Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Two Terrible Translations

by Mary J. Giovanoni


The purpose of this article is to examine how poor translations of the word "betrothed" and the phrase "I know not man" have led to misunderstandings about the marital status of Mary and Joseph at the time of the Incarnation. Mary Giovanoni explains the two-part Jewish ceremony which proves beyond any doubt that Joseph and Mary were in fact married when the Incarnation took place.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


54 – 59

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, April 2007

The Catholic Church has two terrible English translations widely used by priests today: "betrothed" translated as "engaged" and "I know not man" translated as "I have no husband."

First, "betrothed" needs to be translated as "married" because Mary and Joseph were married before the Annunciation — when they both had signed the marriage contract at the 1st part of the 2-part Jewish ceremony. For the 1st century Jewish culture, this was the definitive point when the man and woman became husband and wife. It is necessary to remember that Mary and Joseph, as practicing Jews, followed the rules of their society, including the rites of the 2-part marriage ceremony. In any culture a couple is either "married" or "not married." There are no "almost married," "half married" or "considered married." Outsiders — those not of the culture — may choose to consider them not married. However, the outsider's opinion is of no concern to the culture.

The Talmudic website ( has much information on Jewish marriage customs. Under the section titled, "The Process of Marriage: Kiddushin and Nusuin," the Rabbi explains Mary and Joseph's 2-part Jewish marriage ceremony thus, "The process of marriage occurs in two distinct stages: kiddushin (commonly translated as betrothal) and nusuin. Once kiddushin is complete, the woman is legally the wife of the man. The relationship created by kiddushin can only be dissolved by death or divorce."

Since Mary and Joseph had completed kiddushin, by Jewish law they were married before the Incarnation — truly married as the Rabbi said. Note that the Jewish ceremony does not require that Mary and Joseph live together immediately after they become husband and wife!

After the marriage contract is signed by both, only death or divorce releases them from the marriage. If Joseph had denounced Mary publicly, she would have been stoned as an adulteress because she was married to Joseph and the child was not his. Nusuin, the second part when the husband brings his wife into his home, causes much confusion in Christian cultures because it occurs later. The Rabbis by writing down their Laws have preserved the proof that Mary and Joseph were married before the Incarnation. I cannot stress enough the importance that we carefully preserve this piece of our Jewish heritage, so it is available to future generations.

This 2-part marriage ceremony is described in the Gospel of Matthew 1:18, "Now the origin of Christ was in this wise. When Mary his mother had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit." This verse, by saying that Mary and Joseph were betrothed at the Incarnation, states that the kiddushin had been completed. Joseph was planning to dissolve the marriage privately, when the angel appeared to him and explained the true situation, "Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to thee Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20). Joseph then completed the nusuin by taking Mary his wife into his house.

God, in his infinite Wisdom, protected Mary and Jesus from harm by providing Joseph, a holy, kind man to care and provide for them. The early Fathers wrote much on living a virtuous Christian life, on combating heresies, on the Incarnation and the necessity of Mary being a Virgin. These writers would be Jews or Gentiles who remembered Jewish culture and therefore would know that Mary and Joseph were married at the Incarnation. Their immediate concerns were preaching Mary's virginity — before, during and after the Incarnation — as well as other Church doctrines and combating heresies.

However, by the 4th century A.D. knowledge of Jewish society had lessened so much that confusion resulted because of poor translations. St. Ambrose thought it necessary to reaffirm the fact that Mary and Joseph were married. To correct the poor translation of "espoused," he wrote, ". . . for any woman espoused to a man is given the name of wife. It is from the time that a marriage begins that the marital terminology is employed. It is not the deflowering of virginity that makes a marriage, but the marital contract." (St. Ambrose, "The Faith of the Early Fathers," Vol. 2, p.172).

St. Augustine also wrote that Mary and Joseph were truly married in Book 1, "On Marriage And Concupiscence." He writes, "For it was not deceitfully that the angel said to Joseph: 'Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.' She is called his wife because of her first troth of betrothal (kiddushin), although he had no carnal knowledge of her, nor was destined to have."

Centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologia1 (New Advent website), writes,

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God.

For this reason the angel called Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Matthew 1:20): 'Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.'

St Thomas Aquinas also corrected St. Jerome's objections in the Summa Theologiae, "Was There a True Marriage Between Mary And Joseph?"2 St. Jerome assumed that marriage exists only after sexual relations. This was obviously not true of a Jewish marriage, because they are husband and wife after the kiddushin, before they live together. This misconception that a Jewish contractual marriage is the same as a Christian sacramental marriage exists today. You cannot judge "married" by our culture, when considering "married" in another very different culture.

