Joseph’s Dilemma: ‘Honor Killing’ in the Birth Narrative of Matthew

By Matthew J. Marohl

A study of the biblical account of Jesus’s conception, emphasising the context of social conceptions of honour and shame then prevalent.

ISBN: 9780227173268


The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is told in eight verses. Embedded in this short narrative is “Joseph’s dilemma”. Listeners are told that: “When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18).

What happens next has long been debated. We are made to assume that Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, but that he does not know that she is with child from the Holy Spirit. This information is made known to Joseph later by an angel of the Lord who appeared to him in a dream. In the meantime, Joseph must decide what he will do with Mary.

We are told: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19). The discussion of this verse generally focuses on two questions. First, did Joseph suspect Mary of adultery? Second, if he did suspect Mary of adultery, what where his options? While there is some diversity in the way that these questions are answered, the majority of modern interpreters envision only one option – that of divorce. The dilemma, then, is whether Joseph will divorce Mary “publicly” or “privately”.

While these questions are important, neither adequately addresses Joseph’s dilemma. In this book, Matthew J. Marohl argues that early Christ-followers understood Joseph’s dilemma to involve an assumption of adultery and the subsequent possibility of the killing of Mary. Worded differently, Joseph’s dilemma involves the possibility of an honor killing. If Joseph reveals that Mary is pregnant she will be killed. If Joseph conceals Mary’s pregnancy, he will be opposing the law of the Lord. What is a “righteous” man to do?

Additional information

Dimensions229 × 153 mm


Trade InformationJPOD

About the Author

Matthew J. Marohl is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He holds a PhD in New Testament from the University of St Andrews and is the author of Faithfulness and the Purpose of Hebrews: A Social Identity Approach.



1. The Modern Practice of Honor Killings
2. “Joseph’s Dilemma”
3. Honor Killings in the Ancient Mediterranean World
4. Rethinking “Joseph’s Dilemma”



Endorsements and Reviews

Books that bring a new slant to bear on old disputed texts and unresolved issues are always welcomed. Matthew Marohl’s study of the heated debate concerning the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth is such a new slant on a highly controverted story. It is sure to broaden our cultural vista, shed light on an overlooked aspect of Joseph’s dilemma, and rustle not a few feathers along the way.
John H. Elliott, Professor Emeritus, University of San Francisco

Marohl’s study of honor killings, be they modern or ancient, opens up new avenues of interpretation for the Gospel of Matthew’s infancy narrative. Taking into consideration that honor and shame were pivotal values of the social world in question, this study demonstrates that Mary’s pregnancy, as well as Joseph’s initial reaction to it, originally invoked the familiar social dimensions of damaging and protecting family honor, something now lost to modern readers.
Markus Cromhout, Department of New Testament Studies, University of Pretoria

Marohl’s unique combination of cultural anthropology and honor killings casts new light on the Gospel’s meaning and intended outcome.
Dietmar Neufeld, Professor of Christian Origins, University of British Columbia

‘Honour killing’ (ancient/modern) is an important, although difficult, issue to study. Marohl uses modern practice to help us rehear Matthew’s birth narrative … Marohl provides new lenses to view ancient and modern contexts … This is a disturbing yet vital study.
Robert S. Dutch, in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol 33, No 5

Joseph’s Dilemma is essential reading for anyone interested in Matthew’s Birth Narrative or Matthean theology.
Daniel J. Hanlon, in Theological Book Review, Vol 23, No 1

… very readable …
Expository Times, Vol 123, No 4