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  • Fr. Daniel Okafor

The Man Joseph: "May he [the Lord] Add"

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Several important biblical figures bear the name Joseph: Joseph (the eleventh son of the patriarch Jacob - Gen 30: 24); Joseph the husband of Mary; Joseph brother of Jesus (the brother of James - Mt 13:55), Joseph of Arimathea (a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin and a disciple of Christ - John 19:38), Joseph Barsabbas (also called Justus, an early disciple of Christ and a witness to his public life and Resurrection, elected to take the place of Judas Iscariot - Acts 1:23). This entry will focus on St. Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Everything we know about St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, comes from the Bible and mentions of him are underwhelming. The 13 New Testament books written by Paul (the Epistles) make no reference to him at all, nor does the Gospel of Mark— the first of the Gospels. Joseph first appears in the Bible in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Joseph's lineage is traced back to King David (Mt 1:2-16). According to the Bible, Joseph was born circa 100 B.C.E, betrothed to the Virgin Mary (Mt 1:18 Lk 1:27). He died in Israel circa 1 A.D.

Matthew does not mention Joseph’s hometown, but Luke tells us, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Lk 2:4). Matthew notes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but that Joseph, after their sojourn in Egypt, settled his family in Nazareth of Galilee (where he and Mary had lived before the census that caused them to travel to Bethlehem). It is thus possible that Joseph was originally from Bethlehem though he had been living in Nazareth.

The apostolic letter Patris Corde summarizes him thus: He was a “just man” (Mt 1:19), ever ready to carry out God’s will as revealed to him in the Law (Lk 2:22.27.39) and through four dreams (Mt 1:20; 2:13.19.22). After a long and tiring journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he beheld the birth of the Messiah in a stable, since “there was no place for them” elsewhere (Lk 2:7). He witnessed the adoration of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-20) and the Magi (Mt 2:1-12), who represented respectively the people of Israel and the pagan peoples. Joseph had the courage to become the legal father of Jesus, to whom he gave the name revealed by the angel: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). As we know, for ancient peoples, to give a name to a person or to a thing, as Adam did in the account in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:19-20), was to establish a relationship.

In the Temple, forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary offered their child to the Lord and listened with amazement to Simeon’s prophecy concerning Jesus and his Mother (Lk 2:22-35). To protect Jesus from Herod, Joseph dwelt as a foreigner in Egypt (Mt 2:13-18). After returning to his own country, he led a hidden life in the tiny and obscure village of Nazareth in Galilee, far from Bethlehem, his ancestral town, and from Jerusalem and the Temple. During a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary lost track of the twelve-year-old Jesus, they anxiously sought him out and they found him in the Temple where he was in discussion with the doctors of the Law (Lk 2:41-50).

This would be the last time Joseph appeared in any Gospel book. Also, the circumstances of Joseph’s death are not known, but it is likely that he died before Jesus' ministry began and it is implied that he was dead before the Crucifixion (Jn 19:26-27). Studies from the Catholic Encyclopedia show that Joseph is not mentioned as being present during the Wedding at Cana at the beginning of Jesus' mission, nor at the Passion at the end. If he had been present at the Crucifixion he would, under the Jewish custom, have been expected to take charge of Jesus' body, but this role is instead performed by Joseph of Arimathea. Also, Jesus would not have entrusted his mother to the care of John the Apostle if her husband had been alive.

Joseph is figured prominently in some apocryphal writings— such as the second-century Protevangelium of James and the fourth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter — which muddied the historical waters, presenting him as a widower with children when he met Mary and claiming that he lived to the age of 111. These claims, however, are spurious and are not accepted by the church. However in 1870, Joseph was declared patron of the universal church by Pope Pius IX and in 1955 Pope Pius XII established May 1st as the "Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker" to counter the Communists' May Day. However, March 19th has been and still remains the principal feast day of St. Joseph.

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