Why Don’t We Sing “Joseph, Did You Know?”
by Lenny Esposito
One of the more popular modern Christmas songs is “Mary Did You Know?” which reflects upon the ministry, miracles, suffering and sacrifice of Jesus by asking his mother if she understood just who it is she had birthed. It’s touching with a tinge of sadness as the joy of a new birth is contrasted with her certain future heartache (ref. Luke 2:35). Those of us who have children of our own can especially feel the poignancy of the vulnerable baby in your arms and the dangers she faces from the world.
However, I often wonder why we don’t pause to reflect more on the understanding of Joseph during this holiday season. Joseph, according to Craig Keener, was probably between the ages of eighteen to twenty years old and had the marriage arranged by his and her parents. When Joseph and Mary were betrothed, it would have been in front of two witnesses whereby Joseph declared his intent to marry the girl. This was a legally binding relationship which opened up a year-long waiting period before the wedding. 1 Keener explains:
Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph is courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is possible) she is also a Bethlehemite who has to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the empire required only the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Palestine) also taxed women; but this would apply only if she owned immoveable property. Joseph may simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy may have deprived her of other friends.2
The scandal of Mary’s pregnancy would most likely lead people to speculate whether Mary and Joseph were improperly intimate prior to marriage or whether Mary was unfaithful to Joseph completely. Either way, it didn’t make things easy for him. Matthew reports:
Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:19-21, ESV).
Joseph’s faithfulness to respond to that dream is truly courageous. I think most people would assume his desire to still marry his pregnant fiancé would imply that it was he who acted improperly and got her pregnant to begin with. The level of scandal and shame such an act would spark should not be underestimated…
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