Final Thoughts on St. Joseph in Christian Literature and Art

In the earliest Christian Gospels, those around Joseph and Jesus do not perceive them as anything other than father and son.  In fact, the earliest Gospel narratives, only give evidence that Jesus was always considered from his birth through his adulthood as the son of Joseph, Jesus ben Joseph, as he would have been identified in his community and culture. This is not surprising, since this is how Joseph early on had been directed and had come to understand his relationship to Jesus as well.  Early in Matthew’s Gospel, in the first dream and Annunciation, Joseph is directed to accept Mary who is with child as his wife and to name the child she carries Jesus, thus to legally consummate his marriage to Mary and to accept Mary’s child as his own.  Therefore, when Joseph obeys both commands of the angel, he acknowledges his special relationship with Mary and the child as well as his responsibility for both of them.  Likewise, Joseph’s parental role is additionally affirmed in Luke 2, where Joseph registers the pregnant Mary as his wife and is recognized by the shepherds and later by Simeon and Anna as her husband and the father of Jesus.  Finally in John, Joseph’s parental role in relationship to Jesus is also acknowledged by his and Jesus’ fellow citizens and acquaintances, even as Jesus’ ministry begins.  There is nothing to suggest that Joseph did not act as any loving Hebrew father would and assumed the initial responsibilities that his tradition and religion required him to assume.

This meant that in the very beginning of Jesus’ life, it was Joseph who gave his newborn son the name Jesus as the angelic messenger in Matthew had directed him to do. In naming him, Joseph both fulfilled the command of the angelic messenger and indicated to anyone who was a witness that there was no question that he was the child’s father and the child was his son. In addition, in accordance with the teaching of the law in Exodus 4:25 and acknowledged in Luke 2, eight days after the child’s birth, it was Joseph who most likely circumcised his own baby son in order that he might fulfill the law and enable his child to become a member of the covenant family of Israel.  Thus in accordance with the law found in Leviticus 12 and Exodus 13 and again acknowledged in Luke 2, Joseph dedicated and consecrated the life of his firstborn son Jesus to God in the temple.

It is fascinating that the anonymous French artists of the pen and ink drawing completed around the middle of the 11th century that we now see reverses the roles of Joseph and Mary as they are represented in most artistic compositions of the presentation of the child in the temple. Instead of featuring Mary holding the child as he is presented to Simeon, this artistic work shows Joseph  presenting Jesus while Mary stands behind him. Interestingly, another similar example is extent as can be seen in this next composition an 11th century German manuscript illumination of the presentation of the child to Simeon.

Luke also reports that early on Joseph brought two pigeons as an offering for the purification of his wife as was required by the law and found in Leviticus 12. Typically, in recounting this event, Joseph is portrayed behind Mary holding the pigeons in his hands as can be seen in this next image. Finally, we are reminded that in Matthew 2 following these events that Joseph responded to the warnings of the magi and another angelic messenger and took his bride, Mary, and their young son on a significant journey to Egypt in order to protect his family from the jealousy and violence of Herod the Great.

While in Egypt, it can be assumed that Joseph, who had acted as a nurturing in a nurturing and loving fashion in the past continued to do so it can be assumed that Joseph would have held Jesus and fed him and played with him and told him the stories of his people and done everything he could to protect Jesus and keep him safe. In so doing, Joseph acted not only as the father of Jesus and the head of his household, but also as the guardian of the one who was to bring the new covenant and salvation to all humanity.

Similarly, in response to guidance from another angelic messenger from God in a third dream, Joseph once again acted as he was instructed and gathered his family and headed back to Israel ultimately returning to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee. Once there, Joseph reestablished it as a home for his new young family and continued his trade as a carpenter. It is more than likely that shortly after his return to Nazareth, Joseph rejoined the synagogue in his village and began to bring Jesus with him so that he could hear the men of the village including his own father read from the Hebrew Scriptures and provide interpretation of them.  

Further it can also be assumed that early in the life of Jesus as it suggested in Luke 2:41, that Joseph and Mary began taking their son to the annual Passover celebration in Jerusalem .  It was such a visit recorded in Luke 2 when Jesus was 12 years of age, which provided more evidence of Joseph’s commitment to educate his son in the traditions of his people. Thus,  a review of the earliest actions of Joseph in the New Testament suggests that there is nothing in any of these records to indicate that he ignored his role or walked away from it, or that he did not act in obedience to the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the messengers of God.   The narrative reveals quite the opposite: Joseph was always present for Jesus.  Joseph always maintained his relationship as Jesus’ father.

And yet so many have a hard time imagining Joseph in this role such a difficult time comprehending the intimate and authentic nature of his fatherhood instead they struggle with the idea that Joseph had a paternal relationship with Jesus. Protests arise, accusations emerge as they contemplate these things, and it quickly becomes evident that a line of some sort has been crossed, but why do Protestants and Catholics not believe that just as there was a historical figure named Mary who mothered Jesus, that there was an historical figure who fathered Jesus even though he was not the biological source of Jesus physical life?  Would we dare suggest that a man who had acted as the father of a child since before the child’s birth, named the child and done the things the father is expected to do for this child was not de facto, the real effective father of this child?  

