Joseph The Carpenter

JOSEPH THE CARPENTER

A saint and spouse of the Virgin Mary and the foster father of Jesus Christ (feast day: 26 Abib).

Biblical Accounts

In the New Testament Joseph is mentioned in the accounts of the birth and childhood of Jesus (Mt. 1-2; Lk. 1-2) and also in Luke (3:23, 4:22) and John (1:45, 6:42) as the father of Jesus. He belonged to the tribe of Judah and the family of King David (Mt. 1:2-16; Lk. 3:23-34), and in the Gospels he is the link that joins Jesus to that lineage. The Gospels differ in the name given to Joseph’s father in the genealogies of Jesus. According to Matthew 1:16 it is Jacob; according to Luke 3:23 it is Heli. The different explanations for this divergence remain in the realm of hypothesis. For Julius Africanus in the third century, Jacob and Heli were brothers, and on the death of Heli, Jacob married his widow in accordance with the Levitical law.

Saint Augustine suggested that Heli had adopted Joseph, who was the son of Jacob. Heli could also have been the father of Mary. Since she was the only child, on her marriage the family rights of Heli would have passed to Joseph. The Gospels tell us nothing of the birthplace of Joseph, but ancient Christian writers suggest three possibilities: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The evangelists call Joseph ho tekton (artisan). The Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions take him to be an artisan who works with wood, a carpenter; the Latin versions take him to be an artisan who works with iron, faber. Greek writers generally call him a carpenter.

The Gospels relate that Mary was already betrothed to Joseph when she received the annunciation of the angel (Mt. 1:18; Lk. 1:27). From the text of Matthew it appears that the situation was that of the formal promise of matrimony, the first stage in a Jewish marriage, which was completed by leading the bride to the husband’s house. In such a situation it is unlikely that Joseph would have accompanied Mary on her journey to the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39). On observing the signs of Mary’s motherhood before they lived together, Joseph, a just man, decided to put her away privately (Mt. 1:19).

In a dream he then received the revelation of the mystery that had been worked in Mary and voluntarily accepted the mission of paternity that God commended to him (Mt. 1:24-25). As legal father by divine vocation, Joseph gave the child the name Jesus and took care of the Holy Family. In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that Joseph had further divine revelations about the journey to Egypt and the return to Nazareth (Mt. 2:13-19). According to Luke, Joseph accompanied his spouse, Mary, who is the protagonist of the events (Lk. 2:4-5; 16:48). Since there is no direct mention of Joseph during the public life of Jesus, it can reasonably be supposed that he had already died.

Apocryphal Accounts

Joseph logically appears in apocryphal literature, which has had a great influence on artistic representations. Joseph appears above all in the apocryphal gospels of the birth of Mary and the childhood of Jesus. The oldest of this series is the so-called Protogospel of James, dating from the second century (Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 1-48), the main idea of which is to defend the honor and virginity of Mary in the narration of the antecedents of Mary and her husband Joseph.

The latter, an old widower with children, is given the task of looking after Mary by the high priest after a meeting of the widowers of Jerusalem in which a dove appears from Joseph’s staff and flies over his head (chap. 9). When Mary is found to be with child, the high priest suspects Joseph and submits both of them to the test of drinking the bitter waters. They come through the test unharmed and their innocence is acknowledged (chaps. 15-16). Such a presentation of Joseph clarifies the New Testament references to the brethren of Jesus (Mt. 12:46; Mk. 3:31; Jn. 2:12; Acts 1:14), since these would be children of a previous marriage of Joseph; the perpetual virginity of Mary is also protected.

The Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew is dependent on the Protogospel of James. In this sixth- century work (Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 50-105), episodes from the childhood of Jesus are narrated. Equally dependent on the Protogospel is the De nativitate Mariae (ninth century; Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 113-21), which eliminates such themes as the first marriage of Joseph and the test of the bitter waters and clarifies other themes such as the true marriage of Joseph and the Virgin.

