§ 7. The Angel’s Message to Joseph

Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics

by Bruno Bauer

Volume 1



§ 7.

The Angel’s Message to Joseph.

In Luke’s account, the first attempt was made to develop the wonder of Jesus’ birth in its historical context. The view is still living in its first fresh ingenuousness and can therefore tolerate difficulties which later times will certainly discover but to their own detriment, since they cannot make this discovery without causing themselves the greatest unrest and loading themselves with endless futile work until criticism comes to return everything to the right track or to the first transparency.

Luke only lets the angel’s message reach Mary, who is told that she will become the mother of the Messiah in a wonderful way. Mary does not tell her husband Joseph anything abcout this extraordinary message, and Joseph takes no offense at her pregnancy, or rather, nothing is reported about his behavior as if it were self-evident to him that his wife’s pregnancy and childbirth appeared to him as well as to Mary and the reader as the natural consequence of the most extraordinary miracle. How clear everything is explained, known and transparent to the reader, this spectator, before whom the scene unfolds! Just as the author is aware of the assumptions of everything that follows, so it is also assumed that the immediate surroundings of the people appearing here, in this ideal world, were also explained the most difficult things without reasonable mediation. The people of this ideal world sometimes have the privilege of being somnambulistic and looking into the interior of their surroundings without rational mediation.

But Matthew has the scene before him, he can retain the first ingenuousness that originally belongs to the representation as a spectator, but he does not have to, he can already use the privilege of reflection like anyone who contemplates a finished work, and if he does, he will discover significant difficulties. Matthew has reflected, he notes that Mary did not tell her husband about the angel’s message, and that Joseph calmly accepts his wife’s subsequent pregnancy. How, he asks, is that possible? And by insisting on the one point that Mary did not reveal the wonderful message to her husband, he concludes that Joseph must have taken offense when he saw his wife, who had just been entrusted to him and was still a virgin, pregnant. He took offense, Matthew continues, and how else could he have been relieved of it, or how could his reassurance have been made more certain and definite than by the fact that a divine messenger also appeared to him and let him in on the secret?


For this reflection, Joseph now becomes the focal point of a new representation. The angelic message that was given to Mary takes a backseat and becomes finally unnecessary, as its essential content must be included in the message given to Joseph.

Joseph is troubled when he finds Mary pregnant under circumstances where she should not have been. As a just man, he did not want to publicly shame her and had already considered the option of quietly divorcing her. Then the angel of the Lord appears to him and reveals to him that the child in Mary is “conceived by the Holy Spirit”; she will bear a son, and he shall name him Jesus, for he will “save his people from their sins.” Joseph is now reassured, he obeys, takes his wife – because, Matthew concludes, he had not yet brought her home – and names the child Jesus.

The later origin of this account is made clear with a clarity that must satisfy even the most stubborn doubt, from a peculiar contradiction in its pragmatism. Joseph is called a just man. If we take this characterization seriously, as we must, then Joseph was a man who held to strict custom and was so injured by the discovery he made about his betrothed wife that he felt compelled to exercise his legal right *). Yet, the account says, Joseph did not want to go the legal route, but wanted to act gently and spare his wife the public shame that would have followed a trial. Indeed, Calvin answers, “Joseph’s human sense prevented him from acting according to the strictness of the law, and it should not be doubtful to us that he was prevented from doing so by the secret hint of the Holy Spirit.” However, the mild, humane sense of Joseph does not appear in the account as a limitation of his just zeal, but because he was just, Matthew wants to say, Joseph wanted to act gently. Or, if we are to bring in the secret influence of the Holy Spirit with Calvin – and we have the right to do so – then the obedience of the seemingly offended man to Him should be considered as his righteousness. If Calvin thus separated both, then newer interpreters are more correct when they combine both determinations – but only for that purpose; for if they go so far as to say that “just” here means only “kind, gentle” **), they simply repeat the contradiction of the account, but do not explain it. “Just” can never mean as much as “kind” or “gentle.” And yet, it is used here in this way according to the context? Indeed, but after a very long, very convoluted detour that Christian belief had only made after Luke’s work was written. As a husband of Mary, Joseph had to soon come to special esteem, and as far as he could be drawn into the history – i.e., in the childhood story of Jesus – he had to appear appropriately connected to the mother of the Messiah. He could take offense when he found his wife pregnant, as Matthew depicts the collision, he could even go so far as to finally decide to divorce his wife, but he could not let it go so far that she was exposed to public suspicion and the heavenly mystery was drawn into a worldly investigation. In short, he was just according to the requirements that Christian belief and his relationship to the mother of the Messiah – even if he did not yet know it – had to make of him. Therefore, the Joseph that Matthew presents is the Joseph of later belief.