As contemporary people, we might acknowledge that Joseph was not the child’s biological parent, but how much would that have really mattered in the scheme of things in the daily and yearly reality of Jesus life. As a baby and child and adolescent and young adult, as he was cared for and nurtured by both his earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, as well as by his Holy Father. There is no evidence in the earliest Christian Gospel accounts to suggest that biology was an issue with respect to the relationship between Joseph and Jesus that it somehow got in the way of Joseph’s sense of parental responsibilities towards Jesus. 

Quite the contrary, thus Joseph’s biological relationship  to Jesus should also not affect our perception of the reality of their historic relationship.  At the same time, a careful review of the New Testament suggests there is nothing in any of these records to indicate Joseph’s relationship with Jesus stopped at the end of the second chapter of Luke with the narrative of the account of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple and with the words and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor yet some imply if not suggest that Joseph died shortly after this reference and that Jesus lived his adolescence and young adulthood without an earthly father.  But neither of these earlier Gospel references written some decades after Jesus ministry on earth nor later Gospel references imply or substantiate this.

Rather, they leave the door open to the prospect that Joseph was alive into Jesus’ 20s and perhaps even into the time of Jesus ministry. Certainly this prospect is offered in the references to Jesus as the son of Joseph found in John 1 and 6, where a clear and direct connection between Joseph and Jesus is made in the present tense and again without any suggestion that Joseph is dead. 

All these factors point to the reality of a relationship between Joseph and Jesus that extended well beyond the parameters of his early childhood as the artist of this 14th century manuscript illumination suggests in his portrayal of Jesus visiting Joseph and Mary during his ministry.  This in turn, means it is appropriate to reflect upon the nature and character of Joseph’s life with Jesus over a longer period of time.

Consequently, some specific things about the relationship of Joseph and Jesus may be contemplated. First, there is no evidence to indicate that Joseph did not continue to perform his role as the father of Jesus and act as the moral and spiritual example he had been shown to be during the earliest days with Jesus and Mary.  

Second, there is no record or evidence to suggest that Joseph did not continue to follow the traditions of his people which he in turn related to his son, Jesus. At the very least this would have included Joseph teaching Jesus the Hebrew scriptures and guiding him in their interpretation and regularly synagogue with him in their village.

The fact that Jesus is portrayed in the earliest Christian Gospels as repeatedly returning to the synagogue, a setting with which he was very familiar and reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures, is certainly indicative of the influence of Joseph and the impact his life had on Jesus.   Additionally, it is also likely as the account in Luke 2:41-52 suggests that Joseph had brought Jesus to the annual celebration of Passover at least a few times if not each year before the time of the specific journey that Luke records when Jesus is age 12.  In the process, through the means of these regular and special events, it is very possible that the same person who believed God could address him through dreams, instructed Jesus in certain fundamental convictions as belief in the parenthood of God and belief that God is a loving parent, who has established a covenant between himself and his people, and even perhaps belief that God’s love and salvation extends beyond Israel as well as other ideas and beliefs that would become important in Jesus’ later ministry and teaching.  

Third, at the same time there should be little question that Joseph was also responsible for providing for the council both of a spiritual and practical nature to Jesus counsel not unlike that found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Psalms, Proverbs, and ben Sirach given by a father to his son.

Fourth and finally, it is also very probable that Joseph began to tutor Jesus in various skills and trades during this period. Particularly after he reached the age and physical ability to engage in them, since Jesus was the oldest male child, it would be assumed that he would have to know these things in order to support the rest of his family if his father should die thus Joseph would have naturally done this. Certainly, you would have taught Jesus to take care of chores related to carpentry and farming as was appropriate in their rural context and encouraged Jesus to assume more and more responsibility for the care of his family and their limited possessions, but Joseph may also have related instruction that reached far beyond these skills in light of the substantial construction and reconstruction that was taking place in the large city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee which lay only some three and one-half miles from Nazareth.  

Following his childhood, and especially as Jesus grew stronger and more physically adept, it is not hard to imagine that he learned more and more skills from Joseph, and that at a certain point, he joined his father in working on the construction of this city. Consequently, it’s possible that they both worked in separates not only as carpenters but also as bricklayers or stone masons or in other comparable trades such opportunities would have provided monies to supplement the income.  They could produce when they worked in their small village of Nazareth and expanded the opportunities for Jesus to acquire a certain level of knowledge of Greek and to be exposed to an explicitly Hellenistic Jewish context still further in light of the fact that Jesus was both the oldest male as well as the oldest child, Joseph would have instructed him to have at least two special roles in relationship to his family especially again if something happened to Joseph.  

First, if Joseph did die, it would be the responsibility of Jesus to assume full responsibility for his family and to act as the head of the household.  This would mean that upon the occasion of his father’s death that it would be Jesus who would say the funeral Kaddish prayers for his father.  Second, as the new head of the household, it would also mean that it would be Jesus’ responsibility to do as Joseph had done with him and instruct his younger brothers in both religious and vocational matters.   At the same time, the responsibility for arranging marriages for his sisters would also have to be assumed, and this may be what happened as well.  Therefore, it is fair to assume that Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life would have been very important during the time in which he was alive and able to act as Jesus’ father. In their historic relationship, unlike in many later Christian narrative accounts, and certainly unlike in many works of art, Joseph would not have been overshadowed by Mary. 

