Putting St. Joseph Back in the Picture

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 23 2008 10:33 AM

The Hidden Man of Christmas

Putting St. Joseph back in the picture.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

As far as biblical figures go, St. Joseph—the man who married the mother of Jesus—often gets short shrift: his life isn’t prominently featured in the Gospels, and he’s rarely depicted on Christmas cards. Yet Joseph did fulfill an astonishingly important task:  raising the son of God. James Martin explores what we do and don’t know St. Joseph’s identity in a 2008 article reprinted below. 

Christmas cards tend to fall into three categories: the family card (cheerful children in red and green sweaters), the secular card (snowmen, snowflakes, snowy villages), and the religious card. The religious card usually bears a portrait of the Virgin Mary gazing beatifically at the crib of her newborn son, Jesus. Behind her, the picture is just as some of the Gospels describe: shepherds, animals, maybe even the three wise men, though they actually were late on the scene.

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But where's St. Joseph? Where is the man to whom, according to the Gospel of Matthew, an angel announced the birth of Jesus? Where is the guy who married Mary even though she was already "with child," the man who helped to raise Jesus, the carpenter who taught Jesus his craft?

He's off to the side or stuck in the back, behind a shepherd. And he's old, balding, and stooped, looking more like Mary's father than her husband. Sometimes, he's not there at all. Many Christmas cards show just Mary and Jesus. And how many carols even mention Joseph? He is at the Nativity scene and in American Christmas traditions. That's a loss since Joseph can be a powerful figure not only for fathers but also for the average believer.

For a number of reasons, Joseph has presented something of a problem for the Catholic Church over the past two millennia. The miracle of Christmas was not only that God became human but also that this was accomplished through a virgin. Naturally, Mary is one of the stars of the story. But the emphasis on her virginity may have meant that her marriage to Joseph may have been an uncomfortable reality—after all, if they were married, didn't they, well, have sex? That flew in the face of what became an early tradition in the Catholic Church—Mary's "perpetual virginity."

Better, then, to have Joseph in the background. Some scholars have posited that this is also the reason that he is portrayed as elderly in all those paintings, even though some experts estimate he was around 30 years old at the time of Jesus' birth. Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame and author of A Brief History of the Saints, told me, "Nine times out of 10 in Christian art, Joseph takes on more of father-protector role rather than a husband. That was a way of solving the sexuality problem." Cunningham points out that in some paintings, Joseph is shown dozing off in the corner of the stable or even leaving the scene of the Nativity entirely, "out of modesty."

But don't blame Western artists for giving Joseph short shrift. They didn't have much material to go on. Joseph is given no lines to speak in any of the Gospels, and he disappears entirely after Jesus' childhood. Significantly, he is absent during Jesus' public ministry and even at the Crucifixion, where Mary is featured prominently. This has led some scholars to believe that he must have died before the end of Jesus' earthly life.

So what do we know about Joseph? Apart from his trade—he's called a tekton in the Gospels, which is usually translated as carpenter but is more likely a general craftsman—not much. But Pheme Perkins, a professor of the New Testament at Boston College and the author of the widely used textbook Reading the New Testament, says you can draw some interesting conclusions if you read the Gospels carefully.

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