How Old Were Mary and Joseph?
We have no ages given in the scriptures or other historical documents to determine how old Mary and Joseph were at the time of their betrothal, or at the birth of Jesus. However, we do have an idea of when other young women and men were betrothed and married during those times, and therefore, we might assume that Mary’s and Joseph’s families followed those customs. So, while the following information is not definitive, it gives us much food for thought.
Question 1) How old was Mary when she was espoused, or betrothed to Joseph?
Richard & Jeni Holzapfel:
“The usual age of a girl’s betrothal was between twelve and twelve and a half…at puberty or a little before. The engagement constituted a legally ratified marriage, since it began her transfer from her father’s authority to her husband’s, giving the [husband] legal rights over her and giving her the status of a married woman for many purposes. She could be called his wife or become his widow. The betrothal…lasted about a year….[Then came] the wedding proper….When the angel of the Lord first appeared to the young Mary, she was perhaps not more than twelve years of age and almost certainly not more than fourteen” (Sisters At The Well, p. 48).
Susan Easton Black:
“Typically, Jewish men were betrothed at age sixteen or seventeen, and almost never later than age twenty. Jewish women were betrothed at the somewhat younger age, usually fourteen. It can be assumed that both Joseph and Mary were young, even though apocryphal stories depict Joseph as an elderly widower” (Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Questions and Answers, p. 11).
Donna B. Nielsen:
“The age for marriage was quite early in Israel. Most rabbis held that young people ought to be married by age eighteen, at the latest. They were often married younger than that. Technically, one month after his Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Law) at age thirteen, a boy was considered to be of marriageable age. For girls, the youngest acceptable age was twelve years and one month” (Beloved Bridegroom, p. 2).
Question 2) What were Joseph’s options when he discovered that Mary was pregnant?
Richard & Jeni Holzapfel:
“The only two logical explanations for Mary’s condition were adultery or rape. Nevertheless, Joseph chose not to have a public hearing to determine whether Mary had been seduced or raped. In deciding against the hearing, he was shielding her and himself not only from public shame and questioning involved in the hearing but also from the possibility of an accusation and conviction on the charge of seduction and adultery.
“Such a conviction could result either in death by stoning as the law of Moses demanded or more likely in a degrading divorce (which was the only way to end the betrothal), perhaps with attendant indignities (such as physical and emotional abuses) and certainly with a bleak future for Mary. Among the abuses a young woman was exposed to was a series of curses chanted by the people of the village: ‘Cursed be he who begot her, cursed be he who brought her up, cursed be he from whose loins she sprang’ (Babylonian Talmud). Joseph chose the kindest and most humane alternative that the law offered.” (Sisters At The Well, p. 49)
Susan Easton Black:
“According to Jewish law an annulment or divorce of a betrothal could occur in one of two ways: 1) a public trial, in which testimonies were openly expressed and a judgment rendered, or 2) a private agreement attested by a written document known as a bill of divorce and signed in the presence of two witnesses. The witnesses could be family members and the reasons for the divorce kept within a closed circle, outside the realm of civil authorities.” (Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Questions and Answers, p. 11)
Question 3) If Mary gave birth to Jesus somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15, why do Christmas cards, art, and other nativities depict a woman who appears to be in her very late teens or early twenties?
I think it is probably difficult for our western religious modern age to accept such a notion, since it is obviously mindboggling for us in our American Sunday School class. We are CERTAIN in our minds that children this young couldn’t possibly be ready for marriage or childrearing. But, as Bruce R. McConkie stated, Mary was about the age of Joseph Smith when he had his first vision…which shows that advanced souls in spiritual things like the Prophet Joseph and Mary, the mother of the Son of God, were ready at young ages to be given great spiritual understanding and divine appointments. But the world doesn’t see that. However, as more and more historical records emerge from the time period, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc., more and more facts may come out, and perhaps newer artistic depictions may put the “holy family” as the young teenagers they most likely were.