What do we know about Joseph?
In fact, we seem to know very little about him but we can piece together quite a bit of information if we look. We know,
for example that he was:
the man who was husband of Mary, the mother
of Jesus of Nazareth
the man who prepared the manger for the
new-born Saviour on the first Christmas night
the man who talked with the shepherds
and heard the story we read in Luke's gospel
the man who redeemed the Redeemer with
five pieces of silver at the Temple in Jerusalem, and listened while
Simeon and Anna uttered their prophecies
the man who cheated King Herod of his
prey and ﬂed in the starlight from Bethlehem
the man who, day after day, watched
Jesus grow from babyhood to childhood, from childhood to boyhood,
from boyhood to manhood
the man who taught a trade to Jesus, Son of
God, and was trusted and obeyed by him.
It's frustrating. We know the story of the birth of
John the Baptist; we
know who his parents were, where he was born, where he grew up; we can
discover his age; we are told what he ate, how he was dressed, many of
the things he said, where and how he died. In the case of Joseph we
know not a single one of these details. What we do know is some of the places where he lived, the
things he saw, and a little
of what he thought and felt.
Most of our information about him comes from
the ﬁrst two chapters of Matthew's gospel and the ﬁrst two chapters of
We do not know if Joseph was a native of Nazareth
or not. His family, we are told, came originally from Bethlehem in the
south, from the house of David. He is often portrayed as an older man,
but in fact there is no reason to think this was so, other than that an
man might be content for his wife to remain a virgin after
marriage, as the Catholic tradition taught.
We have heard of
Nazareth so often that it has become almost mythic,
but the Nazareth where Joseph lived
and worked was as real then as it is today.
Take a map of Palestine
and find the spot on the coast where Mount Carmel juts
out into the sea on the south side of the Bay of Acre.
Follow the River
Kishon, on the north side of the Carmel range, upstream through the
narrow gorge by which it enters the Plain of Acre, and
you come out into the Plain of Esdraelon.
This is the only break in the
long line of hills which run like a backbone down the centre of the
land, and the only level passage east and west, from the Jordan
to the sea, for the whole length of Palestine.
The whole Plain swarms with historical memories:
of Elijah and the priests of Baal, of Gideon and the Midianites, of
and the Philistines. It has been the battleground of nations from the
dawn of history down to the time of Napoleon, who fought a battle there.
the Plain of Esdraelon is a triangle, and the northern side, running
east and west, is formed by the southern edge of the hills of Galilee,
which drop sharply into the plain. About midway in the line of hills a
narrow valley cuts in, rises steeply, and opens out into a high, flat
basin. Here in this upland valley, 1160 feet above the sea, Nazareth lies. From the hills on which Nazareth is built you can look,
as Joseph once looked, over the whole land from snow-clad Hermon in the
north to the hills of Judea in the south, and from the mountains of
Gilead across the Jordan to the waters of the Mediterranean.
Map of Nazareth and the surrounding
countryside of Galilee
Nazareth was not an obscure, out-of-the- way-place. It is always
called a town or city in the Gospels, and important trade routes passed
capital of the province,
Sepphoris, was in sight from the hill above it. Flourishing
cities on the coast and by the lake of Galilee were within a few hours’
journey. It lay in the midst of a beautiful and fertile country, with a
teeming population and the hum of trade all about it. We must not
picture Joseph as the inhabitant of an isolated village.
But Jesus, as we know, was born in Bethlehem, not
Nazareth. You might look at
The Birth of Jesus to see why this was so.
There is no need to rehearse the well-known story
of what happened when Joseph at length reached Bethlehem. The inn was
full. The best they could get was a stable,
a rough shelter for beasts. There Jesus was born.
Meanwhile, in one of the valleys close by (Bethlehem
lies on a hill) the shepherds heard the angels' message, and were given
the strange sign by which they were to recognise him who had been
foretold as 'wonderful cousellor, God the mighty' (Isaiah 9:6) - an
infant wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger. 'They came with
haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the
Luke's gospel tells us that Mary stored up in
her heart all she saw and heard on that night. We can suppose that the same is true of Joseph.
