Matthew 1:19

Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

In these modern days, in my country, something about "secret/quiet" in a marriage - for example like this :

  • A. A couple already engaged. Because of something, the man ---after considering--- finally decided to cancel the marriage. But in order not to expose the woman to public disgrace, the man still do the marriage ceremony, living together in a same house, but the "husband" don't do sex at all with his "wife". It's just a staged marriage so everyone else think that they are married couple as the normal husband and wife.
  • B. A married couple. Because of something, the husband ---after considering--- finally decided to divorce his wife. But in order not to expose the wife to public disgrace, they still live together in the same house, but the husband don't do sex anymore with his wife. It's just a staged marriage so everyone else think that they are still a married couple.

The "considering" from the man then indirectly is also about to have sex with the woman or not to have sex with the woman.

So, in general ... a "secret/quite divorce" in my country is also about there is no sex between the couple besides other things. But still to public, the couple is a husband and wife.

Since I don't know the custom in Israel let alone during Joseph & Mary times, that's why I wonder what kind of a situation is a "secret/quite divorce" in those days ?

  • Out of curiosity, what is your country? I've never heard of this sort of thing before. If you don't mind sharing.
    – jaredad7
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 19:05

3 Answers 3


How is the situation of “divorce her quietly” in Matthew 1:19 according to Catholicism?

19 Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. - Matthew 1:19

According to the Catholic Church, this is a most interesting situation and poses many possible interpretations and possibilities.

Matthew 1:19 is the nineteenth verse of the first chapter in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. It is part of the description of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Joseph has found Mary to be pregnant and in this verse considers leaving her.

Some scholars have tried to do away with the disquieting word divorce in this verse, and most older translations did so. Since Joseph has just been described as righteous having him consider a divorce could imply that divorce is righteous. Especially in the 19th century, a number of scholars tried to read alternate meanings into the term. One proposal was that it merely meant separate: that the couple would split but that legally they would remain married. However recent discoveries have found that legal avenues for divorce existed at the time in question. One of the clearest pieces of evidence is a divorce record from 111 AD, coincidentally between a couple named Mary and Joseph, that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek word here translated as divorce is aphiemi, and the only other time it appears is in 1 Corinthians 7:11 where Paul uses it to describe the legal separation of a man and wife. Almost all modern translators today feel that divorce is the best word. Today, versions that do not use the word divorce do so for doctrinaire reasons. This verse also provides one of the main scriptural justifications for divorce for churches that accept the practice. Since the marriage in question was never consummated, the divorce Joseph was contemplating does not violate the beliefs of churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, who reject divorce.

What the verse means by privately is also open to discussion. Rabbinic law from the period gives two methods of divorce for reason of adultery. One was to bring the matter to the village council, which would hold a hearing and, if the allegations were proved, grant a divorce. The second method was to have the evidence presented and approved by two witnesses who would then certify the divorce. By quietly most scholars believe the verse means that Joseph would take the second option. Gundry argues that the witnesses were necessary to prevent a woman denying that the divorce had taken place. Gundry believes that by quietly the verse means that even the witnesses would be forgone and the separation would be an entirely private affair.

Scripture tells us that "before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit." Thus the Marriage of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not consummated. Thus is a further reason why Joseph would desire to divorce Mary with no fanfare. St. Joseph did not consider issuing her a Bill of Divorce because he was "a just man."

In any case the Church at one time celebrated the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Marriage of the Virgin Mary as a feast that is in certain parts of the Roman Catholic Church among certain congregations such as the Oblates of St. Joseph. It was removed from many local calendars by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. It was formerly generally observed on January 23.

St. Joseph desired to divorce Mary privately and without any fanfare in order not to damage Mary’s reputation!

But why did St. Joseph desire to put Mary away quietly? Pope Benedict XVI speaks of an alternative interpretation that may be plausible and compatible to Catholic theology.

Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife because he knew she was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This situation is plausible but not wholly accepted yet by the Church.

Matthew tells us that when "Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."

The view that suggests itself to most people is that Joseph thought Mary had been unfaithful to him.

But there is another theory: that Joseph knew the Child had been conceived "of the Holy Spirit" and so Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife.

What are we to make of this issue?

