Sacred Scripture is the most authentic source we have for the study of the importance and significance of Saint Joseph in the present economy of salvation. The Magisterium of the Church, the universal and proximate norm of all truth, bases its love for, and devotion to Saint Joseph on the data given in the pages of the inspired word of God.
What does Sacred Scripture tell us about Saint Joseph? Does it tell us very much? It would be misleading to gauge his importance by the number of words assigned to him in the sacred narrative. As is so often the case in the Bible, a few seemingly simple remarks say more than we can comprehend in a lifetime of study and reflection. True, the Bible does not give us an exhaustive picture of the saint, but then neither does it contain a definitive biography of Christ or his Mother. Sacred Scripture, however, does tell us all that we need to know about Saint Joseph, as well as the mission assigned him in the life of the people of God.
The following points are the main facts in the life of Saint Joseph that Sacred Scripture proposes as historically true.
1. Saint Joseph was married to Mary, the Mother of God
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing that she was to become the Mother of God, she was, according to the account given by Saint Luke, “espoused to a man named Joseph”1. The wording of the text is common to all modern versions of the Bible.
Commenting on this text, scripture scholars warn us that the word “espoused” is not to be equated with the word “engagement”. The words espousal and engagement are allied terms that are related to marriage, but they are not perfectly synonymous. The word espousal refers to the making of vows of marriage rather than to the ceremonies that surround the wedding; it implies that the couple have, in the strict legal sense, entered upon the state of wedlock. Engagement, on the other hand, connotes only the “promise” of one day entering the state of matrimony, providing the present desires and wishes of the couple endure. Thus, to understand the phrase of Saint Luke “espoused to a man named Joseph” as meaning that Mary was engaged to him at the time, would not do justice to the text. Saint Luke is simply saying that Mary and Joseph were already married when Mary became the Mother of God.
Why, then, does Saint Luke use the word “espoused” instead of the word “married”? Would it not have been clearer and more simple for him to use the second?
It must be remembered that according to the Jewish custom of the time there were two steps that lead to marriage as we understand it today. First, the couple exchanged their <matrimonial consent> in a special ceremony. Today we would say they pronounced their marriage vows. In virtue of this they were joined together as man and wife in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the law. From that time they had all the rights and privileges accorded to husbands and wives. According to Jewish law if the man died, the woman was considered as his widow and was entitled to his inheritance. If the woman was unfaithful to him, she would be punished as an adulteress; neither could she remarry without first obtaining a bill of divorce.
The second step was the <solemnization> of the marriage or the celebration of the wedding festivities. According to the means of the couple, the wedding feast was celebrated as elaborately as possible. The man would come to the home of the bride and in public procession he would escort her to his home. Then they would begin their life together.
This second part of the ceremony took place many months after the exchange of the wedding vows. And it is for this reason that Saint Luke tells us that they were “espoused” at the time of the Annunciation. The meaning is clear. At the time of the apparition of the Angel they were not living together as man and wife for the wedding festivities had not as yet taken place, but they were married in the eyes of God since they had already exchanged matrimonial consent.
How old Saint Joseph was at the time he married Mary is a question of great interest to the modern mind because of the conflicting ideas expressed on this subject. For many centuries the idea prevailed that Joseph was an old man of eighty years when he married. Even today in some of our churches there are still statues and pictures that would appear to corroborate this view.
It is interesting to note that the earliest known paintings or pieces of sculpture in the catacombs show Joseph as a young man, probably no more than twenty-five years old. This trend continued until the fourth century. But from that time almost to modern times, Mary’s husband is pictured as a man of advanced years. This raises the interesting question of why Joseph suddenly became an octogenarian in Christian art. There can be no doubt but that the change was deliberately introduced. In the fourth century the perpetual virginity of Mary was under attack, and by way of implication it was asserted that Joseph was the natural father of Christ. This claim was a serious distortion of divine revelation and was promptly refuted by the bishops of those times. History tells us that heresies die slowly and there follows a period of time in which there is a danger that the false doctrine will reappear. Hence the artists of the times were convinced that it was not advisable to depict Joseph as a young man for fear that the faithful would imagine him to be the natural father of Christ. Portraying him as a very old man, they thought, was the best way of upholding belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and Joseph. This trend continued well into the twentieth century.
In recent decades there has been a change in thinking among religious artists. The modern artist, sensitive to the preferences of modern man, now prefers to represent Joseph as a strong and vigorous young man. This healthy trend accords with modern scriptural scholarship and has helped thinking Christians to reject as worthless fables many of the legends about Saint Joseph that are contained in the apocryphal literature, especially the <Gospel of Pseudo Matthieu> and the <Gospel of the Nativity of Mary>.
