Mary and Joseph in the Bible
The atmosphere of our church service was pregnant with expectation: four candles of the Advent wreath and the colored lights from the tree and wreaths lit the darkened room. My wife and I were among the tens of millions gathered on Christmas Eve to rehearse the Nativity story again. As one of the readers read aloud Luke 2:5, I was struck by the New International Version (NIV) translation: “Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Chronologically, the narrative had advanced some eight months from Luke 1:26-27, where it stated that Gabriel was sent to a virgin named Mary “pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” The Greek verb mnēsteuō was translated identically in both verses.
The translation suggested to me that an unmarried Jewish couple was traveling a long distance unaccompanied by other family members. And the woman—still only pledged in marriage—was in an advanced state of pregnancy. If such a situation is still scandalous in the Middle East, how much more in first-century Judea!1
Later I checked other translations of Luke 2:5. The English Standard Version (ESV) uses “betrothed,” an archaic Middle English word. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) uses “engaged,” while the New Living Translation (NLT) says “fiancée.” Again, these English versions suggest that the couple’s marriage was incomplete. This discovery led me into an in-depth word study as well as a look at ancient marriage. And what I found was surprising.
Matthew’s Gospel seems to be clearer. In the genealogy, Joseph is called the “husband of Mary,” who gave birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:16). Describing the background of their relationship, Matthew 1:18 reads, “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” Here Matthew uses the same Greek verb as Luke. However, after Joseph decides to divorce Mary because of her unexpected pregnancy, an angel warns him in a dream not to do so. The angel advises him to “take Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:20). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel commanded him: He took Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:24). Luke’s version seemingly contradicts Matthew’s, according to present English translations.
The Greek verb mnēsteuō is used eight times in the Septuagint (the third-century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Four uses in Deuteronomy (22:23, 25, 27, 28) deal with the legal issues surrounding an engaged woman having illicit sexual relations. If the incident happens in a city (22:23), both the man and the woman are to be stoned to death; if a rape happens in the country, only the man is to be stoned. The man is considered guilty because he has violated another man’s wife (22:24).
In the three uses in Hosea, God himself is speaking. Regarding Israel’s future day of redemption in 2:16, God declares: “You will call me ‘my husband.’” Then he states in verses 19–20: “And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD.” The NRSV translates “wife” here, while the NIV, ESV and New King James Version (NKJV) all read: “I will betroth you.” Because of the context wherein God declares that he is a husband forever, it is clear that his relationship with Israel extends beyond an engagement stage; they will metaphorically be husband and wife.
The Hebrew verb aras, translated mnēsteuō in Greek, refers to Jewish marriage practice in which the groom contractually pays a bride-price (mohar) to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12). According to Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart, “This was the final step in the courtship process, virtually equivalent in legal status to the wedding ceremony.”2 According to the Mishnah Ketubbot 5.2, the betrothal would last a year, with the bride remaining in the home of her father. Recalling the legal texts in Deuteronomy mentioned earlier plus the equation of David’s betrothal to Michal as marriage (2 Samuel 3:14), we see that under Jewish law, a betrothed woman was considered to be married.
Returning to Joseph, he would have paid the bride price to Mary’s father at their engagement (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:27). Despite his misgivings, Joseph then obeyed the angel’s command to marry Mary (Matthew 1:20). The time of formal engagement, whether a full year or not, had passed between them. So Joseph and Mary had begun to live together except for sexual relations (Matthew 1:25). Luke’s understanding of mnēsteuō must be expanded to include both the betrothal/engagement as well as marital cohabitation. Therefore a better translation of Luke 2:5 would be: “Mary his wife who was expecting a child.” (The NKJV attempts a hybrid with “betrothed wife.”) English translations that suggest the couple was still only in the engagement stage of fiancé/fiancée must be discarded. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem as a full husband and wife under ancient Jewish law.
