Reasons For Joseph to Divorce Pregnant Mary

Joseph was a man of faith, consider to be a good and moral man by the people who knew him.

The shocker was when he discovered that his fiancée Mary was pregnant.

It was not his child. He hadn’t had sex with her.

Leaving only one option. Mary had been unfaithful. Even before they had married, she had broken her commitment.

Feeling betrayed and uncertain about what God wanted him to do in this situation.

He considered divorcing her.

Saving his honour and reputation as a righteous man in his community.

Or was it more?

Did he know about the angels meeting and message to Mary but still felt divorce was the right decision.

We do not know the thoughts of Joseph as he contemplated divorcing Mary.

But there are 4 common theories why Joseph contemplated divorcing Mary when he discovered she was pregnant.

  1. Joseph suspected that Mary had been unfaithful
  2. Saving Joseph’s Honour
  3. Respect Theory
  4. Poius Reason

These will need to be further explained to understand possibly what was going through Joseph’s mind.

Surely this was a much bigger decision than a one-sentence answer.

What does respect have to do with it?

Or honour?

How could Joseph being pious man, make him contemplate divorce?

But before we get into his reasons, we need to fully grasp the situation he was facing.

What did Joseph know about Mary’s Pregnancy?

Matthew tells us little.

Except that Mary was found to be pregnant.

So we will need to piece this story together from Luke’s account and a little imagination.

The reason this is important is it will guide what theory for divorce most makes sense.

In situation one, Joseph knows nothing about Mary’s pregnancy.

Unlike modern courtships, it is entirely possible that Joseph and Mary had never met.

Or even if they did know each other. Living together in the same community. This does not involve late nights talking together. Regular “date nights,” etc.

But a simple knowledge of each other, and the proposal of marriage.

It would not be unusual in first-century Jewish culture to maintain some distance between genders, to avoid the appearance of, or misguided relationships.

Even with some level of relationship, which was possible. Mary is not the one to approach her finance to tell him she was pregnant. Especially if you consider that he is not the father.

I cannot think of a quicker way to end an engagement!

Or possibly.

Luke tells of Mary going to Jerusalem after conceiving.

With many miles of separation, there is no possible way that Mary could tell Joseph about what happened.

But word travels.

Joseph hears through the grapevine that Mary is putting on weight. That the little baby bulge is showing.

Either way.

Now he has a situation on his hands.

His fiancee is pregnant, and he is not the father.

Option two, Joseph knows the full story about Mary’s pregnancy.

Well partially.

Mary and Joseph are in communication with each other.

She tells Joseph about the angels and his message.

Then it becomes a question of belief.


If your pregnant girlfriend came and told you she was pregnant but not to worry, the child was from God.

Do you believe her?

100%, God is acting. But what is my role in this?

God told me nothing about this? This is your miracle.

Or not a chance! I know where babies come from.

That is quite a story, Mary. I don’t know what is going on with you, but it does not involve me.

Or any range of reactions.

The simple facts are.

Mary is pregnant with an incredible story which doesn’t include Joseph.

Joseph cannot just ignore the facts.

The clock is ticking.

He needs to either hurry up and marry Mary. Accepting the responsibility of the child, which is not his own.

Or end the relationship.

Divorce her and make it official that he had nothing to do with this.

Solution to Mary’s Pregnancy. Quiet Divorce.

To end the engagement, Joseph had two options.

1. Drag her before the courts. Accuse her of infidelity. The proof stands before you. End of story.

Mary will forever more be known as the town “whore”. Who couldn’t even be trusted to stay faithful during her engagement.

The child she is carrying will be known as ” mamzer,” similar to the old English “bastard” child. In the second temple period, Jewish culture this has some significant consequences, but that is not Joseph’s concern.

2. Quiet divorce. Less accusation with some acceptance of responsibility but less shame for Mary.

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce,”

Deuteronomy 24:1

“Indecency” was grounds for divorce in Joseph’s culture.

It leaves a large range of possible interpretations. Which Joseph may be leaning into.

The obvious, after proposing marriage to what was believed to be a “virgin,” the evidence does not support this. He”ll take a refund and move on.

Another possibility is that they had, had sex.

They may not have been living together, but legally they were married.

Not being the first couple to enjoy the pleasure of marriage before the official wedding.

