What do we know about St Joseph? How the Old and New Testaments shed light on this remarkable saint

To celebrate the Feast of St Joseph on 19th March, Fr Michael Hall explores the Old and New Testaments to discover what we know about Joseph and his unique role alongside Mary and Jesus.

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Fr Michael Hall

In part, the answer depends on which Gospel we are reading.  St Mark (though it refers to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son”) does not mention him at all – but this is because the gospel opens with Jesus already an adult.   So does St John’s gospel, but in two places he is referred to as “the son of Joseph”.

Our knowledge of Joseph and his character is limited, then, to the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Both of these tell us about the birth of Jesus.  It’s been said that Luke tells it from Mary’s point of view, while Matthew tells it from Joseph’s – and there is an element of truth in this.

St Matthew is keen to present Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, the heir of Abraham and King David.  So the detailed family tree that Matthew gives us ends with “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16).

We are very familiar with the Annunciation – Gabriel declaring to Mary that she was to be the mother of God’s Son – as told by St Luke.  But Joseph has his own Annunciation in Matthew’s gospel.  We are told that “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Joseph, naturally, is preparing to divorce her.  Though he could have made this very public, he decides to do this privately, because “He was a just man and unwilling to put Mary to shame.”

But there then follows one of several dreams that Joseph will have.  An angel appears to him, and tells him the true origin of Mary’s pregnancy, and tells Joseph that it will be his job to give the child his name – Jesus, the Saviour.  Joseph thus plays a key role in fulfilling prophecy – naming the Messiah and giving him legal status as a son of David.

St Matthew will demonstrate other ways in which Joseph cares for his family – thus giving us an excellent model of fatherhood.  Again inspired by dreams, he will lead his family into exile in Egypt, and, when the time is right, lead them back to Nazareth, where Jesus will grow up.

Though St Luke has nothing to tell us about Joseph’s dreams, he actually tells us more about the life of the Holy Family.  As the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel takes us through what the Holy Rosary calls “The Joyful Mysteries”, we are introduced to Mary, “Betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David.”  Joseph, so obedient to the voice of God in Matthew’s Gospel, is also obedient to the law – both civil and religious.  When the command comes to take part in the Emperor’s Universal Census, Joseph takes his pregnant wife to return to his ancestral home – the town of Bethlehem.  Later in chapter 2 we shall see Joseph and Mary obeying the Torah – the Old Testament Law.  They go to the temple in Jerusalem shortly after Jesus’ birth, “for purification” and to make the customary offering that is made for all first-born males.  Then we hear that it was their custom to go up to Jerusalem from Nazareth every year on the Feast of Passover.  It is here, aged twelve, that Jesus slips away from his parents and goes to debate with the teachers of the Law in the temple.  When they find him, Mary tells him, “Your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”  One can only suspect that Jesus’ answer would have pierced Joseph to the heart: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Of course, Jesus returns to Nazareth with them and submits obediently to the parenting of Mary and Joseph, “Increasing in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man.”  But Jesus’ knowledge of his true origin is reflected in St John’s gospel, where the word “father” is used over one hundred times.  Only two of these relate to Joseph.

Finally, St Luke, too, has a “family tree” for Jesus, which this time starts with Joseph, and continues back to “Seth, son of Adam, son of God”.  Though it, too, includes King David and Abraham, it seems that Luke’s desire is to represent Jesus’ standing as fully human.  He shares, through Joseph, that dignity that we all have of being children of God.

In both of these family trees, we see the legal power of adoption in the ancient world.  As someone with an adopted sister, I know the mental anguish that some such people can suffer.  But in the first century even the Emperor Augustus had been adopted, and assumed the inheritance of his uncle Julius.  We have no clear biblical evidence for Mary’s family tree, but we know that it is through Joseph that Jesus can truly be called “Son of David”.  As we approach St Joseph’s Solemnity on the 19th, let us invoke his fatherly prayer for all those who are adopted.

We might very well call to mind too his example as a husband and father.  He is protective, accepting, tender and loving.  He is hard working and responsive to the needs of others.  Most of all, perhaps, he wishes at all stages to put his wife’s dignity ahead of his own.

We do not hear of Joseph’s death in the canonical gospels, but it is clear that by the time Jesus begins his public ministry, Joseph is no longer on the scene.  For this reason, Joseph has been deemed “Patron of the Dying” by the Church, so as we pray for the adopted, for husbands, fathers and workers, let us pray for ourselves, that we might have a happy death.

But there is one more thing to consider about what the Scriptures tell us about St Joseph.  This employs the principle upheld in the Catechism that we “let Scripture interpret Scripture”.

St Joseph is not the first to hold that name in the Bible.  In fact, there are many, but the most famous is the son of Jacob who has come to be associated with the music of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

For most of us, this Joseph just takes his place with the other Old Testament Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We may be familiar with his story, but we are perhaps not familiar with the fact that the first Joseph was a very significant figure in the minds of first-century Jews.  The book of Sirach, written just a few centuries before Our Lord’s birth, reflects on the greatest heroes of the Bible story, saying “Nor was anyone ever born like Joseph.” (Sirach 49:15)

In the New Testament, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews deals with faith, and with those Old Testament characters who stood out in this virtue.  Joseph is mentioned there too. But one of the most powerful Old Testament passages to use to illumine our reading of the story of our Joseph in the gospels is the blessing which Jacob gives to his twelve sons when he is coming to the end of his life.  This is in Genesis chapter 49.  The first readers and hearers of the gospels – if they were Jews – would be very familiar with this.  I’m going to take the rather unusual step of quoting a few verses directly, and offering them to you to meditate upon, as you consider the New Testament Joseph:

“Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring;
his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
(from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
by the Almighty who will bless you
with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father 
are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” (Genesis 49:22-26)

This blessing of the first Joseph is reiterated and taken even further by Moses in Deuteronomy 33.  Pre-Christian Jewish reflections on the story of Joseph emphasise this fruitfulness and dignity.  But of all the words that that literature uses about the first Joseph, the most common one is “just”.  So when St Matthew tells us that our Joseph was a “just man”, he is tapping into that tradition, and telling his readers to expect someone touched by God, ready to take his place with the great heroes of the Old Testament.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese.  For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education.  He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.