The apocryphal gospels of the childhood of Jesus have the prime aim of showing the divinity of the child and contain many anecdotes on the relationship between Joseph and Jesus. Thus the Gospel of Pseudo-Thomas, which dates from the second century (Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 140-75), gives an account of the miracle worked by Jesus when He causes some clay pigeons to take flight after having been scolded by Joseph for making them on the Sabbath (chap. 2). Joseph scolds Jesus and pulls His ears, when he cannot understand the child’s behavior (chap. 5), and he tries in vain to find a teacher suitable for Jesus (chap. 14).

Along the same lines is the so-called Arabic Gospel of the Childhood, also known in Syriac (ed. from Latin version in Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 181-209), which includes details of the journey to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. This apocryphal work includes the tradition of the stay of the Holy Family in Matariyyah, a town some 6 miles (9 km) northeast of Cairo near the ancient Heliopolis. There Jesus caused a spring to flow in which Mary washed His robe, and the balmy perfume of the sweat filled the whole region (chap. 24). However, this tradition is not included in the twelfth-century Churches and Monasteries in Egypt.

The apocryphal History of Joseph the Carpenter has also been preserved in Coptic. Previously it was known only in the Arabic version, edited by G. Wallin in 1727 and translated into Latin by C. Tischendorf, 1876, pp. 309-336, and in the Latin version of 1522 by Isidoro de Isolano. E. Quatremère in 1808 and G. Zoëga in 1810 drew attention to the existence of Bohairic and Sahidic versions. Both texts were edited by E. Revillout (1876, pp. 28-70) and P. de Lagarde (1883); new Sahidic fragments were edited by F. Robinson (1896) and L. T. Lefort (1953). The Bohairic manuscript is from the Monastery of DAYR ANBA MAQAR (Saint Macarius). The Sahidic fragments of two manuscripts are from DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH (the White Monastery).

The original of this apocryphal work, undoubtedly in Greek, though some think in Sahidic, dates from the fifth or sixth century or even earlier. In its present form it is a discourse by Jesus to the Apostles describing the death of His father Joseph, “the blessed old carpenter.” Chapters 2-11 describe the life of Joseph and are heavily dependent on the apocryphal works concerning the Nativity. Chapters 12-31 describe the death of Joseph, emphasizing his fears at its approach and the help he is given by Jesus and Mary. These chapters are the most original part of the book and are similar in style to the apocryphal works on the death of Mary.

The way in which this History of Joseph begins leads to the conclusion that in its present form it was written to be read in the liturgy in the Coptic monasteries on the feast of Saint Joseph. Some modern scholars (G. Klameth, S. Morenz) see in the date of this feast, on which the beginning of the flooding of the Nile was celebrated, a point of similarity between the accounts of the death and burial of Joseph and the Osiris myths. But such a hypothesis is not sufficiently well founded, since the basic motif in the history of Joseph is the death of Joseph, whereas the motif of the myths is the resurrection of Osiris. Although certain expressions tainted with gnosticism can be found in the History of Joseph, its contents are substantially orthodox and suppose a well-developed doctrine of the Trinity, judgment after death, the immortality of the soul, the angels, and even (according to G. Giamberardini) the sacraments.

On the other hand, it contains apocryphal information concerning the life of Joseph, such as that he was from Bethlehem, was married for the first time at the age of forty, remained married for forty-nine years, and was a widower for a year. He then took the Virgin into his care and two years later they were married. He died at an advanced age when Jesus was eighteen. By his first marriage Joseph had four sons and two daughters called Assia and Lida. In Bethlehem Joseph registered Jesus before his birth (chap. 7). The History of Joseph also includes the tradition of the death of the prophets Elijah and Enoch at the hands of the Antichrist (chap. 31), as is narrated in the Apocalypse of Elijah.

An interesting feature of the History of Joseph is that it is the oldest indirect witness to a feast in honor of Saint Joseph, leading to the conclusion that the Christians of Egypt were the first to celebrate it.