The belief that Mary was about fifteen years old when she became the Mother of Christ is very widely held by scripture scholars. Now who could seriously imagine God inspiring Mary to marry a man who was nearly eighty years old? How could he have been a real companion to her? Would he not have been more like a great-grandfather? Furthermore, the gospel assures us that the contemporaries of the holy family thought that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus. Is it likely that people would have come to such a conclusion had Joseph already been a very old man?
In addition, how could such an old man have worked as a carpenter to support his wife and child? Could he have taken the long journeys related in the gospel? How could he have protected his family on such trips? It is not necessary to portray Joseph as a decrepit old man in order to affirm his virginity, for virginity comes from virtue and the grace of God and not from debilitating old-age.
Is it possible to be more specific about his age at the time of his marriage? Yes, scholars of oriental history assure us that most Jewish men married when they were sixteen years old; they rarely deferred marriage beyond twenty-four. Thus in all likelihood Joseph was married when he was in his late teens.
2. Saint Joseph was considered to be the Father of Jesus
The Eternal Son of God was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, not by the power of man, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. In becoming man, Christ was born and received into a human family because he wanted to become like unto us in all things, sin alone excepted.
One of the main reasons why Christ was born into a family was due to the fact that it is in accordance with the divine natural law that children should be born to a married couple. Obviously God could have dispensed from this particular law him who was the “first begotten” of the new economy of salvation.
There was another reason why Christ should be born into a family. God reveals His mysteries of salvation to the world gradually, and as yet men were not prepared for the good news that the Second Person of the Trinity had become incarnate for our salvation, or for the news of the virginal conception of the Saviour. Thus it would have harmed the cause of human redemption had Christ become incarnate outside of a human family: this would have brought dishonor upon the Saviour, and upon His mother too, since many would have considered her guilty of seriously violating the moral law of God.
We can see, therefore, the great advantage of Christ being born of the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and how this acted as a veil over the inscrutable designs of Providence until the world could profit from this disclosure. As a matter of fact the gospels do not indicate that Christ ever revealed this mystery of his virginal conception until he had demonstrated his divinity and thus prepared the minds of men to accept this mystery.
Some of the texts of Sacred Scripture, especially in Saint Luke’s second chapter, call Saint Joseph the father of Jesus, as Mary is called his Mother. In recording the presentation of the Child in the temple, Saint Luke writes: “and when His <parents> brought in the Child Jesus”2. After the prophecy of Simeon the narrative continues: “His <father> and <mother> were marvelling at the things spoken concerning Him”3. When Christ went up to the temple at the age of twelve, we read: “And His <parents> were wont to go every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, <they> went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. And after <they> had fulfilled the days, when <they> were returning, the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and His <parents> did not know it”4. Noticing that the boy was missing, Joseph and Mary searched for three days until they discovered him in the temple. On that occasion the gospel relates the words of Mary to the Child: “Behold, in sorrow Thy <father> and I have been seeking Thee”5 .
3. Saint Joseph exercised paternal rights over the child Jesus
An Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary your wife, because what is born of her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a Son, and you will call His name Jesus. For He shall save His people from their sins”6. Thus Joseph is assured that it is his right and duty to impose a name on the Child born of his wife.
Naming the child was considered, according to the Jewish mentality, as a special prerogative of the father: it was an exercise of paternal authority. And so eight days after His birth, on the occasion of the circumcision, we find Joseph presiding over the ceremony (though in all likelihood he did not perform the circumcision), and as he directed, the child was called Jesus. This rite made Christ a member of the chosen people, heir to all the promises that had been foretold by the prophets. At the same time, he also received his legal ancestry, becoming a member of the Davidic dynasty. True, both Mary and Joseph were descendants of the house of David, but it is through Joseph that Christ received the title, Son of David, according to which the Messiah was to be recognized.
In the gospels there are other indications of the leadership Saint Joseph gave to his family as he cared for his wife and the child. After the visit of the Magi, Herod was seeking the life of the Child, and an angel appeared to Joseph: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the Child and His Mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell thee”7. Acting as a protective father to the Infant, he led Him safely to Egypt where He was safe from the devilish intent of Herod. When king Herod was dead an angel again appeared to Joseph as the head of the Holy Family and told him “to take the Child and His Mother into the land of Israel”8. Finally, an angel appeared to him and told him to return to Galilee and Joseph brought his family back to Nazareth9. Jesus was obedient to Joseph as to a father: “And He went down with them and was subject to them”10.
Saint Joseph exercised authority over Jesus only because this was the will of God. Obviously the right of authority can be exercised only over a person, and since Christ is a divine Person no one can have any authority over Him. The authority exercised by Joseph was given by God because Christ <chose> to be subject to His earthly father, who was the “shadow of His heavenly Father”. If Jesus’ humble subjection gives us an example of due submission to lawfully constituted authority, it also serves to emphasize the dignity of him whom He obeyed.
