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Is Joseph in Matthew 1:16 Mary’s Husband or Father?

Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies of Jesus are Different

The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38, which both claim to show the lineage of Joseph, are quite different. Some people who try to reconcile the differences argue that the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel is actually of Mary’s ancestry, and not of her husband Joseph’s ancestry.

Some people are also bothered that the maths of the  3 X 14 generations in Matthew 1:17 doesn’t add up. Only 13 generations are listed in Matthew 1:12-16 between the exile and Jesus. So they argue that the Joseph mentioned in Matthew 1:16 is Mary’s father, not her husband. Joseph as Mary’s father adds a generation so that the 13 generations become 14.[1]

To support the assertion that the Joseph in Matthew 1:16 was not Mary’s husband, some say that the Aramaic translation of this verse uses a word that can mean “guardian” and that this “guardian Joseph” was Mary’s adopted or biological father.

Jesus and Mary’s Husband are “Sons of David”

I will look at this argument about Mary’s “guardian” below, but first I want to briefly point out that the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, which goes back to Abraham, highlights the fact that Jesus is “the Messiah, the son of David” (Matt. 1:1, 6, 17). A few verses later, when the angel speaks to Mary’s husband, he is addressed as, “Joseph son of David” (Matt.  1:20).[2]

Identifying Mary’s husband Joseph as “son of David” links him thematically to the genealogy of Jesus, son of David.

The Greek Word Anēr in Matthew 1:16

Here is Matthew 1:16 without translating the Greek word andra. The Greek word andra is the singular accusative form of the common word anēr.

And Jacob fathered Joseph, the andra of Mary, from whom was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.

Anēr typically means “husband” when paired with gynē (the Greek word for “wife, woman”) or when paired with a particular woman which is what we have in Matthew 1:16.

It would be almost impossible for a Greek reader to think that anēr means anything other than “husband” in this verse, and practically all English translations of the Greek New Testament translate anēr in Matthew 1:16 as “husband.” (You can compare English translations of Matthew 1:16 on Bible Gateway.)

The Revised English Version is an outlier; it has the word “father” in this verse despite claiming to be a translation from the Nestle-Aland 28 Greek text: “And Jacob fathered Joseph the father of Mary …” In a footnote, there is an acknowledgement that “The Greek [word] is usually translated ‘husband.’”

The word anēr is used twice for Joseph, and not used for anyone else, in the chapter (Matt. 1:16, 19). There are textual variants in the Greek text of Matthew 1:16, but these variants make it even clearer that this Joseph was Mary’s husband or, more specially, her betrothed. None of these variants hints that Joseph was Mary’s father.[3]

The Syriac Word Gowra in Matthew 1:16

Most respected English translations of Matthew 1:16 from Syriac (Eastern Aramaic) similarly translate ܓܒܪܗ (which can be transliterated as gowra or gabra, etc) as “husband,” even though this word can also mean a “male guardian.”[4] Here are three examples.

John W. Etheridge’s translation:
“Jakub begat Jauseph, husband of Mariam, of whom was born JESHU who is called the Meshicha.”
James Murdock’s translation:
“Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
George Lamsa’s translation:
“Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”
These three translations are taken from dukhrana.com.

See also this translation on TheHolyAramaicScriptures.com:
“Yaqub {Jacob} begat Yuseph {Joseph}, the gabra {the man} of Maryam {Mary} from whom was born Eshu {Yeshua} who is called Meshikha {The Anointed One}.”

But a couple of people have translated gowra differently. Andrew Gabriel Roth has translated gowra as “guardian” in his translation of Matthew 1:16 (see here, p. 27), and so has Glenn David Bauscher.[5] And Roth believes Joseph in Matthew 1:16 is Mary’s father.[6] 

However, neither the Greek word anēr nor the Syriac word gowra means “father.” Neither does vir, the word used in the Vulgate (the ancient Latin translation of the Bible) for Joseph in Matthew 1:16 and 19. On the other hand anēr, gowra, and vir often mean “husband” when paired with a woman, or these words can simply mean “man.” (You can see the primary definitions of gowra/ gabra, here.)

Mary’s Huband is Her Guardian

Translating the Syriac word gowra as “guardian” in Matthew 1:16, as Roth and Bauscher have done, is not necessarily wrong. The translators of the Syriac New Testament may have carefully chosen gowra as a translation of anēr in Matthew 1:16: both anēr and gowra mean “man, husband” but gowra also has an added nuance of protection.[7]

Mary’s husband did act as her guardian. Joseph followed the angel’s instructions; he took Mary home as his wife and he protected her from scandal and danger. (See Matt. 1:20-21, 24-25; 2:13-14; 19-23). Matthew’s Gospel clearly depicts Mary’s husband as both a son of David and as a guardian of Mary; it says nothing about her father.

