Reflecting on the role and perception of Joseph the Carpenter in Western Society: Some Initial Thoughts

While it is tempting to approach the topic of Joseph the Carpenter as the distinguished scholar Jaroslav Pelikan approached the topics of Jesus Through the Centuries and Mary Through the Centuries, and “present, in roughly chronological order, a series of distinct but related vignettes … both in their continuity and in their development …,” such an approach to this subject would be more problematic than helpful because, unlike Jesus and Mary, Joseph has been, curiously, largely, ignored by both the worlds of academic scholarship and the Christian church. It would also be more problematic since (unlike Pelikan) I do intend to reflect on both who Joseph was understood to be according to the earliest Christians as well as (like Pelikan) who he has “been experienced and understood to be …” in later Christian thought and art. 

 I approach this subject with these intentions because few scholars and spiritual writers have seriously reflected on either how the earliest Christians viewed Joseph or who he has “been experienced and understood to be …”Therefore, it seems appropriate to explore both of these matters in greater depth and detail.

While a certain number of essays and texts have been written about Joseph in the last several decades most have been composed by religious individuals (usually Catholic scholars) with specific doctrinal assumptions that have inevitably hindered their explorations. This is not to ignore the value of their work (that I believe has certain spiritual as well as academic value).  It is only to put it in perspective and to suggest even more can and should be done in Joseph research.  

This means that I cannot let certain Catholic doctrines and ideas with respect to Joseph and Mary — such as the doctrine that Mary remained “ever-virgin” (Latin) and did not share other children with Joseph or the idea, fostered by Jerome, that she and Joseph were both virgins and models of monasticism — remain unchallenged.  For too long these beliefs and ideas have, advertently or inadvertently, inhibited research into Joseph and appropriate consideration of his place and role within the Christian story.  

Further, it seems significant to add that while I, as many of my Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox friends and colleagues, do subscribe to the beliefs of the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus, I do not find the idea, proffered by some scholars, that Joseph may have been both the historical and biological father of Jesus, a threat to my own beliefs in the divinity of Jesus.  I believe and have always believed that God as God had the capacity to bring about the incarnation of Jesus for the salvation of the world as God wished — even if this meant through the joining of a man and a woman, as Joseph and Mary.  But this is not a belief to which I subscribe and I have found nothing in my research that would suggest Christians must abandon their convictions in the virginity of Mary and the divinity of Jesus.  However, what my research has convinced me is that neither the academic community nor the Christian church can continue to ignore and avoid the importance of Joseph the Carpenter in the history of the Christian story and I will present my arguments and substantiations for this in the words that follow.

It can be argued that doctrines of the Christian church, particularly Catholic doctrines — which have bestowed so many accolades upon Mary and offered her as a model for humanity (and, one may add) rightfully so — have prevented Catholic and Protestant Christians from understanding the significance of Joseph and recognizing his place in the life of Jesus and in the heart of the Christian story.  Certainly this claim can and may be made.  But, how can one explain the response of secular and academic scholars who are supposed to be trained to see the literature and art before them with objectivity, with a sense of fairness and balance?  Have they also fallen sway to the presumptions of the Mariological doctrines of the Catholic church; or to the dogma of the virgin birth, still held by many Protestants as well as Catholics; secretly permitted these beliefs to shape their capacity to see what is actually in numerous early Christian narratives and works of art?  Perhaps.  Perhaps, not.  We may never know for sure.  And, since secular academics are not inclined to confession, it is doubtful that we will hear confessions in this regard.

Nonetheless, the facts speak for themselves — in the works of numerous scholars — religious and not — academic and not:  they do not see the significance of Joseph the Carpenter in the literature and art before them.  So it is that many biblical scholars create commentaries on the earliest Christian gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John (gospels in which Joseph is mentioned) and give few acknowledgments to his character, and position, and role.  So it is that other religious scholars, experts in the early Christian literature that followed the earliest gospels, specialists in texts in which Joseph is repeatedly identified as an important figure, offer little recognition of his presence and role in those narratives.  So it is that many art historians complete analyses of art and artifacts that recount scenes and themes of the birth and childhood of Jesus (art and artifacts that include representations of Joseph) and offer commentary on the portrayals of Mary and Jesus and other represented figures but, curiously, amazingly, ignore Joseph; act as if he is not present.  So it is that other art historians, distinguished experts in the work of a particular artist, who created numerous religious images related to the birth and childhood of Jesus, produce notable catalogue raisonnes that also fail to consider the significance of the portrayals of Joseph.  So it is that, now, in this book, we raise the questions and offer the challenges that we do.  For we believe there is more to see than has been seen and more to hear than has been heard.  

1 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries (New Haven and New York: Yale University Press), p. 7

2 Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries, p. 7

3 Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries, p. 7

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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