The Jewish Background to Joseph’s Intention to Divorce Miryam

Following an incredible sermon by my friend Joseph Barkley, I have decided to post a paper on the Jewish cultural background to the Christmas story.

Matthew provides little background to the relationship between Miryam and Joseph. He begins his narrative by mentioning they were in the midst of their betrothal period, which might last for several years (Matt 1:18).[1]  He also intentionally mentions they had not yet had physical relations, emphasizing both their righteous character and the legitimacy of the child’s birth. Despite their apparent piety during their betrothal period, Joseph discovers that Miryam is pregnant (1:18). Recognizing that he is not the father, he determines he must divorce Mary, but he decides to divorce her privately (1:19). Matthew assumes his audience understands the religious and cultural ramifications of this decision; therefore an understanding of ancient Jewish practice in marriage and divorce, particularly explained through a few Mishnaic tractates, will help elucidate what Matthew means when he describes Joseph as both just and compassionate.[2]

Jewish Practice of Divorce in the Mishnah

Two tractates, Sotah and Gittin, are of particular importance when studying the ancient Jewish practice of divorce.


Sotah (סוטה), based upon Numbers 5:11-31, deals with the Jewish laws governing a wife suspected of marital impurity and the process required to determine her guilt or innocence. If the husband suspects the wife of adulterous conduct, Jewish law requires him to warn her in front of two witnesses and forces her to drink the bitter water (Sotah 1:1).  According to the Mishnah, bitter water (מי המרים) brings a curse upon an adulterous wife, but does not cause harm to an innocent wife (Num 5:19-22). After the husband accuses his wife of adultery, she must stand trial before the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Sotah 1:4).  The priest removes all jewelry, clothes her in black garments and then publicly expose her before all of Jerusalem, due to her lewd conduct (1:5-7). If the wife is innocent, she confesses her innocence and affirms she has not gone astray in adultery either during marriage or betrothal (2:5). The pries was not allowed to consider the actions of the wife in the period prior to her betrothal or after her divorce (2:6). This indicates the Jewish community considered the betrothal period equal to marriage, since the consequences to infidelity during each period were equal. If the wife’s face turned yellow and her eyes protrude after she finished drinking the bitter water she is guilty; the priests immediately remove her, lest her impurity defile the temple (3:4). The priest must then burn the meal offering of the defiled woman, because it is not holy (3:6).

Sotah continues to discuss the stipulations for women during the betrothal period. A betrothed woman does not drink the bitter water or receive her marriage-settlement if her husband does not wish her to drink, witnesses provide evidence proving her guilt, she admits to infidelity or she is pregnant (4:2-3). If the betrothed woman is pregnant or nursing her infant child the husband should separate from his wife for twenty-four months (4:3). Yet, if a husband warns his wife and she secretly departs from him he must divorce her when he learns of her indiscretion, because she will ruin his reputation when the women of the town begin speaking of her harlotry (6:1).


The tractate Gittin (גיטין), based upon Deuteronomy 22:13-29 and 24:1-4, deals with the stipulations involved in providing a “bill of divorce” (גיט), the only means of terminating a marriage under Jewish law. The husband cannot divorce his wife if he wrongly accuses her during the betrothal period (Deut 22:13-19) or if he seduced her before the marriage (Deut 22:28-29). Either a witness must be present during the signature or the signatory must confirm the bill of divorce, or get, to render it valid (Gittin 1:1-3). A valid get must be written and signed during the same day (2:2). The husband can write the get with anything and on anything, even upon a cow or a bondman, but he must present the cow or bondman to her (2:3). A bill of divorce is only valid for the two parties stipulated within the get; it is not valid for any wife to whom it is not expressly written (3:1). A scribe can write out a generic get, but he must leave a blank space for the husband, wife and the date of divorce (3:2). The bill of divorce is not valid if the one delivering the get looses it and does not find it before he is able to deliver the bill to the wife (3:3). If the husband changes his mind after writing and sending the get he can still cancel the bill of divorce if he stops the messenger before the bill reaches the wife, but, if the wife receives the get, the divorce is final and cannot be revoked (4:1). If a man divorces his wife, due to her immoral reputation, he cannot take her back as his wife, but if he made a rash vow, in a few exceptions, he might be able to take her back (4:7).

