In this classic painting of The Holy Family by El Greco (1541-1614), Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are admiring the Baby Jesus, while the toddler John (the Baptist) stays close to feel included in the warmth of togetherness. But in the background, Joseph seems lost and out of place. That’s actually how Joseph’s role impresses me as I read the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth. He doesn’t seem sure how he fits in, and Matthew and Luke don’t seem sure either, as they write about him.
Through much of human history it’s been like that: the drama of birth is all about women. The young mother is going through the terrible pains of labor, amplified by fears about her own mortality. One or two of her more experienced friends are holding her hands and reassuring her with comforting words. A nurse or midwife is coaching her through the process. Men have usually found a reason to be somewhere else until it’s over. In our modern world, we’ve tried to correct that; men and women attempt to include each other in all life experiences. However, we still seem to have some gender comfort zones.
Joseph knew all the traditional expectations for men in his day and culture, but a lot of it wasn’t working. As a man, he was supposed to be in charge, but everything seemed beyond his control: the evidence of the Baby growing within his teen-aged fiancee’s body; the public explanation for this embarrassing reality; what action, if any, he should take. Somehow, he found the grace to accept the barrage of shaming facts that confronted him. He actually took on the role of a servant to enable it all to come about.
And there they were that first Christmas in Bethlehem, an awkward couple separated in age by as much as six decades,1 trying to meet the needs of a newborn in an animal shelter. When his young wife was probably still too young to travel, Joseph brought the family back home, where he tried to resume his normal work as a carpenter. But after a few months, the word spread that the paranoid, narcissistic King Herod included their son among young children to be killed as threats to his reign, and Joseph hurriedly took Mary and the Baby to Egypt, where they lived for a while as refugees.2 When they returned home, Joseph and his family settled down into their average lower-middle-class life.
We don’t hear any more about Joseph until he’s mentioned in an episode when the twelve-year-old Jesus confronted some leaders in the Jerusalem Temple during Passover.3 From that time on, Joseph disappears from the pages of the New Testament. It’s believed that he died shortly after that, since Mary seems to be portrayed during Jesus’ ministry years as a widow.
Joseph did his job and got out of the way.
Of course, Church tradition didn’t let the story stop there. Legends developed to fill in the gaps in the memory of Jesus’ life, and these embraced all the other players mentioned in the New Testament as well. Mary evolved into a more and more wondrous person, from the virgin presented in the Gospel accounts, to the Perpetual Virgin of Roman Catholic teaching.4 She became honored with the title “Saint Mary” within a generation of the New Testament period. Joseph, as part of The Holy Family, also became “Saint Joseph” in time. So, there’s a logic to the fact that he too would gradually be credited with Perpetual Virginity.5 At first, that meant that he never had sexual relations with Mary after Jesus’ birth, but Church Leaders continued to escalate his veneration to include his entire life as dedicated to celibacy.
There’s one big problem with this gradual emergence of Jesus’ earthly parents as never having sexual relations. We read in six different New Testament passages about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters,” sometimes even by name.6 Catholic leaders say this is just impossible. They suggest it’s probably a colloquial way of referring to his cousins or other relatives. Since I’m not bound by Catholic pronouncements about Perpetual Virginity, I prefer to believe that “brothers and sisters” means brothers and sisters. They may be Jesus’ older siblings, children of Joseph’s former wife who had died;7 or they may be his younger siblings, born to Mary and Joseph through normal marital relationships.
Personally, I’m not nearly as blessed and inspired by the awesome Saint Joseph of Catholic devotion, with his badge of Perpetual Virginity, as I am by the simple New Testament Joseph who just did his job and got out of the way.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
1 All ancient authorities agree that Joseph was considerably older than Mary. One tradition says he died at 111, with Mary and the nineteen-year-old Jesus embracing him.
2 Matthew 2:13-23
3 Luke 2:41-52
4 This solidified into Church doctrine in the Fourth Century, through a time of theological battles. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches believe in it.
5 Joseph’s Perpetual Virginity became a settled belief in the Catholic Church much later, and the Eastern Orthodox Church has never accepted it.
6 Matthew 13:55. Mark 6:3, John 7:3, Acts 1:13, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19.
7 The Eastern Orthodox Church accepts a tradition that Joseph had these other children by a first wife, Salome, who had died.