The matter of Joseph’s exercising authority over Jesus enables us to enter a little more deeply into the inner sanctuary of the soul of the earthly father of Christ and the husband of Mary. Was it not natural for him to be hesitant in the exercise of that same authority? Was he not timid about giving lawful commands? Is it not easy to imagine that he was reluctant to govern those who were his superiors in holiness and in goodness? Actually this did not cause any uneasiness in the soul of Joseph; he fully realized that he commanded in virtue of the authority granted by God and he only exercised that authority for the love of God and for the welfare of those placed under his charge.
From the exercise of authority over Jesus and Mary, it is an easy step to a further question: did Saint Joseph know that Christ was the second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity? A similar question is often raised by theologians concerning our Blessed Lady: did she know from the time of the Annunciation that her Child was the only begotten Son of God the Father? The gospels, it is true, are not as clear on these questions as we might like them to be. But they do give some indications that are extremely helpful.
First of all, there seems to be a growing consensus among exegetes that most likely Mary did not know, from the moment of the Incarnation, the true identity of her divine Son. Joseph, naturally, would have less knowledge than that accorded to Mary. When Saint Luke, who must have been assisted by the information he received from Mary in composing his account of the early life of Christ, describes the scene of Our Lord in the temple when He was twelve years old, he relates the words of Christ to “His parents”: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” And in the next sentence he continues with the words: “And they (his parents) did not understand the word that He spoke unto them”11. It seems that Saint Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph did not understand the explanation given by Christ; and their lack of understanding would be difficult to account for had they already known that Christ was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Furthermore, it hardly seems likely to assume that Saint Luke is here talking of a sudden shock that these words caused Mary and Joseph, as though they had <momentarily> forgotten his identity. Luke seems to be speaking of the fact that they did not as yet fully know of His divinity and therefore they were puzzled by his words to them. And, finally, Luke relates how “His mother preserved all these words in her heart”12, as though she meditated on these words a long time before she came to see, in the growing light of her Son, the real meaning they contained.
True, there are still modem exegetes who maintain that Mary knew from the time of the Annunciation that her Son was truly the Son of God, but their arguments do not seem entirely convincing. The texts must be forced to yield such a meaning.
Supposing that Mary and Joseph did not know the divine nature of their Son, it is much easier to understand the early life of the Holy Family. Jesus, who “grew in wisdom, age and grace with God and men”13, in due time must have revealed this mystery to them. At the time of the first miracle of Jesus at Cana of Galilee we notice the confident tone of Mary when she orders the chief steward: “Do whatever He tells you to do”14 By this time she fully understood. Though the gospel does not tell us, we can presume Christ fully revealed Himself to Joseph before the latter’s death.
4. Saint Joseph was a just man
Saint Matthew tells us that Saint Joseph was “a just man”15. In biblical language this means one who is adorned with all the virtues. Matthew stresses the justice of Saint Joseph when he describes the doubt that tormented him when Mary is “found to be with child”16.
We have already seen that Mary and Joseph were married, though not living together, at the time that Christ was conceived. In all probability Mary did not feel she had a right to inform Joseph of the mysterious event. Yet she was anxious for him to be informed, and knew he would be profoundly disturbed if he learned of her pregnancy and did not know of its miraculous origin.
This is exactly what came to pass. Joseph learned that his wife was with child, and knowing that he himself was not the natural father of the child, his mind was in a state of agonizing confusion.
Now that Joseph knew of the pregnancy of his wife, how did he account for this fact? Did he, as a few of the Fathers of the Church held, think that Mary had been raped or that she had committed adultery? Or are we to surmise that Joseph came to the conclusion that Mary had miraculously conceived a child by the power of God? Some have suggested a third possibility, namely, that Saint Joseph admitted to himself that he did not know how this could have happened and that at first he simply did not know what to do.
The first opinion, that Joseph thought she had been unfaithful, is not acceptable to modern scholars. It is extremely unlikely that Joseph entertained such an opinion. He knew Mary to be the holiest person he had ever met and he was aware that his young wife was a woman of profound spiritual insight and totally committed to the faithful fulfillment of the will of God. Never for an instant could we imagine him questioning her innocence.
He would, under the circumstances, be much more likely to be sympathetic to the second opinion: that she had miraculously conceived a child by the power of God. Rather than harbor any suspicion against his wife, he would have been prepared to accept this possibility on blind faith. Nevertheless, it is not likely that he came to this conclusion. A miraculous virginal conception was unheard of. Such an event would never have entered the mind of man without the aid of a divine revelation.
Thus by a process of elimination we come to the third possibility: Saint Joseph was baffled; he just did not know what to think. He was dumfounded.