- Joseph Fitzmyer anticipated my questions by suggesting that readers and listeners should not be overliteral because the account does not intend to answer questions such as: “What was she doing on a journey with Joseph, if she were merely his fiancée or betrothed? And worse still, pregnant as well”; see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 407. To ask such questions, according to Fitzmyer, is to miss the point of Luke’s story. But in liturgical use such authorial nuances are lost. He also notes that Luke never calls Mary the “wife” of Joseph and perhaps was not aware of Palestinian Jewish marriage customs. This blog post assumes that Luke, because of his knowledge of Jewish customs and possible interview with Mary herself (cf. Luke 1:2), used familiar marital language that had a broader semantic range than translators give it today.
- Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 59.
The problem of names surfaced at a recent Bible study at the St. Paul Union Church in Antalya, Turkey. Pastor Dennis Massaro was discussing the three men named “James” in the New Testament: Two were apostles, and the third was the leader of the Jerusalem church and author of the eponymous letter—the Book of James. Participants in the study came from a range of countries, including the Netherlands, Iran, Mexico, Moldova and Cameroon. When I asked what the name of these men was in their languages, they all said “Jacob.”
When I was teaching a course on the New Testament General Letters (Hebrews through Jude), I began by introducing the Book of Jacob, also known as the Book of James. Students were perplexed until they learned that Jacob is the proper translation of the Greek name Iakōbos. One student wrote later that knowing this “turned my understanding of the writing upside down.” Another observed that “with the name change, the loss of the Jewish lineage occurs.”
So how did the Jewish name Ya’akov become so Gentilized as James? Since the 13th century, the form of the Latin name Iacomus began its use in English. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version. Since 1797 it has been called the King James Bible.
So what is lost by using James instead of Jacob? First, it has created an awkwardness in academic writing. Scholars providing a transliteration of James indicate Iakōbos, which even lay readers know is not the same. Hershel Shanks has noted that the reason Israeli scholars failed to understand the significance of the eponymous ossuary is that they didn’t connect James with Ya’akov.1
Second, James’s ancestral lineage is lost, as the student noted above. In Matthew’s genealogy, we learn that Joseph’s father was named Jacob (Matthew 1:16) and that his family tree included the patriarch Jacob (Matthew 1:2). James was thus named after his grandfather. As Ben Witherington writes, “It is clear that the family of ‘James’ was proud of its patriarchal heritage.”2 So Jacob was the third Jacob in the family.
Third, James’s Jewish cultural background is minimized. Tal Ilan identifies Jacob as the 15th most popular name in Palestine in antiquity, with 18 known persons carrying it.3 Including both the Eastern and Western Diasporas, Jacob was the third most popular Jewish name, with 74 occurrences.
Fourth, the Jewish literary heritage is muddled. The Book of Jacob (i.e., the Book of James) is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the diaspora” (James 1:1) and full of references and allusions to the Torah and Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Bible (Christians’ Old Testament). Scholars consider James the most “Jewish” book in the New Testament. Its genre is considered to be a diaspora letter like Jeremiah 29:1–23 and the apocryphal works The Epistle of Jeremiah, 2 Maccabees 1:1–2:18, and 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 78–86.
For these reasons, changing English translations of James to Jacob makes a lot of sense. In my lifetime we have adapted to a number of name changes: Bombay to Mumbai, Peking to Beijing, Burma to Myanmar, and Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. These changes were soon incorporated by the media as well as in subsequent editions of geographical and historical books. Making such an onomastic adjustment need not be too difficult in religious circles, either.
But can such a switch be made practically? Biblical scholars and publishers would need to agree that continued use of “James” is linguistically indefensible and culturally misleading. Most difficult to change would be Bible translations, which are very conservative. To start, a footnote could denote that James is really Jacob. And while we’re at it, let’s rehabilitate Jacob as the name of two of Jesus’ disciples/apostles. These connections, now lost only for English readers, were caught by Greek-speaking audiences as well as modern readers of translations in most other languages. Let’s give Jacob his due.
- Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), p. 28.
- Shanks and Witherington III, Brother of Jesus, p. 97.
- Ṭal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part IV: The Eastern Diaspora 330 BCE–650 CE (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).