By Bill Warren, Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: I’ve heard that Mary and Joseph were engaged, but Matthew 1:19 indicates Joseph is considering divorcing Mary. What was the marriage custom back then that might explain this?
Bill Warren responds: Most marriages in the first century were arranged marriages, with the marriage agreements being made between the two fathers or the older males in the family (such as an older brother if the father was deceased). Girls were generally married between 12 to 15 years of age, with boys in Jewish life generally in their late teens or early twenties. There was no dating as people do today, since the marriages were arranged. So Mary had been promised to Joseph via an arranged marriage.
When the girl was of the proper age, the marriage itself would become final via a legal document. The legal marriage agreement would include the names of the two people to be married as well as the names of the people representing them and affirming the document (normally the fathers). A “bride price” was often mentioned, which was the price to be paid to the family of the bride as compensation for losing a worker due to the bride moving to live with her husband. An Old Testament example of this is found in the story of Jacob when he agrees to work seven years as the price for marrying one of Laban’s daughters (Genesis 29:18). That in essence was a “bride price” being paid as compensation for the loss of a daughter. Normally the “dowry” the bride brought to the marriage was also mentioned in the contract. A normal first-century marriage contract would specify the dowry and require the repayment of 1 ½ to 2 times that amount if the husband divorced the woman or sent her away without cause. So the higher the dowry, the more expensive it was to divorce the woman, which was a great protection for the woman.
When these legal documents were signed, sometimes several months before the actual wedding itself, the marriage was official. So in the case of Joseph, he was already legally married to Mary during the “engagement” period in Matthew 1:18, even though the “wedding” had not yet happened. To break that legal contract, a divorce would have been required. In Matt. 1:19, Joseph is considering divorcing Mary during this “legally binding” engagement period, but in a private manner rather than making a demeaning public spectacle of the matter. Of course, God had other plans, and so when Joseph gets the message from God via the angel, he honors the marriage contract and keeps Mary as his wife even though her first son, our Lord Jesus, was not his natural son since Jesus was born via a miraculous virgin birth.
Bill Warren, Ph.D., is NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell, II, Chair of NT Studies, and Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies.