Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Mathew 1:19 and the character of Joseph

18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

That is how the NIV renders Matthew 1:18-19. The original (a peculiar Greek expression, according to Carson) raises some questions. Why ‘because he was a righteous man’? Surely a righteous man would have followed the Law, which more than permitted stoning in such cases? Overlooking the offence might be laudable in come cases, but righteous?

Despite the apparent problems with ‘because’ for it is favoured in many translations, and by some scholars For example, Jeremy Duff, who actually uses this phrase as a teaching example of how participles can imply a causal meaning (The Elements of New Testament Greek, 3rd edn [Cambridge:CUP, 2005], p.162). Ken Bailey is also exercised by this, and argues [in his lectures on the birth narratives] that Matthew was in part redefining ‘righteousness’ from ‘strict legal adherence’ to ‘godly compassion and mercy’. He finds this in Isaiah 42:3, the centre of a mini chiasm about the Messianic establishment of justice (vv.1-4): a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

‘Although’ is the preferred rendering of quite a few translations, and is how the Word Commentary on Matthew (Vol. 33a by Donald Hagner, published in 1993) argues. The neat online Christmas tract at also goes for ‘although’. It seems that many people are slightly troubled by the implication that Joseph’s ‘righteousness’ might imply criticism of the Law.

It should not be surprising to find this ambivalence in characterisations of the Law, characterisations we sometimes need to infer rather than read off the page, as it’s a thorny issue. But we can’t escape it. No text is an island, and this teeny exegetical question forces some hard thought about our framework for understanding Torah.

Like all good evangelicals puzzling over Matthew or John I turned to Don Carson (in Vol. 8 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gabelein, Zondervan: 1984) to find out what he thought…

His solution was a bit of a fudge, to be honest. He accepts that the participle phrase means 'because', but rejects the Bailey gloss of this causal phrase [though not by name, because Bailey's slant on this interpretation was published later than Carson's commentary] on the grounds that righteous would have to mean '"merciful", "not given to passionate vengeance," or even "nice"' (p.74). Of course, "nice" is a dilution of what Bailey argues, so to include it in the list of rejected senses is a slightly cheeky rhetorical device to which the Don is occasionally prone - of course it doesn't mean "nice", so it must not mean "merciful" either, he hopes we will think...

'Because he was a righteous man, Joseph therefore could not in conscience marry Mary, who was now thought to be unfaithful. And because such a marriage would have been a tacit admission of his own guilt, and also because he was unwilling to expose her to the disgrace of public divorce, Joseph therefore chose a quieter way, permitted by the law itself' (p.75). This way of structuring his sentences suddenly forces out into the open something hitherto silent in my discussion: which of Joseph's actions is in view when he is called righteous. Of course righteousness is a whole-life thing, but the commentators, possibly without realising it, have focused their minds primarily either on his decision to divorce (Carson) or on his decision to be quiet (Bailey).

Carson continues, 'That was what Joseph purposed. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact'. So for Carson, the compassion of Joseph is to be inferred from the text while his righteousness is elucidated, but for Bailey Joseph's compassion is so remarkable that it must be inserted into the very definition of righteousness.

The underlying issue is: do we note Joseph's being righteous (δικάιος ων) merely as a little detail, part of his being a good Jew, or are we prepared to find the concept redefined by these narrative touches? Do we want to separate righteousness from mercy conceptually, or to broaden our understanding of what justice really is...

I'm not sure I'm sure, though I'm tempted by the Bailey approach. But before I go off onto the Reformed doctrine of particular atonement which I can see lurking behind some of these questions, I'm off to have my breakfast!