Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review of Joseph's Dilemma Part I

Many thanks to James Stock from Wipf and Stock Publishers for an advanced copy!

Marohl, Matthew J.
Joseph's Dilemma: "Honor Killing" in the Birth Narrative of Matthew
Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009. Pp. 104
Paperback. $13.00 ISBN 1556358253.

Matthew J. Marohl, Assistant Professor of Religion, Augustana College (PhD University of St. Andrews), has offered up a striking proposal concerning the Matthean birth narrative (1.18-25). It is with particular focus that Marohl zeroes in on what he deems "Joseph's Dilemma" (xii; i.e. 1.19) and hence, provides the title for this monograph. As stated above 1.19 provides the interpretive crux to Marohl's proposal and reads:
Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly (NRSV).
The questions for Marohl are twofold: 1) Does Joseph suspect Mary of adultery?; and 2) What are Joseph's options, if Mary is found guilty? (xii) As Marohl notes, the majority of interpreters agree that Joseph has one option, that of divorce, so Joseph's dilemma then becomes whether the divorce will be public or private. This for Marohl, does not do Joseph's dilemma justice. Instead the author argues that "In this book, I will argue that early Christ-followers understood Joseph’s dilemma to involve an assumption of adultery and the subsequent possibility of killing Mary. Worded differently, Joseph’s dilemma involves the possibility of an honor killing. If Joseph reveals that Mary is pregnant she might be killed. If Joseph conceals Mary’s pregnancy, he will be opposing the law of the Lord. What is a “righteous” man to do?" (xii). Marohl anticipates that some will reject this thesis outright, deeming it heretical. Undaunted, the author varnishes the next part of his thesis, namely, "that this reading actually introduces an important Matthean theme—from expected death comes unexpected new life"(italics original; xii-xiii).

Joseph's Dilemma is structured around four chapters. In the first chapter (1-20), Marohl discusses the reality of modern honor killings. This well-organized chapter begins by noting that honor killings is a "difficult" topic to discuss due to the inherit nature of the act, the danger and tendency to develop an attitude of cultural superiority (neocolonialism), and the kinds of evidences that are presented (namely, ethnographies, magazines, and newspapers) instead of scholarly resources (namely, government statistics, legal rulings, and scholarly journal articles; 1-2). Next, Marohl gives a helpful, succinct summary of the honor/shame culture of the ancient world (2-4), noting that two factors in honor/shame discussions shed light on "honor killings": 1) The challenge/riposte exchange for acquired honor, and 2) The emphasis Mediterranean families place upon collective or family honor. Following this section, Marohl defines what "honor killings" are: "Honor killing is the practice of killing girls and women who are thought to have endangered a family’s honor by allegedly engaging in sexual activity before (or outside of) marriage" (5). This definition merely scratches the surface however, as "Honor killings are also executed in instances of rape, child sexual abuse, and even perceived flirting. Moreover, mere allegations of improper behavior on the part of a girl or woman are often enough to defile a family’s honor and 'warrant' an honor killing" (5). Marohl spends some time discussing where these killings are reported (e.g. Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel [among Arab Israelis], Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, and the UK [among Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants]; 6) and the difficulty of estimating the amount of honor killings that take place due to the fact that honor killings are often considered a "private family affair" (6; The United Nations estimates 5,000 women are killed each year in the name of family honor; n26). Skipping ahead a bit, one of Marohl's most insightful observations in this chapter is that honor killings cannot be blamed on religion or ethnic background as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all practice this heinous act. Rather honor killings are practiced due to "the centuries old patriarchal concern for power over women and their reproductive rights"(17).

Chapter 2 is entitled "Joseph's Dilemma" (21-37). Marohl begins by discussing the three most common interpretations regarding Joseph's reaction to Mary's pregnancy: 1) Joseph suspects Mary of adultery; 2) Joseph suspends all judgment; 3) Joseph is aware of Mary's conception via the Holy Spirit and his filled with awe and afraid to take Mary as his wife (23). There are obvious flaws regarding the second two proposals, specifically the third option as Joseph is not made aware of Mary's miraculous conception until vv. 20-21. For Marohl's thesis to be correct, the first proposal is the only viable option. Most scholars suggest that Joseph's only option was divorce and appeals to Deut 22.13-21 are anachronistic. Regarding the last point, scholars usually make the point (e.g. R.T. France) that this punishment is anachronistic without offering any documentation, although Luz and Gundry attempt to do so with the studies of Hermann Leberecht Strack and Paul Billerbeck (Strack and Billerbeck, Das Evangelium Nach Matthäus Erläutert aus Talmud und Midrasch. Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und
Midrasch. Munich: Oskar Beck, 1922; 1.50–53). Marohl notes:

Unfortunately, Strack and Billerbeck do not claim that stoning was no longer
practiced in the first century. In fact, the opposite claim is made. In their
commentary on Matt 1:19 in light of the Mishnah and Talmud, Strack and Billerbeck explain that it was not permitted to kill a minor if she committed adultery. However, they further note, that a girl who has committed adultery and is at least 12 years, 6 months, and 1 day old, may be killed by either stoning or strangulation. In other words, the evidence that Luz does provide in no way claims that stoning was no longer practiced in the first century (28).
Joseph’s dilemma is often portrayed by scholars as involving the choice between divorcing Mary and bringing her before a court of law to be tried and sentenced. While the proscribed stoning of Deut 22:23–24 is inferred by the latter option, it is usually not made explicit by interpreters, who instead insist that Joseph will divorce Mary. These interpretations often reinforce the idea that the honor of Mary is at stake (emphasis mine). Yet others (e.g. Warren Carter and Daniel Harrington) do not dismiss the possibility of stoning (Deut 22:23-27), but in the end come out in favor of Mary's honor being defended by Joseph's action of divorce. The remainder of the chapter looks at the work's on the "infancy narratives"(30-34) including those of Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah), Jean Daniélou (The Infancy Narratives), R. T. France, (“Scripture, Tradition, and History in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew"), and René Laurentin, (The Truth of Christmas ), while social scientific interpreters Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (34-37; Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) work is critiqued in that they helpfully sketch the honor/shame dynamics of Matt 1:19, while never considering the possibilty of "honor killing" as a real option, again coming out on the side of Mary's honor. This talk of Mary's honor being at stake misreads the dynamics of Meditteranean families as Marohl concludes the chapter with this note:

In the situation of adultery, it is the honor of the threatened family that is in jeopardy, not that of the offending girl. In cases both ancient and modern, it is the family honor that must be defended, even to the point of death (37).

Over the next couple of days, I hope to post on part II of this review. Chapter 3 will discuss the ancient evidence of honor killings, while chapter 4 will focus on the second part of Marohl's thesis, namely, how Joseph's option of performing an "honor killing" fits the Matthean motif of "from expected death comes unexpected life."

Stay tuned and feel free to share your thoughts.

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