Many modern priests believe that unless the marriage is consummated, there is no marriage. Therefore again, in our modern culture Pope John Paul II has made it abundantly clear that Mary and Joseph were married, when he wrote, "According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first the legal or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his own house. Thus before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her 'husband'"' ("Redemptoris Custos" no.18).

Definitely, the problem today is similar to previous centuries; it is poor translations of the word, "betrothal." The modern "engaged" or even the modern "betrothed" do not even come close to "married" — and "married" is the accurate translation. A question to Judie Brown on EWTN Q & A illustrates the confusion. The question, about sexual union between engaged couples, asked — Since the Bible condemns fornication but not necessarily between engaged couples, because in Biblical time if a man and woman were betrothed they were allowed sexual relations, are engaged couples allowed sexual relations? And Judie answered, "Sexual union between ANY unmarried couple is promiscuity; it is a sin. The ACT is fornication; even if the couple is engaged to be married. Your understanding of "betrothed" in Biblical times is erroneous." Judie then defines the root word, ("to betroth"), from which the Talmudic abstract ("betrothal") is derived and ends with this statement, "In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce."

Unfortunately this is not only one person's confusion. A teacher of tenth-grade boys wrote to the "Adoremus Bulletin" Feb. 2006. While teaching the class about abstinence, the boys asked the same question, "If in the first century it was OK to have sex during engagement, why can't we do it today?" The teacher ended the letter by asking us to consider the extent to which the morality of the next generation depends "on the half-witted translation of one Latin word."

It is amazing how an unfortunate translation of one word can change historical truth to a lie, and effect the incorrect modern interpretation of a historical fact about the marital status of Mary and Joseph before the Incarnation.

Because the Jewish 2-part marriage ceremony is different, we want to force it into our concept of engagement, instead of the actual marriage that it is! A culture similar to the Jews might consider our marriage not "real" because we do not have a written contract. Whatever the word for "married" is in a culture, that is the correct translation to be used for kiddushin. Whether our culture wants to accept a 2000-year-old Jewish marriage now, is irrelevant to the truth — that Mary and Joseph were married before the Incarnation.

Unfortunately, too many priests today claim Mary was engaged, or single and pregnant, or an unwed mother, due to the poor translation of "betroth" to "engage." They never explain why God would place the Mother of His Son in such danger of disgrace. Women seem to sense the disrespect and dishonor done to the Blessed Virgin more than men. Since this is a historical law that can be researched, theology does not apply here.

Priests are erroneously taught in some seminaries that Mary was engaged to Joseph, which is not the truth. Two priests co-authored a book stating, "Mary was single and pregnant," and then in the 1st paragraph wrote that Joseph planned to divorce her. Now a divorce, which is required to dissolve a marriage, would not be necessary, if Mary were single or engaged. To protect Mary and Jesus, God sent an angel to explain the situation to Joseph, her husband. When Joseph did as the angel said and claimed Jesus as his son, thereby under the Jewish law, Joseph became the father of Jesus. This is not theological, only another consequence of Jewish Law. Because Joseph accepted publicly Jesus as his son, he was the father of Jesus in the Jewish culture, and Jesus was called — the son of the carpenter.

In an e-mail a priest defends his position by explaining "Despite the Jewish 'concept' of legal betrothal, Mary was legally and biologically a Virgin in the fullest sense and every other sense." What has Mary's virginity got to do with her marriage? That Mary was a virgin before, during and after the Incarnation is an article of Faith. A dogma I firmly believe and a matter completely outside Jewish marriage laws — which is what I am discussing here. That Mary and Joseph were married by Jewish Law is a historical fact and I doubt if Jews of any era would agree that their laws were mental concepts. I can't agree either, since the laws of a culture are very concrete objects concerning matters of life and death. It is a matter of Revelation of the Catholic Church that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the Incarnation. Her perpetual virginity does not determine whether or not she was married. The Early Church Fathers defended Mary's perpetual virginity often, for it was and is a difficult concept for the Jews and pagans.

Another priest wrote, "Mary and Joseph or any couple, are not husband and wife until they give mutual consent at the time of the wedding ceremony before the officiating minister, priest, deacon or rabbi." The whole point of the kiddushin — the 1st part of the Jewish marriage — was for the man and woman to both sign the marriage contract before witnesses. The kiddushin was their mutual consent. When the contract was signed, the couple were married under Jewish law and could only be separated by divorce or death.