And what does Pope Benedict have to say in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

The idea that Joseph did not think Mary had been unfaithful to him may be suggested by the fact that Matthew mentions the miraculous conception of Jesus before he introduces Joseph's idea of divorce.

He says: "before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit."

Found by whom? Who knew that the Holy Spirit was responsible for the pregnancy?

Presumably, Joseph would have been one of the first to be told.

If he believed this then one could understand why he would be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

Who wouldn't hesitate to take to wife someone who, in later centuries, would be called "the spouse of the Holy Spirit"?

Thus, as a "just man" he might seek to quietly sever the legal bond between them and would need the assurance of the angel telling him "do not fear to take Mary your wife."

On the Other Hand . . .

The angel didn't stop by saying Joseph shouldn't fear to take Mary as his wife. The angel continued "...for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."

If Joseph already believed that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Mary's condition, why would the angel say this?

The fact the angel says it suggests that Joseph did not yet believe this about Mary's pregnancy. If he already believed it, why tell him as an explanation of why it's okay to take Mary home as his wife?

It suggests that either he had not heard that the Holy Spirit was responsible or he had heard it but not yet come to accept it.

An Intermediate Position?

According another view, which is in some ways between the two just mentioned, Joseph simply did not know what to think.

On the one hand, he did not think that Mary had been unfaithful, but he also did not know how to explain her pregnancy. He thus left open the question of how she became pregnant . . . chastely.

While Joseph might have had such a view pass through his mind, it is difficult to see this as a settled position.

In any event, the "Joseph did not know what to think" view, like the "Joseph thought Mary was unfaithful" view, presupposes that he did not (yet) believe that the Child was of the Holy Spirit.

The fundamental question is still: Did he believe this yet or not?

This is a case where the Church Fathers do not have a united opinion.

What does Pope Benedict say?

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict takes the position that Joseph did not yet believe that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. He writes:

Joseph had to come to terms with the fact that Mary “was with child of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18).

With regard to the child’s origin, Matthew is anticipating something here that Joseph does not yet know. Joseph has to assume that Mary has broken their engagement, and according to the law he must dismiss her. He has a choice between a public juridical act and a private form. He can bring Mary before the court or he can issue her with a private writ of divorce. Joseph decides on the latter option, in order not “to put her to shame” (1:19). Matthew sees in this choice an indication that Joseph was “a just man.” . . .

After the discovery that Joseph made, his task was to interpret and apply the law correctly. He does so with love: he does not want to give Mary up to public shame. He wishes her well, even in the hour of his great disappointment. He does not embody the form of externalized legalism that Jesus denounces in Mt 23 and that Paul opposes so strenuously. He lives the law as Gospel. He seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity. And so he is inwardly prepared for the new, unexpected and humanly speaking incredible news that comes to him from God. . . .

The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth—a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men? Matthew has already said that Joseph “inwardly considered” (enthymẽthéntos) the right way to respond to Mary’s pregnancy. So we can well imagine his inner struggle now to make sense of this breathtaking dream-message: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20).

Is This View Mandated?

Pope Benedict famously wrote in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth series:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

One thus can maintain either theory.

At the same time, if one thinks that Joseph already believed that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, one should acknowledge that the other view can also be held by a pious Catholic. - Why Did Joseph Plan to Divorce Mary?

  • Thank you for the answer, Ken Graham. But I'm sorry as I still don't understand on how is the situation/condition if (after) they are divorce quietly. In my mind, assumed that they are divorce NOT quietly then the following situation/condition : there will be no wedding feast and they won't live together. The next thing in my mind, assumed that they are divorce quietly, then in front of the "Law" they are legally divorced but no public know about that, because there will be a wedding feast and they live together.
    – karma
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 5:03
  • Wedding feasts are not obligatory. Although it may be liturgically celebrated, it may not have actually have happened. It is complicated!
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 5:05
  • so I think, at least they won't live together if they are divorce NOT quietly ?
    – karma
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 5:06

