They were only engaged when Mary was concieved by the Holy Spirit, correct?

They would have had to marry before Jesus' birth, correct? In order for him not to be considered a bastard born out of wedlock?


4 Answers 4


When were Joseph and Mary considered married?

Well, I am not going to say it was on January 23 in the year 4 BC. That much is sure!

The Catholic Church does however celebrate the a liturgical feast on the 23rd of January, known as the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Marriage of the Virgin Mary (Desponsatio Beatae Mariae Virginis).

A feast of the Latin Church. It is certain that a real matrimony was contracted by Joseph and Mary. Still Mary is called "espoused" to Joseph ("his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph", Matthew 1:18) because the matrimony was never consummated. The term spouse is applied to married people until their marriage is consummated (Colvenerius, Cal. Marian., 23 Jan.). - Espousals of the Blessed Virgin Mary

What is certain is that St. Joseph must have betrothed Mary prior to the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel, that much is sure. However, since Mary and Joseph were dwelling together onlookers would assume the baby was conceived in wedlock. It seems that at this time in history only Our Lady and St. Joseph were aware of Jesus' divine origins.

When the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and declared unto her that she was called to be the Mother of God, as we see recorded in Luke 1, her response would become the cause of the spilling of a whole lot of ink over the centuries: “How shall this happen, since I know not man?”.

For Catholics this is an indication of Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity. It’s really quite simple. If Mary and Joseph were just an ordinary couple embarking on a normal married life together, there would be no reason to ask the question. Mary would have known very well how it could be that the Angel was saying she would have a baby. As St. Augustine said it:

Had she intended to know man, she would not have been amazed. Her amazement is a sign of the vow (Sermon 225, 2).

But Protestants do not see it as quite so simple. Reformed Apologist James White gives us an example of the most common objection to our “Catholic” view of this text:

Nothing about a vow is mentioned in Scripture. Mary’s response to the Angel was based upon the fact that it was obvious that the Angel was speaking about an immediate conception, and since Mary was at that time only engaged to Joseph, but not married, at that time she could not possibly conceive in a natural manner, since she did not “know a man” (Mary—Another Redeemer? p. 31.).

Among the errors in just these two sentences there are two that stand out for our purpose here.

Error #1: Mr. White claims Mary was engaged to St. Joseph.

There was no such thing as engagement (as it is understood in modern Western culture) in ancient Israel. The text says Mary was “betrothed” or “espoused” (Gr.—emnesteumene), not engaged. Betrothal, in ancient Israel, would be akin to the ratification of a marriage (when a couple exchanges vows in the presence of an official witness of the Church) in Catholic theology. That ratified marriage is then consummated—in the normal course—on the couple’s wedding night. So when Luke 1:27 says Mary was betrothed, it means they were already married at the time of the annunciation. If this were an ordinary marriage, St. Joseph would then have had a husband’s right to the marriage bed—the consummation.

This simple truth proves devastating to Mr. White’s (and the Protestant's) argument. If Joseph and Mary were married—and they were—and they were planning the normal course, Mary would have known full and well how she could and would have a baby. As St. Augustine said, the question reveals the fact that this was not just your average, ordinary marriage. They were not planning to consummate their union.

Betrothed = Married?

For those who are not convinced “betrothed” equals “married” for Mary and Joseph; fortunately, the Bible makes this quite clear. If we move forward in time from the “annunciation” of Luke 1 to Matthew 1 and St. Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, we find Matthew 1:18 clearly stating Mary and Joseph were still “betrothed.” Yet, when Joseph found out Mary was “with child,” he determined he would “send her away privately” (vs. 19). The Greek verb translated in the RSVCE to send away is apolusai, which means divorce. Why would Joseph have to divorce Mary if they were only engaged?

Further, the Angel then tells Joseph:

Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit . . . When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife (vss. 20-24).

Notice, Joseph took Mary “his wife,” indicating both St. Matthew and an archangel considered this couple married even though they were said to be “betrothed.” “Betrothed” is obviously much more than “engaged.”

Moreover, months later we find Joseph and Mary travelling together to Bethlehem to be enrolled as a family according to the decree of Caesar Augustus, just before Jesus would be born. They were obviously married; yet, even then, they were still said to be “betrothed” (see Luke 2:5).

So let's recap what have we have uncovered. First, Joseph had already taken his espoused “wife” into his home and was caring for her. Second, Scripture reveals him to be her legal husband and to have travelled with Mary to be enrolled with her as a lawfully wedded couple and family. Third, she was called St. Joseph’s “wife” by the angel of the Lord… and yet, they were still referred to as betrothed.

Referring to Mary and Joseph as “engaged” in the face of all of this evidence would be like calling a modern couple at their wedding reception “engaged” because they have yet to consummate their marriage.

Once the fact that Mary and Joseph were already married at the time of the annunciation is understood, Mary’s “How shall this happen…” comes more into focus. Think about it: If you were a woman who had just been married (your marriage was “ratified,” but not consummated) and someone at your reception said—or “prophesied”—that you were going to have a baby—that would not really be all that much of a surprise. That is the normal course of events. You marry, consummate the union, and babies come along. You certainly would not ask the question, “Gee, how is this going to happen?” It is in this context of Mary having been betrothed, then, that her question does not make sense… unless, of course, you understand she had a vow of virginity. Then, it makes perfect sense.

Error #2: Mr. White claimed, “…it was obvious that the angel was speaking about an immediate conception.” And, closely related to this, Mr. White then claimed Mary asked the question, "How shall this happen...?" because she knew "at that time she could not conceive in a natural manner?"

Really? It was obvious?