Having said what I have said in this series of lectures there is little doubt that the questions that have been raised and the points that have been made will lead to debate at least among Christians.  For a lot of effort has been made to marginalize Joseph to keep him in essence out of sight and behind the curtain of the stage of history.  And there was little doubt that some would argue that this is where he belongs and where he should stay. These individuals would argue that Jesus’ significance is found in his role as Son of God in his relationship with his Holy Father not in his relationship with his de facto historic earthly father, Joseph. They would have an issue with those who emphasize the role and place of his human father for fear that it might raise questions about the depth of Jesus holiness and even his divinity.  They imagined that to bring Joseph back onto the stage and reconsider his role in the life of his earthly son, Jesus, is to somehow toy with theological heresy. 

They would suggest that to do so would mean to ignore historic church teaching to challenge the role of Mary and to put too much emphasis upon the human side of the life of Jesus. Whether consciously or unwittingly, they would have us continue to focus our attention upon the highly influential writings of the Infancy Gospel of James and its Latin successor the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and their numerous literary heirs. Consequently, they would have us maintain our reliance upon the accounts in the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James in order to interpret and understand the position of Joseph as well as Mary in the canonical Gospels. Thus as a result, they would have us keep on believing that this apocryphal document for all intents and purposes can be seen and used as a supra-canonic text, a hermeneutic filter by which the earliest canonical texts should be interpreted. Many of these theological writers and interpreters would have us persist in this belief, and yet insist curiously at the same time, that such later Christian documents are not appropriate to use in understanding Joseph. 

Among other places, this is stated in a recent text on Joseph entitled Husband, Father, Worker: Questions and Answers About Saint Joseph written by three Catholic scholars. Although relying heavily upon the Infancy Gospel of James for their understanding of Mary, these scholars simultaneously insist that such texts cannot be used to gain further understanding of Joseph.  They write, and I quote, “The Apocrypha aren’t recognized as authentic historical sources.  It should be thought of as a collection of simple legends and stories.”  While it appears that their intent is to actually draw readers away from the apocryphal literature, the sincerity of their intent may be questioned, for they do not address the larger issue: that it is the reliance upon the Infancy Gospel of James and its literary and artistic heirs that has largely distorted the image of Joseph. Further, they would have us esteem the theological mind of Jerome and certain other theological writers’ teachings about Joseph and Mary as if they had an authority equal to the canonical documents.

In the process with regard to gender, they would have us affirm a matriarchal understanding of family instead consider the prospect of an egalitarian one.  In the end, therefore, their goal would seem to be to maintain the fictional walls between Joseph and Mary that most notably were established by the narrator of the Infancy Gospel of James and its heirs and the Church Father Jerome, finally they would justify these actions in the name of tradition and orthodoxy and act out of a belief that they were defending the divinity of Jesus and the unique position of Mary.

However in the process, they would also have us diminish the early canonical witnesses of Matthew, Luke, and John as well as the innumerable works of art in which Joseph is represented in very positive portrayals. They would have us negate the significance and uniqueness of the role of Joseph and in the process negate an important aspect of the humanity of Jesus. These individuals would have us ignore the simple teaching of the New Testament that makes it clear that Joseph and Mary were a couple, and that following the birth of Jesus, they acted as a couple and worked together to parent Jesus and their other children. They seem unable to understand that to acknowledge the real familial love of Joseph and Mary is not to diminish their spirituality and righteousness or to somehow diminish the intervention and action of God within their lives or the life of Jesus as he was growing up.

Rather to acknowledge the real familial love of Joseph and Mary for Jesus is to recognize that God chose both of them to join together to care for his Son, it is not to suggest that we return to a simplistic and inappropriate patriarchal model that in an attempt to acknowledge the significance of Joseph diminishes the significance of Mary.  Patriarchy, as defined by Sylvia Walby, is “a system of social structure and practice in which men dominate oppress and exploit women.” However, while the system of social structure and practice certainly informed the broader social context in which Joseph and Mary lived it does not appear to have informed the account of the personal and familial relationship between Joseph and Mary as it is related in the early Christian canonical narratives.

Therefore, to draw more attention to Joseph is not to suggest that Mary’s uniqueness and critical roles be minimized. Instead to draw more attention to Joseph is to affirm that the role of the male within the family structure is also critical in the construction of a healthy and strong family and in the responsibilities of parenting. It is to recognize that God chose both Joseph and Mary.  God chose both of them to be spiritual and familial models for other parents in history and in our contemporary society.  The very models God has always meant for them to be the words, evidence, and arguments in this series of short lectures have been created with the hope that one day there may be more unanimity in Christian perspectives with regard to Joseph the carpenter, and that his significance and importance in the Christian story and for our own families may finally be realized.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: