Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, May 7

What is a “Just” Man? (Matt 1:19)

I came across another example of how word-for-word translations aren’t always translations, assuming that a translation is meant to convey meaning.

Joseph was a δίκαιος man, and as such wanted to divorce Mary quietly. But think about it, depending on your understanding of “just,” this may not make any sense. Would a person characterized as “just” ignore what appeared to be the fact that Mary had been sexually active during their engagement. (Again, we know she wasn’t, but for all appearances, she was.) A man of “grace” might not want to shame her, but a “just” man? Wouldn’t a “just” man have her stoned, which is the penalty under Jewish law?

The ESV writes, “and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” My point stands; how is leniency on Joseph’s part “just”? How does “justice” lead him to not want to shame her? The ESV is translating words, but at the risk of losing sense.

Other translations say he was a “righteous man” (NASB, HCSB, NRSV, NET). The NET says he was a “good man.” They also translate καὶ as “and” and ὤν as a straight participle, and this does make sense. Joseph was a really good person, and one way that goodness (i.e., righteous) showed itself was in a desire not to shame her.

The NIV has two differences. “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet (ὢν καί) did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Did you see both? They translated δίκαιος as “faithful to the law” and translated ὤν καὶ as a concessive, “and yet.” This makes sense. Even though Joseph lived in accordance with the Jewish understanding of the law; nevertheless, he did not want to shame Mary, or worst. (The NIV does include the footnote, “Or was a righteous man.”)

Be very careful of thinking that translating only words is actually translation, especially when you are left with a contradiction, or at best, confusion.