** What was life like for Mary & Joseph? Did they face persecution?**
A King But Not Born a King
Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, the father of the Israelite (Jewish) nation, and King David. He was born to parents from Nazareth in Galilee and he was raised there, but he was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. This is important because Old Testament passages understood to be speaking about the coming Messiah say he will be a descendent of David, and Micah 5:2-5 says he will come from Bethlehem.
This understanding of the Old Testament prophecies is seen in the birth narrative of the Gospel of Matthew. When the magi, gentile wise men, seeing a sign in the stars, come to Jerusalem asking where to find the king of the Jews, Herod the Great, ruler of Judea but not a descendent of David or true king, gathers the chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah will be born. They answer, “In Bethlehem in Judea, for so it is written in the prophet” and they quote the passage from Micah.
This is also seen in John 7:40-42: “On hearing [Jesus’] words, some of the people said, ‘Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Messiah.’ Still others asked, ‘How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’”
Both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke report that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a virgin and Jesus’ conception was a miracle from God through the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus, “the Son of God” – as Gabriel, the angel who brings Mary this news, calls him – is not a blood relation to his earthly father, Joseph.
The angel tells Mary to name her son Jesus, which means “God saves.”
How can you divorce someone you’re not married to?
Understandably, confusion comes when someone today reads in Matthew that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce [Mary] quietly” when he learned she was pregnant. So, was Mary an unmarried virgin or not? Why is Joseph her “husband” but they don’t seem to be married?
This misunderstanding has to do with our modern, western understanding of engagement and marriage versus the culture of Mary and Joseph. Simply, once a marriage was arranged in Mary’s day, though the couple may not be living together or technically married yet through a ceremony, it was still a binding relationship in a legal sense. So, where in our culture marriage engagements that are broken lead to a lot of hard feelings, a broken engagement in Mary and Joseph’s day would have an added legal aspect to it, so Joseph planned to “divorce” her.
Fortunately, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and, as we can guess, left quite an impression because Joseph married Mary. This angel told Joseph, as it was done with Mary, to call the child Jesus, “God saves.”
What was life like for Mary & Joseph?
The New Testament for the most part doesn’t report what life was like for Mary and Joseph immediately after their marriage. The wording of Matthew 1:18-19 (“she was found to be with child”) suggests that others learned of Mary’s pregnancy before she married Joseph. We have no record of whether she spoke to Joseph about it first or if he found out through others.
After their marriage, were they treated like pariahs? Was Joseph belittled for marrying such a woman? Did Jesus grow up with the stigma of being a child conceived out of wedlock?
Interestingly, in John 8, John records a debate between Jesus and some religious leaders. I’m not going to unpack the whole debate here, but it’s a debate about fatherhood, whether they are children of Abraham and God or of the devil. In John 8:41, one of the religious leaders abruptly says, “We were not born of fornication” (or “of sexual immorality”). Respected New Testament scholar D.A. Carson writes in his commentary on John that this may be a cheap shot (my words) at Jesus. Dr. Mark L. Strauss in his book Four Portraits, One Jesus mentions this interpretation as well. It’s possible the religious leaders in Jerusalem, after looking into this man who is raising so many eyebrows, learned of the questionable situation surrounding his birth. There is no further evidence for this view, but it is interesting to contemplate nonetheless, and it definitely seems like an odd comment for the religious leaders to throw into the debate.
No Room at the Inn – Another Clue?
Perhaps one of the most famous images of the birth of Jesus at Christmas time comes from only one sentence from the entire Bible (Luke 2:7): “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Even non-Christians are familiar with the iconic nativity scenes at Christmas time of the newborn Jesus on hay in a manger, surrounded by farm animals in a barn. The thing is, the word for “inn” (katalyma) normally means a guest room in a home or an informal public shelter where travelers (such as caravans) would stay for the night. Luke uses a different word for a roadside inn (pandocheion) later in 10:34, so it seems unlikely that he would use a different word if he meant the same thing.
Further, Luke 2:7 only speaks of the newborn Jesus being laid in a manger; it doesn’t tell us where that manger is located. It could very well be a lower-level stall attached to the home of a relative of Joseph or even a cave, as some traditions suggest. People used natural and manmade caves in the many slopes around Bethlehem as a cost-effective way to provide shelter for farm animals.
So, I hope this doesn’t ruin your fond Christmas memories, but those classic nativity scenes we all love may be inaccurate. (After a careful reading of the biblical record, there are other likely inaccuracies concerning the Christmas story as portrayed in popular culture, but I’ll write about these in my next article.)
Because of the census, Joseph and Mary were away from home at the time of Jesus’ birth since Joseph had to register in Bethlehem. Many people must have been traveling for the census, so it’s understandable that the “inn” had “no room.” But I’ve always had a hard time imagining how the people in the inn (whether it be a guest room, public shelter, or even a roadside inn) could turn away an extremely pregnant woman. Could this be further evidence of poor treatment of Mary and Joseph because of Mary being perceived as an immoral harlot? If the “inn” is, in fact, a guest room in the home of a family member of Joseph, this gives this idea more plausibility. Considering the three possible meanings of “inn,” it seems most logical to assume that Joseph had relatives in his hometown.
Or perhaps Joseph and Mary simply saw the crowded conditions of the guest room or public shelter and found more comfort in an area for animals. People in the first century often lived in close proximity to their livestock. Luke 2:7 simply says, “…because there was no room for them in the inn.” It doesn’t say Joseph and Mary were refused, unwelcome, or even kicked-out, though I have a hard time imaging a scene where Joseph and Mary arrive at a family member’s home, find the guest room overcrowded, and decide to stay with the animals instead, and the rest of the family is okay with this: “Sounds like a great idea! Let the pregnant lady stay with the animals!”
Or perhaps it was discrimination of some other sort. We’re told Joseph was a carpenter. (The word – tekton – translated “carpenter” is a general term for someone who works with stone, wood, or metal.) Most likely, scholars say, he would’ve been a part of the “working poor.” The best biblical support showing Mary and Joseph’s relative poverty is in Luke 2:24 when Mary offers at the Temple a sacrifice of two doves and two pigeons, which is said in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 12:8) to be an acceptable sacrifice for the poor if they can’t afford a lamb.
Finally, Natheneal’s sarcastic response when Philip first tells him about Jesus (John 1:45-46) might give us another clue:
“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’”
Most of this is speculation on my part, and I have yet to come across any similar ideas elsewhere about the mistreatment of Mary and Joseph.
(If anyone has come across anything about this, or if you have any thoughts to add, please comment below!)
(Read other parts of “Who Jesus Ain’t”: Read about the New Testament manuscripts here and about what Jesus looked like here. Please check out all my articles concerning apologetics, evangelism, culture, entertainment, and the Bible.)
NEXT: Was Jesus born on Dec. 25th? Are Hollywood portrayals of the wise men accurate?