The husband can choose to retract the get as long as he changes his mind before it reaches her hand, but the father of a betrothed girl may receive her bill of divorce on her behalf (6:1-3). The bill of divorce is not valid unless the messenger delivers the get to the location stipulated by the husband (6:3). Once the bill of divorce reaches the hand of the divorced woman, she is no longer allowed to eat of the priestly-portion (6:4).[3]  The husband can also instruct another person to write out and deliver a valid bill of divorce (6:5). The get is valid if the messenger delivers the bill to the wife while she is in her house or courtyard, but it is invalid if she receives the bill while she is in his house (8:1). The messenger must explain to the wife that it is her bill of divorce; if she accidentally finds the bill and reads it, then it is not a valid get (8:2). In the case of a betrothed woman, the bill of divorce is valid as soon as the messenger throws the get in her general vicinity (8:3). If the husband of a betrothed woman provides her with a bill of divorce and then they lodge together for the night, without any witnesses to prove they have become intimate, the divorce is still valid and they are divorced (8:9). If the town hears of a betrothal, then the betrothal is valid; therefore, if a man divorces a betrothed wife, the town will recognize the divorce (9:9).

Events Involved in the Marriage and Divorce

The following discussion will look at the age and the context of the betrothal and marriage between Joseph and Mary (Miryam) and at the necessary steps involved in Joseph’s decision to divorce Miryam. Matthew states that Joseph decided to divorce Miryam privately, instead of choosing to expose Miryam to the more shameful public divorce trial.

Age at the Time of Marriage

Matthew does not discuss the background or the ages of Mary and Joseph involved in their betrothal and marriage. Although Matthew does not mention their age, first century marital practices suggest Mary and Joseph were both quite young at the time of their betrothal. The Mishnah indicates the average age for a Jewish male at the time of marriage was between 18 and 20 (Avot 5:21).[4]  Yet the betrothal, which began the transition of the woman from her father’s house to her husband’s, may begin when the girl was as young as twelve.[5]  Their young age highlights the piety of both Joseph and Mary.[6]

Significance of the Betrothal

Matthew’s Gospel also fails to indicate the cultural significance of the betrothal period, which is not analogous to today’s period of engagement. While couples in modern American society can terminate an engagement without any formal legal agreement, the betrothal, under Jewish law, could only end through an official, legal divorce (Ketuvot 1:2). The Torah describes a woman pledged to be married as a wife (Deut 22:24) and the Mishnah does not distinguish between marriage and the betrothal period (Yebam 4:10).  A betrothed woman is bound by a ketubah, marriage contract; therefore, the consequences for infidelity during the betrothal period are the same as those during the marriage (Sotah 2:5; 4:1). Furthermore, the Mishnah highlights the significance of the betrothal period by showing a distinction between the time before the betrothal and the betrothal period itself; yet, the Mishnah does not make a distinction between the betrothal and the actual marriage (Sotah 2:6). Even though the betrothal had the same obligations as marriage, the couple did not live together or consummate the marriage during this period (Gittin 6:2; Ketuvot 1:2; 4:2).[7] The only way to end a betrothal was through official divorce proceedings, as stipulated under Jewish law. Therefore, Joseph had to “send her away,” which means he had to provide Mary with an official bill of divorce (Matt 1:19).[8]

Bill of Divorce

If Joseph intended to terminate his betrothal with Mary, he was required to provide her with a certificate of divorce (Deut 24:1). The Mishnah indicates that the husband was required to provide his wife with a certificate of divorce in order to legally terminate a marriage or betrothal (Gittin 1:1-3). Therefore, Joseph had to provide Mary with a bill of divorce in order to terminate their betrothal. The divorce would not be official until Mary had possession of the certificate (Gittin 4:1). If Joseph proceeded with his intention to divorce Mary, he could not take her back as his wife, because the divorce was due to her evil repute (Gittin 4:7). Therefore, Joseph would need to cancel the divorce proceedings before the certificate of divorce reached Mary. Matthew indicates that Joseph had already intended (βουλομαι) to proceed with the divorce (Matt 1:19). This may suggest that he already had prepared the get and was in the process of delivering the certificate of divorce. Since Joseph was able to abandon his intention to divorce Mary, the angel must have appeared prior to the presentation of the certificate and the subsequent ratification of the divorce (Gittin 3:3; 4:1, 7). Therefore, Matthew’s narrative suggests the angel arrived just in the nick of time, preserving the union between Joseph and Mary.

