A few years ago my sister visited me in Rome. As we toured the little chapel in the house where I lived, she asked me, “Where’s Joseph?” I was taken aback; there was no trace of the saint in the chapel at all. Later I showed her a small stone statue of Joseph in the yard behind the house (set up by one of the brothers named Joseph), which always had a candle burning before it. She was not very satisfied.
Joseph receives little attention these days, even in Advent. But if we read the infancy narratives carefully, we find that Joseph stands with Mary at center stage. In fact, whereas Mary is the heroine in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Matthew’s account Joseph has the primary role. During Advent, the church encourages us to reflect on this great man, who accompanied Mary through life. What can Joseph’s life teach believers?
Folk Tales About Joseph
Most of what we commonly say about Joseph comes from apocryphal literature, early Christian writings that were not accepted into the New Testament canon. In these stories, popular imagination fills the vacuum left by the Gospels’ lack of historical detail about Joseph with delightful tales. There is Joseph the old man, for instance. In paintings, nativity scenes and Christmas plays, St. Joseph is usually portrayed as quite old, a grandfatherly figure in the stable at Bethlehem, or an elderly man with a flowering staff or, in deathbed scenes, a grey-haired patriarch whom Jesus and a young Mary stand by and console.
Yet the Scriptures offer no evidence of Joseph’s advanced age, and they give no details whatsoever about the time or place of his birth or death. Instead, these ideas come from The Protoevangelium of James, one of the most influential of the apocrypha. Written around the middle of the second century, The Protoevangelium attempted to reconcile Mary’s virginity with scriptural references to Jesus’ “brothers.” As explanation, the writing imagines Joseph as an old widower with children who was appointed to be the 12-year-old Mary’s guardian, after a dove flew from his staff and hovered over his head in the presence of the high priest.
Nowhere has the popular imagination about Joseph flourished more than in stories about the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Coptic legends have Joseph sailing hundreds of miles down the Nile, fleeing with his family. Other stories tell of miracles that made the journey easier: palm trees bowed down to feed the family with their fruit; lions and leopards, instead of attacking them, wagged their tails in homage to Jesus. At Hermopolis, 175 miles south of Cairo, the idols of the pagan temple fell down as Joseph led the family through. Fifty miles farther south, near Kuskam—where Joseph and the family are said to have stayed six months—two robbers accosted them, but one, upon seeing Mary’s tears, repented. According to the legend, these were the robbers later crucified with Jesus; the one who repented was the “good thief.”
Art has illustrated these legends. Caravaggio’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” depicts Joseph holding the music as a gorgeous angel plays the violin, lulling Mary and Jesus to sleep. Filippo Lippi, Bartolomeo Murillo and Georges de la Tour painted similar scenes.
The Syriac-Arabic Infancy Gospel and other apocrypha add further embellishments to the story of Joseph’s life. Joseph the carpenter makes plows, yokes and other tools for farmers, as well as wooden beds for homes. At age 40 he marries Melcha (some stories call her Escha), and during their 49 years of marriage they have four sons and two daughters. Joseph encounters Mary after he has been widowed for one year. The annunciation takes place two years later. Joseph, it is written, is out searching for a midwife when Jesus is born.
A final apocryphal work worth noting is the fourth-century Story of Joseph the Carpenter. This tale imagines Jesus working side by side with Joseph in the carpenter’s shop and later treats Joseph’s last days. Strong and alert until the age of 111, Joseph falls ill and confesses his sins on his deathbed, where he is consoled by Jesus and Mary. Jesus then beckons the archangels Michael and Gabriel to take Joseph’s soul.
The Historical Joseph
The early church rejected these texts, even though they have some value as literary expressions of the popular religious imagination. Today we too recognize that many of these apocryphal stories are much too fantastic to be regarded as historical.
Given the scarcity of relevant historical detail in the New Testament, we are left with only a general outline about Joseph. It can be argued that he was of the lineage of David, at least in a broad sense. There is evidence that he came from either Bethlehem or Nazareth. He labored as a woodworker, a trade in which Jesus followed him. His language was a Palestinian dialect of Aramaic, though he probably knew enough Greek to bargain and write receipts in his trade. Most likely he also understood some Hebrew, which he heard read aloud in the synagogue.
According to the New Testament, Joseph became legally betrothed to Mary, probably when she was very young, which was the custom at the time. He then married her, in spite of her mysterious pregnancy, and became Jesus’ legal father. He was just, upright and devoted to the Law, but compassionate in its interpretation. He accompanied Mary during the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and into the early years of Jesus’ life. He settled the family in Nazareth. With Mary, he would have tended to Jesus’ religious education. By the time of Jesus’ public ministry, however, Joseph had disappeared completely. Apparently he had died by this time, though we have no details about his death.
A Subject for Meditation
Year after year the church presents Joseph as a subject for meditation, especially during Advent. Three facets of the New Testament picture of Joseph merit our attention.
First, a central Gospel theme: Joseph, like Mary, listened to the word of God and acted on it. In the Gospels Joseph never speaks. But in Matthew, God speaks to Joseph at four critical moments in the history of Jesus, and in each instance, Joseph immediately responds. When the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, Joseph receives her into his home. Upon being told he should take Jesus and his mother and flee to Egypt, Joseph leaves that very night. So, too, he later returns to Israel upon the direction of the angel. And when Joseph is warned in a dream not to go to Judea, he immediately changes course and settles the family in Galilee. His persistently faithful response to God’s commands parallels the presentation of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. Both know how to “listen to the word of God and act upon it.”
Second, in Matthew’s Gospel Joseph is brought before the transcendent mystery of God again and again, sometimes with hesitation but always with alertness, and he faces it with faith. Surely Joseph cannot fathom the virginal conception of Jesus. But from the darkness of his own limited understanding, he responds to the mystery of God with awe and acceptance, tempering his strict observance of the Law with loving compassion and bowing in reverence to God’s incomprehensible ways. He cannot possibly understand how this child, who seems like any other, could be “God with us,” but in faith Joseph abandons himself to the task of loving the child and educating him.
Third, Joseph’s life was steeped in daily dealings with the world around him; he was not set apart. Indeed, the life of the Holy Family at Nazareth was far from the idyllic monastery-like existence we sometimes imagine. Joseph was a woodworker, a neighborhood craftsman who made furniture and carved other objects, and spent time apprenticing his son in the same trade. Like many believers over the course of history, Joseph walked with God as a family man, laboring in his shop and living at home with Mary and Jesus. He combined prayer, hard work and the responsibilities of being a husband and father.
This year especially, after the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, the church urges us to renew our love for the word of God. For Joseph, as for Mary his wife, heeding the word of God was paramount. His example challenges us to ask ourselves: Is the word of God really central for us, as it was for him? Is it water that gives us life when our hearts and minds are dry (Isaiah)? Is it a hammer to knock us loose when we are too set to budge (Jeremiah)? Is it food sweeter than honey for those times when life tastes bitter (Psalms)? Is it a two-edged sword, which when applied to others cuts us, too (Hebrews)?
Advent is upon us. Imagine how Joseph felt as the birth of his mysterious son approached: puzzled, excited, awed. Yet in his puzzlement, the word of God was his strength. Deep faith gave him light in the darkness and enabled him to see the presence of God in a world where suffering, privation and violence appeared to reign.