What do we know about Saint Joseph?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 12, December 2013 | Category:   Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History
Joseph
ICON of the Holy Family.
Almost nothing; the New Testament pickings are slim. The Gospel of Mark eliminates Joseph from the story, beginning its narration in Jesus’ adulthood. John’s gospel mentions Joseph once in passing. Luke tells the infancy story from Mary’s perspective, making her the principal actor. The Gospel of Matthew alone highlights Joseph’s role in salvation history. It is here we meet Joseph the dreamer who, like his namesake in the Book of Genesis, learns heaven’s purposes for him while he sleeps.

We can fill in some blanks from what’s known about Jewish customs of the 1st century. Marriages were enacted as early as 13 for males, 12 for females. Nothing in the gospels betrays Joseph as an older man, a widower, or theologically better suited to be Mary’s chaste guardian than her husband. That the earliest gospel calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph, however, suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection. That is an enormous concession to the divine will, especially given the church’s insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity. We always want more from Joseph. He’s already given quite a lot.

Scripture
Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26-27; ch. 2; 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42

Online
The Life and Prayers of Saint Joseph by Wyatt North (Wyatt North Publishing, e-book)

Book
The Mystery of Joseph
by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. (Zaccheus Press)
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