The figure of Joseph is, of course, closely linked in the traditions of the Coptic church to the journey of the Holy Family to Egypt. On this subject it is sufficient to note, among the homilies in Arabic, that of Zakariyya of Sakha, in which the reasons for the journey are given for the first time: to purify Egypt of idolatry, to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament, and to shower blessings on Egypt.

In two homilies by Cyriacus of al-Bahnasa there is mention of the Holy Family’s stay in Bisus for four days and of a Book of Joseph, in which the saint wrote an account of his life. Many places in Egypt lay claim to the residence there of Joseph and the Holy Family, for example, Cusa and Hermopolis in the Thebaid (Meinardus, 1963). In the apocryphal Vision of Theophilus, preserved in Syriac (ed. Mingana, 1929), it is recalled that near Cusa Jesus took Joseph’s staff and planted it in the ground as a witness of His arrival there, and that immediately the staff began to sprout.

Cult of Saint Joseph

The cult of Saint Joseph received its first explicit witness in the West in the eighth century (Central Library, Zurich, Rh 30.30) with a feast celebrated on 20 March. From the tenth century the different calendars and martyrologies place the feast on 19 March, and the first witnesses to public devotion are found in the twelfth century. This devotion became more widespread in the West through the activities of the Premonstratensian, Servite, Franciscan, and Carmelite orders, and the figure of Saint Joseph grew in esteem and became the object of theological reflection to such an extent that Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1870 declared Saint Joseph patron of the Roman Catholic Church (feast day since 1955: 1 May).

Saint Joseph is acknowledged as having a divine mission and a singular holiness below that of Jesus and Mary alone. In the East the feast of Saint Joseph is mentioned in the ninth-century calendars of the Palestinian monastery of Saint Sabas (feast day: first Sunday after Christmas). The commemoration of the parents of Jesus is joined to that of the Nativity and is celebrated the day after or on the preceding Sunday.

The Coptic church has used a proper office for Saint Joseph since the Middle Ages. It is placed after that of John the Baptist, but before that of the Apostles. In the SYNAXARION of the Coptic church of Alexandria, written about 1425, the feast of 26 Abib is preserved. The feast to celebrate the stay of the Holy Family in Egypt is joined to the feast of the consecration of the churches of those places in which they are supposed to have resided. There are signs of a feast celebrated on 26 Amshir, which could be the betrothal of Joseph and Mary. The most theological consideration of Joseph before the modern period is by Ibn Al-Tayyib al Mashriqi (1403) in a Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

At present the devotion to Joseph is not of particular importance among the Copts, and his feast and office are celebrated only in the monasteries. Some connect the forty-three days of fasting in Advent to a fast of the same length by the Virgin before she gave birth in Bethlehem because Joseph had insulted her (Giamberardini, 1966, pp. 47-48). The Jerusalem Copts celebrate the appearance in 1954 of the Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus, Joseph, and the angels in Saint Antony’s College, next to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Meinardus, 1970, p. 267).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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  • Lefort, L. T. “A Propos de ‘L’Histoire de Joseph le charpentier.'” Le Muséon 66 (1953):201-223.
  • Legarde, P. de. Aegyptiaca, pp. 1-37. Göttingen, 1883.
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  • Mingana, A. “Vision of Theofilus, or the Book of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 13 (1929):383-425.
  • Morenz, S. Die Geschichte von Joseph dem Zimmermann, übersetzt, erlautert und untersucht. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen literatur 56, no. 1. Berlin, 1951.
  • Révillout, E. “Apocryphes coptes du Nouveau Testament.” Etudes égyptologiques 7 (1876):28-70.
  • Robinson, F. Coptic Apocryphal Gospels. Texts and Studies 4, no. 2. Cambridge, 1896.
  • Santos, A. de. Los Evangelios Apocrifos, pp. 358-78. Madrid, 1956. Stramare, T., and M. L. Casanova. “Giuseppe, sposo di Maria.” Bibliotheca Sanctorum, Vol. 6, pp. 1251-92. Rome, 1965. Tischendorf, C., ed. Evangelia Apocrypha, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1876.

GONZALO ARANDA PEREZ

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