Was the Blessed Virgin Mary an unwed mother?
Sometimes you will hear this idea being discussed among some well-meaning folks.
Their reasoning can vary as to why they think it is true. Most often it seems to stem from their flawed understanding of a Bible passage in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 1:26-27 reads, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (NRSV:CE).
The confusion lies in the term “betrothed.”
Matthew 1:18 describes Mary and Joseph’s relationship at the time at a betrothal, as well: “…Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit…” (NRSV:CE).
Unfortunately, faulty Bible translations add to the confusion of the proper understanding of betrothal. For instance, the Protestant NIV translation has Matthew 1:18 translated, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” Even worse, the Protestant ISV translation has “Mary was engaged to Joseph.” Both these Protestant translations miss the mark. The Catholic NAB and the Protestant KJV clear it up when they translate it, “Mary was espoused to Joseph.”
SO, WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THIS BETROTHAL?
We in the USA are accustomed to a couple falling in love, entering an engagement, and then having their wedding. Whereas, the routine in Biblical times did not follow this pattern. Those who do not understand the culture of Biblical times instead project their modern understandings back onto the text and end up with faulty translations.
What they would do in Biblical times was rather a two-step marriage process. First, a couple would enter the betrothal period. They would hold a ceremony where the husband would give a wedding ring to his bride. Then he would go off for up to a year to build them a home. During this year-long period, the two of them were legally married, but they were not yet living together. This is the period in which we find Mary when the angel Gabriel visits her. She is thus a married woman, who just has yet to go live under the same roof as her husband, Joseph.
The second step of the marriage process was when the wife would come join the husband in their new home he has prepared for them. This interim also allowed the couple to get to know each other, since marriages were so often arranged.
Therefore, a betrothal is not like our modern engagement period. A betrothed couple are legally married. Whereas, an engaged couple is not.
MORE BIBLICAL EVIDENCE
We have focused on Matthew 1:18 so far, but notice what occurs in the very next verse. In verse 19 Joseph is identified as Mary’s husband. What’s more, in verse 20 the angel Gabriel appears to Joseph in a dream and rightly calls Mary Joseph’s “wife.” Finally, in verse 24 Mary is again identified as Joseph’s “wife.”
Also, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 discusses the permission given to allow for divorce. Those who were already married could get out of the marriage only by death of their spouse or by divorce. Verse one says a husband could divorce his wife if he found any “indecency” in her.
After all, Joseph had planned to separate from Mary (Matthew 1:19) and it took a visit from the Archangel Gabriel to convince him not to do so. If the two of them were not already married, he would have been free to leave her. But instead, he was trying to devise a way to separate that would not also leave her vulnerable.
IT WOULD BE UNFITTING ANYWAYS
Moreover, it would have been unfitting for the Blessed Virgin Mary to be an unwed mother. God would not permit that Mary, the most perfect woman, preserved from all sin, to become impure by becoming pregnant outside wedlock.
When considering the confusion that remains in our day on this issue, we must affirm the correct understanding of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph. “According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal, or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his own house. Thus, before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her ‘husband,’” affirms Pope St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Redemptoris Custos (#18, emphasis added).
So, was the Blessed Virgin Mary an unwed mother? In a word, no.
Have you ever heard anyone perpetuate the lie that Mary was an unwed mother? Especially from the pulpit?
Please weigh in with any comments you have below.