Deacon Nathan Allen notes something interesting about Matthew’s account of the Nativity

Deacon Nathan Allen notes something interesting about Matthew’s account of the Nativity December 23, 2013

The punctuation does not exist in the original text, but is supplied by translators.  Since lots of translators assume Joseph didn’t believe Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, they add a semi-colon to the angel’s message to Joseph.  However, Jerome, the greatest scripture scholar of antiquity, thought that Joseph believed Mary (I think so too) and wanted to put her away, not because he thought her an  adulteress, but because he was frightened to assume paternity of the awesome and terrifying child in her womb.  Given that, dropping a single semi-colon completely changes the meaning of the angel’s message to Joseph:

Note that the angel in the dream does not say to Joseph, “Don’t suspect Mary of adultery, of being unfaithful to her promise to marry you.” Rather, the angel says, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife.” Instead of reading, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife <stop> for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” let’s try dropping the semicolon. If we do that, we get, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” That is, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home ON ACCOUNT OF THE FACT THAT the child she is carrying is of the Holy Spirit.” That changes the meaning entirely, doesn’t it!

Fascinating.  His whole homily is here.

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  • I’ve heard Scott Hahn give his support for this interpretation, as well.

  • Raymond Brown (“The birth of the Messiah”) considers and rejects (as less probable) this alternative translation.

  • Andy, Bad Person

    Completely amateur Scripture scholar here. That is an interesting interpretation, but doesn’t the previous sentence, “since he was a righteous man, and unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” more strongly support the text as it is with the punctuation?

    • chezami

      I can just as easily support the idea that even righteous men can be deeply afraid of being stepfather to the Son of God and try to bail.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        Oh, of course. I wasn’t even focusing on the “righteous man” part; more on the “unwilling to expose her to shame,” which, to me anyway, speaks to his view of her unwed pregnancy.

        I think both readings can be good, though.

        • Colin Gormley

          I wonder if the exposure to shame fits with the Protoevangelim of James. If Joseph was older and supposed to protect her virginity, both she and he woudl be ostracized.

    • Steve Perisho

      See the article by Bucellati, above.

  • ” thought that Joseph believed Mary (I think so too) ”
    This seems to imply [*] that the other reading is less… pious, in that it would assume that Joseph didn’t believe Mary. But, apart from other objections, Matthew doesn’t say anywhere that Mary told him anything.

    [*] I cannot read the original homily. Oh, the old times where one could read any public web-page by just having an Internet connection, with no need of having a Facebook account…

    • chezami

      Both readings are legit, but I think the Deacon’s reading actually fits reality better.

      • David J. White

        But, as I pointed out above, it doesn’t fit the grammar of the passage in the original text.

        • Steve Perisho

          You’re quite right, Mr. White. There is no doubt about that γὰρ in any manuscript of the NT referenced by the standard manual editions.
          Without jumping into the complexities of the discussion, allow me simply to link you (Mark) to a lovely article by Giorgio Bucellatti (, which (IF memory serves (it’s been several years since I read it clear through)) doesn’t depend on this point of punctuation. I excerpt from it here, and, at the bottom of the page, provide a link to the article itself in place on the Communio site:
          In sharing it, I don’t claim that it’s beyond criticism, just that it’s lovely.

          Steve Perisho
          Theology and Philosophy Librarian
          Seattle Pacific University

  • Interesting…
    Here’s another thing. I use to think that part of the problem was the perceived sin of premarital sex between Mary & Joseph, but I was surprised to learn that between the betrothal and a wife’s entry into her husband’s house, the marriage act was not customary among the Jews, but if it did take place, it was NOT sinful and a child born of it was legitimate. Only Josephs’ word of not being the father would have brought shame to Mary. It also stands to reason that Joseph would not lie and say he was the natural father. All he needed to do was to trust God, say nothing, and take Mary as his wife.

    Learned this (and many other things) from the book “To Know Christ Jesus” by Frank Sheed.

