Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem

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An analysis of participles is an important part of understanding the Greek nuances of any passage. We need to know the differences between the present, aorist, and perfect participles. And we need to know the differences between an adjectival participle and an adverbial participle.

An adjectival participle simply describes a noun (whether proper noun or regular noun). It is generally easy to identify an adjectival participle since it is usually immediately preceded by an article in the same gender, number, and case as the noun it modifies. For example, in Luke 2:5, Luke notes that when Joseph went to Bethlehem “to register,” he was accompanied by Mary (σὺν Μαριάμ) (note, by the way, that Mary did not need to register; in the ancient world, only men did, since only men had incomes and only men were called to serve in the military). While the form Μαριάμ is indeclinable, it is a dative, because the preposition σύν takes the dative. This proper noun is followed by τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ, an adjectival participle in the dative that describes something further about Mary—she was the woman who was “pledged to be married” to Joseph.

Right after this participial construction is another participle in the dative case: οὔσῃ. This participle is not joined to the previous one by καί, nor does it have its own article. It is the participle of the verb εἰμί (“to be”). Probably many of you reading this blog remember that in many cases, the verb εἰμί is missing in a sentence; it is easily be added in translation. The very fact that οὔσῃ appears here suggests to me that it must be read not simply as telling us more information about Mary (that she was pregnant), but should be seen as an adverbial participle.

Adverbial participles are linked primarily to verbs, and they have one of eight possible adverbial nuances: time (“when, while, after”), manner (describing “how”), means (“by means of”), cause (“because, since”), condition (“if”), concession (“although”), purpose (“in order to”), or result (“with the result that”). Which of these fits best for οὔσῃ?

To answer this question, we must first look at the situation in Luke 2. The adjectival participle τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ indicates that Joseph and Mary are not married. It was unheard of in Jewish society at that time for betrothed couples to appear together alone before the wedding, yet Joseph and Mary travel together all the way to Bethlehem. Moreover, Mary is in the ninth month of her pregnancy; imagine her either walking the dusty hills of Palestine or even riding on a donkey for at least six days after the baby has dropped! Why wasn’t she in the comfort of her home? What does the adverbial participle οὔσῃ suggest exegetically?

Personally, I think there are three plausible choices as to its adverbial nuance:

  1. Time. In narrative literature, a participle can almost always reflect time. Joseph travels to Bethlehem to register, accompanied by his fiancée Mary, while she is pregnant. 
  2. Cause. Mary accompanies Joseph to Bethlehem, in spite of her extreme discomfort, because she is pregnant. How does that make sense? Joseph and Mary believe the prophecy of Micah 5:2 that the promised messianic King will be born in Bethlehem. Since both of them know from the angels who have appeared to them that the child she is carrying is the Messiah, they know that Mary must be in Bethlehem for his birth. 
  3. Concession. Births in the ancient world normally took place at home, and one might have expected Mary to remain in Nazareth. But let’s remember also that the ancient world was an honor-shame society, and for an unmarried woman to be pregnant could lead to dire personal consequences. Of all the people in Mary’s circle, only Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then Joseph, believe her story that the child she is carrying was not conceived of immorality but is indeed the holy Son of God. And Joseph has been mandated to protect her (Matt 1:20-21) instead of doing the culturally honorable thing to break the engagement. Thus, although Mary is nine months pregnant, she has to travel to Bethlehem for her own protection when Joseph goes there to register. And “while they were there,” that most amazing birth takes place.

Which of these adverbial nuances to do think fits best for the adverbial participle οὔσῃ? 

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