He is something of an enigma, this man of Nazareth, Yusuf ben Yacob or Joseph, son of Jacob as we would call him. Or, simply, Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus Christ. Descended from David the great king of Israel, this humble artisan was destined for even greater glory within God’s plan of salvation.
Israel was then ruled by Herod, a suspicious, resentful monarch. He was not Jewish but came from the neighboring land of Edom — the Romans called it Idumea — the land of Esau, the brother of Jacob the Old Testament patriarch.
Herod was a client-king, a puppet installed by the Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus. His major function was to maintain order in Israel so collection of taxes and tribute money might be dispatched to Rome without delay. This Herod did with ruthless efficiency, executing even members of his own family. As Augustus dryly observed, “I would rather be one of Herod’s swine than be one of Herod’s sons.”
Nazareth, west of the Sea of Galilee, was a flyspeck in the rustic Galilean backwoods. The hamlet had a less than stellar reputation. When the newly-minted disciple Philip hurried to tell Nathanael of “the one about whom Moses wrote . . . Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth,” his friend answered with a disparaging snicker, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45, 46).
Perusing the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, readers become aware of differing viewpoints. Luke presents events surrounding the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Mary; Matthew is more concerned with Joseph’s reactions.
Surprisingly, Joseph’s voice is never heard in either Gospel — no pithy axioms; no whispered prayers. Even so, without saying a word Joseph’s shining personality comes through with the first mention of his name. He is a man of decisiveness; a man of action.
Joseph was betrothed to a young maiden, Miriam bas Eliakim, whom we know as Mary, daughter of Joachim. Betrothal was the first part of the Jewish marriage ceremony. Despite recent efforts to paint Mary as an unwed mother, she was, in truth, married.
She was so married that Joseph decided to divorce her. The second part of the marriage ceremony had not yet taken place: the groom had not brought his bride into his house. Yet Mary was pregnant.
Mary surely explained the miraculous details of her pregnancy with the enthusiastic description of the Archangel Gabriel: “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God shall give him the throne of David his father. He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33).
Still dubious, Joseph, a just man, remained compassionate. Seeking to spare Mary any shame or, worse, potential stoning for the crime of adultery, he resolved to put an end to the matter quietly (Mathew 1:18, 19). It’s possible he planned for Mary to leave Nazareth until well after the birth of her baby, details to be worked out later. God was already way ahead of him.
“As he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ . . . When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took her to wife” (Matthew 1:20, 24).
Just in time the census came round. Joseph and Mary took advantage of their necessary departure from Nazareth. After the birth of Jesus, Joseph and his family took up residence in Bethlehem, some 90 miles south of Nazareth, in the province of Judæa. This would prevent any tongue-wagging regarding the precise time of the Child’s birth.
From this house Joseph and Mary brought the Infant Jesus to the Temple of God in Jerusalem, only 6 miles away, for his presentation to the Lord and Mary’s purification after childbirth. An old man named Simeon met them. He had been promised by God that he would not see death before he beheld the Messiah.
Taking the Holy Babe into his arms. Joseph and Mary heard Simeon extol the child with a canticle known as the Nunc dimittis. “The Child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them” (Luke 2:22-31).
A year or two later the Magi, having asked Herod where the newborn king of the Jews might be found, were directed to Bethlehem where they paid homage to the child. An angel again spoke to Joseph in a dream, “Arise! Take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt. Remain there until I shall tell you. For Herod seeks the child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:10, 11, 13).
Joseph’s response was immediate. The Holy Family “fled by night, departing for Egypt” and stayed until the angel returned to tell Joseph he could go back to Israel, “for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (Matt 2:14, 15).
Joseph first thought to return to Bethlehem. “But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there” (Matthew 2:22). Archelaus, another despot, was deeply disappointed since Rome granted him only half his father’s kingdom which he ruled poorly. Augustus eventually deposed him, making Judæa an imperial province.
It made little difference to the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary had already returned to Nazareth, where Joseph taught Jesus his skills.
The Greek word used to describe Joseph’s occupation is tekton, often translated “carpenter”. It also means: “craftsman, builder, joiner, mason, contractor” as well as “woodworker.” Joseph may have had a shop, but with so few families in Nazareth, he would hardly be able to earn a living. He was likely an itinerant contractor or handyman, carrying his tools along a circuit including such towns as Corozain, Sakhnin, Capharnaum, Bethsaida, Cana and Sepphoris.
Herod Antipas, named tetrarch of Galilee and Peræa, a quarter of his father’s domain, chose the ruined, hilltop city of Sepphoris as his capital, rebuilding it so grandly that Josephus called it “the Jewel of the Galilee.” Only four miles from Nazareth, it is a certainty that Joseph worked to beautify Sepphoris with Jesus as his apprentice.
Upon his turning 12, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Three days were spent scouring the city before at last finding Jesus sitting amid the teachers at the temple. The mother’s heart is heard when she asked, “Son, why have you done so to us? Behold your father and I have sought you sorrowing.”
Jesus’ answer, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not realize I would be in my father’s house?” perplexed Joseph and Mary. The extraordinary events surrounding his birth notwithstanding, he had acted like any other boy. Aware of his divinity, Jesus nevertheless returned with his parents to Nazareth where, “He . . . was subject to them” (Matthew 2:51).
This is the last heard of Joseph in the gospels. Catholic iconography is rife with images of Joseph and Jesus working together in his workshop, as well as with scenes of Mary and Jesus attending Joseph on his deathbed. I wonder if Joseph died with memories of Simeon’s prayer in mind, a fitting end to a life faithful to God’s will:
Now thou dost dismiss thy servant in peace, O Lord, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: A light for revelation to the Gentiles, And glory for thy people, Israel (Luke 2:29-32).
Sean M. Wright, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.