Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus is now complete with the intriguing idea that the line which produced Jesus of Nazareth, traveled not only through the royal family of the house of David, but also through four “tainted’ women: Tamar, who engaged in incest; Rahab, who was called a prostitute; Ruth, who achieved her goals through seduction, and Bathsheba, who was an adulterer. After this provocative introduction Matthew then moves on to introduce the rest of the cast of characters who will star in the drama he is about to write! The first of these characters is named Joseph. In the genealogy he was said to be both the son of Jacob and the man who was betrothed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. His role, as defined by Matthew, will be to act as the male protector of the Christ Child and thus to name him, which in Jewish society served to legitimize him. With this Matthean introduction, the character of Joseph enters the Christian tradition and he has remained deep in our affections from that day to this. He is immediately recognized as a strong silent presence standing behind Mary and the baby in a manger in the crèche scenes. We turn our focus now to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
I begin this look at Joseph with some biblical facts. First, Joseph as the name of Jesus’ presumptive father had never been mentioned before in any Christian source of which we are aware. Joseph received no mention in Paul, who died before any gospel had been composed. He received no mention in Mark, the earliest gospel. He was not mentioned in Q or the gospel of Thomas, both of which some people argue were written prior to Mark (I am not one of them!). So Matthew is the first person ever to refer to one called Joseph as the father of Jesus.
Second, as soon as the birth narratives are complete, Joseph disappears from the Christian scriptures forever. Luke stretches his birth narrative out long enough to relate the account of the boy Jesus, at age twelve, going up to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph. That is the closest Joseph comes to appearing in the adult life of Jesus and that Lucan story, which seems to be based on a story drawn from the life of Samuel, is widely questioned. The fact is, however, that Joseph never again appears in any gospel account.
When I was a child attending Sunday school in my evangelical Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, this absence of Joseph from any mention in the life of the adult Jesus was explained by suggesting that Joseph probably died while Jesus was still a lad. The tradition of this early death was reinforced by the nativity scenes painted by the master artists through the centuries. All portray Joseph as a much older man, thus enforcing the possibility of his death in Jesus’ childhood. Joseph’s elderly depiction, however, came into Christianity primarily through a late second century apocryphal gospel known as the Proto-Gospel of James.
This narrative purported to tell of the early life of the mother of Jesus, prior to her introduction in the gospel tradition as the bearer of the messiah. This obviously mythological Proto-Gospel of James reflected much later and highly developed ideas about Mary’s virginity, but it became popular as it filled in the gaps of what was at that time thought of as a literal story. In this late second century work, Mary at her birth was handed over to some holy women to raise so that she would be prepared to serve as the vessel in whose womb the Christ Child would be formed. So Mary was not just protected in these early years, she was also formed in holiness.
When she reached the age of puberty, however, Jewish society required that she have a male protector. There was no father of Mary in the story, who might have served in this role so these holy women set up a process by which they would choose a proper husband for Mary and thus bring a male protector into the picture. There was one problem, however. Mary’s virginity would have to be honored and protected by whoever was to become her husband. Thus these holy women decided to look only at older men, perhaps widowed men with grown children, and thus presumably too old to be interested in sex. I don’t know how old that is, but it is old! So the pursuit of the perfect husband for Mary was conducted and through a series of miraculous signs, such as his staff sprouting flowers, Joseph became the one chosen. With this story in the tradition, Joseph was forever afterwards portrayed as elderly. So, it was said, his absence in the adult life of Jesus might well be explained by his death early in Jesus’ life.
There is, however, another possibility to which I have already hinted, which I would like to examine in more detail. Perhaps Joseph was a literary character created by Matthew to fill a role in the miraculous drama that he was creating about the birth of Jesus to a virgin mother. In his scenario, there was no father to name the baby Jesus and to serve as his protector. Without this protective male presence, this child would have had to deal with the enormous prejudice and social hostility that accompanied one whose paternity was in question. Let me urge you not to resist this idea on first hearing, but to hold your judgment until the evidence is presented.
