It seems to be about breaking off a betrothal rather than divorce proper. And even if it is about divorce proper, Joseph had good reason to suspect unfaithfulness since the engagement or marriage or relationship had begun, while a mere lack of virginity might long predate you having ever met your marital partner.

If a person had falsely presented themselves as a virgin and you married them, that might be valid grounds for divorce. But if they never presented themselves as such (either through openly admitting such a previous sexual relationship, or if they never said but you never asked), then I don't see how that is any better grounds for divorce than simply "I'm tired of you" or "I found someone who I think is better"

  • 1
    betrothals were not akin to our modern concept of engagement - they were as legally important as marriage, but the relationship would not be consummated until after the wedding
    – warren
    Nov 15 '12 at 15:36
  • Your #1 is arguably misleading since it equates betrothal with engagement, and you apply our modern idea of "greater freedom" to a concept that was treated with utmost gravity and no freedom at all. This is not a valid parallel and therefore any conclusions drawn from it are also invalid. I think your second point is spot on as far as why his actions were considered righteous. I suggest you edit this answer to focus on that point.
    – Caleb
    Nov 16 '12 at 9:00
  • A betrothal is simply a contract to get married - it may be terminated by the mutual agreement of the parties to the contract (whether we understand that to mean the couple to be married, or in biblical times it would have been their respective families.) Following the standard of Matthew 19, marriage is a morally much more serious affair, with much more strenuous moral and legal requirements around its termination. Nov 20 '12 at 11:12

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