by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Sunday, December 25, 2011 at 3:11pm

QUESTION: Luke 2:5 says that when Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Mary was only “engaged” or “betrothed” to Joseph. Does this mean Jesus was born to an unwed mother?

ANSWER: Some think we cannot really answer this question for sure, but there are considerations that lead us to conclude that Mary and Joseph were indeed married when Jesus was born.

One problem is the meaning of the Greek word (verb) used in this verse, i.e., mnēsteuō, which appears only here and in Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:27 (which also refer to Mary’s relation to Joseph). The NIV translates the verb in all three verses as “pledged to be married,” i.e., betrothed. Most versions of the New Testament give similar translations. It seems that this is certainly the meaning in Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:27. Does it mean the same in Luke 2:5, though?

My Arndt and Gingrich Greek lexicon gives only this meaning for mnēsteuō: active voice, “woo and win, betroth”; passive voice, “be betrothed, become engaged to someone.” My Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, by Ceslas Spicq (Hendrickson, 1994, 3 vols.), however, lists these possible definitions: “to seek a woman’s hand in marriage, become engaged, marry.” Spicq draws his conclusions from surveying a wide variety of ancient Greek sources, such as Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Euripides, and especially the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). He says that in the Septuagint version of the apocryphal work Tobit, mnēsteuō “translates the Hebrew ’āraś and usually means ‘become engaged,’ but it means marriage when the angel says to Tobias, ‘I will speak to Raguel so that he will give you his daughter in marriage’ (Tob 6:12).”

Spicq adds that both meanings—betroth, marry—are found also in Josephus. For the latter meaning he cites Antiquities 4.246, “If a man marries a virgin . . . .”

Based on such data, Spicq says regarding Luke 2:5 that “we can still understand the [verb mnēsteuō] as referring literally to engagement, but we cannot exclude the possibility that the marriage had been accomplished, so ‘wife’ is also a possible translation” (VI:518-519).

The incident recorded in Matthew 1:18-25 certainly points to the latter conclusion. This took place after Mary and Joseph had become betrothed, after Mary had become pregnant, and after the pregnancy had become known to Joseph (v. 18). When Joseph concluded that he should “put her away secretly” (v. 19), an angel from the Lord told him in a dream to go ahead and marry her (“take Mary as your wife,” v. 20). Then the text says that “Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife” (v. 24).

When Matthew records this sequence of events, he does not indicate the specific time during Mary’s pregnancy that it happened; nor does he specifically say how much time elapsed between the dream itself and the taking of Mary as his wife (v. 24). However, an ordinary, routine reading of these verses leaves the distinct impression that the marriage took place as an immediate result of the dream.

Then we can ask the question, did this dream occur before or after the trip to Bethlehem described in the second chapter of Luke? In my judgment, all indications suggest that it occurred before the trip that resulted in Jesus’ birth. The dream seems to immediately follow his discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and his decision to “put her away.” But there is almost no chance that this could have happened after the events described in Luke 2, i.e., after Jesus was born. Thus the dream and the resulting marriage, described in Matthew 1:18-25, almost certainly occurred before the trip to Bethlehem, and thus before Jesus’ birth.

We conclude, then, that the translation of the verb mnēsteuō in Luke 2:5 as “betrothed” or “engaged” or “pledged to be married” is inaccurate; it should read that Joseph went to Bethlehem “in order to register, along with Mary, his wedded wife, who was expecting a child.” Thus we also conclude that Mary was not an “unwed mother”; she and Joseph were married when Jesus was born.

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