In a recent blog, I made the comment that because of her acceptance of God’s will Mary was pregnant with Jesus “outside of wedlock”. Following a question from a friend and a discussion with another Catholic blogger, I thought that it would be pertinent to clarify exactly what I meant when I said that Jesus was conceived “outside of wedlock”.
I don’t claim to be a scholar on Ancient Jewish customs, so I may be wrong about this. In which case, I am more than happy to be corrected. In any event, whether I am right or wrong doesn’t really concern me too much. What really matters to me is that I remain faithful to the Church’s teachings, which includes the doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.
So, without further ado, here is my understanding of the Ancient Jewish custom regarding marriage:
To the Jew, there was a difference between marriage and betrothal (or espousal); however, the difference was not the same as what we would consider the difference between engagement and marriage today. Rather, espousal was considered as a binding marriage - but there was still an aspect in which the marriage was not completely ratified. Following the period of espousal, there would be a wedding ceremony during which the marriage covenant was completely ratified. Up until the point of the ceremony, the espousal was still considered as a fully binding marriage - but not completely ratified.
This seems to fit with the Biblical record which says that Mary and St. Joseph were espoused rather than married (see Matt 1:18). If marriage and espousal were exactly the same, then surely Matt 1:18 would read that Mary was married to St. Joseph rather than espoused to him. Also, the Angel's words to St. Joseph in Matt 1:20 tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. This could imply that the full ratification of the marriage espousal still had to take place. Furthermore, if an espoused couple had conjugal relations before the full ratification of the marriage, it was considered as an act of unchastity.
Most people (unless they had specific light from the Holy Spirit) would naturally have thought that if Mary was pregnant, it was because she had had relations with a man. They would simply be putting two and two together (without knowing that the equation in actual fact was NOT “2+2”). It is also possible that there could have been those who knew that Jesus was not St. Joseph’s child. If this was the case, their assumption would have been that Jesus was another man’s child.
The Pharisees could have had either of the above options in mind in Jn 8:41 when they said that Jesus was an illegitimate child (or “born of fornication” according to the Douay-Rheims Version). However, my personal tendency is to lean towards the first option because even the people of Jesus’ hometown (Nazareth) presumed that He was the son of Joseph (see Mk 6:3). So, it seems that the Pharisees’ perception of Jesus being born illegitimately, or “of fornication” makes sense if conjugal relations during the betrothal period was considered as unchaste.
Now, I'm not sure exactly when Mary and St. Joseph had their marriage fully ratified. The Scriptures don't tell us. There may however be something within the Church's tradition that could answer the question. Either way, I'm at least certain that it was before Jesus' birth in Bethlehem because it is obvious that by this time they were living together.
It is in this sense that I mean Jesus was conceived "outside of wedlock". Mary and St. Joseph were married at the time of the Annunciation; but at the same time they weren’t completely married yet. I know it sounds strange, but it makes sense in my head...but, maybe that’s the problem...