My bible dictionary tells me that there are 11 Josephs in the old and new testaments – from Jacob’s favourite son to several in the new testament, including one who is Jesus’ brother – but this one is “Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus” (Matthew 1:16). What do we know about him? He was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), although that word (τέκτων, from which we get ‘technology’) could mean a craftsman or builder of various types. He could have been the village odd-job man or a builder or an architect employing others. Whatever his actual trade was, Jesus is known as ‘the carpenter’s son’. In 165CE, the Christian writer Justin Martyr says that Jesus himself made yokes and ploughs, which would give a nice context to his saying
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Joseph was a descendent of King David (Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:4) which is why, Luke tells us, he and Mary made the journey from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem to comply with the demands of the census made “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:14). The birth of Jesus then fulfils the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5.2) that a ruler would come from Bethlehem, the “city of David” (where David was anointed king by Samuel, 1 Samuel 16:13, 15).
In Matthew’s nativity story, Joseph hears that Mary, to whom he is engaged but before they live together as man and wife, is pregnant and resolves to “dismiss her quietly”. A reasonable response! He’s “a righteous man” and a gentleman. He doesn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace”. What on earth could make him change his mind? Nothing on earth: it takes an angel! The angel appears to him in a dream and reassures him that this is God’s business and that he has nothing to fear (Matthew 1:18-25). (Unlike the annunciation to Mary, none of this finds its way into the average nativity play!)
The child is to be named Jesus, which, like Joshua, means “God is my saviour (v21)”. Born of a virgin, he will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (v23). Luke tells us that shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night”, are summoned by angels to go to Bethlehem where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:8-20).
When the child is born, another angelic dream (in Matthew’s account) warns Joseph to take “the child and his mother” and to flee to Egypt so that they can escape the jealous wrath of Herod. They stay there, refugees, until the death of Herod means that they can return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-21).
We are told that Joseph was “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19). He was a devout Jew, travelling to Jerusalem to attend Passover each year, including that occasion when Jesus, aged 12, went missing (Luke 2:41-52). I wonder how Joseph felt, to hear his son’s explanation that he had to be in his Father’s house? (v49)
By the time we arrive at the Crucifixion, Joseph has disappeared from the story. Mary is present but not Joseph. Perhaps Joseph was older than Mary and had died. We don’t know when that might have happened, but when Jesus is rejected at Nazareth, he (Jesus) is referred to as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55), so presumably Joseph was still alive when Jesus began his adult ministry.
From the end of the second century CE, it was being claimed that Jesus’s real dad was a Roman soldier, with whom, willingly or otherwise, Mary had conceived her child. But Matthew gets in quickly; even before the accusations start to fly: Joseph may not be the father of this child (what we would call his ‘biological father’) but God is. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Mary was an engaged virgin when she conceived Jesus (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26). Her pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit”.
The ancient understanding of conception may have been different to ours – there was less understanding of the biology than we have – but they knew enough. The announcement of a virgin conception that the Holy Spirit has brought about is the curtain-opener for a story of God’s engagement with His world. It’s a way of saying that this man, born in this way, is going to do something extraordinary; that God has a plan for God’s world.
Poor old Joseph may not get top billing in the nativity play but he has a supporting role in the story. He is a decent chap, wanting to do what is right; protective of his missus and her son.
God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
give us grace to follow him
in faithful obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.