What Did Joseph Know?

A sermon series on Matthew has prompted all sorts of thoughts about the holy family, among them what kind of man Joseph was who would not have sexual relations with his wife (if she really was perpetually a virgin). If Mary was holy, wasn’t Joseph at least remarkable for living celibate even while a married man? (And if sex is not sinful in marriage, and Mary was already sinless, would sex with Joseph have really compromised her righteous standing?)

Here’s the kicker, though. Matthew writes at the end of chapter 1:

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

These verses require modesty. On the one hand, according to John Calvin:

Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.

(Perhaps this post errs on the side of “fondness for disputation.”)

On the other hand, just because the text doesn’t say Joseph did “know” Mary after Jesus’ birth, it doesn’t give grounds for Mary’s perpetual virginity. On Luke 1:34 Calvin writes:

The conjecture which some have drawn from these words [“How shall this be, since I know not a man?”], that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews.

So you take from this immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of Mary? That’s a stretch.

But if you can whack Donald Trump by referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father — even though Matthew goes to great lengths in the genealogy to connect Jesus to the Davidic line through Joseph — then it’s fine for impartial journalists to embrace “orthodoxy.”

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