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Dylan O. wrote:


I'm hoping you can help me with an apologetics question.

I found an article written by a Jew trying to claim that that during the betrothal period, women had intercourse with their betrothed, allegedly contradicting St. Matthew's Gospel. This Jew is therefore trying to claim that the Blessed Virgin had intercourse with St. Joseph. Here are the arguments he gives:

The Mattai-writer states explicitly that the girl he calls Maria in his story was already μνηστευθεισης (mnesteutheises) to Yosef when she was found to be pregnant (Mattai 1-18), and the author of Lukos uses the same Greek word twice (Lukos 1:27 and Lukos 2:5) to describe her marital status. The Mattai-writer also says that this happened before συνελθειν αυτους (sunelthein autous).

  • Now what exactly does the Greek term μνηστευθεισης (mnesteutheises) mean?

The "King James's Per-Version" translates it as espoused, an archaic and long-obsolete word (later Christian Per-Versions use the more modern English term betrothed") and, when the majority of Christians are told that this is the same as saying she was engaged to him, they are perfectly content to accept it. And yet Maria and Yosef are supposed to have been Hebrews living in the Galil (Galilee) in the first century, and the modern Western concept of engagement was unknown in their culture - so this pathetic, transparent explanation simply doesn't work.

From the earliest times in Hebrew culture, brides have been brought to their husbands - in fact even before there were any Hebrews, we read in B'réshit (Genesis) 2:22 that after God had separated the primitive Adam's male and female aspects and had built the female half into an independent creature, וַיְבִאֶהָ אֶל הָאָדָם va-y'vi'eha el ha-adam (He brought her to the Adam). The cultural institution of marriage then developed and at first it was just an ad hoc situation in which a couple living together came to be considered as an item after two things happened - one public and one private; B'réshit (Genesis) 24:67 (which, coincidentally, uses the same word וַיְבִאֶה ָ va-yvi'eha and he brouh her" as 2:22 - a word that is used with that spelling nowhere else in the entire Bible) says:

...וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְח ק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ

"Then Yitz'hak brought Rivkah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he had sex with her, and these TWO acts together made her his wife - and then he fell in love with her . . . " so that the combination of Yitz'hak's public act of moving Rivkah into his home to live with him, and his private act of having sex with her (which obviously would have been assumed by the other members of the community he was living in), together made her his wife (as stated in the verse).

In later times, a Hebrew wedding came to be celebrated in two parts. In the time of the Temple, there was an interval of several weeks, or even longer, between the two ceremonies (and this is so even today among the descendants of the few ancient communities that still survive in eretz yisrael, although nowadays the majority of Hebrews in eretz yisrael, and ALL Hebrews living in hutz la'aretz - i.e. outside eretz yisrael - combine the two ceremonies and perform one immediately after the other).

The first wedding ceremony is called in Hebrew אֵירוּשִׂין (also spelt אֵירוּסִין) eirusin (and in Rabbinic writings often קִידּוּשִׁין kiddushin). This word is usually translated as "betrothal", but only because that is the closest word that exists in English; however, that word is only a very approximate equivalent of the Hebrew word: it's clear from chapter 22 of D'varim (Deuteronomy) - which deals with the law of rape - that a girl who is מְאֹרָשָׂה לְאִישׁ m'orasah l'ish (betrothed to a husband) has the status of a legally married woman... even if the act of intercourse that formalizes her status has very exceptionally been delayed either due to her menstrual cycle or for other (e.g. medical) reasons. The eirusin (or kiddushin) ceremony has three elements which are required by Hebrew law for the "betrothal" to be legally valid; they are detailed in the opening paragraph of the Mishnah treatise Kiddushin and one of these three required elements is that sexual intercourse MUST take place.

It is therefore a logical absurdity to describe a Hebrew girl as μνηστευθεισης (mnesteutheises), or "betrothed", and then to go on to claim that she is still a virgin: if she is "betrothed" she cannot still be a virgin, and if she is still a virgin, she cannot be said to be "betrothed".

Ahh, Christians gleefully retort, but Mattai says this happened before συνελθειν αυτους (sunelthein autous), which literally means before they came together - and that (they are told) means before they first had sexual intercourse! but it doesn't mean that.

The reference in Mattai to the pair coming together does not refer to sexual intercourse (although the gentile author of that book may well have thought that it does and very likely intended it to). In the first place, a newly-married Hebrew couple is required to have intercourse immediately after their eirusin (betrothal) ceremony to complete it and make it legally valid - there is a parallel to this in modern (Western) law, under which a marriage that has not been consummated can be annulled, or declared to have been null and void, from the outset - i.e. it was never a legal marriage in the first place (annulment is very different from divorce, or the dissolving of a marriage that was originally legally valid).