But something about the experience was off pudding for the groom. The thought of a “lifetime” was too much. A simple certificate of divorce and the matter was done.

He could move on but was free of his responsibility.

The community could gossip all they wanted to about why Joseph divorced Mary.

But it would not involve a trial and possible stoning of Mary for committing adultery.

At first, glance would seem the best solution to an ugly situation.

A quiet divorce, minimizing the damage.

But still leaves, the why.

Why would Joseph plan to divorce Mary after discovering her being pregnant?

Reasons For Joseph to Divorce Mary

We are not told why, but there are a few theories.

Reasons why Joseph thought divorce was the best solution.

1. Joseph suspected that Mary had been unfaithful.

This seems the most obvious and logical. Joseph hadn’t had sex with Mary.

If she was pregnant, someone else had.

This was clear ground for divorce in Jewish Law (Deut. 22:23-24, Number 5, Leviticus 20:10)

Even among the many sects of the Jewish religion, pretty much all allowed divorce for adultery.  

Interestingly in the future. Adult Jesus also shared this belief (Matt.5:31), but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

But the fact that Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly makes this option less likely. Because if he 100% believe that she had committed adultery, then being a righteous man should include “purging the evil from within.” Meaning that Mary, an adulterous should be punished to prevent evil from damaging the community.

Interestingly Jerome and Origen believe that Joseph had no suspicion of adultery. But at the same time, they were writing hundreds of years later. Jerome, around 400 years later, Origen around 200 years. So it is a little bit of hearsay by that time.

Also, the angel told Joseph “not to be afraid” to marry Mary. Instead of “don’t be angry or embarrassed” about your fiance’s infidelity.

2. Saving Joseph’s Honour

Joseph half believes Mary but at the same time realizes this is too much for him.

He is a “righteous man.”

He believes and practises his Jewish faith, which forbids sex outside of marriage. Therefore he does not want anything to do with even the hint of immorality.

Just like today, his friends and relatives could do the math.

If Mary gave birth, which she would, anytime less than 9 months after their wedding, everyone “knew” what happen. It was not a good look.

So much for being above reproach.

So by divorcing her quietly, he could kind of pass the buck off.

It wasn’t his problem. It wasn’t his child.

He could continue his life as a respected member of his religious community. And maybe someday marry someone who also shared his values and commitments.

And Mary, well, she could move somewhere else and do whatever she felt she needed to do.

If we read this in conjunction with Luke, she had a cousin in Jerusalem that seemed very supportive.

Without making a huge scene, Joseph could continue his life and Mary’s hers.

It was the “loving thing” to do.

And the best part of it was Joseph would still have his honour intact.

3. Respect Theory for a Quite Divorce

This was less threatening than accusing Mary of adultery but had the same effect.

Remembering Deuteronomy 24:1, he wasn’t outright accusing her of adultery and infidelity.

He was simply saying that she was no longer acceptable.

Mary could try to explain her pregnancy however she wanted to.

Or on the more extreme end. Cry that she had done nothing wrong and it was all Joseph. Who suddenly found her unacceptable as a bride.

There could be a number of reasons.

But most importantly, nothing beyond divorce would happen to Mary.

A softer, gentler approach.

Engagement ended without making a big scene about it.

4. Poius Reason For Divorce

This one is on Joseph.

Being a humble man.

He hears Mary’s story about being pregnant from the Holy Spirit. What the angel had told her.

100%, he believes it.

You are blessed among women.

But who is he to be the “father” of this miracle child?

The gravity of who he is and who the child will be, and he does not feel worthy.

So he plans to bow out.

He has not been told that he is part of this amazing intervention by God. Therefore he should not stand in the way.

Give Mary and God the freedom to fulfill their plan.

But for him, he is not worthy to be involved.

Similar to Moses and the burning bush conversation when he tries to give God reasons why he should not be part of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery. It’s a beautiful plan, but he is not good enough to be involved.

God’s Intervention, Joseph’s Dreams

But God’s plan involves Joseph.

Joseph planned exit must be stopped.

God reaches out to Joseph with an angel in a dream.

A short and to-the-point message.

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21

When Joseph awakes, plans have changed, and he promptly marries Mary. Taking her home to be his wife.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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