Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and father of Jesus Christ by right of marriage and by spiritual and legal ties. The name that he bore, in honor of the Patriarch joseph, son of Jacob, was quite common in his time; cf. Joseph of Arimathea (Mt 27.57), Joseph Barsabbas (Acts1.23), Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4.36), etc. Except for incidental references to Joseph as being regarded as the father of Jesus (Mt 13.55; Lk 3.23; Jn 1.45; 6.42), the only NT information on Joseph is given in Mt, ch. 1 and 2, and Lk, ch. 1 and 2. On the historical value of these chapters, see infancy narratives.
Life. In Mt 1.6–16, where Joseph's father is called Jacob, his ancestry is traced back to King David through the latter's son Solomon; but in Lk 3.23–32, where Joseph's father is called Heli, his ancestry is traced back to David through the latter's son Nathan. The two lines of descent are thus completely different, except for their convergence at Salathiel and Zorobabel (Mt 1.12; Lk3.27). The obvious purpose of both lists is to show that Jesus, by being the legal son of Joseph, had a right to be called the "Son of David" (Mt 15.23), a recognized title of the Messiah (Mt 22.42).
Although Joseph was apparently living in Nazareth at the time when he was betrothed to Mary (Lk 1.26–27), he was probably a native of Bethlehem, or at least he owned property there. It was primarily for the sake of property taxes that he was obliged to be registered in the Roman census at Bethlehem, for the Romans would not have been interested in his Davidic descent as such (Lk2.4). In Mt 13.55 Jesus is called "the son of the τέκτων," while in the parallel passage of Mk 6.3 Jesus Himself is called "the τέκτων." It is possible that the oral tradition represented in Matthew attributed to Joseph what was originally, as in Mark, attributed only to Jesus. But there is no good reason why both father and son should not have had the same trade. In any case, it is commonly taken for granted that Joseph was a τέκτων. This Greek word, like the corresponding Latin word faber, signifies in itself no more than"craftsman, artisan," and could be used of a worker in stone or metal as well as in wood. Yet in actual usage it almost always designated a woodworker, i.e., either a carpenter or cabinetmaker.
Art and popular imagination have usually pictured Joseph as an old man. But this is surely a false idea. The rabbis at the time of Christ commonly taught that men should marry between the ages of 13 and 19, and Joseph, as a "just" (i.e., law-abiding) man, would no doubt have conformed to this practice. Since the Gospels never suggest that he was still living during the public ministry of Jesus, he most likely died before he was 50 years old.
Marriage with Mary. At the time of Jesus' conception and birth Mary was "betrothed" to Joseph (Mt 1.18; Lk 1.27; 2.5). Hebrew "betrothal" was more than engagement in the modern sense, but less than full marriage. It consisted in a formal contract that made the man and woman husband and wife. Conjugal infidelity on the part of the "betrothed" woman was regarded as adultery in the strict sense. The betrothal ceremony was followed after several months by the "wedding," the ceremony in which the man received the woman into his house and consummated the marriage. As related in Mt 1.18–25, Joseph noticed that Mary, while thus betrothed to him, had become pregnant. The Evangelist forewarns the reader that this had happened "by the Holy Spirit." But the whole point of the story is that Joseph himself did not yet
know the cause of her pregnancy. "Joseph, her husband, being a just man, and not wishing to expose her to reproach, was minded to put her away privately." The Greek word, δίκαιος, that is here translated as "just," is the equivalent of the Hebrew word, ṣaddîq, that designates a man who is very conscientious in the observance of the Law, which in the present case would not allow him to consummate a marriage with a woman who had been guilty of adultery during the time of her betrothal.
Historically, Joseph's conduct, when he learned of Mary's pregnancy, has had three principal interpretations: (1) that he actually suspected Mary of adultery [e.g., Augustine, Epistolae 153.4, 9 (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 44:2.3, 405)]; (2) that he surmised she was the mother of the Messiah, and he wished to withdraw in humility [e.g., Bernard, Hom. super "Missus est" 2.14 (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 183:68)]; (3) that he was subjected to agonizing perplexity [e.g., F. Suárez, In 3, q. 29, disp. 7.2, 6; Op. om. (Paris 1860) 19.1190]. Traditionally,
the third supposition has by far prevailed; namely, that in his uncertainty Joseph strove to obey the law concerning adulterous wives by arranging for a divorce, but that at the time his evident conviction that Mary was somehow innocent led him to decide "to put her away privately" as the only way out of the dilemma. This would have been the type of divorce whereby the reason for it did not have to be revealed.