There is not a single word in this text or anywhere else in Scripture that indicates Mary knew her conception was going to be immediate and via supernatural means. That’s why she asked the question, "How shall this happen...?" It appears she did not know the answer. How could she? Why would it ever enter into her mind? There would be no way apart from a revelation from God that she could have known. And most importantly, according to the text, the angel did not reveal the fact that Mary would conceive immediately and supernaturally until after Mary asked the question.

But let's suppose Mary was "engaged" as Mr. White claims. There would be even less reason to believe the conception would be immediate and somehow supernatural then there would be if Mary had a vow of virginity (though there’s really no reason to think this in either scenario). An "engaged" woman would have naturally assumed that when she and St. Joseph would later consummate their marriage, they could expect a very special surprise from God. They were going to conceive the Messiah. There would be no reason to think anything else. And there would be no reason to ask the question.

One final thought: When Mary asked the question, "How shall this happen, since I do not know man," the verb to be (Gr.-estai) is in the future tense. There is nothing here that would indicate she was thinking of the immediate. The future tense here most likely refers to… the future. The question was not how she could conceive immediately. The question was how she could conceive ever. The angel answered that question for her. - When Were Joseph and Mary Married?

The image seen here is a painting by Raphael of the Marriage of the Virgin.

Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael

There are many old paintings and other works of art which portray St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary standing before a Jewish priest. Some of these are said to be depictions of their betrothal ceremony, while others are of the actual wedding. There are generally few differences in the depictions of the two ceremonies, and most of these works' titles (or, at least the English translations of their titles) indicate that they are of the wedding. - The Wedding of Joseph and Mary

Saint Joseph with the Flowering Rod, by Juspe de Ribera, early 1630s

Saint Joseph with the Flowering Rod, by Juspe de Ribera, early 1630s

Some statues of Joseph depict his staff as topped with flowers, recalling the non-canonical Protoevangelion's account of how Mary's spouse was chosen by collecting the walking sticks of widowers in Palestine, and Joseph's alone bursting into flower, thus identifying him as divinely chosen. The Golden Legend, which derives its account from the much older Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, tells a similar story, although it notes that all marriageable men of the Davidic line and not only widowers were ordered by the High Priest to present their rods at the Temple. Several Eastern Orthodox Nativity icons show Joseph tempted by the Devil (depicted as an old man with furled wings) to break off his betrothal, and how he resists that temptation. There are some paintings with him wearing a Jewish hat. - St. Joseph (Wikipedia)


When they were espoused

The Blessed Virgin is called St. Joseph's wife from the moment of their espousal. St. Thomas Aquinas, *Summa Theologica *III q. 29 a. 2 ("Whether there was a true marriage between Mary and Joseph?") co.:

the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mt. 1:20): "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife": on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): "She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse."


Under Jewish law, Joseph and Mary's betrothal was a legal marriage. A formal certificate of divorce called a get was needed if it were to be dissolved. This is what lies behind Matthew's statement:

When his mother 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. (Mt. 1:18-19)

A marriage celebration would normally also be held just prior to the marriage's consummation, as the bride and groom made their way from her parents' house to her new home with her husband. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on marriage summarize the entire process:

The first step toward marriage was betrothal, involving the consent of the parent or guardian of the girl and the payment of a price. The act of betrothal is expressed by the Hebrew word "aras"; the price paid, by "mohar"... Probably it was customary, even in early times, to give the bride some portion of the mohar, or at least to give her presents (Gen. xxiv. 53, xxxi. 15, xxxiv. 12). After betrothal the bride might be taken to her husband's house and the nuptials celebrated either immediately or later (Gen. xxiv. 49-67; Judges xiv. 5 et seq.).

Jesus' status a legitimate or not

A problem arises here for Jesus' status as a possible "bastard." As Matthew indicates, Jesus was conceived after his parents' betrothal, but Joseph was not his father. To those who did not believe that his conception was miraculous, this means Jesus was a "child of adultery" -- a mamzer. This was an even more serious issue than mere illegitimacy:

The mamzer, rendered "bastard" in the A. V., is something worse than an illegitimate child... A mamzer, according to Deut. xxiii. 3, must not "enter the congregation of the Lord," that is, marry an Israelite woman, "nor shall his tenth generation enter," etc., which includes also the female mamzer (Ḳid. iii. 12; Mak. iii. 1).

This means that, if it were known that Joseph was not Jesus' father, then Jesus could not marry a Jewish woman, unless she too was either a mamzer or a convert to Judaism. The stigma against Jesus during his adolescence and young adulthood would have be extremely intense. On the other hand, an early birth in which the man and woman had been betrothed prior to the child's conception might raise eyebrows, but would not carry nearly so serious a consequence.

Since Joseph planned to "put her way quietly," we may presume that he protected Mary's secret and took public responsibility as Jesus' father. Thus, Joseph protected him from being called a child of adultery. Even though his parents were 'only' betrothed before his conception, Jesus would not be considered be mamzer (bastard).


I'm not a biblical scholar by any means, but my understanding is that in their culture at the time, what we would consider engaged was, in their culture, as binding as being married was. If you remember, in Matthew, when Joseph hears that Mary is pregnant, he thinks of divorcing her quietly so as not to publicly disgrace Mary but an angel tells him not to do that.

I don't know when they would have consummated the marriage, but I think a pregnant woman was considered "unclean", and would have been considered unclean for some time after delivery, so since Joseph would not have touched her until she was ceremonially clean or that would make him unclean.

  • A pregnant woman is "unclean"? Can you back this thought up with some source or link?
    – Ken Graham
    Feb 28, 2019 at 16:16
  • The pregnant woman per se is not unclean, but is unclean in giving birth due to blood. See Lev 12. This law btw is the reason some gave (see PoJames for example) for their belief that there was no afterbirth (flux) at Christ's birth, else the implication about Mary needing atonement (sin offering).
    – SLM
    Feb 28, 2019 at 18:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .