Tantalising in its brevity is that which the Gospels have to say about Joseph, the reputed father of Jesus. Responsible for the care and nurture of our Lord from birth to manhood, practically nothing concerning him has survived on record. The little that is said is confined to Jesus' infancy and boyhood, and the later life and the death of Joseph are veiled in obscurity. It is almost as if the writers of the four Gospels realised that the human family into which Jesus was born was nothing more than a means to an end, the avenue by which, coming from God, He entered the world of men. That purpose achieved, the affairs of the family were of no relevance to the object of the Gospel story and were allowed to lapse into oblivion.
Just a few brief glimpses of his character are vouchsafed, almost like asides in the narrative, and it is worth while putting these together to form some kind of picture of the man to whose paternal care Jesus must have owed a great deal. He appears as a man of quiet faith and implicit trust in God and there is not much doubt that he was a chosen vessel just as much as was Mary for the great purpose which so soon overspread their young lives.
Popular impression, aided by religious art, usually has it that Joseph was a very old man at the time of his marriage to Mary but this impression is definitely and certainly wrong. It had its origin in certain apocryphal Christian books of the Fourth Century, notably the "Gospel of pseudo-Matthew", the "Gospel of the Nativity of Mary" and the "History of Joseph the Carpenter". These works, examples of the "Christian fiction" of the period, were written to support a growing spirit of asceticism in the Church by which Mary was presented as eternally virgin and unconnected with man. To this end, these and similar legends asserted that Mary had lived in the Temple under the care of the priests until twelve or fourteen years of age, and the priests then secured a Divine indication that this very old man, Joseph, a widower of ninety, should marry and care for Mary and her child Jesus in complete celibacy. The four brothers and two sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were held to have been the children of Joseph by a former and now deceased wife. These books are of no historical value and it is not difficult when reading them to detect various errors which reveal that the writers were not so accurately informed on the history of the First Century as we are today, and certainly not thoroughly familiar with the Gospels. All that is definitely known about Joseph is drawn from the Gospels.
Mary must have been very young at the time, probably no more than eighteen. This is implied by the fact that she seems to have died at Ephesus in the care of John after A.D.65 or so, by which time she would be between eighty and ninety. Joseph might have been as much as thirty, but hardly any older; his betrothal to Mary seems to have been a perfectly ordinary affair and no reason exists for thinking they were other than a normal young couple pledging themselves and their lives to each other. Despite all that the apocryphal books above-mentioned say to the contrary, the New Testament is quite explicit that, after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary had four sons and at least two daughters. This is another evidence that their father was relatively young at marriage, as is also the story of the flight into Egypt. A senile old man would hardly be physically capable of a successful two hundred mile flight from the wrath of King Herod; neither is it feasible that he could still work at his trade as the Gospels make plain he did. That he was a poor man is evident from the fact that when Mary presented herself at the Temple, as required by the ceremonial law, to be pronounced ritually clean after the birth of her first-born, the offering she brought was not the usual lamb, but two young pigeons, the concession made to the poor (Luke 2. 24, Lev. 12. 8).
Despite his poverty, Joseph, like Mary his wife, was of royal lineage, descended from David the famous king of Israel. Their pedigrees both came through Zerubbabel, the representative of the kingly line at the Return from Babylon, but Zerubbabel was the son of a "Levirate marriage" and although legally he was counted as the grandson of Jehoiachin the king, his blood descent was not from the kings of Judah through Solomon, but from Nathan, another son of David. Legally and officially, though, Joseph was of the royal line through Solomon and Jehoiachin on this account and this is the genealogy of Joseph given by Matthew; literally both were of David through Nathan and Neri and this is the genealogy of Mary given by Luke. It would appear that Joseph's line was senior to that of Mary from about the eighth generation below Zerubbabel, (about 400 B.C.), so that the royal rights of Jesus came to him through Joseph. This is why the angel addressed Joseph in Matt. 1.20 as "thou son of David", and Luke calls him "Joseph, of the house of David" (Luke 1.27).
The first sidelight on Joseph's character is revealed when he discovers that his affianced wife is to become a mother. Jewish custom of the time required an espousal period of twelve months preceding the actual marriage, but the espousal was an equally binding contract. Matt.1.18 shows that it was during this period that Joseph made the discovery. His first impulse was to have the contract of marriage annulled on the ground of unfaithfulness, but quietly and privately to avoid public scandal out of consideration for his intended wife. Mary must have told him the truth of the matter as it is related by Luke (Luke 1.26-36), that an angel had visited her and told her that she was to become the mother of the Messiah by an act of God without human aid or intervention. Whether Joseph believed her is another matter. Many Jewish women hoped they would be chosen to be the mother of the Messiah but no one ever expected him to be born in any other than the customary manner. The Divine promise that He would be the lawful heir of David's throne demanded that in some valid way He must derive his descent from David It is stated that Joseph was a righteous man; he was evidently devout and well grounded in the Faith and he was not going to take a decision until he had given the matter careful thought (Matt.1.20). He might not have been altogether surprised therefore when the angel of the Lord appeared to him also and confirmed Mary's story, telling him to name the coming child Jesus (Saviour or deliverer) "for he shall save his people from their sins". Joseph hesitated no longer; the decisiveness which seems to have been an element of his character came to the top, and apparently without further delay he completed the marriage formalities ‑ which included the wedding feast ‑ and with his newly-married wife settled down to await the coming event.
