Origen poses this question in hist sixth homily on Luke,
Again I turn the matter over in my mind and ask why, when God had decided that the Savior should be born of a virgin, he chose not a girl who was not betrothed, but precisely one who was already betrothed.
I find his response and reasoning interesting on a number of fronts. First, he poses a new question on the text that I have not thought of (or read?). Second, his reasoning as we will see is highly theological. Third, it reveals some of his thoughts on Satan in relation to Jesus’ ministry.
The main reason that Origen supposes that Mary was betrothed is so that the birth could be concealed from the “ruler of this age.” This idea is rooted in Ignatius who says in his letter to the Ephesians,
Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.
Origen argues that if she had not been betrothed then her virginity and the birth could never have been concealed from the “ruler of this age.” In his thinking if Mary had not been betrothed then there would have been a bigger uproar on the pregnancy of Mary and it would have come out that she was a virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit. By being betrothed this could be concealed. He goes on to say, “But the Savior had so arranged his plan that the devil did not know that he had taken on a body. When he was conceived, he escaped the devil’s notice.”
He notes that Jesus did not actual reveal himself to be the Son of God in the temptation narrative. To Origen, he interprets this even to mean that the devil knew that Jesus was someone special but couldn’t quite figure out who he was so this part of the temptation is a genuine inquiry in who Jesus is. Jesus’ response does not confirm or deny that he is the Son of God but only that he should not turn stone into bread.
So why does Origen go to length to explain why the devil does not know who Jesus is? His grounding for this is found in 1 Corinthians 2:6–8 which says,
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
He then brings up an objection that could be stated. He notes that in Matthew 8 the demons show that they know that he is the Son of God. So how does this fit in with his theory? Origen stresses that the demon is “less evil” than Satan and knew who Jesus was. He says,
The fact that his wickedness is greater prevents him from knowing the Son of God. We ourselves can advance to virtue more easily if we are less sinful. But, if we are more sinful, then we need sweat and hard labor to be freed from our greater evil. This is my explanation of why Mary was betrothed.
I claim to be no expert on Origen but here are some thoughts that I had after reading this homily.
First, Origen is asking questions that I would have never thought to ask. If I would have thought of this question today I would have probably dismissed by saying we just don’t know. Origen poses the question and then answers it theologically. This is the opposite direction that most would have taken this question. Most would have tried to ground it in some historical reasoning that Mary had to be betrothed but Origen addresses this theologically. Here we see the cohesive view of Holy Scripture. He naturally connects Paul saying the wisdom of God has been hidden from the rulers of this age to the idea that the devil did not realize that God had come down from heaven to this earth.
Overall I found his interpretation enlightening and edifying. Even if I may not completely adopt his interpretation it has forced me to think of the text in a new light and who knows one day this may spark further thought on the birth narrative of Jesus.
All quotes are from Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996. ↩
Ignatius Letter to the Ephesians 19:1 in Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007. ↩