Divorce Trial

Joseph was a compassionate man; so he intended to divorce Miryam privately. This means that he was not willing to expose Miryam to the public divorce trial. Since Joseph and Miryam were betrothed, Mary would receive her rights as outlined in the ketubah, marriage contract, unless she was guilty of adultery, which would dismiss her right to the marriage settlement (Sotah 4:1).[9] If Joseph wanted to recover the bride price and keep the dowry, he must prove Miryam was unfaithful through a public trial (Gittin 2:5; 9:3, 4, 8). He would need the assistance of the village scribes and elders to recover the money, thus increasing Miryam’s shame.[10] In a public divorce trial, Joseph was required to bring Miryam to stand trial before the Great Sanhedrin and a priest would take her before the Nikanor Gate to expose her before all the people and the Lord (Sotah 1:4). The priest would tear her dress, revealing her bosom, tousle her hair and tie a rope above her chest (Sotah 1:5). Since Mary was both pregnant and betrothed, she would be able to avoid drinking the bitter water, which would cause the abdomen of a guilty woman to swell and thighs to waste away (Num 5:11-31; Sotah 4:1, 3).[11] Yet, Joseph was compassionate and did not wish to expose Mary to the shame of a public trial, before the Great Sanhedrin, of a wife suspected of adultery. His desire to keep Miryam from public disgrace resulted in a significant financial loss for Joseph, since he could not recoup his costs apart from a public trial.

Joseph had the right to keep Mary from the drinking the bitter water and avoiding the public disgrace (Sotah 4:2). Yet, Joseph could not divorce Mary in complete secret, since he would need two witnesses to sign and validate the divorce certificate (Gittin 1:1-3; 4:3). Therefore, it was impossible for Joseph to divorce Mary in complete secrecy, without the knowledge of others. If the certificate of divorce did not have the signatures of witnesses, then the certificate would not be valid (Gittin 9:4). Once the divorce was public knowledge, it was valid (Gittin. 9:9). While Joseph could limit the public knowledge and Mary’s disgrace, he could not divorce Mary without the assistance of witnesses.

The Character of Joseph

Matthew does not spend much time developing the character of Joseph.  Yet, in the little information Matthew does provide about Joseph, he demonstrates that Joseph was both a just and compassionate man, who obediently follows God. Matthew uses Joseph as the paradigm for the type of person God chooses to serve him.

Joseph was Just

When Joseph discovered that Miryam was pregnant he obviously assumed she had been unfaithful, since he knew that he was not the father; therefore, he had an obligation to cancel his betrothal and divorce Miryam. In the case of adultery, Jewish law required the termination of the relationship (Sotah 5:1; Yebam 2:8).[12]  Both Jewish and Roman law demanded that a husband divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery.[13]  The Romans considered a husband who did not divorce his adulterous wife as one who exploited her as a prostitute.[14] When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant he recognized that his character was at stake, because he had to prove that he was not the one responsible for Mary’s pregnancy. If he did not divorce Mary, he would ruin both his reputation and the reputation of his family.[15] Therefore, when Matthew mentions Joseph’s intention to divorce Mary, he highlights Joseph’s character; he was a just and righteous man. It also provides an example to Jesus’ discussion of divorce later in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 5:32; 19:9). Keener points out that sometimes divorce is just and appropriate under some circumstances, because infidelity is always unrighteous.[16] Joseph proves that he is a righteous man when he decides to divorce Mary and demonstrates that he does not condone ungodly behavior.

Matthew also states that Joseph did not consummate their marriage until after Miryam gave birth (Matt 1:25). While this was not necessary, since Joseph and Miryam were officially married sometime after the angel appeared to Joseph, it proves that both Miryam and Joseph were able to demonstrate self-control.[17]  This contradicts cultural expectations, since the ancient Jewish community did not think betrothed couples could exhibit such self-control. [18]  Through Joseph, Matthew demonstrates that God chose a righteous and just man to be the adopted father of the Messiah.

