This past Sunday (Dec 28, 2008) I presented a monologue to my home church that examined the nativity from the perspective of Joseph. If you haven’t heard it you can visit my home church’s website or listen to it using the link below.
After the service, as expected, a number of people challenged me on the premise of my presentation. For a few hundred years now western Christianity has had this idea that Joseph was a young man and that Mary was his first wife. The image has been presented for so long that it is hard for us to consider other possibilities. As one woman in the congregation put it, “You’re a heretic aren’t you?”
But such has not always been the case, and indeed even today there are branches of Christianity that find the idea of an older, more mature Joseph quite acceptable. These ideas largely stem from what are known as the apocryphal writings, a number of documents which for one reason or another were not included in the Bible. The most common reason for their exclusion was “that many things are found in them corrupt and against the true faith handed down by the elders…” Origen .
That there are questionable contents in these books is without question (pun intended) but does that mean that everything in them is in error? The gospels are so devoid of information about Joseph that if we are to be completely honest, anything that we imagine regarding the man is, in truth, speculation. So I would ask you, gentle reader, to speculate with me and consider that, at least in part, there may be some validity to some of these ideas about the surrogate father of Jesus Christ.
Joseph – A biography…
Basically the story of Joseph as presented by the apocrypha goes something like this.
Joseph’s first wife was a woman called Melcha or Escha or Salome, depending on which apocryphal book you read. They lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James, Jesus’ brother. A year after his wife’s death, the priests announce throughout Judea that they wished to find a good man of the tribe of Judah to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up with the other candidates and by the manifestation of a miracle (this varies) God selected Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place.
Now, let me repeat, these accounts have no definitive authority whatsoever; however, over the years they have acquired some popularity, even inspiring many artists in their depictions of the events. This is especially true of the Coptic Church who were among the first to venerate Joseph. Coptic commentators point out that there are some good reasons to believe that Joseph was an older man, (though many will admit that the age of ninety is likely an attempt to associate him with Abraham and Moses).
Consider this: a younger man would likely have gone ballistic when he heard that his betrothed was pregnant and knew full well it wasn’t his doing. An older man might have been more disposed to protecting the reputation of her family as the Bible suggests. There’s also an argument to be made that an older man would be more likely to accept the spiritual reality of the dream rather than just excuse it as being influenced by Mary’s story. In a similar light, an older man is more likely to be able to restrain himself from relations with Mary while awaiting the birth of the child, though admittedly fear of harming the Holy Child makes for powerful motivation even for an amorous young Jew.
Now might suggest that this was created to re-enforce the idea that Joseph was the “protector of virgins”, and I have to agree it looks that way. However, I find it interesting to note that the stories can be traced to the late 2nd/early 3rd century, while the veneration of Joseph only traces back to the 4th century. Is it possible the story inspired the elevation of Joseph to sainthood?
Now, none of this is conclusive but then our speculation doesn’t stop there. My monologue also contained another interesting idea.
Dual Genealogies Explained
Another dimension to this is that many of the same authors, including one Julius Africanus, also expounded an interesting explanation for the fact that the lineage of Jesus (by his father Joseph of course) is different in the Gospel of Luke from the one presented in the Gospel of Matthew. In the book of Matthew Joseph’s father is listed as being a man named Jacob, whereas Luke says Joseph’s father was Heli.
Julius did some 3rd century Google-ing (that is actual back and forth footwork) and determined that Jacob and Heli were, in fact, half-brothers; their mother having remarried after the death of her first husband. This led Julius to some interesting speculation. Yes, I know, more speculation, but most explanations of the two genealogies are no more than that. The question is, is one man’s speculation more feasible than another’s?
Julius looked at the fact the two men were brothers and was reminded of the Levitate requirement that if a man were to die without a male heir, then his brother should marry his widow to sire an heir for the deceased husband. (Deut. 25:5-6) What if that were the case with Jacob and Heli? Africanus suggests that Heli dies without an heir, so his widow, who is identified as a woman named Eisha, marries her husband’s half brother Jacob. By Jacob, Eisha gives birth to a boy named Joseph, who would grow up to marry Mary. Biologically the boy is the son of Jacob, but because of the Levitate edict, that the brother sires an heir “for his brother”, the child would be legally considered to be the son of Heli!
Since Matthew is one of the disciples, and we know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, spends at least some time with the company that followed the Lord; it is not unreasonable to suggest that Matthew would know about the circumstances of Joseph’s birth and the connection to Jacob. So Matthew records Jesus’ blood lineage.
Luke, on the other hand, is a companion of Paul’s, but is apparently not around prior to the crucifixion. For his account it would not be unreasonable to suggest he relied on the official records and therefore counted Heli as being the earthly grandfather of Jesus, so his account is the legal lineage.
Since this scenario is entirely plausible, it means that both genealogies could well be valid lines of succession, through Joseph, for the man known as Jesus of Nazareth.
IMHO (In My Humble Opinion)
Personally, I like this explanation. So apparently did early scholars such as Aristotle, who rejected all other ideas once he heard this one. As speculations go, it has cultural validity, is based on sound Biblical concepts, and is in many respects more plausible than the idea that Luke’s lineage is somehow that of Mary. But again, it is all speculation; baring a major archaeological discovery, we will never truly know the truth this side of the next life.
But even having said that, such speculation is not without value. It is important that we, from time to time, consider the validity of our assumptions. Many old ideas have been rejected not because of any valid argument, but just because they are old ideas. In some cases personal grudges and/ or bigotry are involved. In like manner, many new ideas are also rejected for no reason other than they are new.
And so, gentle reader, I present to you some food for thought. Not to be taken as gospel, or even as a great likelihood, but simply to be considered as grist for the mill in our continuing effort to understand the reality that is the story of our Lord Jesus.