In the story of Jesus, Joseph is a bit like the father of the bride at a wedding. He’s prominent at
the beginning. Then he disappears. But in the end he has to pay for everything.
We know very little about the man who assumed the role of Jesus’ Father. Aside from several
key anecdotes associated with Jesus’ birth, we see him only once more in the Gospel accounts- when Jesus at the age of 12 is engaging some of Israel’s teachers in a theological bull session. He is identified in several texts as “Joseph the carpenter,” a trade which he apparently taught his son. The word translated “carpenter”-tekton- is at the root of our modern word “technology,” and describes someone who could work with both wood and stone.
Since Mary always appears alone during the accounts of Jesus’ adult ministry, it has long been
assumed that she was widowed by the time her son turned 30. What happened to Joseph? No one can say. What was he like as a father and what kind of child was Jesus? Those questions proved to be so interesting to the early church that a few creative authors couldn’t resist the temptation to invent fanciful stories. Some of them appear in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a spurious document that was written at least 150 years after Jesus’ birth and certainly not by the Apostle Thomas. In other “childhood narratives, “Jesus makes birds out of mud, claps his hands and brings them to life-something that genuinely impresses his playmates. The early church, to its credit, recognized that such stories were
absurdly out of character with everything we know about Jesus.
The History of Joseph the Carpenter, another document of dubious validity suggests Joseph
was a whopping 90 years old when he became engaged to Mary, and was a widower with six
grown children. Italian Renaissance painters occasionally portrayed him as an old man
cradling his new born son. These artists and authors seemed to think that Joseph needed to
be more like a grandfather to Mary than a young husband-someone old enough and wise
enough to take care of a vulnerable wife and child.
If Joseph was typical of other young men in Israel, he was 16-18 years old at the time of
engagement to Mary. He must have been devastated by the news of her pregnancy. The Bible
reports his response in a single poignant sentence: “Joseph, being a righteous man and
unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Matt.1:19). But
when an Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, he did what the Angel commanded
him. That is prompt, simple unspectacular obedience. It is fascinating that Joseph never speaks in any of the gospel accounts. He silently does what is right. He chooses to come alongside Mary and endure what will undoubtedly be a lifetime of public misunderstanding. He will not leave her alone in an impossible situation. One word comes to mind when I think of Joseph: Faithful.
Like Joseph, we can be good and faithful servants. Let it be said of us what has been said of
Joseph for twenty centuries: He simply did what God commanded him.
Ron Naylor, Chaplain