    A post about that book is HERE

    Merry Christmas!

    • said she

      Thank you for posting this info. It does shed a lot of light on the situation.

  • Cypressclimber

    I thought a lot about this Gospel yesterday. Several questions occurred to me, and a friend with whom we talked about it over dinner:

    1. How did Joseph actually learn Mary was expecting? From Mary herself, or from others?

    If Mary, then one supposes she would have told Joseph everything–and the deacon’s possible reading supports that.

    2. What were Joseph’s reactions? If he thought it was adultery, he might have been angry and hurt; or maybe–presuming he knew about Mary’s vow of virginity–he simply wanted to get out of the way.

    3. What do we know of Joseph’s death? My friend made that point–that it seems we have almost nothing, whereas we have a fair amount on Mary. I speculated that perhaps he died not long after the visit to the temple, thus fewer to remember. But then, this morning, I thought: that makes no difference: Mary would have remembered! So it remains a puzzle–why so little about his later years?

    • Andy, Bad Person

      We don’t know about his later years (and Scripturally, not much about Mary either), but tradition holds that, at the very least, he died before Jesus started his public ministry.

      It also holds that he died in the presence of both Mary and Jesus, which is what makes him the Patron Saint of a Happy Death.

  • David J. White

    It’s an interesting idea, but I looked at the Greek text, and I don’t think the wording of the original text supports Deacon Allen’s interpretation of this passage. Yes, a semicolon is inserted by modern textual editors; but the semicolon is prompted by the “gar” in the second phrase: “me phobetheis paralabein Marian ten gunaika sou to gar en autni gennethen ek pneumatos estin agiou.” That is (second part), “for (gar) that which has been conceived in her (etc.). “gar” in Greek generally indicates an explanatory clause explaining the entire previous clause: in other words, this is why Joseph should not be afraid. If the angel meant this to indicate Joseph’s purported reason for being afraid, I think it would have been expressed differently, with something like “diot”i instead of “gar.”

    So the Greek text supports the traditional interpretation: Don’t be afraid …. Because … (i.e., this is why you shouldn’t be afraid).

    Jerome seems to have read the passage the same way, whatever his opinion of the overall situation. He translates “gar” with “enim”, which is standard, and which has the same meaning in Latin: introducing a clause which explains the entire previous clause.” Again, if the clause were meant to give an explanation for Joseph’s fears, it would probably more likely be introduced, in Latin, with something like “quia” or “quoniam.”

    The semicolon in modern texts doesn’t just come from the modern translators’ interpretation; it comes from the “gar” in the Greek text.

    This shows the difficulties of trying to do exegesis based on a translation.

    • David J. White

      Ugh! Sorry for messing up the italics tags!

  • Rich

    Joseph was a holy man who would have known Mary was holy, having lived in the same little town, so there’s no way that he thought she was an adulteress. He was like Moses at the mountain, properly afraid of the presence of God. He was thinking, “Oh, no — I should not be approaching this. I am a simple man, what have I done? I should quietly step away.” Further, being a law-abiding Jew, he would not “put her away quietly” if he thought her an adulteress. He would have gone to the rabbinic authorities.

  • PalaceGuard

    Not to the point, but this seems as good a place as any for this, I had an insight during Mass yesterday into the “brothers of Jesus” controversy. When John the Baptist was born, the family was puzzled that he was not named Zechariah after his father, this being the norm for firstborn sons. But it is not even mentioned that anyone was surprised that Jesus was not named Joseph. This would seem to bolster the theory that Joseph already had at least one son by a previous marriage, one of whom was probably already named Joseph. Any comments?

    • Dan F.

      That’s quite a fascinating idea. And while you can’t prove that from the text (since there is no definitive yes or no) I think that the inference could be valid. Any Biblical scholars out there know if Joseph had a son from a previous marriage – would that son have assumed responsibility for Mary upon Joseph/Jesus’ death? I don’t know.