Understanding the Annunciation and the Marriage of Mary and Joseph

The Annunciation, 1898 by Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Jewish Context of Marriage in the Bible

To fully grasp the stories of Mary and Joseph in the Bible, it’s crucial to understand the Jewish marital traditions of their time. Jewish marriages were initiated through kiddushin, a formal betrothal that created a binding marital relationship, requiring a divorce to dissolve. After kiddushin, the husband prepared a home for his bride, a period that could last up to a year. The marriage was completed with nisuin, the bringing of the wife into the husband’s home.

This two-stage process is reflected in Jesus’ words in John 14:2-3, which use marital imagery to describe His relationship with the Church. This symbolism underscores the significance of the period between kiddushin and nisuin, which is also the stage at which Mary and Joseph find themselves in the Biblical narratives.

Mary and Joseph’s Relationship at the Time of the Annunciation

Contrary to popular translations, Mary and Joseph were not merely “betrothed” in the modern sense of engagement. They were legally married following kiddushin, as indicated in Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:27. This is why Joseph considers a quiet divorce (Matt. 1:19), as he assumes Mary’s child is his own, a socially acceptable situation during the period between kiddushin and nisuin.

However, Mary and Joseph’s situation is unique. When the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she inquires, “How will this be, since I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). This statement doesn’t deny her marital status; rather, it reveals that she and Joseph have not consummated their marriage. This abstention is further emphasized by Joseph’s knowledge that he is not the father of Mary’s child, despite being her lawful husband.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary and Joseph’s Chaste Union

Early Christian writings suggest that Mary may have taken a vow of perpetual virginity. Regardless of the historical accuracy of this tradition, it is clear from the Biblical narrative that Mary and Joseph choose not to engage in marital relations, a choice that continues even after the nisuin.

Matthew 1:24-25 illustrates this unique dynamic. The phrase “took his wife” refers to the completion of the marital process through nisuin, while “knew her not” indicates their continued abstinence. This arrangement is unusual and unexplained by the angelic visitations, but it aligns with the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 about a virgin conceiving and bearing a child.

Addressing Misinterpretations of ‘Until’

A common misunderstanding arises from the use of the word “until” in Matthew 1:25. Some interpret this as implying that Mary and Joseph engaged in sexual relations after Jesus’ birth. However, St. Jerome and other Biblical scholars point out that “until” is often used in Scripture to demarcate an important period without implying a change after that period. Examples include Isaiah 46:4 and 1 Corinthians 15:25, where the use of “until” does not indicate a cessation of the stated condition afterward.

In summary, the Biblical account of Mary and Joseph, when understood in the context of Jewish marital customs, reveals a legally married couple who choose to live in a chaste union. This understanding aligns with the prophecies and the theological significance of the Incarnation in the Christian tradition.

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