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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

MATTHEW J. MAROHL, Joseph’s Dilemma: “Honour Killing” in the Birth Narrative of Matthew (Cambridge UK: James Clark, 2010). Pp. 104. Paperback. 13.50.

Employing well established socio-cultural concepts of ‘honour-shame’ in dyadic human communities, Michael Marohl offers an innovative interpretation of the response of Joseph to the news of his fiancé Mary’s unexpected pregnancy in the annunciation narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 1:18–21). Marohl suggests that the “reality and brutality of honour killings” (xi) is the context of Joseph’s conversation with the angelic figure, going on to argue that the entire narrative of the First Gospel is structured around the theme that “from expected death comes unexpected new life” (xiii).

Marohl explores a number of reports on honour killings in Mediterranean and Asian communities over recent times and argues that this practice is not defined by religious or ethnic parameters but is entrenched in all communities holding to ‘honour-shame’ value systems. In continuity with mainstream socio-cultural understandings he argues that, “it is the honour of the entire family that is at stake when a female is perceived to have engaged in improper sexual behaviour. The actions of the male(s), then, are thought to restore collective honour, the honour status of the family” (3). Marohl argues then that the Matthean annunciation narrative needs to be read in this context so that Joseph’s dilemma is much more serious than quietly breaking up his relationship with Mary. Mary’s honour has already been shamed, nothing, it would appear, can restore it. Joseph would be expected to publicly solve the problem in a way that would restore honour to his family whether that be by formal legal judgment or by actively and informally participating in Mary’s execution.

As Marohl demonstrates, it is well recognised by New Testament scholars that the Gospel of Matthew is a carefully constructed narrative proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God and that responses to Jesus’ apparent illegitimate human birth have some parallels in many ancient narratives of Israel. But Marohl moves beyond the genealogical traditions in the Gospel’s introduction where Judah and Tamar, Salmon and Rahab, Boaz and Ruth, David and the ‘wife of Uriah’ are all revealed to have borne children outside wedlock. Rather, based on well-researched ancient as well as contemporary ‘honour-shame’ traditions, Marohl asserts that the Matthean Joseph would have been expected to kill, not just dismiss, his pregnant fiancée in order to retain his own family honour.

In ‘rethinking Joseph’s dilemma” Marohl reviews the entire narrative flow of the First Gospel and points out that ‘from the womb to the tomb, the death of Jesus is expected” (71). Uniquely in the Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus life is threatened over and over again before finally being taken on the cross in Jerusalem and then restored by God, the ultimate life-giver. The importance of the preservation of Mary’s life to Joseph echoes as the Holy Family flees to find refuge in Egypt, and then return to Nazareth rather than a potentially hostile Bethlehem. Each time the life of Jesus is under threat and each time they are rescued by Joseph’s divinely guided decisions.

In line with the Matthean ethic, mercy is preferred over sacrifice. Thus, Marohl demonstrates that Joseph models true discipleship by engaging in a mission that brings life in the midst of death.

Review by
Melbourne College of Divinity
Kew VIC 3101