David McLoughlin takes a closer look at St Joseph's background and story.
This article has been adapted from Northampton Diocese’s annual NORES lecture given on 5th October 2021 by David McLoughlin, Emeritus Fellow of Christian Theology, Newman University, Birmingham, nores.org.uk/nores-lecture.
Pope Francis has dedicated this year to St Joseph who, 150 years ago, was proclaimed as the Patron of the Church. I’d like to explore with you the figure of Joseph, specifically in his Jewish heritage and world, and his depiction by Matthew in the early Church. It is precisely this Jewish background and the way Matthew sees Joseph as a disciple going out into a new world that can help us to explore Joseph the Dreamer today. Pope Francis has a particular devotion to the statue of Sleeping St Joseph, and has this image in his own room. When he is teasing out difficult issues in the Church he leaves a little note under the statue, last thing at night, asking St Joseph for his inspiration.
The major evidence for the life of Joseph comes in the Gospel of Matthew written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE (Matthew 22:7). The place of composition was probably Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria with a mixed Greek speaking population of Gentiles and Jews who had sought refuge there. There was tension between the original strong Jewish Christian community and the now more numerous Gentile Christians who had converted to the Gospel. Paul had addressed such tensions about the necessity, or not, of converts observing the details of Jewish Law in Galatians 2:1-14. Matthew is restating the Gospel of Jesus for a Christian community in a time of crisis and stress, how should it adapt to the wider world and share the good news without losing its identity? A question we ask in every age, and one that is particularly pressing at this moment of global pandemic and climate crisis.
Names in the ancient world had powerful significance and Joseph’s own naming links him to the devout of Israel, just as his own naming of his sons indicates the values of his family life with Mary and the children in Nazareth. We’ll come back to this.
The first time we hear the name Joseph is at the end of the infancy narrative in Matthew 1:15,16 “Eleazar became the Father of Mathan, Mathan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.” This prologue tells the History of God’s people in three sets of fourteen generations and the coming of Jesus is the culmination of Old Testament expectation and prophecy. It starts with Abraham, so with the universal call to faith that Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise, a universal inclusive vision important for us today in our multi-faith, multi-cultural reality. But it also touches on how God works within the inconsistencies and fallibilities of humanity.
There is mention of four women in this otherwise patriarchal list. All foreigners or at least non traditional Israelites. Tamar (Matthew 1:3), Rahab and Ruth (Matthew 1:5) and Bathsheba the wife of David’s general Uriah(Matthew 1:6) all bear sons in irregular circumstances and anticipate the ultimate irregularity of Joseph’s wife Mary, whose birth is by a creative act of God’s Spirit. But all include a Gentile reference and an opening out to the wider world. So the Jewish Messiah Jesus, while Son of David and Abraham, is also descendant of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. He is already involved in a non-Israelite, Gentile world of the unclean. Salvation is always to be found in the mixed history that lies behind all our family stories. This is clear in the Genealogy of Joseph but it is embraced deliberately in the ministry of Jesus who goes out to, and includes in, the new Kingdom of the Father God, some surprising sons and daughters.
Matthew’s story then has Jesus recapitulate the Exodus experience under Moses, only now the persecution is not by Pharaoh but by a Jewish King Herod, who Matthew says is supported by all Jerusalem, anticipating the passion and rejection of Jesus. And Jesus’ first recognition as the King of the Jews is again by foreigners, the Magi, who prefigure all those outside Israel who will accept the Gospel, including us. The first sentence of the Gospel “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham.” makes a clear claim that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, who will return the fortunes of Israel as under David. The reader from now on will naturally want to know how? What sort of restoration, what sort of Messiah? But those two opening words biblos geneseos can also be read as the book of Genesis with the suspicion that what is happening in this birth and this life is nothing less than the renewal of creation, which Matthew will underline with the earthquakes and storms that happen after the death on the Cross. And the mention of Son of Abraham has a double edge. Although Abraham is the father of faith, and therefore of the Jewish people, he is also the first convert from the Gentiles to the worship of the one God. So Abraham and Sarah themselves allow an openness to the non-Jewish world, from which God can raise up new sons and daughters as John the Baptist will make clear when speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew 3:9.
For the Gospel that is always regarded as the most Jewish, there is a remarkable openness to the wider world of religion and culture which Pope Francis has been emphasising in his recent writing, especially in “Let us Dream: a path to a Better Future.” (London: Simon and Schuster, 2020) where he says:
“The Church must always be known for its closeness to the peoples of this earth in their struggle for dignity and freedom. In each culture where it is present, the Church must see people’s sorrows and hopes – and especially those of the poorest – as its own. The Church walks as part of the people serving it, not trying to organise it in paternalistic fashion, because a people organises itself…
… The current crisis calls us to recover our sense of belonging: only thus will our peoples again be subjects of their own history…….For what saves us is not an idea but an encounter. Only the face of another is capable of awakening the best of ourselves. (2020, pp.106-7)
Joseph is the one who out of love of God, love for his wife and the child entrusted to him, will seek refuge among strange peoples in strange places, will seek to return to his home and have to re-settle and make a new home among strangers where he becomes just “the carpenter.” Joseph is the example of the man of faith who does not lose his identity in going out into the mixed world of cultures and religions, but receives from it without threat to his core reality, his dreams. Indeed his encounters enable him to deepen his own reality and provide the home where Jesus’ own vision of his calling can grow and expand till the time of his ministry arrives.
