Matthew J. Marohl On Joseph's Dilemma, and the Ethics of Jesus

[Edited version of a Dec. 6, 2014 post]. Matthew J. Marohl’s book, Joseph’s Dilemma: ‘Honor Killing’ in the Birth Narrative of Matthew (2008), is a provocative one that examines Joseph’s dilemma in some detail. It highlights something absolutely barbaric that both Joseph and Jesus acknowledged. We read of it in Matthew 1:18-19:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her secretly.

 Marohl tells us “Joseph’s dilemma involves the possibility of an honor killing. If Joseph reveals that Mary is pregnant, she will be killed. If Joseph conceals Mary’s pregnancy, he will be opposing the law of the Lord. What is a ‘righteous’ man to do?” 

According to Marohl, “Early Christ-followers understood Joseph’s dilemma to involve an assumption of adultery and the subsequent possibility of the killing of Mary.” He also shows that “the clear majority of modern interpreters think Joseph suspected Mary of adultery.” (pp. 23-24)

Joseph had a dream that resolved his dilemma (Matt. 1:20-25):

Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

Joseph’s dream is used in the Gospel of Matthew’s narrative to explain why Mary was not put to death for adultery. His dream provides the narrator with the excuse for Joseph not following the Old Testament Law that required adulterers to be stoned (Deut. 22:13-21):

If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, 14 and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ‘I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,’ 15 then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 “And the girl’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her; 17 and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, “I did not find your daughter a virgin.” But this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. 18 “So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days. 20 “But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, 21 then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel, by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

The excuse given for not killing Mary was because her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit! Any other excuse would not do.

 There are five other dreams in this gospel account which were all intended to save someone’s life. So, Joseph’s dream was meant to save Mary’s life too (Matthew 1:19-23; 2:12; 2:19-23; & 27:19).

This was part of their culture. Honor killings were justified in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus even agreed with the Mosaic Law (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9) against his opponents on behalf of honor killings of children who dishonored their parents (Mark 7:8-13). The tale of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of her accusers, doesn’t change what Jesus thinks of the law either (John 8; Matthew 5:18).

Don’t be surprised by the possibility of honor killings. Jesus affirmed their legitimacy. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being too lenient in his observance of the law. So Jesus counterpunches them in Mark 7:9-12:

“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.” (NIV) 

Corban is an Aramaic word that refers to a sacrifice, oath, or gift to God. The Pharisees allowed for this loophole so someone could make an oath to offer a gift to the temple, like one would set up a trust fund, in order to avoid giving it for the care of one’s aging parents.

 Jesus’ first scriptural quote to “Honor your father and mother” is one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus’ second scriptural quote that “Anyone who curses (literally dishonors) their father or mother is to be put to death”, is found in Ex. 21:17 and Lev. 20:9. 

Jesus said the Corban loophole sets aside these two commands of God. For such a son would be disobeying a direct command of God by dishonoring his parents, while the Pharisees would be disobeying God’s command by not putting him to death. 

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 elaborates (i.e., the second law): 

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.
Jesus is affirming the Old Testament law of honor killings by stoning, for only if both of the laws Jesus cites are to be obeyed can his analogy succeed, that the Pharisees have set aside the laws (plural) of God in order to observe their traditions.

For more on the harms of Christianity see my anthology, Christianity is not Great (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014).