Paul Younan, in his interlinear on Matthew 1:16, translates gowra as “kinsman”: “Yaqub fathers Yosip the kinsman of Maryam of whom was born Yeshua who is called the Messiah.” (Source: dukhrana.com) In a footnote, Younan writes that gowra, from the consonants “Gbra, literally means ‘protective male.’ It is unclear whether the text refers to Maryam’s father or to her husband.”

There may be uncertainty in the Syriac (Eastern Aramaic) text about which Joseph is mentioned in Matthew 1:16, but there is no uncertainty in the Greek. In the Greek, this Joseph is Mary’s husband, her betrothed.

The Aramaic Text of the New Testament

Jonathan Andrew Brown, who has an M.A. in biblical languages, discusses Matthew 1:16 on his website Torah Apologetics, here. In the introduction of his article, Brown states that there is no surviving manuscript evidence, of any kind, that the New Testament was written in Galilean Aramaic. (There’s literally not a scrap of evidence.)

Brown also notes that the Syriac (Eastern Aramaic) dialect “gained traction” about 200 years after the New Testament books were written and complete. We have lots of New Testament manuscripts (translations) written in this later Aramaic dialect. The Peshitta is an example of this. (The New Testament in the Peshitta may have been translated from Greek into Syriac in the early 400s.)

Brown goes on to state that “There is no evidence of the Syriac dialect existing in Judea during the time the NT was being written. The only available manuscript evidence comes well AFTER all the books of the NT were finished.” In short, the vocabulary of existing Aramaic manuscripts does not indicate the words used by the author of Matthew’s Gospel.

Conclusion

The Aramaic New Testament was written well after the Greek New Testament was penned, and it was written in a dialect that was not spoken by Jesus or his first followers or by the authors of the New Testament books and letters. The New Testament was originally written in Greek and the original word in Matthew 1:16 and 19 used for Joseph was anēr (“husband, man”).

The maths of the 14 generations not adding up in Matthew 1 is not a good enough reason to change the meaning of a word. I am less concerned with getting the numbers right than with letting words mean what they say.

Footnotes

[1] Andrew Gabriel Roth and the translators of the Revised English Bible, for example, believe that Joseph as the father of Mary in Matthew 1:16 solves the problem of there being only 13 generations from the exile to the Messiah in Matthew.

[2] “David” is mentioned six times in Matthew 1.

[3] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (D-Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 2-6.

[4] The common meanings for gowra (gabra) are given in the SEDRA3 lexicon as “man, husband, person.”
The word occurs many times in Matthew’s Gospel including Matthew 7:9 where gowra is a translation of the Greek word anthrōpos (“person, man”).

[5] Bauscher’s English translation of the Peshitta can be read on Bible Hub. His interlinear can be read on the Internet Archive website.

[6] Here is Roth’s note in his Aramaic English New Testament.

… The word gowra designates a protector-male or guardian; the context of this verse determines its specific meaning.  Y’shua elsewhere says “which one of gowra, if he has a son…”; obviously “father” is intended. [See footnote 4 above.] “Gowra” also applies to other forms of protector-male type relationships depending on the context, such as “husband”,  “son”,  and so forth. Ancient Aramaic Matthew [1] ends at verse 17, not verse 25. The text not only establishes the subject, but shifts from “background history” into the present, from intro to body. This means that the Yosip in verse 16 (the guardian or adopted father of Miriyam (Mary)) is not the same Yosip as the husband of Miriyam in verse 19. There is no reason for Matthew to use two different words for the same individual , whereas gowra sometimes means “husband” but can also mean “father”. The other term baalah can only mean “husband”. [see footnote 7] On the other hand, there would most definitely be a reason to differentiate two men named Yosip, one being the adopted father, the other the husband of Miriyam. With this differentiation we now have three full sets of 14 generations, which satisfies the demands of verse 17.
Roth, Aramaic English New Testament (2016, Netzari Press LLC), 27. (Source: Study Lib)

[7] A different Syriac word, baalah, is used for Joseph in Matthew 1:19. (See here.) While the Syriac uses two different words for Joseph in Matthew 1, the Greek uses the same word, anēr, both times. Apart from Joseph, no one else is called an anēr in Matthew 1. None of the dozens of fathers in Matthew 1 are called an anēr.

Image Credit

“Joseph and Mary Go to Egypt” from Captivating Bible Stories (Source: gutenberg.org)

Explore more

The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus
Mary’s Scandal and Favour
The Virgin Mary
I have a few articles on Early Syrian Christianity, here.

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