Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

In what sense was Joseph "righteous"? (Matthew 1:19)

Some translations say Joseph was "just," and others that he was "righteous." What are the problem with either of those translations? How would you translate it? Hint: Mary appeared to have broken the law by becoming pregnant out of wedlock.


¶ Anyone knowing the range of meaning of δικαιος would know, in context, that he was "just" in that he would choose the most "just" action, which would be to dismiss his bride-to-be, quietly, upon her becoming pregnant by someone other than him. ¶ Speaking of "bride to be," I wish translators would stop using the word "divorce" -- and bear with me, because this is still on topic. First of all, "divorce" is a modern term with a specific, narrow range of meaning in modern English culture and usage, a word that really doesn't exist in either the ancient Hebrew or Greek language. And in any English usage, you can't "divorce" a woman you had not yet married, so how could "Joseph" be said to "divorce" Mary at this point? ¶ As you parse and verbally translate, you even say (at 0:26) "...the man of her, in other words, her husband..." which brings up, secondly, that ανηρ really just means "man," but is re-interpreted by modern translators based on modern language and culture to be "husband," when that word does not fundamentally mean "husband" either. Indeed, there is no explicit word "husband" in either Hebrew or Greek. I assume this is why, when you looked at the NET bible footnote, "tn Grk 'husband'," you commented (at 1:56) "...they're being a little interpretive there, but that's okay..." Why is it "okay" if the word doesn't categorically, exclusively denote that, and Joseph wasn't Mary's 'husband'? ¶ The actual Greek action verb translated "divorce" in the NIV2011, CSB, NET, and in your narration, is απολυσαι, which literally means "to loose-off," where απο is a preposition/prefix that means "off/away-from" and λυσαι means "to loose." For example, in Acts 13:3, after fasting and prayer, the disciples at Antioch "loosed-off" (i.e. dismissed), using the same word, the newly-commissioned Paul and Barnabas and sent them on their way. You could certainly never say that they were "divorcing" them! So, Mounce-NT, NASB'95, and NLT get that right, whereas NIV2011, CSB, and NET present an awkward, untenable proposition, that a man "divorced" a woman he had not married. So why, in the video narration, do you feel compelled say (at 0:58) " release, which also means to divorce, her..."? ¶ This brings the subject back around to Joseph being "just" (δικαιος), because the notion that he was going to "divorce" her doesn't paint a very "just" image of him. Even in modern times, there is little question of a man being unjust for breaking off an engagement with a woman based on her being found pregnant.

I'm not sure I understand how it would matter what side of Christ's coming Jospeh was on, because faith is the only thing that justifies anyone, as Paul makes clear: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:20 ESV)” “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." (Rom. 4:2-3 ESV) Was Abraham (being on the other side of the cross) not justified (counted righteous) by faith? Why not Joseph? I don’t see any reason why any other person pre-Christ couldn’t also have their faith counted as righteousness: “…just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin." (Rom. 4:6-8 ESV)” Furthermore, I’m not aware of any conditions of the law that divorcing a woman quietly would satisfy, as the connection between the participial phrase and main verb would seem to require if the sense of δίκαιος here is “faithful to the law” (“Jospeh, being faithful to the law…resolved to divorce her quietly”). Am I missing something?

δικαιος is only an adjective and only means "just." The context is only about how he was to deal with the situation at hand, which would be in a "just" way. Note that there are two participial phrases connected with a coordinating conjunction (και, "and/also"). One is "being just" and the other is "not willing to make a spectacle of her." So, you can't consider the one without considering the other; they both lead up to the main verb εβουληθη ("intended"). There is nothing here, in context, about justification by faith in the sight of God and there is nothing here, in context, about the Law of Moses.

Right...but the context of my comment was the video that was posted, which does include discussion of justification by faith and faithfulness to the Law.