Joseph was Compassionate

Not only was Joseph a righteous man, he was also a compassionate man.  Even before the angel appeared to him, he had decided to divorce Mary privately. If he had exposed her to the public trial, Mary would have faced significant shame and humiliation. Yet, Joseph was a compassionate man, who did not want Mary to experience the shame involved in a public divorce. Matthew, again, uses the character of Joseph to highlight the type person God chooses as his servant. By choosing to divorce Mary privately, Joseph was both risking his reputation as a righteous man within the Jewish community and forfeiting the financial benefit he would gain through a public divorce. Joseph valued compassion above his own personal interest.

Joseph was also willing to risk his own honor after took Miryam as his wife. According to Jewish law the bride would produce a bloody sheet upon consummation of the marriage as proof of her virginity at marriage (Deut 22:15; P. Ketuvot 1:1, 7-8). Since Miryam gave birth prior to the consummation of the marriage, they were not able to produce proof of her virginity to the community. Even after the marriage, both Joseph and Miryam would have to face the shame from the community concerning their character. When the angel appeared to Joseph, he believed the angel and entered into a marital union with Miryam. He discontinued his intention to divorce Miryam. Matthew portrays Joseph as a just and compassionate man, who obediently follows God’s instructions.


Matthew likely assumes his audience will understand the cultural background in Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary. Unfortunately, this cultural background is foreign to a modern audience. The little information Matthew does provide concerning Joseph demonstrates that he is both just and compassionate. He is just, because he did not want to marry an adulterous woman. He is compassionate, because he does not want to expose her to the overwhelming shame associated with a public divorce trial. By understanding the background to Matthew’s statement about Joseph, Matthew’s readers recognize the godly character in Jesus’ family. The righteous and compassionate character of Joseph, underscores the righteousness and compassion of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. This description of Joseph defends the lineage of the Messiah.

[1] S. Safrai, “Home and Family,” In The Jewish People in the First Century: Historical Geography, Political History, Social, Cultural and Religious Life and Institutions, ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern, 728-92, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 756-757.

[2] While Judah HaNasi did not codify the Mishnah until a.d. 200, the discussion in the Mishnah reflects the Jewish Oral Torah present during the first century and helps define the context for statements in the Gospels.

[3] This is in case that she is the wife of a priest (כהן).

[4] This tractate of the Mishnah describes the average life-cycle of the Jewish male: five years old – begin study of Scripture; ten – begin study of Mishnah; thirteen – observance of Torah; fifteen – begin study of Talmud; eighteen – marriage; twenty – begin providing for a family; thirty – full strength; forty – understanding; etc.

[5] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 364-365.

[6] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 88-89.

[7] Ibid., 91.

[8] απολυω often refers to divorce, or annulment of a marriage relationship, see BDAG 118.

[9] Qumran Scroll 11QT 66:1-11, which quotes Deuteronomy 22:23-27, distinguishes between a woman who is seduced and a woman who is violated against her will. Targum Pseudo Jonathan states that the woman who is violated has not committed a crime, but the husband still should provide her with a bill of divorce (Tg. Ps.-J. Deut 22:26).  If Joseph wanted to prove that she was seduced and not violated against her will, he would have to expose her to the public trial.  For a discussion see: Angelo Tosato, “Joseph, Being a Just Man: (Matt. 1:19),” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, (41, no. 4 (1979), 548-549.

[10] Craig S. Keener, Matthew, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 60.

[11] Traditionally, the punishment for adultery was stoning under Jewish law, but in the first century the Jewish people could rarely conduct an execution apart from Roman participation (Deut 22:13-27; Jos. War 2:117).

[12] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand: Eerdmans, 2007), 51.

[13] Craig S. Keener, Matthew, 60.

[14] Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986) 131-132.

[15] A man who does has an adulterous wife would prove the husband is either inadequate or his family made a poor choice (2 Enoch 71:6-11).  See: Craig S. Keener, Matthew, 61.

[16] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 90.

[17] See: Ibid., 89-90 for a thorough discussion.

[18] Galilean brides and the grooms were not allowed to be alone together until after the marriage. Judean grooms were encouraged to live with the bride prior to marriage to increase his attraction for his wife.  See: S. Safrai, “Home and Family,” 756-757.

This entry was posted in Bible, Jewish Culture, Mishnah, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Jewish Background to Joseph’s Intention to Divorce Miryam

  1. jackie williams says:

    very informative

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