The Transformation of the Canonical Portrayals of Joseph the Carpenter in the Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book

A stained glass image of Mary of Nazareth and Joseph of Nazareth who are in the temple of Jerusalem.  Mary stands at the left with her arms crossed over her chest with a waist-length white veil over her head, red sleeves showing, and a blue cloth around her body.  Joseph wears a dull blue tunic with a orange cloth over most of his body.  The two of them are framed around openings that show 2 buildings and a few flowers outside the temple.
Detail of Presentation of the Lord at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Corning, Ohio.

This essay explores a record of the reception history of Joseph the Carpenter found in the medieval English poem of the Advent Lyrics of the Exeter Book to determine how its literary representation of Joseph compares with his earliest portrayals found in the early Christian gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke. At the same time, to better understand the significance of this record, a similar, although limited, comparison is also made between the portrayals of Mary in the gospel narratives (with special attention to her representation in the gospel of Luke) and her portrayal in this same text. These comparisons lead to the following conclusions: while similarities can be found between the canonical portrayals of Mary and her representation in this English poem, the same cannot be said of the portrayal of Joseph the Carpenter. In addition, a review of Joseph’s representation in the Advent Lyrics finds that its author has likely relied upon earlier portraits of Joseph found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and its later literary manifestations for his/her impression of Joseph. Subsequently, it can also be concluded that, like these literary predecessors, the author of this poem has significantly transformed Joseph’s canonical portrayals in order to more fully venerate Mary. In the process, in his/her portrayal of Joseph, the poet has affirmed their narrative trajectory; a trajectory that represents a diminished image of Joseph that stands in sharp contrast to his canonical portraits.

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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.

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The Effects of the Infancy Gospel of James on the Interpretation of St. Joseph in Christian Literature and Art, Part II

While defenders of the second century Infancy Gospel of James can argue that this narrative was born out of a genuine desire to protect the purity of Mary and in the process the divinity of Jesus, it is difficult to defend the distortions these efforts have brought too many Christian portraits of Joseph.  Nonetheless, the popularity and significant influence of the infancy Gospel of James cannot be denied, nor the fact that this narrative expresses thoughts and feelings shared by other contemporary Christians, including some of the earliest Church Fathers. Although, it’s precise origins are unknown, the multiplicity of extant manuscripts of James suggests that early in the history of its transmission, the thoughts and beliefs in this narrative were shared by members of many early Christian communities within its Eastern Christianity.  Evidence of this may be found in the fact that there are over 100 extent Greek manuscripts as well as numerous translations in other Eastern Christian languages such as Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Sahidic, old short Slavonic, and Armenian, in which the Infancy Gospel of James appears.

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The Effects of the Infancy Gospel of James on the Interpretation of St. Joseph in Christian Literature and Art, Part I

As we acknowledged in the first three lectures, the beginnings of many modern perceptions of Joseph can be traced to ideas born outside the Bible to a second century Christian narrative created several decades after the earliest Christian Gospels to the so called Infancy Gospel of James also known as a Protoevangelium of James.  A page from a fourth century manuscript of this text known as a Bodmer papyrus is featured here created in part as a defense against attacks upon the character of Mary.  The infancy gospel of James was one of the most significant response is created by early Christian writers and theologians to these attacks mounted by those who questioned the credibility of the Christian claims that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin named Mary and was the Son of God.

The aim of these attacks was to counter both claims as a result these writers appear to assault to accomplish two goals: to demean the character of the mother of Jesus and subsequently to dismiss the prospect that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God.  Serious in character evidence of the attacks can be found in the apologetic literature of anti-Christian writers.  The scholar Raymond Brown summarizes these attacks in a reconstruction he created based upon the writings of the late 2nd century pagan philosopher, Celsus, who participated in these attacks upon the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary. Brown writes it was Jesus himself who fabricated the story that he had been born of a virgin in fact however this mother was a poor country woman, who had earned her living by spinning.  She had been driven out by her carpenter husband when she was convicted of adultery with the soldier named Panthera.  She then wandered about and secretly gave birth to Jesus. Later, because he was poor, Jesus hired himself out in Egypt where he became adept in magical powers.  Puffed up by these, he claimed for himself the title of God.

From a Christian perspective, this characterization consisted of false accusations and fanciful fiction. Thus, not surprisingly, Christian writers responded to these attacks in a variety of ways one of the most notable is found in this later narrative of the Infancy Gospel of James.  However, from the perspective of most scholars, there are at least three major differences between the infancy gospel of James and the earlier Christian Gospels.

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The Representations of St. Joseph in the Gospels of Luke and John and Their Effect Upon Christian Art

In this third lecture of this series on The Other Person in the Picture, we focus upon the Lukan and Johannine depictions of Joseph and the artistic presentations in history based on them.

In contrast to the Matthean narrative of the birth and infancy of Jesus, the Lukan account is longer and more detailed and mentions the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of Mary with Elizabeth and Zachariah, the Song or Magnificat of Mary, Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the Annunciation to the shepherds, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the presentation in the temple, and Jesus’ appearance with the teachers at age 12.

Material found in 68 verses in the first two chapters of this canonical gospel as such a careful reading of Luke reveals that Joseph is also held in high esteem in this particular text. As was the case with Matthew, this can be seen in the number of times Luke mentions Joseph by name and makes direct references to him identifies him as the father, or parent, of Jesus, conjoins him with Mary as her partner and husband and conjoins him with Jesus as his father in this regard, it is important to acknowledge several facts.  First, Joseph is mentioned by name five times and referenced as a subject or object 32 additional times.  Second, he is explicitly identified as the father of Jesus two times, and in the latter reference, it is Mary who uses the designation in response to Jesus.  In turn, Jesus is identified as Joseph’s son twice. 

Fourth [sic], Joseph is specifically represented as the de facto father of Jesus on numerous occasions, thus from the earliest references in chapter 1, in which Joseph is identified as the betrothed of Mary and as a member of the house of David the portrait reveals a Joseph formally identified before Mary is formally introduced.  The introduction of Joseph’s lineage and the emphasis on connections between Joseph and the Messiah of the house of David, revealed the priority Joseph has over those associated with the priestly orders of Abijah and Aaron including even Mary. The portrait not only underscores Joseph’s heritage and its significance for Jesus identity and role but it also emphasizes Joseph’s righteousness obedience and parental affection and concern.

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The Representation of St. Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew and Its Effect Upon Christian Art

In the first lecture, we noted that in order to properly understand and comprehend the portrayal and interpretation of Joseph the carpenter that we would need to answer two questions. First, why did some acknowledge Joseph’s importance and others did not? Second, what were the factors that led to these different perspectives, and even to this day, shape the perceptions of many? As we have already suggested, in order to properly address these questions in the issues a raise, attention will need to be given to the primary ancient sources that have informed the contemporary perceptions. This will involve consideration of several early Christian narratives from the earliest accounts in which Joseph is a central figure in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, to later Christian apocryphal narrative, in which his significance differs widely.  Consequently, in the second and third lectures, consideration will be directed to the earliest Christian narratives in which Joseph is mentioned the first century canonical Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John in order to establish a clear understanding of the ways they portray Joseph.

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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. 

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