The gospels reveal frustratingly little personal information about Joseph and Mary. The Christmas story, featuring Mary, is found primarily in Luke’s Gospel while Matthew reveals a bit more of Joseph. In fact, the gospels include only a handful of incidents concerning Joseph, contained in a limited time frame shortly before and shortly after Jesus’ birth with only a few other references to Jesus as Joseph’s son, with the exception of his presence in Jerusalem – at the temple – when Jesus was lost and found there at age 12; the last time Joseph is mentioned in scripture.
But what is revealed is significant, such as his care for Mary before their marriage, his “righteousness” leading him to mercy rather than retaliation at her apparent unfaithfulness; later leading his new family to safety in Egypt until Herod’s death. Seeing to Jesus’ circumcision, presenting him at the temple, attending Passover in Jerusalem – every year – revealing a truly righteous, compassionate, humble spirit.
That being said, however, only 16 verses actually mention Joseph by name with neither Mark nor John’s Gospel mentioning him at all; likewise Acts or any of the epistles. (None of them mentioning the virgin conception either, possibly because – for them – at that point in time, it didn’t carry the import Jesus’ substitutionary death did. Simply put, their focus was elsewhere.)
And yet, no man played a more central part in Jesus’ life, much as you’d expect. He was Jesus’ father, after a fashion. Jesus was “God’s Son” raised as Joseph’s boy. At what point this was revealed or realized by Jesus is not recorded either. A brief hint is given to us in Luke’s Gospel however, when Jesus was “misplaced” and left behind in Jerusalem during one of the family’s trips to commemorate Passover. After three days of frantic searching, Jesus was found in the temple, listening to the teachers there and asking searching questions of them. Responding to his parents’ exasperated question of how and why he was there instead of with them, Jesus rather cryptically said, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Indicating a certain level of understanding of his relationship with God even as he obediently returned home with his earthly parents until his “unveiling” years later.
Adam Hamilton commenting on Joseph’s importance in Jesus’ life thusly, “The mission given to Joseph was to raise this boy as though he were Joseph’s own. It was to love him, mentor him, teach him and guide him. It was to model for this child what it meant to be a man – a man who honored and served God. Jesus was not Joseph’s child by birth, but the boy would need Joseph to love him as his own.”1
As such, maybe we can learn more about Joseph by looking at his “son.” How much of Jesus’ character is a reflection of the life and witness of Joseph? (And Mary) Had Jesus seen the kind of love and forgiveness expressed by Joseph to one of his other sons that Jesus then used to characterize God in his parable of the Prodigal Son? When Jesus stressed the importance of truthfulness, was he describing what he had seen Joseph be throughout his life? In teaching his disciples where true greatness lay – in humble service to others – could he have been relating the way Joseph treated others at work and home? By emphasizing the importance of not looking at women lustfully, was he repeating a lesson he learned from Joseph as a teen? In declaring that we should do to others what we want done to us, was he revealing a core value of Joseph’s business and personal life? How often was Joseph the model of the mercy, grace and forgiveness that became the trademark of Jesus’ life and ministry?
Scripture points out on more than one occasion that Mary – and by inference Joseph – treasured and pondered a number of unique occurrences in their lives as a result of their “fostering” Jesus. (See Luke 2:19 & 51) Could Jesus have done likewise with aspects of his raising by Mary and Joseph?
Two rather perplexing questions revolve around Joseph’s age at his marriage to Mary and his disappearance from His story, presumably by death; nothing being specifically said about either in scripture. It certainly wasn’t uncommon for older men to marry young women in that day and for centuries afterward. Death during child-birth and a labor-intensive life creating a shortage of marriageable women of any age. Which the Catholic Church notes in its insistence that Mary was a perpetual virgin and, in particular, that Jesus’ brothers and sisters came from a former marriage. (Luke 8:19-21) Classical art actually portraying Joseph as both a doting elderly father as well as a young man caring for his infant son.
I see no reason why Joseph’s age would pose a particular problem for Jesus’ life and mission on earth, the point being that he obviously did what was expected of him as Jesus surrogate father; loving, guiding, caring for his/God’s son as he developed into the man/Messiah God intended. The fact that Joseph’s death is likewise frustratingly left out of Jesus’s story in scripture does nothing to lessen his importance in Jesus’ life, regardless of how long that was; to the extent that most scholars believe Jesus followed in Joseph’s footsteps as a carpenter for a number of years between his temple experience and the beginning of his ministry.
In any case, a touching account of Joseph’s death is recorded in an apocryphal book titled, “The History of Joseph the Carpenter”; a piously imaginative rendition of Joseph’s life none-the-less built upon some traditional oral history handed down through the years. (And while we should be wary of much found in apocryphal writings, there is something natural and appealing to this rendering of Joseph’s “history.”
In it, as Joseph lay dying – from either old age, illness or injury – with Jesus and Mary sitting on either side of his bed holding his hands, Joseph could do nothing but look at Jesus and weep. In response, Jesus prayed for Joseph’s soul to be escorted to heaven, which shortly occurred, causing Jesus to fall across his “father’s” chest and mourn his passing even as Joseph was brought into the presence of his and Jesus “Father” in heaven.
A touching story of the admiration, appreciation and love Jesus felt and expressed for both of his “Dads.”
1 From a book by Adam Hamilton titled, Faithful – Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph, Abingdon Press
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