Eight days later he exercised the authority of a
father: he circumcised the child, and gave him his name.
When forty days had passed Mary and Joseph travelled the six
miles northward to
Jerusalem to carry out a twofold prescription of the
law. The first-born male child of every Jewish family belonged to God,
and had to be bought back with five shekels. On the same occasion the
mother underwent legal purification and offered a lamb. Those who could
not afford a lamb, however, offered two doves instead. Mary and Joseph,
then, came like other pious Jews to carry out what the law prescribed.
It is worth noting that the first time Jesus visited Jerusalem it was so
that he himself might he redeemed with five pieces of silver, but the
last time he came it was to redeem us, 'not with corruptible
things as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ.' (1
Peter 1, 18-19.)
The Family, John Dickson Batten
We learn from this portion of the Gospel that
Joseph was a poor man, for Mary made the offering of the poor. Luke's
tells the story of what followed: how Simeon saw the little group and took the child in his arms,
God that he had lived to see with his own eyes him who was to be the
Saviour of all peoples and and the glory of
Israel. Then, while Mary and Joseph were filled with astonishment at his
words, he turned to them and blessed them, as well he might; if he
was so highly favoured in seeing the Promised One, how blessed was the
family into which he had been born!
Joseph and Mary in Egypt
After the visit of the
Magi, Joseph was
warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and
flee to Egypt, and
stay there till he was told to return. Soon
Herod would be seeking the
child’s life. And so, while the Magi stole away eastward, avoiding
Jerusalem, Joseph took the road to Egypt.
had always been the place of refuge for those who had to flee
from Palestine. There was a large Jewish community all about the
delta of the Nile. Bethlehem was the usual starting point for caravans
to Egypt, and in the course of his stay in Bethlehem
Joseph would have picked up information about these caravans and the
route they followed. Once beyond the boundary of the Holy Land
the little party was comparatively safe, and the rest of the journey
might be made with less haste. Joseph would almost certainly have joined some small
caravan for greater security.
Joseph hears the voice on an angel
in the music he listens to: Caravaggio's symbol of a heavenly message.
Mary and the baby Jesus fall into an exhausted sleep.
As Joseph followed the desert route to
Egypt and looked at the child asleep in his mother’s arms, he could not
foresee an incident in that child’s later life when another storm would
rage around him and threaten to destroy him and his companions while he
slept. But then he was to wake, and, with a word, quiet the storm. Not
so now. While behind them the blood of the Innocents flowed and their
mothers’ cries rose to heaven, it was left to Joseph to guide Mary and her child to
safety in a strange land.
We have only one ﬁxed date in
the course of all these events, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. Then it was
that Joseph was told to return to his own land. We do not know,
unfortunately, with certainty, the year of Our Lord’s birth but the date
that is most favoured is 6 B.C.
When Herod died, once again the
angel spoke to Joseph in his sleep, and Joseph left Egypt, its temples
its pyramids, and set out for
Palestine. The journey from Egypt to Palestine and up along the coast to near Caesarea, the seat
of Roman government, then across a pass in the Carmel range to Nazareth
would be about 320 miles, a long distance to bring a boy of some two
years old. It must have been with feelings of satisfaction that Mary and
Joseph reached the familiar scenes of fertile Galilee and made
their way across the Plain of Esdraelon and up the steep road on its
northern side which led into the pocket in the hills where Nazareth lay.
Journey almost completed, Joseph
falls into an exhausted sleep. Orazio Gentileschi
The rest of St. Joseph’s life, so far as we know,
was spent at Nazareth. There are only four things known about his life during
The first is that he led the life of a
carpenter/builder. The gospels are quite clear on this point. He was
known and remembered by the people of the district as 'Joseph the
carpenter'. The word which we translate 'carpenter' may also mean
'smith' or 'builder', and it is likely that Joseph’s work was a
mixture of both.
Like all the ordinary people of Galilee, he
would have the rough accent of that province, an accent which later
betrayed Peter among the servants of the High Priest in Jerusalem.
We learn from the Gospels that Joseph led a
religious life. We are told that he went every year to Jerusalem at
the solemn day of the Pasch. There were two other major yearly
festivals, so Joseph may have gone to Jerusalem three times a year.