If Matthew was going to create a literary character to serve as the earthly father of Jesus, is there some compelling reason why Matthew would choose to name him Joseph? Well, yes, there is, but one would not know this unless one was aware of Jewish history, as both Matthew, an obvious Jewish writer, and the community for which Matthew wrote, certainly were.
The Hebrew people had always been divided into two camps. After the reign of King Solomon, these people split into two competitive nations, Judah in the south and Israel, which came to be known as the Northern Kingdom, in the North. This division of the Hebrew people, however, was far older than even that. Biblical folklore accounted for it by saying that while Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, was the common father of all the Hebrew people, the two segments of this nation had had separate mothers. Recall the Genesis story in which Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, the sister of the woman, Rachel, for whose hand in marriage he had worked for seven long years. Leah then became the mother of Judah, whose progeny formed the nation of Judah, while Rachel became the mother of Joseph, whose progeny formed the Northern Kingdom.
Recall that the heirs of Levi, who was also a son of Leah, did not form a tribe, but became the Levites, the holy people who crossed all tribal boundaries. So to keep the number of the tribes of the Hebrew people at twelve, Joseph was given two tribes named for his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The other Hebrew tribes were gradually melded into these Joseph tribes. So dominant was the tribe of Ephraim in the North that the Old Testament actually uses the name Ephraim as a synonym for the nation called Israel. So the two major patriarchs in Jewish history were Judah and Joseph. Hebrew folklore portrayed them always as rivals. This is revealed in the Genesis story of Joseph’s favoritism reflected in his coat of many colors, while his brother Judah was portrayed as the one suggesting that he be sold into slavery.
Part of the messiah’s task, according to Matthew, was to bring the covenant people together which meant that messiah must unite the tribe of Judah with those of Joseph making a single whole. In the genealogy Matthew had just traced, Jesus’ lineage through David and Solomon to the kings of Judah, which secured Jesus’ connection with the Judah part of the Hebrew nation. To make Joseph the name of the earthly father of Jesus would bring the other half of that nation into the picture. So the heir of the Judean King David was protected and legitimized by a father named Joseph. It was a perfect solution. Judah and Joseph were brought together in this first story of the birth of the messiah. So in Jesus at his birth, Matthew was claiming, that the divided “chosen” nation had become once more in this messiah, one people.
Now, if you have journeyed with me this far, let me explore a second question. If Matthew is the creator of the character Joseph, who serves as Jesus’ earthly father, from where did Matthew get the biographical data that he used to build this literary figure? To answer this we look at the details provided for us in Matthew 1 and 2, which are the only places in scripture where we are told anything about this Joseph. There we discover three things. First, Joseph has a father whose name is Jacob. Second, according to Matthew, God only speaks to Joseph in dreams. In a dream God tells Joseph to take his wife for the child within her is holy. In a dream Joseph is warned to escape the wrath of King Herod. In a dream he is told when it is safe to return to their home in Bethlehem. In a dream, he is directed to move the messianic child from Bethlehem to the safety of Nazareth in Galilee. Everywhere in Mathew’s narrative his Joseph is associated with dreams. Last, the role that Matthew assigns to Joseph in this drama is to save the life of the messianic child by taking him down to Egypt.
Now go back to the story of the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis (37-50) and see what biographical details we can learn about this earlier Joseph. We discover there three things. First, this Joseph has a father named Jacob. Second, this Joseph is overwhelmingly identified with dreams. He is called “the dreamer” and he rises to political power in Egypt by interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh. Third, his role in the drama of salvation is to save the people of the covenant from death in a famine and he does this by taking them down to Egypt.
Do you think these things are coincidental? Or are you beginning to understand the interpretive clue that unlocks the gospels. The gospels are Jewish books that weave the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures around Jesus of Nazareth as the primary means of claiming that he is the expected messiah. To read the gospels literally is to misunderstand them totally. Literalism is a Gentile heresy! The gospels are Jewish books that must be read with Jewish eyes. Nothing reveals this more clearly than the story of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. So Joseph is established in the birth narrative. The holy child is born to Mary and when this series resumes, we will turn to the star in the east and the journey of the Magi.