In Israel at the time, as has already been pointed out, engagement or betrothal between a man and woman, was as legally binding as if they were already married - but the marriage would not be consumated intil after the wedding. It seems to me that Joseph was in an awkward situation. HE knew that the baby wasn't his, but no doubt others would think that it probably was! And if both of them had said that Joseph wasn't the father, people would have pointed the finger of accusation against Mary! Joseph must have been shocked and hurt to think that the woman he loved and had trusted, had apparently had sex with another man! But instead of reacting in anger and jealousy, because he loved Mary, and was a kind and merciful man, he thought that the best thing to do would be to dissolve the betrothal/marriage quietly so as to avoid as much unnecessary shame and humiliation to Mary as possible. Presumably Mary would have returned to her parents house, or relatives, and kept or been kept out of sight until after the baby had been born, at which time it could have been passed off as someone else's. I believe that under the Law of Moses, Mary would have been considered to have been unfaithful to her husband (to be), and there may well have been those who would have tried to have her stoned - such as 'the woman caught in adultery' who was brought to Jesus. Of course, we know that Joseph did not go through with his idea.

A couple who has gone through a marriage ceremony but afterwards denies each other their "marriage rights" - which includes sex - or who 'get married' to give the impression that they are doing what is expected of them, but whose heart is not in it, are deceiving people. It is not the ceremony that makes a marriage, but the relationship! Also Jesus said that "who therefore GOD has joined together (in marriage), let not man put asunder!" The question is, has the marriage in question been put together by God? Or man? Couples may deceive others that they are living a genuine marriage - but they can't deceive God! It's all an act - a sham! A ceremony may mean you are LEGALLY married - but if the relationship isn't there, there is no true marriage.

Consider Christ and HIS bride - the believers! Only those believers who have a genuine, live relationship with Christ through his Spirit, who submit to His authority and do His will, are considered part of his betrothed. "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His". Human marriage is meant to be a 'type' of Christ and His bride. Both sides commit to each other voluntarily out of love. It is not God's intention that couples should feel forced to give the appearance of getting married due to societal or family expectations, and thereafter live a lie - and probably end up being unhappy, running the greater risk of being tempted by someone else! Read Paul's instructions on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:2-6. Paul says that by the marriage covenant, each partner is given the right over the spouses body for the satisfaction of the other (v 4), and immediately says "Do not deprive one another" except for a temporary period for fasting and prayer - and that by mutual agreement.

I don't know if this helps at all - but I hope so!

  • Thanks for the answer, Dawn So. You wrote : "A couple who has gone through a marriage ceremony but afterwards denies each other their "marriage rights" - which includes sex - or who 'get married' to give the impression that they are doing what is expected of them, but whose heart is not in it, are deceiving people". I thought that's the same thing with "divorce Mary quietly" ? Please CMIIW. On the other hand, assumed that Joseph divorce Mary NOT quietly, then they are not deceiving people, but the result it will put Mary to shame.
    – karma
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 4:48

"Divorce" (in the sense of the Bills of Divorce that Moses permitted; cf. Mt. 5:31, 19:7 & Deut. 24:1,3) in your translation of Mt. 1:19 is not the same thing as "put[ting] her away privately," as the Rheims translation puts it, which is really separation. Issuing a Bill of Divorce would be "publicly to expose her," which "Joseph her husband" was not "willing to" do (despite husbands being obliged to denounce adulterous wives; Deut. 22:20 ff.). Also, St. Joseph did not consider issuing her a Bill of Divorce because he was "a just man."

Here's what the Catholic Haydock Commentary says on Mt. 1:19:

Ver. 19. And Joseph her husband, knowing her strict virtue, was surprised at this her pregnancy, but "being a just man," and not willing to expose her, by denouncing her, or giving her a bill of divorce, he had a mind to dismiss her privately, committing the whole cause to God. Let us learn from Joseph to be ever tender of our neighbour's reputation, and never to entertain any injurious thoughts, or any suspicions to his prejudice. (Haydock)


which quotes (pp. 140-41):

Augustine, Sermo 51 (PL 38:338), No. 10:

The husband was indeed perturbed, but the just man did not rage. He was so just that on the one hand he was unwilling to keep an adulteress; on the other, he would not expose her to punishment. Therefore, he wished to put her away privately. Consider his untainted justice. Many men forgive adulterous wives out of carnal love, wishing to have them even if adulterous; but this just man does not wish to have her. Therefore, he does not love her carnally. Yet he does not wish to punish her. Consequently, he mercifully spares her. What type of person is this just man? Deservedly, indeed, was he chosen as a witness of his wife's virginity.