*) Calvin: justitia, quae hic laudatur, in odio et detestatione sceleris fuit.

**) z. B. Frigide zum Matth. p. 41: Sixouos hic de leoi et benigno dicitur. Dishauſen, bibl. Comm. I, 54.


Nothing in the angel’s message suggests that Joseph had heard from Mary that she had also received an angelic message announcing that she would become the mother of the Messiah without the involvement of a man. At the very least, Joseph could have acted in disbelief towards the revelation that had been given to his wife, but in this case, the angel of the Lord would have had to rebuke him for his unbelief in order to set the divine plan in motion once again. However, the angel does not speak as if Joseph had been guilty of unbelief towards a divine revelation, but rather as if he were revealing a mystery that Joseph could not have known about until that moment. When Joseph considered dismissing his wife, he did not act like a man who did not believe his wife’s statements, but rather like one who noticed something about her that he pondered and consulted with himself about. After Strauss, we need not refute the Jesuitical explanations of the apologists, who want to explain why Mary did not tell her husband about Gabriel’s message. Instead, we prefer Calvin’s frankness when he says, “Mary must not have told Joseph anything about what had happened. He must not have been swayed by the flattery and entreaties of his fiancée, nor convinced by human reasons. He had to be irritated and already have wanted to dismiss his betrothed when – ex abrupto – God intervened. It had to come to this point for the entire process of conception to be truly verified.”


A bold statement that attacks the difficulty at its core and partially resolves it! Partially, however, because Calvin inserts Luke’s account of Gabriel’s message to Mary into a narrative that excludes it. In his angelic message, Matthew excludes all the essential aspects of the message that Luke allows Mary to receive. His angel explains the miraculous conception in the same way as Luke’s angel predicts it, and his angel writes the name that the God-begotten should receive, so why does Matthew still need to reflect on a message that has become superfluous through his own treatment of the subject? Let it be noted: in itself! We do not say that Matthew now wants to exclude Luke’s account consciously, but to the extent that it must actually be excluded, it has come about without his knowledge and will through the interest and structure of his report. He makes Joseph the centerpiece of his story, he must explain the whole thing to him through the angel, and if he is now certain that the reader will also be fully informed at this point, why does he still need to include Luke’s account in his own? Occupied only by his interest, he does not even think to critically compare his interpretation of the matter with Luke’s and to ask the question of why, if Mary had already received a heavenly message, did she not tell her husband anything? He did not even think that his readers would not be satisfied with his writing alone, but would also have Luke’s at hand and compare both critically. He has provided so much information according to his own understanding that the reader is fully informed of the matter.

Of course, two essentially different narratives have now emerged after Matthew has rearranged his predecessor’s account from a new perspective and around a different centerpiece. In Luke’s account, the mystery of the miraculous conception is explained in advance in the message to Mary, and one can only derive from the (almost) somnambulistic vision that sometimes seems to be characteristic of the appearing characters in such narratives that Joseph is not unaware of the miracle. In Matthew’s account, on the other hand, it appears – or rather it has actually become so – that Mary’s pregnancy enters the mystery of the unconscious, and when it becomes visible, it is explained to Joseph through the angelic message. Now, anyone who reads both accounts will indeed ask: if Mary already heard the angel’s message, why didn’t she share it with her husband – because according to Matthew, he knows nothing about it until he is drawn into the secret by a heavenly messenger? Or if Joseph only learns of the mystery, how and in what way did he communicate it to his wife?


However, Matthew is unaware of these difficulties and contradictions, which he has indeed caused. He wants to report the same thing that he found in Luke, but it happened to him that he did not report the same thing because he tied it to a different starting point.

In the ideal world of perception, contradictions of this kind arise instantaneously as soon as the same idea is taken up and pursued from a newly added interest, and we are far from taking offense at them or forcibly reconciling them, since we have their complete resolution in the insight into their origin.