All this of course pre-supposes the truth of what is called by theologians "the doctrine of the Virgin birth". All kinds of objections to this are raised nowadays, and there is increasing disbelief that Jesus of Nazareth entered this world in any other than the usual manner. The only authority on the subject of Jesus' birth, however, is the New Testament and that is perfectly clear on the matter. And so was Joseph; much more so than many in later times who take leave to know better than those who were there. Joseph is presented in the narrative as knowing that the coming child was not his; he accepted the heavenly assurance that no human father was involved and that here was an instance of the operation of the Holy Spirit. He knew that such things could be so, because God was all-powerful, and he was content as well as believing. It is noteworthy that in the Gospel narratives of the life of Jesus on only three occasions is Joseph referred to as the father of Jesus, twice by the villagers and once by Mary (Jn.6.42; Luke 4. 22, Luke 2.48). It would be the natural thing to say in the family context— Joseph was head of the family.
Jesus never acknowledged Joseph as his father. He used the expression "my Father" in reference to God some hundred times. Mary is described as the mother of Jesus some twenty-three times. The phrase "Joseph and his mother" occurs twice. This quite evident exclusion of Joseph from the intrinsic fatherhood of Jesus is all the more noteworthy when it is realised that Jesus' legal right to the throne of David, a fundamental factor in his Messiahship, came to him through Joseph. Had these narratives been fictional or in any way "dressed up" to prove Jesus as the Messiah the writers would surely have made Joseph his natural father. There was probably very little time for philosophical reflections, however, for Joseph had his living to earn and the responsibilities of married life. Whether he was a carpenter in timber or a metal worker or blacksmith ‑ the Greek tekton means any of these although it is most often used for a carpenter in timber ‑ is immaterial; he probably did all such work for the village and his living, although modest, was secure. But within a few weeks of settling down he was uprooted; by reason of a decree of Augustus Caesar, the current Emperor, there was to be a general census of the people, and the effect of this upon Joseph and his wife was that they must appear before the enrolment officials in the recognised family district of their fathers. That district was Bethlehem, the birthplace of David their ancestor and of his fathers back to Boaz and Salmon of the time Israel settled the land. So Joseph and Mary set out on the eighty mile journey and almost immediately upon their arrival Jesus was born.
The details of that event are well known. The first visitors to the child were the shepherds from nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night just as David, his illustrious ancestor, had done a thousand years previously. Joseph was there but in the background; he is mentioned, but only just mentioned. This was true humility; he, as the surviving member of David's line, could surely expect some acknowledgement of seniority, at least until the child should have attained its majority. But no; Joseph knew that here he was standing face to face with the workings of God, that the child thus placed in his paternal care was not only David's son but also David's Lord (Matt.22.42-46). He was content to play the part allotted to him and discharge the duty assigned to him. In him resided the spirit of true consecration; "I come . . . to do thy will, O God".
The shepherds went their way and a month later the child was taken to the Temple and formally dedicated to the service of God. Again Joseph played a passive part. He was there, but that is all we know about it. He, together with Mary, "wondered" at the glowing words of Simeon the aged prophet foretelling the future glories to come by means of the child; "light to lighten the nations, and the glory of thy people Israel" (Luke 2.32). A great honour for a humble village carpenter, Joseph must have thought, as they made their way out of the Temple courts and home to Nazareth (Luke 2.39). But he was, not even then, to be left in peace to ply his craft. Before long King Herod had heard of the wondrous event and was sending his soldiers to find and slay this one who in his ignorance he feared as a threat to his own position. The child was a year old by now; the family's presence at Bethlehem shows that the time was one of the periodic feasts at which pious folk like Joseph and Mary would "go up to Jerusalem" for the occasion, and since their ancestral home was Bethlehem it is understandable that there they would lodge. Instructed by the angel, Joseph took his wife and child out of the town and made his way two hundred miles to Egypt where they would be beyond the King's jurisdiction; "and was there until the death of Herod" (Matt. 2.15). Herod died early in the following year so the stay in Egypt was less than six months, during which time no doubt Joseph supported the family by his trade. Then the voice of the angel came again, telling of the king's death and instructing him to return to the land of Israel. It seems that his intention was to settle in Bethlehem. He probably felt that the future mission of Jesus would demand close proximity to the capital city Jerusalem and he was prepared to subordinate his own life's plans and wishes to what appeared to be the Divine will. But he found that Herod's son, Archelaus, was now reigning and he was nearly as much a menace as the old king. Again, it seems, he sought Divine guidance, and following the response he sought, went on into Galilee and settled in his old home town of Nazareth, outside Archelaus' jurisdiction. So, for a few years at least, he found peace and quietness in which to nurture his wife's firstborn son.
Only one recorded incident breaks the silence of the next thirty years. Every year Joseph and Mary travelled to Jerusalem ‑ in common with many others ‑ to observe the Feast of the Passover. In Jesus' twelfth year, as they set out to return to Nazareth, somehow they lost him. A day out on the journey they discovered that He was not with the company and they returned to Jerusalem to find him. After three days search He was discovered in the Temple courts, listening to and questioning the venerable Doctors of the Law, the theologians of the day. Said Mary to him, probably reproachfully, "thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing" but already the active mind of the lad was reaching out towards his life's mission. "Do you not understand" He told them gently "that I must be in my Father's courts?" But they did not understand; "they understood not the saying which he spake unto them" (Luke 2.50). They were already beginning to lose him, as was ordained. He remained a dutiful son; "he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart".
It is not said that Joseph did likewise. It might well be that from this point Joseph became increasingly unable to realise the nature of Jesus' mission and destiny. His mother did. Joseph was called to be a physical protector and provider for the period Jesus needed material protection and provision and when the lad attained man's estate Joseph's work was done. Quietly and unobtrusively he served as he was bidden while the need existed, and when the service was finished and no longer any need he slips silently out of the picture and is seen no more. But in the records of Heaven the consecrated life and selfless devotion of Joseph, the village carpenter of Nazareth, is surely inscribed in letters of gold for ever.
We hear no more of Joseph. We know from the Gospels that he and Mary had four sons—James, Joses, Jude, Simon—and at least two daughters, all younger than Jesus, so that they must have had a reasonably long married life together. His death is not recorded. From the fact that Jesus commended his mother to the care of the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee and Salome, at the Crucifixion, it would appear that he died before that event. The casual remarks of the villagers in Luke 4.22 and Jn. 6.42 "Is not this Joseph's son?" and "Is not this the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" would seem to infer that he was alive at those times, approximately summer of A.D. 30 and spring of A.D. 31 respectively. Matt.13.55 might imply the same conclusion as to the autumn of AD.30. There are some indications that Mary and the family at least made their home in Capernaum during the early part of our Lord's ministry. He himself never went back to Nazareth after the villagers' rejection of him at the beginning—and Jesus did visit Capernaum some ten times during the first two years, but never after the summer of AD 31. Soon after that time comes his first recorded visit to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary at Bethany which seems to have been the nearest approach to a home He possessed towards the end. From all of this it might be inferred that Joseph died, perhaps at Capernaum, about the middle of A.D.31, nearly two years before the Crucifixion, at which time he might well have been sixty years of age, a not uncommon life span in those days. The rest of the family would have been young men and women, some already married, but from Jn.7. 5 it is known that none of them were in sympathy with Jesus. Thus, after Joseph's death, Mary might have attached herself to the other women, her sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Mary of Magdala, Salome and Joanna, who were disciples of Jesus, instead of making her home with any of her own children. That would explain why Jesus, on the Cross, placed her in John's care although she had children living. Later on, after the Resurrection, James and Jude became converts; possibly one or more of the others did also. At any rate Acts 1.14 makes it clear that at the first complete assembly of believers after the Ascension both Mary and either some or all of his brothers were present. Among the arguments for the truth of the Resurrection that are advanced it is not often remarked that Jesus' brothers, who had formerly disbelieved, became believers in the light of the things that had happened; where they had failed to be convinced by his life they were convinced by his death and resurrection.
Joseph, his life's work done, had passed quietly and silently from the scene. It may seem a hard and somewhat callous way in which to treat a faithful servant of God who had discharged his commission faithfully throughout life but it is not really so, and Joseph was not the only one. Moses, the greatest man in Israel's history, died alone and unseen amid the fastnesses of Mount Nebo "and no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day". Samuel's wise administration and sterling worth converted an undisciplined rabble of warring tribes into a God-fearing nation, but died an old man, bereft of power and authority, in a country village surrounded only by a few student lads. Elijah, who challenged and overthrew idolatry in Israel, went out alone into the wilderness beyond Jordan and was caught away by a whirlwind and never seen again. Daniel, who for more than seventy years held up the banner of the faith in idolatrous Babylon and kept alive the national hope of eventual deliverance, saw the fulfilment of the promise and the triumphant departure of the people of Judah, but was too old to share in the deliverance himself, and he died unrecorded in Babylon. God attaches no importance to the earthly body and the earthly life once his purpose with the individual is achieved. The body goes to the dust; that which is preserved in the strong hands of God comes forth to a new life in a new environment, resplendent in a glory which is enhanced by the merit of the former life's work well done.
So, among that noble company of old time stalwarts of faith who are to take a leading part in the conversion of all the world in the Age yet to come, not the least in high honour will be that gentle and courageous man of faith. He had, more than any other man, to do with the nurture and care of the Son of God when he came to earth, and that man was called, in his own village and by his own neighbours, just simply, Joseph the carpenter.