Joseph, husband of Mary, plays a dramatic role in Jesus’s early life. However, he is rarely mentioned and often disappears from view. Who is this often under-appreciated figure, and why is he important?
Why is Joseph even mentioned in the gospels?
One might ask why documents that claim Jesus as the “Son of God” mention Joseph at all. A simple answer is that Joseph’s patriarchal
status in Jesus’s life is a historical tradition that exists; it therefore gets incorporated into the Jesus story by the evangelists. Yet, in John’s Gospel
, Joseph is only briefly mentioned by Jesus’s disciples (John 1:45
) and the crowd (John 6:42
). Luke is similarly succinct, with only five mentions. In only one of those does Joseph act when he travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in his ancestral town (Luke 2:4
). In the other instances, he is mentioned only in his relationship with others, Mary (Luke 1:27
) and Jesus (Luke 2:16
; Luke 3:23
; Luke 4:22
Only Matthew focuses upon the Joseph tradition for a theological
reason: the Son of God still needed a human father because he was also truly human, exposed to threats which demanded parental care. In contrast to the other gospels, therefore, Joseph takes a very active role in Matthew’s account and helps flesh out the story of Jesus’s birth.
Why are Joseph’s actions important?
Mary’s prospects would have been tenuous, if not outright dangerous if Joseph had abandoned Mary. In order to see that, readers need to understand some of the norms of marriage in the first century CE.
If Joseph and Mary followed the norms of a typical Jewish couple in first century Nazareth, Joseph would have been several years Mary’s senior. They would have entered into a formal engagement, complete with a ceremony and witnesses, but they would not have lived together nor consummated their marriage. In many modern cultures, we could say the wedding had happened, but there was a long hiatus before the honeymoon.
In the interim time, Mary became pregnant. Upon discovering this, Joseph was within his rights to expose the pregnancy publicly and decry his involvement. Based on Deut 22:21
, Mary could have been stoned, but there are no records that the full extent of this law was executed in the first century. The more common option would be to shame her publicly, to bring her before the town council. The Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph does not consider this option but planned to “put her away quietly” (Matt 1:19
). Even if Joseph had carried through with his plan, Mary would have been left in a very precarious position. With a broken engagement and an illegitimate child on the way, her family might have kept her at home, or they might not have wanted to share in her shame. She then would have been left with little recourse other than to follow the
path of several of the women in Jesus’s genealogy presented in Matthew (Matt 1:3
, Matt 1:5
): supporting herself with the sale of her body.
Joseph, however, decided to stay married to Mary because “an angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream (Matt 1:20-23
). The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife. As soon as Joseph wakes up, he brings Mary into his home. That Joseph was willing to take Mary in and ignore the questioning glances of his neighbors, who could do the math between Jesus’s birth and her move-in date, shows the selflessness of his character and his willingness to listen to this supernatural instruction. When the birth happens, he also obeys the angel in naming the baby Jesus.
Joseph has another dream, possibly as long as two years later, that changes the trajectory of their lives. The angel comes again, this time to instruct Joseph to escape to Egypt in order to flee the wrath of the paranoid King Herod (Matt 2:13
). This time Joseph wakes in the middle of the night to obey. He and Mary and Jesus remain in Egypt until Joseph has a third dream in which he learns that the king who sought his son’s life has died. Consequently, the three move again. Joseph alone—while he is awake—senses a continued threat from Herod’s son Archelaus but does not choose a safer location until he gets word in a dream to settle in Galilee (Matt 2:22
Joseph’s movements might seem irrational to many contemporary readers, but divine
direction in dreams was a common and often acceptable form of decision making. In Genesis, another Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, was known especially for his dreams, which predicted famine in the land of Egypt (Gen 37
and Gen 40
, the first-century Jewish historian, gives ample coverage in his writings
to the occurrence and interpretation of dreams. Matthew the evangelist certainly validates it. Joseph’s dreams not only keep Jesus safe; they also fulfill God’s plan laid out centuries before in Israel’s Scriptures.
The text of Matthew (and Luke 3:23
for that matter) indicate that Joseph is superfluous to Jesus’s existence, but necessary for his safety. If Joseph hadn’t listened to his angelic dreams, Jesus would have been the child of a single homeless mother and the vulnerable target of a maniacal king.