Mary's return and the Trial by Bitter Water


If this story was popular fiction, the reader would be anxious to know about Joseph's reaction when his would-be bride returned home from her cousin clearly pregnant. Luke ignores this. Matthew tells us a little more:

  Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. (Ch 2 v 18-21) 
No rest for that angel of the Lord. 

  The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew was clearly written by a sharp storyteller who felt that Matthew had let slip a golden narrative opportunity at this point. This is the start of his version:

.While these things were doing, Joseph was occupied with his work, house-building, in the districts by the sea-shore; for he was a carpenter. And after nine months he came back to his house, and found Mary pregnant. Wherefore, being in the utmost distress, he trembled and cried out, saying: O Lord God, receive my spirit; for it is better for me to die than to live any longer. And the virgins who were with Mary said to him: Joseph, what art thou saying? We know that no man has touched her; we can testify that she is still a virgin, and untouched. We have watched over her; always has she continued with us in prayer; daily do the angels of God speak with her; daily does she receive food from the hand of the Lord. We know not how it is possible that there can be any sin in her. But if thou wishest us to tell thee what we suspect, nobody but the angel of the Lord  has made her pregnant. Then said Joseph: Why do you mislead me, to believe that an angel of the Lord has made her pregnant? But it is possible that some one has pretended to be an angel of the Lord, and has beguiled her. And thus speaking, he wept, and said:  
   With what face shall I look at the temple of the Lord, or with what face shall I see the priests of God? What am I to do? And thus saying, he thought that he would flee, and send her away. (Ch 10)

And when he was thinking of rising up and hiding himself, and dwelling in secret, behold, on that very night, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in sleep, saying: Joseph, you son of David, fear not; receive Mary as your wife: for that which is in her womb is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and His name shall be called Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And Joseph, rising from his sleep, gave thanks to God, and spoke to Mary and the virgins who were with her, and told them his vision. And he was comforted about Mary, saying: I have sinned, in that I suspected you at all. (Ch 11)

The Trial by Bitter Water

  However, not everyone is convinced, and events turn into something of a soap opera. Mary's parents turn up, and things are  not looking good for Joseph.  At this point, a further legend pops up, one that almost never appears in Western art: The trial by bitter water. 
  This is the version in the Protoevangelium of James:

 And the priest said: Give up the virgin whom you received out of the temple of the Lord. And Joseph burst into tears. And the priest said: I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, and He shall make manifest your sins in your eyes. And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt. And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt. And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them. And the priest said: If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you. And he sent them away. And Joseph took Mary, and went away to his own house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel.
(Ch 16)
  An ordeal to determine the truth of an accusation of adultery was known as Sotah, which is Hebrew for 'Wayward Wife'. (Presumably it was fine to be a wayward husband.) A nasty brew was given to the wife. If nothing happened, she was innocent; if she became ill, she was guilty. This is described in Numbers Chapter 5 and the apocryphal texts are based on it. The text is here
There is one key difference though. In the Protoevangelium Joseph drinks the bitter water as well. 
The fresco below left showing the Trial by Bitter Water comes from the church of Santa Maria Foris Portas in Castelseprio, Lombardy.  The image on the right is more of a puzzle.  It is part of the Mosaic sequence from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.  The basilica website describes this scene as 'The delivery of the purple cloth to Mary' . The standard work on the subject, The Mosaic Decoration in San Marco Venice by Otto Demus, says that it is 'The handing over of the purple to the Virgin, modelled on a depiction of the trial by water'. The object in the priest's hands is certainly more like a water container than a spindle of yarn. So is it in fact an image of the trial? Its position in the narrative sequence and the presence of Joseph would lend some credence to this. 


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