The Second ceremony: I mentioned earlier that the celebration of a Hebrew wedding takes place in two parts, and I mentioned the first of the two ceremonies; but so far I have not mentioned the second ceremony. What actually happens is this. There is no period of engagement in Hebrew culture: we consider an extended interval, during which a couple have made their commitment to each other public, but are not actually married yet and are therefore restricted by cultural mores from indulging in physical intimacy (or even from being alone together), to be an unacceptable temptation for them, because the instinctive biological urge to engage in sexual activity with someone you love is so strong that few people can resist it for very long (if at all). Instead, once a couple have agreed to marry, the wedding is arranged at the earliest possible opportunity and, if at all possible, immediately, but they do not start to live together right away.

Instead the wife, although legally married to her new husband, remains in her parents' home (or in her own home if she is an adult), while her husband sets about building or buying a house or apartment for them to share, and furnishing and decorating it in readiness for the day his new wife will come to live with him. He can visit her in her parents' home whenever he wants to, and may even sleep with her (providing she consents to it!) - so it is not unusual in any way for the wife to fall pregnant during this interval and, indeed, she very often does. My own mother did!! When the new home is ready and the furnishings and decorations are to the wife's liking, a second celebration is held - there is a colorful, festive procession and the wife is brought by her whole family and all her friends to the new marital home, where the joyful שֶׁבַע בְּרָכוֹת sheva b'rachot (Seven Blessings) of נִישּׂוּאִין nissu'in are sung as she enters to take up her position as queen of the house. Nissu'in literally means being taken, or being married.

In practice, though, it is recognized that some people are wealthier than others and, sadly, some are very poor indeed. A bride should not be humiliated on her wedding day - in fact, the Rabbis taught that nobody should ever be humiliated in public (the Hebrew term they used for publicly humiliating someone is מַלְבִּין פְּנֵי חֲבֵרוֹ בָּרַבִּים mal 'bin p'nei haveiro barabbim, or literally "whitening his face" in public, and this is considered as equivalent to "shedding blood" - in a very real sense, because the blood drains from a person's face when he is humiliated and it turns white). For this reason, at a very early stage in Hebrew history (certainly in Scriptural times), the "home-bringing" procession would bring the bride to a ceremonial canopy which was usually erected in the town's market-square or in the grounds of the beit k'neset (prayer house), symbolically representing the marital home, rather than to the actual home (so that poor people should not be embarrassed and humiliated by the modest nature of their house or apartment). The bridal canopy is called in Hebrew a חֻפָּה huppah, and to this very day the Hebrew marriage ceremony is performed under a huppah. Several Scriptural references, such as that to יֵצֵא חָתָן מֵחֶדְרוֹ וְכַלָּה מֵחֻפָּתָהּ "a bridegroom emerging from his chamber and a bride from her huppah" (Yo'el 2:16) and כְּ7ָתָן יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָּתוֹ "like a bridegroom emerging from his huppah" (Tehillim 19:6), testify to how ancient this practice is.

There can be no doubt that the term συνελθειν αυτους (sunelthein autous) or coming together, used in Mattai 1-18, is in fact a reference to the traditional Hebrew huppah ceremony and does not refer to sexual intercourse at all.

  • Can you refute these claims or can you recommend a scholar or theologian who knows about these types of issues?

Thanks in advance.

In Christ Our Lord,


  { If Jewish tradition says this about the betrothal period, how can Mary be a virgin? }

Eric replied:

Hi Dylan,

I'm not an expert on these matters but I'd point out a few things.

  1. One, the Mishnah is suspect since it was compiled after these events occurred and could have been altered specifically with the idea of disproving Christianity. The Jews did this with the canon of scripture; they removed books that most obviously demonstrated Christian principles (Wisdom, with it's chapter 2, for example).

  2. The second is that there is a tradition (see the Protoevangelium of James) that Mary was a consecrated virgin (this is why she says I do not know man.) and that she was given to the care of Joseph to be a husband-protector since women could not support themselves in this society. Thus the principle of they were betrothed therefore they were having sex doesn't apply, and perhaps they had exceptions for consecrated virgins to the rules your interlocutor mentions (if, indeed, those rules from the later Mishnah were firmly and, without exception, in effect in the period just before the first century).


John replied:


To be honest, it really doesn't matter whether or not a betrothed couple could have intercourse. The text in Matthew states that Mary and Joseph didn't.

Now it is true that being betrothed and being engaged are two different things.

Betrothal is the period of time between the vows being exchanged and the consummation of the marriage. In today's culture the period last a matter of a few hours. Usually the time it takes to get from the Church to the reception hall, the reception itself and however long it takes for the couple to get to the honeymoon sweet, but in the ancient culture of the day, vows were exchanged and it could be as long as a year before the groom would come for the bride, have a wedding feast (which usually lasted seven days) and finally take his bride into his home and consummate the marriage.

So to be betrothed is to be married in a sense. The vows have been exchanged but it still must be consummated for the covenant (Sacrament) to be instituted.


Mary Ann replied:


The answer is simply.

Couples had the right of intercourse while betrothed but they were customarily brought together for that purpose.

The Scripture explicitly says that she conceived before they came together.

Mary Ann

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