After an angel of the Lord revealed to him in a dream the sacred mystery of the virginal conception of Jesus and commanded him "to take Mary as his wife," he was at once faithful to the responsibility that he had assumed at his betrothal to her, and "he took unto him his wife"; that is, he went through with the second, "wedding," ceremony, whereby he took her into his house. The Evangelist, however, immediately warns the reader that he did not consummate the marriage: "He did not know her till she brought forth her first-born son." The only purpose of the latter statement is to insist that Mary was a virgin at the birth of Jesus. It says nothing, one way or the other, regarding the relations between Joseph and Mary after the birth of Jesus. The Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is based on tradition that goes back to the earliest age of the Church. Although never consummated, the marriage of Joseph and Mary was unquestionably a genuine marriage. On the problem of how Mary could have contracted a true marriage when she, as often supposed by Catholic theologians, had a vow of perpetual virginity, a supposition based erroneously on Lk 1.34, see mary, blessed virgin, ii (in theology.)
Joseph and the Child Jesus. The commonly held notion that Joseph and Mary arrived at Bethlehem on the day before Jesus was born is almost certainly wrong. The phrase used in Lk 2.6, that Jesus was born "while they were there," clearly implies that they had been there for some days before His birth. Moreover, the four-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at a time when Mary would have been so close to term supposes unbelievable carelessness on the part of both Joseph and Mary. The statement that "there was no room for them in the inn" at Bethlehem need not imply that they had been turned away by a hardhearted innkeeper. It might just as well mean that the "inn," a stockade with open alcoves like the modern Near-Eastern khan, was regarded by them as an unfitting place for Mary to give birth to her Son. They therefore withdrew to a cave (rather than a stable) that was ordinarily used as a refuge for cattle, and here Mary laid her newborn Babe on the stone shelf that otherwise served as a feeding trough for the animals.
Luke speaks of Jesus' "parents" (Lk 2.27, 41,43),"His father and mother" (2.33), and in Mary's words, "'Thy father and I"' (2.48), thus linking Joseph with Mary as a true, though evidently equally virginal, parent of Jesus. As the legal father of Jesus, Joseph exercised the right of naming his Child (Mt 1.21, 25) and, in the opinion of some authors, was the one who circumcised Him at home (Lk 2.21). He was also present at the Purification and Presentation in the temple (Lk 2.22). If the account in Mt ch. 2 is to be harmonized chronologically with this, the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family at Bethlehem must have taken place more than 40 days after the birth of Jesus, because at the departure of the Magi Joseph was warned by an angel to flee with Mary and Jesus into "Egypt"—probably the frontier between Palestine and Egypt, south of ancient Judah (Mt 2.13). Some time later he was told, again in a dream by an angel, to return to the land of Israel (Mt 2.20). Prudently, fearing the tyranny of Herod's son Archelaus, Joseph went, not to his own town of Bethlehem, as he had first intended, but to Mary's town of Nazareth (Mt 2.22). There Jesus was subject to him as well as to Mary (Lk 2.51). Each year Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When Jesus was 12 years old he accompanied them on this journey (for the first time?). When the boy Jesus had remained behind and was found after three days in the temple, Joseph, like Mary, did not understand the deeper messianic import of His words, that they should have known that He would be "at His Father's" (Lk 2.41–50). This is the last that is known of Joseph from the Gospels. Whatever else legends have imagined is of value only as a token of Christian piety.
Bibliography: u. holzmeister, De Sancto Ioseph Quaestiones Biblicae (Rome 1945); "De Nuptiis S. Ioseph," Verbum Domini (Rome 1921–) 25 (1947) 145–149. d. buzy, Saint Joseph (Paris 1952).
[f. l. filas]