When I wrote a priest who claimed on TV that Mary and Joseph were engaged, he said he could not find a Douay Rheims Bible and used a modern dictionary for the word "betrothed." Of course he found the terrible translation of "promise to marry" or "an engagement." Father did not think the listeners would be able to understand any explanation in the short period he had on TV. He considered this a theological problem, when actually it is a legal one. Now the Incarnation is theological, but not the marriage!

With my letter I had enclosed a copy of Pope John Paul II's "Redemptoris Custos" #18. Father ignored the highlighted quote of the Pope's words and claimed the Pope used "betrothed" as not married. However, throughout the section John Paul always uses "betrothed" as "married" — easily understood in the context.

Last year I became very disturbed at the prevalence of this untruth and wrote someone at EWTN whom I thought well informed. He referred my letter to an assistant, "M", who claimed that the time of Mary's marriage to Joseph is disputed. Many things can be disputed but a well-documented Jewish law does not fall in that category. Since they were married at the kiddushin, the time of their marriage was defined. Mr. "M" also claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas believed that Mary was not married at the Incarnation. As I have already quoted above, the truth is just the opposite! St. Thomas' answer to the question, "Was there a true marriage between Mary and Joseph?,"3 was a definite "Yes." It appears that Mr. "M" has confused the list of objections with St. Thomas' answer. As is St Thomas' method, he first mentions objections to Mary and Joseph being married, given by other commentators. Then St. Thomas refutes these objections, after he has explained why they were truly married at the Annunciation. First St. Thomas Aquinas describes what a true marriage is. Then he states his answer to the given question, which is that Mary and Joseph were truly married. In this same section St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine and St. Ambrose and gives their conclusion — that Mary and Joseph were married. To complete the answer, St Thomas refutes each of the three objections mentioned in the first part. Without careful reading of the Summa, it is possible to confuse the "objections" — the incorrect answers to the question — with St. Thomas' correct answer.

Now let's consider the second poor translation — "I know not man" to "I have no husband." This translation can only occur when the first bad translation is assumed true — which it isn't because of Jewish marriage laws. This second wrong translation obscures the real meaning of Mary's response to the angel. Since Mary knew she was married to Joseph, she would not have answered that she did not have a husband. In Mary's Jewish culture, the phrase: "I know not man" meant she was a virgin, that she had never had sexual relations with a man. Mary knew that as a married woman she could have marital relations. Therefore when she questioned the angel — "How shall this be done, because I know not man?" Luke 1:34 (Douay-Rheims New Testament), Mary was telling the angel that she planned to remain a virgin even though married. Being the perfect human person, Mary would have discussed this very important decision with Joseph and secured his agreement before any marriage took place. When the angel explained how she would conceive a son by the Holy Spirit and remain a virgin, then Mary, without reservation, agreed to the Incarnation.

St. Augustine — in "Of Holy Virginity"4 expands the understanding of Luke 1:34. After quoting Mary speaking to the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?", he says:

"Whether assuredly she would not say, unless she before vowed herself unto God as a virgin. But, because the habits of the Israelites as yet refused this, she was espoused to a just man, who would not take her by violence, but rather guard against violent persons, what she had already vowed. Although, even if she had said this only, "How shall this take place?" and had not added, "seeing I know not a man", certainly she would have asked, how, being a female, she should give birth to her promised Son, if she had married with purpose of sexual intercourse."

When the Jewish marriage law — the real proof of Mary and Joseph's being truly married — is ignored or dismissed as a concept by priests today there is little chance, we will hear about it. Hopefully, when the church swings back to much better translations, the actual proof of their marriage will resurface again. The best solution would be that the 1st century Jewish marriage, as the Rabbi explained, be placed in plain sight in the Catholic Church archives for anyone interested to view! It may not be dogma, but it is a very interesting piece of our Jewish heritage and the written proof that Mary and Joseph were married before the Incarnation.

When our Jewish heritage and the teachings of Pope John Paul II are ignored, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose misinterpreted or misquoted, it appears people have made up their minds and do not want to be confused by accurate translations. Until translations improve and catechesis is more toward God and less toward social work, I doubt if there will be any change.

End notes

  1. Summa Theologiae: "Was there a true marriage between Mary and Joseph?" (
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. Church Fathers: Of Holy Virginity (St. Augustine) paragraph #4, New Advent website (

Mrs. Mary Giovanoni, a retired Aero Engineer, is a wife and mother of five children and grandmother of four. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Richard, who is also a retired engineer. Prior to her marriage in 1954, she worked for Chance Vought Aircraft Corp. in Dallas, TX. While in Dallas she obtained her pilot's license, won the ZONTA International Amelia Earhart scholarship, using it to obtain her masters at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is one of the earliest women to receive recognition from the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.

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