Monday, March 19, 2012

Joseph: The Father of Jesus

"Joseph" derives from Hebrew = Yahweh will increase/add, in Tiberian Hebrew and Aramaic Yôsēp̄.  The name can be translated as Yihoh Lhosif.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, makes no mention of Joseph of Nazareth. Matthew identifies him as a descendent of Abraham, his grandfather being Matthan and his father, Jacob. Luke identifies him as "a man...of the house of David" who was engaged to a young woman, Mary of Nazareth. In John's Gospel one of Jesus' followers, Philip of Bethsaida, tells his friend, Nathanael, of "him about whom Moses...and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Apparently, Jesus was fairly well known among those to whom he preached, if John 6:42 is accurate: "They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?..." Of the four Evangelists, Matthew and Luke give us the most information, though it's still sketchy, about Joseph.

"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus." (Matthew 1:18-25)

From this passage we can generally assume that Joseph was a normal Jewish man, capable of falling in love and entering into an engagement with Mary/Miriam through her family; that he was sensitive to Mary's puzzling pregnancy situation; that he was "righteous", decisive, and faithful in following God's lead. 

There's always been speculation about how old Joseph was, but the Scriptures are silent on that detail. For some reason many artists depict him as an older man. Wikipedia has this to say: "Up to about the 17th century Joseph tends to be depicted as a man advanced in years, with grey hair, often balding, occasionally frail and with arthritic fingers and a sharp nose, a comparatively marginal figure alongside Mary and Jesus if not entirely in the background, passive other than when leading them on their flight to Egypt. Joseph is shown mostly with a beard, not only in keeping with Jewish custom, but also because – although the Gospel accounts do not give his age – later literature tends to present him as an old man at the time of his wedding to Mary. This depiction arose to allay concerns about both the celibacy of the newly wedded couple [an assumption based on Mt 1:25], the mention of brothers and sisters of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and Joseph's other children spoken of in apocryphal literature – concerns discussed very frankly by Jean Gerson for example, who nonetheless favoured showing him as a younger man. In recent centuries – in step with a growing interest in Joseph's role in Gospel exegesis – he himself has become a focal figure in representations of the Holy Family. He is now often portrayed as a younger or even youthful man (perhaps especially in Protestant depictions)..."

Luke's Gospel narrative speaks of Jesus' birth, naming, and presentation in the Temple. "Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn..." Luke 2:4-7) Joseph is pictured as a law-biding Jew, and one who made such provisions as were available for his pregnant wife.

"After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb..." (Luke 2:21) Though Luke doesn't specifically name Joseph, we may assume from Matthew's account, Matthew 1:21; 25, that Joseph gave Jesus his name: " are to name him Jesus...", and "...he named him Jesus."

"When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord..." "Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God..." (Luke 2:22; 27-28)

Matthew fills in another gap, though he gives only a general time frame ("...after [the  Magi] had left..."), by saying: " angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod..." (Matthew 2:13-15) "...When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth..." (Matthew2:19-23)

That's pretty much the sum total of what we know directly about Joseph from the Scriptures. The rest is speculation. The references which we have describe him as being a tekton = artisan, probably in wood, but perhaps also iron and stone. We'd call him a blue collar working man. Given the other Scriptural descriptions and intimations, we wouldn't be far off in concluding that Joseph was conscientious, probably skilled in what he did,  and a good provider for his family. It's also not unreasonable to assume that Joseph might have shared some of his expertise with his young son, Jesus. In short, the image we're left with is of a solid, generous, goodhearted man, an observant Jew, a reliable husband, and the kind of father a son would admire and try to imitate.

It was the Roman Catholic custom, when I was confirmed, to assume the added name of a patron saint. Though I don't remember exactly how I came to it, "Joseph" was my choice. Something in the Bible stories which the nuns told us must've stuck with me. Having grown up without my natural father, perhaps there was some influence, too, by the fact that his middle name was "Joseph". Whatever the reason, my devotion to St. Joseph as a dependable father-figure has endured. I also learned later in life that burying a statue of St. Joseph, upside down (!), in the yard of a house one wants to sell brings about favorable results. While some claim that it's true, I have no firsthand experience. Fully aware of the superstitious nature of the practice, some months ago I sent a statue of St. Joseph to my niece in Alaska for her to plant in the yard prior to their family's move to Oregon. To date, the verdict is still out on whether St. Joseph will come through!

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