Chrysostom, In Mt. hom. 4, 3-6 (PG 57:43 ff.):

Since he was just, that is merciful and self-controlled, he wished to dismiss her privately. Not only was he reluctant to punish her; but he would not even deliver her up. Have you ever seen anyone who so loves wisdom and who is free from all tyrannical bent? He was so free from (jealousy) this plague of the soul, that he refused to inflict pain on the virgin even in the slightest degree. Accordingly, since it seemed that by law he was no longer permitted to keep her, and since it appeared that to denounce her and to bring her to trial was of necessity to condemn her to death, he chose neither course but began to elevate himself above the law. For with the coming of grace, many prophetic types of this sublime institution were to appear. Just as the sun, not yet showing its rays, nevertheless illumines the zenith of the celestial vault from on high, so did Christ, who was about to emerge from the womb, illumine the whole world before His actual appearance.

Do you perceive the moderation of this man? He did not chastise, he mentioned the affair to no one, not even to her who was under suspicion, but he debated the matter with himself, seeking to hide from the virgin the reason for separation. Nor did he say that he wished to cast her off, but rather to send her away, so kind and self-controlled was he. While he was pondering over all this, the angel appeared to him in sleep. And why not openly, in the manner that he appeared to the shepherds and to Zachary as well as to the Virgin? This man was so ready to believe that he did not require such a manifestation.

pt. 5, p. 153 (PDF p. 152): St. Joseph's fatherhood

In Canon Law, there's a distinction between a ratum et consummatum (ratified and consummated) marriage and a ratum sed non consummatum (ratified but not consummated marriage). Before the birth of Christ, Sts. Joseph's and Mary's marriage was not consummated, so if they were alive today, the Roman Pontiff could technically dissolve their marriage bond (Can. 1142). However, the angel convinced St. Joseph not to dismiss her, saying "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." (1:20).

Llamera, O.P., Saint Joseph p. 22:

In a word, the Hebrew espousal was equivalent to our valid but not consummated marriage.

  • Yes, I also thought that if Joseph do a "Bills of Divorce", than he is not divorcing Mary quietly. I think what Joseph intended is to leave (literally) her without saying. But if [he decided to leave her] = true, then I think he will leave Mary after the marriage, not during their engagement times. Because leaving her during the engagement times (which there is no sexual intercourse between the "husband" and the "wife" during this time) will make public think that the pregnant Mary is because of an adultery. But this is only my imagination :). That's why I'm asking here.
    – karma
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 15:47
  • @karma In those days the 'engagement period' was fully a part of the marriage. In other words, they were considered lawfully married and awaiting the consummation and the wedding feast. Putting her away quietly would have involved breaking the contract with Mary's father or representative, giving up the dowry and likely paying an agreed upon fine. Public exposure would have entailed an accusation of adultery before the governing body. Option 1 costs Joseph financially and option 2 allows him to keep the dowry and pay no fine. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 12:10
  • @MikeBorden, sorry I'm late. I'm sorry, I still don't understand about how is the condition when "Joseph putting Mary away quietly". To be easier, let's not use Joseph and Mary but just a man and a woman in general. A man and a woman are already in "engagement period", they are waiting the consummation and the wedding feast. But in the middle, the man divorce the woman quietly by giving up the dowry, paying an amount of money, etc to the woman's representative. (continue)
    – karma
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 3:10
  • How is the situation/condition of the man and the woman after that ? for example : (A)There is still a wedding feast. After the wedding feast, they live together to the rest of their life (but not sex). (B) There is still a wedding feast. After the wedding feast, they don't live together. From both side (the man and the woman) tell a lie something like "I have to work in another town, that's why I don't live with my wife" ---- "My husband has to work in another town, that's why he doesn't live with me". (C) ????
    – karma
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 3:10
  • @karma My understanding is that, if Joseph had put her away quietly, he would have settled the financial obligations of the broken contract with Mary's father and the contract would be over. There would have been no consummation, no wedding feast, and Joseph and Mary would have gone their separate ways. The notion that they would have somehow still lived together or pretended to be married is false. Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 12:48

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