Joseph, Husband of Mary by Amy Peeler

Joseph, husband of Mary, plays a dramatic role in Jesus’s early life. However, he is rarely mentioned and often disappears from view. Who is this often under-appreciated figure, and why is he important?

Why is Joseph even mentioned in the gospels?
One might ask why documents that claim Jesus as the “Son of God” mention Joseph at all. A simple answer is that Joseph’s patriarchal status in Jesus’s life is a historical tradition that exists; it therefore gets incorporated into the Jesus story by the evangelists. Yet, in John’s Gospel, Joseph is only briefly mentioned by Jesus’s disciples (John 1:45) and the crowd (John 6:42). Luke is similarly succinct, with only five mentions. In only one of those does Joseph act when he travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in his ancestral town (Luke 2:4). In the other instances, he is mentioned only in his relationship with others, Mary (Luke 1:27) and Jesus (Luke 2:16; Luke 3:23; Luke 4:22).

Only Matthew focuses upon the Joseph tradition for a theological reason: the Son of God still needed a human father because he was also truly human, exposed to threats which demanded parental care. In contrast to the other gospels, therefore, Joseph takes a very active role in Matthew’s account and helps flesh out the story of Jesus’s birth.

Why are Joseph’s actions important?
Mary’s prospects would have been tenuous, if not outright dangerous if Joseph had abandoned Mary. In order to see that, readers need to understand some of the norms of marriage in the first century CE.

If Joseph and Mary followed the norms of a typical Jewish couple in first century Nazareth, Joseph would have been several years Mary’s senior. They would have entered into a formal engagement, complete with a ceremony and witnesses, but they would not have lived together nor consummated their marriage. In many modern cultures, we could say the wedding had happened, but there was a long hiatus before the honeymoon.

In the interim time, Mary became pregnant. Upon discovering this, Joseph was within his rights to expose the pregnancy publicly and decry his involvement. Based on Deut 22:21, Mary could have been stoned, but there are no records that the full extent of this law was executed in the first century. The more common option would be to shame her publicly, to bring her before the town council. The Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph does not consider this option but planned to “put her away quietly” (Matt 1:19). Even if Joseph had carried through with his plan, Mary would have been left in a very precarious position. With a broken engagement and an illegitimate child on the way, her family might have kept her at home, or they might not have wanted to share in her shame. She then would have been left with little recourse other than to follow the path of several of the women in Jesus’s genealogy presented in Matthew (Matt 1:3, Matt 1:5): supporting herself with the sale of her body.

Joseph, however, decided to stay married to Mary because “an angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream (Matt 1:20-23). The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife. As soon as Joseph wakes up, he brings Mary into his home. That Joseph was willing to take Mary in and ignore the questioning glances of his neighbors, who could do the math between Jesus’s birth and her move-in date, shows the selflessness of his character and his willingness to listen to this supernatural instruction. When the birth happens, he also obeys the angel in naming the baby Jesus.

Joseph has another dream, possibly as long as two years later, that changes the trajectory of their lives. The angel comes again, this time to instruct Joseph to escape to Egypt in order to flee the wrath of the paranoid King Herod (Matt 2:13). This time Joseph wakes in the middle of the night to obey. He and Mary and Jesus remain in Egypt until Joseph has a third dream in which he learns that the king who sought his son’s life has died. Consequently, the three move again. Joseph alone—while he is awake—senses a continued threat from Herod’s son Archelaus but does not choose a safer location until he gets word in a dream to settle in Galilee (Matt 2:22).

Joseph’s movements might seem irrational to many contemporary readers, but divine direction in dreams was a common and often acceptable form of decision making. In Genesis, another Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, was known especially for his dreams, which predicted famine in the land of Egypt (Gen 37 and Gen 40). Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, gives ample coverage in his writings to the occurrence and interpretation of dreams. Matthew the evangelist certainly validates it. Joseph’s dreams not only keep Jesus safe; they also fulfill God’s plan laid out centuries before in Israel’s Scriptures.

The text of Matthew (and Luke 3:23 for that matter) indicate that Joseph is superfluous to Jesus’s existence, but necessary for his safety. If Joseph hadn’t listened to his angelic dreams, Jesus would have been the child of a single homeless mother and the vulnerable target of a maniacal king.

Amy Peeler, "Joseph, Husband of Mary", n.p. [cited 12 Nov 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/joseph-husband-of-mary

Contributors

Peeler-Amy

Amy Peeler
Associate Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College

Amy Peeler is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Associate Rector at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, IL. She is author of “You Are My Son:” The Family of God in the Epistle to the Hebrews (T&T Clark, 2014) and continues to write about family themes in the New Testament, with special attention to Mary, the mother of God.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

John 1:45

45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

John 6:42

42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Luke 2:4

4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of Da ... View more

Luke 1:27

27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

Luke 2:16

16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Luke 3:23

The Ancestors of Jesus
23Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,

Luke 4:22

22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph's son?”

Deut 22:21

21then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father's house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disg ... View more

Matt 1:19

19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Matt 1:3

3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram,

Matt 1:5

5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,

Matt 1:20-23

20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as yo ... View more

Matt 2:13

The Escape to Egypt
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to ... View more

Matt 2:22

22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went awa ... View more

Gen 37

Joseph Dreams of Greatness
1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Jose ... View more

Gen 40

The Dreams of Two Prisoners
1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.2Pharaoh was angry wit ... View more

Luke 3:23

The Ancestors of Jesus
23Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli,

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