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 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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An Introduction to the Other Person in the Picture: St. Joseph in Christian Art

This is a transcript of the first part of a six part lecture series of The Other Person in the Picture published from YouTube in 2015.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way: when his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just as he resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.  And the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  And when Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had born a son, and Joseph named him Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew 1:18-22

So writes Matthew, in the first chapter of his first century Gospel about Jesus of Nazareth, leaving no question Mary’s real earthly husband and Jesus his real earthly father.  Clear as it is in Matthew as well as the other early Christian Gospels of Luke and John that Joseph was the real earthly father of Jesus.  Not all comprehended the importance and significance of Joseph.  In fact, it is the case that in the history of Christianity, that Christians have perceived Joseph in very different ways.  Some Christians as we have seen in various images thus far, have recognized the significance of Joseph and seen him in a very positive light.  Relying upon the testimony of the earliest Christian Gospels, they emphasize the importance of his position in the Holy Family.  Others in contrast, under the influence of other later texts and ideas, have distorted these earliest the Gospel accounts as we will discover in later lectures of this series. 

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