We get confirmation of this in the seventh chapter of John's gospel,
where we find the 'brethren' of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the
feast of tabernacles.
It was on one of these visits to Jerusalem that Jesus was 'lost': 'When
he was twelve years old . . . the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem'.
But by the age of twelve, now officially a man, Jesus was already
familiar with the city, and in the opinion of those around him,
remarkable for his wisdom (Luke 2-40). So it was not a case of Jesus
being 'lost' as we commonly understand the word. Luke's gospel puts
the matter quite plainly when he says simply that Jesus
remained behind in Jerusalem without letting his parents know.
Joseph would have felt no anxiety when he did not see Jesus in the
course of the first stage of the journey, until he failed to rejoin
them at night. Then he and Mary, and no doubt all of their
relatives, became alarmed, enquired fruitlessly among their friends,
hurried back to the city, searched all next day without success, and
finally found him on the third day among the rabbis in the Temple.
It must have been a sore trial for Joseph. Besides his own grief and
anxiety he had to witness the anguish of the boy's mother. She in
turn was conscious of Joseph’s grief: 'Your father and I have
sought you sorrowing'.
The third fact which we learn from the
Gospels about this period of Joseph’s life is that he exercised the
rights and duties of a father in regard to Jesus. Jesus was known
afterwards and commonly referred to as the son of Joseph. For Mary’s
spontaneous use of the word when she came upon her Son in the
Temple, we see that 'father' was the name Joseph ordinarily went by
in the home at Nazareth.
Joseph carried out the duties of a father:he instruected his son in the precepts of the Mosaic law; he taught
him the inspired stories of the Old Testament; as the boy grew up
and became strong, he taught him his own trade.
Jesus must have spent at least half his life in Joseph’s house, and
his thought and speech as revealed to us in the gospels reﬂect the
experiences of all those years.
Exactly how long Joseph lived after the last mention of him in the
Gospels, when Jesus was twelve years old, is unknown. He seems to
have died some time before the beginning of Jesus' public life. In
several places later in the Gospels, where we should reasonably
expect some reference to Joseph, we find none. Thus, when Jesus
visited Nazareth the people said 'Is not this the carpenter,
the son of Mary?' and then follows a reference to his brothers and
sisters who were living among them; but not a word of Joseph. And
finally, on the cross Jesus left his mother to the care of John.
The 'just man'
The only direct testimony we have in the Gospel about the sort of man
Joseph was is that 'Joseph her husband was a just man'. They are few
words, but full of meaning.
There is a great difference between a man who performs just actions and
a just man; just as there can be a great difference between a person who
does charitable things and a charitable person, a person who does humble
actions and a humble person. A just man is one who serves God and keeps
Joseph's life was a humdrum one,
accompanied by sorrow, hardship, disappointment, and monotonous work.
There was very little glamour in Nazareth. We get a picture of a silent
man who carried out God’s will through obedience, amid trials, by faith,
in obscurity. We are told nothing about his private life or thoughts, no
personal details about his birth, upbringing, or death.
He was not exempt from sorrow and suffering. The very first incident
related of him in the Gospel shows him faced with a terrible perplexity
which must almost have torn his heart in two. And the last scene in
which he appears shows him wandering about Jerusalem in bitter sorrow.
Joseph’s were the trials that anybody has to suffer at one time or
Why should we complain? Joseph did God’s will, he carried out the work
that lay to his hand, but he did not always understand God’s plans. Is
it right that we expect always to understand them? Joseph’s life
has valuable lessons for us all. We can learn from it that neither
money nor position nor talents nor special opportunities are needed if
we wish to serve God with the greatest perfection. It is a delusion if
we think that we could be saints if we were somewhere else, or had
some other employment, or a different family. We may learn that high
sanctity does not consist in pious sentiments or even in lofty
meditations, but in faithfully doing God’s will, day in day out, in the
world in which He has placed us. This is the practical, solid
spirituality we find in Joseph’s life.
May that life be an
inspiration, help, and encouragement to us, and may we follow the same
path as courageously and as faithfully as he did.