Since Joseph was convinced of Mary’s innocence, he naturally did not believe that he had an obligation of accusing Mary to the authorities who, in turn, would be obliged to have her stoned as an adulteress. All his feelings told him that Mary was more truly and fully good than any other person he had ever known. More than anything else he did not want to be separated from her. The heart has its reasons, said Pascal; it has reasons that cannot always be formulated in concepts, as we know from the teachings of the great mystics. And if ever that were true, it was true of the sentiments that Joseph experienced in wanting to take Mary to be his wife. The great mystical writers have described the condition of the soul that “feels” that it has been abandoned by God though it knows full well “by the obscure light of faith” that such is not the case. In the case of Saint Joseph it may well have been a mystical struggle that he was experiencing in which his deepest feelings and sentiments told him that he must never give Mary up, whereas reason (in the absence of any clear revelation from on high) made him suspect that he was obliged in conscience (a judgment of the practical intellect that is not <infallible> without a special revelation) to do the thing that he dreaded most, namely, to be forever divorced from Mary.
Surely he prayed for light. And waited. And God responded to his faith: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying: Do not be afraid, Joseph, Son of David, to take to thee Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit”17.
We can easily imagine the joy that filled his heart. He determined to celebrate the solemnization of the marriage as soon as possible. As he reflected on the words of the angel there seemed to be more and more reason for happiness and joy, since the angel’s words meant that Mary would be forever his, and it also meant that, in a way that was difficult to put into words, the Child was not completely a stranger to him but that it was <somehow> his Son.
In this account of Matthew we would say, in current English, that there had arisen a first-class misunderstanding between Joseph and Mary, between husband and wife. And it is admirable what manliness Joseph exhibits in striving to overcome the misunderstanding according to the light of reason and of faith. Torn between his sentiments of love for Mary and the law of God as he knew it through the light of conscience, he was prepared to follow the only light on God’s will that he had. He, like Abraham before him, was prepared to sacrifice what was dearest to him in all the world; but at the appropriate time God intervened (as always) to help the weakness of His servant.
As Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac who was most dear to him because of the <signified> (clearly indicated) will of God18, so Joseph was similarly concerned with responding to the will of God as he understood that will during the time of his doubt. This was not a theoretical question but a real existential spiritual trial that Joseph, the “just man”, underwent.
Recalling that Joseph was probably only a teen-ager at the time sheds a great deal of light on the Scriptural mention of his justice. Not only was he trying to do what was just or fair, but this effort was prompted by his inner goodness, by his life-long generous fidelity to the will of God. Only a man open to the holiness of God would have struggled with the problem as did Joseph. Only such a man could have been tempted to make the mistake he did, namely, of selling himself short because he was convinced that it was the very thing God was demanding of him. An ordinary teen-ager, or for that matter, an ordinary man, would have been tempted to sell God short rather than himself.
The love that Abraham nourished towards his God was proven by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac; and God rewarded him by making him the “father of many”. Abraham’s descendent, Joseph, was rewarded even more amply for the selflessness and purity of his love. Through the words of the Angel he was told that he was to take Mary to be his wife and that he would be at least somehow the father of the Redeemer and, thereby, the spiritual father, in a much more profound sense than Abraham, of the people of God here on earth.
5. Appendix: The death of Joseph
After the episode of the Child Jesus in the temple, the gospels do not tell us any more about Saint Joseph. His name is mentioned, in passing, when we learn that Christ began His public ministry when he was about thirty years of age, being as it was supposed the “son of the carpenter”19. But there is no indication given that he was still alive.
In all probability Joseph died before Our Lord begins His public career; certainly before the wedding feast at Cana.
We know that Saint Joseph was a carpenter and it is extremely likely, according to tradition, that he taught his Son the same trade. Though born of the royal house of David, he was a man of modest circumstances and earned a living for his family by the sweat of his brow. We would be doing Joseph an injustice were we to imagine him being anything less than a good craftsman. While the Holy Family did not live in luxury, thanks to the diligence of Joseph it was properly provided for.
By teaching his Son his own trade, he made it possible for Our Lord to provide for Himself and for Mary till He began His public ministry. The work of Saint Joseph was completed.
Tradition has always believed that it was necessary for Joseph to disappear from the scene or he would have been an obstacle to the preaching of Christ. Think how confusing it would have been for Christ to be preaching about His heavenly Father if Joseph were close at hand! There is every reason to suspect that the multitudes would have thought He was speaking about Joseph. In order to obviate such difficulties, the early death of Joseph was convenient. Joseph had to decrease that the kingdom of God on earth could increase.
And so, some time before Christ began to preach publicly the good news of salvation, Joseph died, assisted and comforted by the loving presence of Jesus and Mary ,a death that was later to become the cherished ideal of all Christians.