January 17, 2021 - Pastor Message05/18/2021
THE YEAR OF ST. JOSEPH SOURCES (cont.)
As mentioned in this column last week, the primary source of information about St. Joseph is the Bible. It provides us with all that we know for certain about the foster father of Jesus, and that isn’t much. The other major source of information we have is the body of various traditions that have grown up around Joseph over the centuries. These traditions emerged in response to questions raised by early Christians but left unanswered by Scripture. These traditions then must be taken for what they are, educated reflections by the great thinkers of the early Church about divine revelation but NOT divine revelation themselves. They have also never been officially declared the doctrine of the Church, so, while people may find it helpful spiritually to believe them, we are not obliged to do so.
The early Christians did not have much to say about Joseph, and it was several centuries before devotion to him became widespread. This is largely because of the conflicts in the early Church over the identity of Jesus. Prominent heresies of the time, like Arianism, denied Jesus’ divinity, making it imperative that the Church Fathers stress that God is Jesus’ Father, not Joseph. They therefore tended to ignore Joseph and focus on Mary and the utterly unique nature of Jesus’s conception and birth. It was largely their reflection on Mary then that led to the traditions about Joseph.
One tradition that grew around Joseph was that he was perpetually virgin. This follows from Mary’s perpetual virginity. Since they were married and yet she never “knew man”, then some Church Fathers reasoned that since Joseph, as her husband, never had carnal relations with her, he too remained a virgin. This conclusion is challenged, however, by Scripture passages like Mark 6:3, which identify “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. If both Mary and Joseph were perpetually virgin, then how did Jesus have siblings? The answer some Church Fathers proposed was that these must have been children of Joseph from a prior marriage, meaning that Joseph, while abstaining from sexual relations with Mary throughout their married life, was not perpetually virgin, having had relations with his prior wife. Those who supported Joseph’s perpetual virginity countered this argument by explaining that the Semitic words for brother and sister have a broader meaning than just siblings and include other close relations, such as cousins. Modern Scripture scholars tend to support this latter interpretation of the passages about Jesus’ brothers and sisters, but the issue as it concerns Joseph’s virginity remains a matter of debate.
Following from the argument that Joseph had several children from a prior marriage, as well as Joseph’s noticeable absence from the gospels following the stories of Christ’s birth, another tradition that emerged is that Joseph was significantly older than Mary and that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. While this is certainly possible, it is not necessarily the only explanation. It is interesting that the gospels mention Mary’s involvement in Jesus’ life during his public ministry on multiple occasions, including at his death, while they say nothing of Joseph during that time, especially considering that theirs was a maledominated society. However, the gospels break with social convention and focus on the women around Jesus, such as Mary Magdalene, many times, and even Luke’s account of Christ’s birth focuses on Mary rather than Joseph, who is barely mentioned, so the gospels’ focus on Mary rather than Joseph during Jesus’ ministry is perhaps not so unusual but is intended to convey a deeper meaning. Also, even if we accept that Joseph died before Jesus left Nazareth, that does not necessarily mean he was significantly older than Mary. There’s a reason that people married so young, around the time of puberty, and began procreating as soon as possible in the ancient world life expectancy was short, around 30 40 years old. This does not mean that the average person only lived into his or her 40’s but that many people died before then due to the prevalence of poor hygiene, diseases, and accidents and the relatively poor state of medicine and healthcare. The gospels place Jesus’ public ministry around the time he would have been 30, which, if they were around the same age, means both Mary and Joseph would have been in their midtolate 40’s, the upper end of average life expectancy, and increasingly likely to die.
Regardless of how true the various traditions about Joseph may be, they have helped to nourish the spiritual lives of Christians, including great saints like Jerome and Augustine, for centuries. So, while it is not necessary to believe these traditions, it doesn’t hurt, and, if you find them helpful, by all means, continue to do so. At the very least, by reflecting on them they lead us to greater reflection on those things we do know for certain about Joseph and help us to grow in our knowledge and appreciation of this patron of the whole Church.
Fr. Marc Stockton