Just as Mary is the central figure of Luke’s account of the birth here in Matthew it is Joseph. The first century Palestinian world that Jesus was born into was a world of patriarchal power, in the family and in the wider society. A child continued to live beyond the natural risk of childbirth only if its father picked it from the birthing floor and acknowledged it; as in the gospel story of the naming of John the Baptist. Otherwise the newborn could be abandoned either to die or be picked up and nurtured for slavery. We have fragments of papyrus dating back to the first century (the Oxyrynchus papyrus) telling of infants, usually female, abandoned at birth by parents, but taken from the rubbish dump to be reared as slaves. The ancient world thought Jews and Christians odd in not practicing this simple form of eugenic social control. To be a child in the first century was to be a nobody becoming a somebody only by parental discretion and according to the status of the parents in the wider community. A kingdom of children was a kingdom of nobodies.
The first century Mediterranean world was also a world with very clear views of honour, status and shame. The honour or shame of the parent engulfed the child from its birth onwards. To compare an adult to a child in such a world was a calculated insult. For Jesus to speak of the Kingdom or rule of God in terms of a kingdom of such nobodies was a direct challenge to the universally accepted values underpinning the society of his time. But the kingdom or Rule of God effectively located value elsewhere under the loving gaze of Abba, the name Jesus typically used for God, a name from domestic usage and so implying a God of intimate presence, to be encountered in the everyday reality of even the powerless child.
In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph’s dilemma is clear. Mary his betrothed, already his legal wife but not yet living together, was pregnant. This would bring shame on him, on both families and perpetual shame on the child. There is a whole sub-set of Jewish laws about the relative status of a bastard. They did not have full access to the Temple, and indeed we only ever hear of Jesus’ teaching in the open space of the Court of the Gentiles where foreigners and non-Jews could gather; an illigitimate child was not regarded as a good marriage prospect. As the eldest son after Joseph’s death, Jesus would have had to help arrange his brothers’ marriages, yet because of the abiding question mark over his own birth he would not have been seen as a good suitor.
The title Matthew uses of Joseph is a “righteous man“, a devout follower of the Jewish law, a Hasid, like the contemporary Orthodox. James, the son of Joseph, who becomes the leader of the Jerusalem community after the death of Jesus is also called a “righteous man” by the contemporary historian Josephus. So we have contemporary evidence that the family of Joseph are publically acknowledged as righteous but the birth of an illegitimate child could ruin all of this.
And then Joseph dreams! There is precedent for dreams in the Hebrew scriptures as a means of communication between God and humans. Perhaps most aptly the Joseph narrative from Genesis 37:1- 50:26 which speaks of how the hidden call of God is worked out through a series of dreams and their interpretation by the original Joseph, the preferred younger son of Jacob, the one with the technicolour dreamcoat! This Joseph has two dreams interpreted by his brothers and then his family as him foreseeing power and control over them. There are terrible consequences. Joseph is sold into slavery and ends up a servant in the Egyptian court. Through a series of dreams which he interprets, finally for Pharaoh, he who has become the Canaanite slave, ends up the controller of the economy of the entire Egyptian Empire. He eventually provides food for his own family in famine and enables Canaan to provide for Egypt when famine hits it. By the time of his death his dreams are woven into the hope of his people for liberation from slavery in Egypt. This will not happen in his and his family’s lifetime, but will emerge in the call of Moses and the liberation of Exodus, and the founding of a new liberated people – Is-ra-el – the people of God. Through this wonderful story of dreams and their interpretation, God emerges as the one who is both with his chosen people and yet always to some extent hidden; always more than they can expect.
Our Joseph dreams too! In fact the writing of the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is suffused with the echoes of the acts of God upon his predecessors, from Creation through to the call of Abraham to David and the restoration from Exile. So we have Joseph the husband, disappointed with a seemingly errant young wife, indeed fearful for her, as when the news gets out she could be stoned as an adulteress (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) or, at best, face a life of public shame and humiliation. But Joseph’s interpretation of the law anticipates that of the child in her womb. Jesus will call for a righteousness guided, as the prophets demanded, by mercy and so Joseph plans a quiet, non-public, divorce. He goes to bed, no doubt for a restless sleep, and like his forebear is given a dream in which the messenger of God appears. This messenger speaks words that Jesus will speak to his disciples after his death when he meets them in the upper room: me phobethes – do not be afraid!