Something similar, but at the same time, vastly different, is the recent apologetics’ intention when it refrains from harmonizing the reports and is content with the observation that reports could still be historically accurate, even if the grouping of events varies depending on the starting point. However, these differences cannot be easily reconciled when it comes to reality. Because in that case, the matter becomes serious, the individual points become firmly fixed, and the differences become deadly contradictions. It is firmly established, for example, that Mary received a heavenly message, that the righteous Joseph also had to receive such a message, and therefore, he had heard nothing about what had happened to his wife. All these circumstances conflict until they are lost for the real world and only revive in the world of perception, where, despite all their differences, they can peacefully coexist.


As a reflection of Matthew, which relates to the following time and the circumstance that the siblings of Jesus are mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, we have already emphasized above the remark that Joseph did not “know” Mary until she gave birth to Jesus. However, as far as this reflection refers to Joseph’s behavior until the birth of Mary, it is already justified in Luke’s scripture, where Mary responds to the message of Gabriel (Luke 1:34): “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” If it was like that back then, then – according to the conclusion drawn from the given view of Matthew – it must have been the same until the birth of the Blessed One. To keep Mary away from intercourse with her husband until she gave birth to the Son of God, Luke (1:27) has already made her a virgin who was only engaged to Joseph when she received the angel’s message, but he was content with that and did not explicitly mention her admission to Joseph’s house, whether it happened at that time or later. Matthew makes up for this omission: he moves Joseph’s intention to dissolve the relationship with his fiancé to the time when he had not yet taken her home and only lets this happen later, after Joseph was informed by the angel about the mystery of the miraculous pregnancy.

However, according to the results of criticism, we must restore the marriage from which Jesus was born as what it was, that is, already truly established. We do not even know if Jesus was really the firstborn of this marriage.


If we are to part with apologetics in good conscience and conclude our account with it in this matter, we must once again examine Matthew’s reflection on that prophecy of Isaiah regarding the virgin who would give birth to Immanuel. Against the previous view of the critics, who were still hesitant to leave the prophet’s miracle belief undisturbed, we have already explained that Isaiah did indeed expect the liberation of the theocracy from its distress during the time of King Ahaz from the “son of the virgin”; but as soon as we express it in this way – that is, correctly – we will not have done enough for the faithful exegesis, which is also impossible to achieve, and their polemic remains directed against us. We do not say that Isaiah understood Jesus as the son of the virgin or, in general, that Messiah who was to appear centuries later. We cannot say it since Isaiah received that belief only in the emergency of the present and expected the son of the virgin as the savior from the then *) collision.

Therefore – says the apologist **) – the critic means “the new covenant did not understand its premise, the old covenant?” However, the apologist has no right to such insinuation as long as he thinks that when the evangelists say “it was fulfilled,” it only means “some spiritual precursor was abolished at its peak.” *) But if he explains the meaning of that formula correctly as meaning that the evangelists really meant that the prophecy was given in the same sense as it was fulfilled, then we must come up with an answer. We give it: the evangelical view saw only itself in the prophecies of the Old Testament and, because it was only fulfilled with itself, could not critically recognize the difference between itself and the Old.

*) To prevent misunderstandings that could arise from this word, we remind that the prophets always saw the collisions of their time in that meaning of universality, that they appeared to them as the last and highest, whose abolition would at the same time be the completion of the theocracy. For the prophet, that collision was not only a temporary one, but the collision and κατ εξοχην it is also explainable that he could see at the end of it the establishment of the completed kingdom of God and the rule of the king, whose kingdom is without end (Isaiah 9, 6). The specific and general were one for the prophets without reflection.

**) e.g. Lange, ibid. p, 63.

*) Lange, ibid. p. 64


To recognize the assumptions of a new principle in history, but also to grasp their essential difference from the result of development sharply, we have learned from modern philosophy. Therefore, we must listen attentively when Lange urges us to acknowledge the prophecies by pointing to the example of the same philosophy that saw the earlier philosophical systems as “indications of the completed.” This is the same philosophy that sharply criticized the historians who only saw their categories in the older systems and had no eye for the specificity and boundary that separates the earlier from the following!



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