I’ve really been enjoying working my way through the 52 reflections included in Devotions on the Greek New Testament. The first of these, by Roy E. Ciampa, has been really instructive as a reflection on what righteousness looks like in practice From Matthew 1:19:
“Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.”
“And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
You can interpret the main participles in this sentence “being righteous – δίκαιος ὢν – and not wanting – μὴ θέλων – to make an example of her” as either causal or concessive. Joseph either plans to divorce her because he is righteous and doesn’t want to disgrace her, or despite his righteousness in recognising the demand to publicly denounce unfaithfulness he decided to divorce her quietly. Our choice of translation cannot be separated from our understanding of righteousness: either Joseph’s actions are unexpected in the light of his righteousness (concessive), or they are a direct result of his righteousness (causal).
This is a theme that Jesus (and Matthew) flesh out as the gospel continues. For Jesus, and in key passages of the Old Testament (e.g. Hosea 6:6), mercy and compassion are not at odds with righteousness but a key mark of righteousness. Mercy is extended to us on the cross, we are not left to our own destruction.
Perhaps it was this Jesus-style righteousness, and not the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, that led Joseph to think and act in the way that he did.
This short passage is a good example of one of the many thousands of translation choices made in each English rendering of the Bible – and why we shouldn’t rely on any one version as our only source.