Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.
As I was discussing this passage with my wife, I remembered reading that, in another translation of this Gospel, “to put her away privately” was rendered “to dismiss himself privately” or words to that effect. We must keep in mind that Saint Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Aramaic intending it for the Jews. It was afterwards translated into Greek. I was, therefore, happy to find that my trusted scripture commentator, Cornelius a Lapide, offered this information concerning the Syriac text: “Whence the Syriac translates: And he thought of leaving her secretly: and the Arabic, Since he did not wish to put her to public shame, he thought upon a private dismissal.” What is called Syriac is very similar to Aramaic, which, as we know, was Our Lord’s native tongue. Aramaic is still spoken in part of Syria. The Greek words apolusai autain, in the inspired text, is rendered dimittere eam in the Latin Vulgate, and means “to put her away,” as we have it in the Douay.
However, we have good reason to believe that the Syriac is a better translation of what Saint Matthew originally wrote. I will be brief.
Consider this: Saint Joseph was a “just man” the Gospel says. Hence, he could not have doubted the virtue of his espoused. Indeed, from Our Lady’s words in Luke at the Annunciation, it is clear that she had taken a vow of virginity, otherwise she would not have asked the angel after being informed by him that she would bear a Son, indeed “the Son of the Most High,” “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” Joseph, therefore, in espousing Mary intended to respect her vow, taking the vow of virginity himself. For he was a “just man.”
Furthermore, as a Lapide notes, many defenders of Saint Joseph’s absolute trust in the innocence of his holy spouse maintain that he was the protector of Mary when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Surely, Our Lady would not have traveled such a long journey alone. Therefore, he was with Mary when she greeted Elizabeth with her “Shalom” and heard her saluted by her cousin as Mother of God. A Lapide says that this is the opinion of Origen, Saint Basil, and Saint Bernard (Hom. 2 super Missus est). He also says that the same was revealed by Our Lady to Saint Brigit of Sweden (lib. 7, Revelat. c. 25).
Notice, too, that this thought of Joseph, cited in Matthew, was the first in his mind and that immediately afterwards the angel came to reassure him to have confidence and not to send his espoused away privately, or (as I prefer it in the Syriac), to leave her himself on account of his own unworthiness in the face of such a mystery.
Finally, I found myself a little perplexed by the words of the angel telling Joseph to “Fear not.” What was the meaning here of such a consoling admonition. Then it struck me: Joseph was “afraid.” Afraid of what? If he had doubted Our Lady’’s virtue (God forbid the thought) or, to protect her from any suspicions of others, wanted to send her away, then why would the angel say “Fear not?” These words of the angel only make sense if we affirm with the saints cited above that Saint Joseph was afraid on account of the great mystery that presented itself before him, afraid of his own unworthiness in the face of such a marvel and such a Woman.
One may object that if he heard the exclamation of Elizabeth, that he would have no reason to consider these things, because he would have already known that Mary had conceived by the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, with his espoused keeping the wonderful secret to herself, and leaving it to God to reveal to him, Joseph still had to live by faith and believe.
Hence, this is, in my mind, the reason he feared. Before, in Elizabeth’s presence, he had heard her proclamation, but he still had to believe it by faith. So, when he saw that Mary was indeed with child (for they had not yet had their second espousal which joins husband and wife under the same roof) there was no need any longer for faith, as now he “saw.” So, he “feared” to take her for his wife, for she belonged solely to God. This, I think, highlights most wonderfully, the humility of Saint Joseph.