Then the angel speaks a message which again is full of echoes of other birth announcements of Isaac (Genesis 17:1-18:15); Samson (Judges 13:2-7); Samuel (1 Samuel :1-28) to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25) etc. The biblically aware listeners Matthew was writing for would hear the echoes – the miraculous birth of Jesus is but the culmination of all these previous saving acts of God. The dream expands to reveal the source of this new life as God’s divine creative Spirit. Yet Joseph will still have the Father’s role lifting him off the birthing floor and naming him with a great name – “Joshua/Iesus “Yahweh helps“. The God of Exodus, self-revealing to Moses as “I am who I am, I will be where I will be” – has chosen to appear within creation as Saviour of the people. Through Joseph the child will have claim to the lineage of David, through the Holy Spirit and this miraculous birth through Mary he is Emmanuel – God with humankind. This is stated at the beginning and at the end of the Gospel. In 28:20, the very last verse, when the risen Jesus promises the disciples “And behold I am with you always even to the end of the time.” This presence will become a mark of the Church “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (18:20) And his life will have a focus more profound than any military or political Messiah. It will be a life of one who heals the sins of the people, one who heals the brokenness of the earth. In Jewish mysticism this is called Tikkun Olam the healing or mending of the earth, which each one of us is called to as part of our human vocation.
Joseph is the one who in the midst of ignorance, anguish, fear and yet compassion, is entrusted with this great gift, this fragile new life. God enters the human situation not in its perfection but in its messiness to heal from within. Salvation happens in the mess of life. And Joseph welcomes the mother and then child into his own home. Giving God a place in God’s own creation. Immediately this birth, of an as yet unknown Messiah into a simple working family, now becomes the focus for events that foreshadow the rest of the Gospel. We hear of foreign scientist priests – Magi, students of astronomy who have come to seek the source of disturbances in the heavens. They speak of the birth of a new king to King Herod and the Jerusalem religious authorities who then plan the execution of any boys of a similar age.
The word used of the Magi’s homage proskynesis is not the reverence due a ruler but the worship appropriate to God. It is interesting to note how the Magi use all sources of wisdom available to them – their own natural gifts and the wisdom of their people, their scientific knowledge and then in Jerusalem consulting the scribes and the revealed texts of the scriptures. Revelation, the discovery of the Christ child in Bethlehem, is the fruit of natural wisdom and biblical prophecy, our own theology and religious education could learn much from their inclusiveness. The gifts these Magi bring reflect the psalms:
Psalm 72:10 “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts,
May all Kings fall down (proskynein) before him,
all nations give him service.”
Isaiah 60:6 “all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring Gold and Frankincense.”
Here at the very beginning of the Gospel is the opening up of the way for the Messiah to speak to the wider world. Matthew will make this explicit at the end in 28:19-20 “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This child is the Messiah of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke” in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:21)
The joy of the Magi at the discovery of the child king is clouded by their own dream as they seek another way home avoiding Jerusalem. The text again anticipates the end of the Gospel when Jerusalem, in its Roman and Religious authorities, will attempt to frustrate the life and work of Jesus.
Joseph finds himself at the mercy of forces that would extinguish the light of the Messiah before it can burn brightly and confront them. And now Joseph is again visited in a dream by God’s voice, the angel, and told to flee to Egypt. Again Joseph the dreamer becomes Joseph the quiet man of action and leaves by cover of night. Egypt over the centuries had become a place of refuge for persecuted Israelites. But this flight will also give the opportunity for Joseph to initiate a new exodus bringing back to Israel the one who can truly free it from its own self-destruction, again echoing the escape of God’s chosen Moses. And so in succession, Joseph the dreamer and his wife and her baby become refugees, exiles, and eventually returnees. Then, settlers in a strange locality, Nazareth in Galilee, a good distance from Bethlehem and its uncomfortable nearness to the powers of Jerusalem. Joseph the dreamer could be any harassed refugee on our TV screens, night after night, always on the move, always trying to keep ahead of the next outrage against them.
So the Messiah, originally of David’s city of Bethlehem in Judaea, is taken fearfully to Nazareth in Galilee, a village which never appeared on any map in the ancient world. He and his family become Galileans surrounded by foreign people speaking Greek as much as Aramaic. There is a pattern here which dreaming Joseph has served. Mary’s Son, named Joshuah/Iesus, also Son of God, Emmanuel, God with us, is present among Is-ra-el from birth but it is first Gentiles, foreigners – the Magi who seek and find him while his own people find his presence a threat. The Gentile Magi offer him worship and suitable gifts. Herod offers violence from which they only escape by Joseph’s dreams. Through Herod, the king of Israel’s violence, Jesus lives among Gentiles and returns to the place Galilee where Gentiles will have access to him. The implicit universalism of the Exodus flames forth again.