The exact meaning of why Matthew describes Joseph as a “just man” is much discussed; the Greek term is dikaios, and it has variously been translated as just, righteous, upright, and of good character. Most of the ancient commentators of the Bible interpreted it as meaning that Joseph was law abiding, and as such decided to divorce Mary in keeping with Mosaic Law when he found her pregnant by another, but, tempering righteousness by mercy, he kept the affair private. A second view, first put forward by Clement of Alexandria, and held by most modern Christians is that Joseph’s righteousness is his mercy itself, with the decision to ensure Mary was not shamed being proof of his righteousness rather than an exception to it. A third view is based on the idea that Joseph already knew the origin of Mary’s pregnancy, which is more in keeping with the Gospel of Luke, leading to the view that Joseph’s righteousness is pious acceptance of Mary’s story.
Joseph’s original intent, though, was to divorce Mary, once he had discovered her pregnancy, though some scholars, and most older translations, have expressed this more euphemistically, since Joseph, a man having just been described as righteous, undergoing divorce, would imply that divorce was righteous. Especially in the nineteenth century a number of scholars tried to read alternate meanings into the term, with one proposal being that it merely meant that the couple would split while legally remaining married. However recent discoveries have found that legal avenues for divorce certainly existed at the time in question. One of the clearest pieces of evidence is a divorce record from 111, entirely coincidentally between a couple named Mary and Joseph, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Greek word here translated as divorce is aphiemi, and the only other time it appears is in 1 Corinthians 7:11 where Paul uses it to describe the legal separation of a man and wife, and thus almost all modern translators today feel that divorce is what is being described, although doctrinal reasons cause some to use other wording.
Rabbinic law from the period allows two different options for divorce that is due to adultery:
* Bring the matter to the village council, which would hold a hearing and, if the allegations were proved, grant a divorce.
* Have the evidence presented and approved by two witnesses who would then certify the divorce (Gundry argues that the witnesses were necessary mainly to prevent a woman denying that the divorce had actually taken place.).
Joseph is explained as choosing to put Mary away privately rather than publicly divorce her, which most scholars believe means that Joseph had taken the second of the two divorce options.
In the first of several dream sequences in Matthew, an angel visits Joseph to dissuade him, and explain what has happened. The angel is described in a manner much more like early Jewish descriptions, as in the pentateuch, merely as a pure functionary with no individuality, unlike the more esoteric descriptions that arose nearer Matthew’s own time, under Hellenic influence, such as described in the Book of Enoch. Joseph carries out the angel’s instructions exactly, rather than arguing with them, which appears to be a common theme in the Gospel – rapid and unquestioning obedience is treated by Matthew as an important virtue.