JOSEPH, THE “DISAPPEARING” FATHER OF JESUS BY TOBIAS SIEGENTHALER
Polidoro da Caravaggio, The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the Infant John the Baptist, 1520–25.
“Today I have to write this blog-post,” I think as I stand in my bathroom getting ready for a new day in “quarantined” St. Andrews. I go to the kitchen, pour the last drops of coffee into my cup and sit down to write. As I open my laptop, a small pop-up message from my calendar appears in the top right corner. “The usual distraction,” I think to myself. I don’t pay much attention to it as I try to focus on the task of the day. “Wait! What was that?” My brain seems to have registered something that may be of interest. I open my calendar to see the notification, which I registered out of the corner of my eye. “Tomorrow is St. Joseph’s day!” Though I don’t belong to a liturgical church tradition, I chuckle because my post is supposed to be about this very man and his literary namesakes.
“St. Joseph,” as he is called in these traditions, or simply “Joseph”, is Mary’s husband and the father of Jesus. Well, yes…or maybe not? According to Wikipedia, Joseph was the legal father of Jesus, and in some countries St. Joseph’s day–the 19th of March–is also Father’s Day. “That’s quite ironic,” I think to myself. If anyone’s fatherhood is ambivalent or disputed in the entire Bible, it would certainly be Joseph’s. Why would anyone want to celebrate such a day as Father’s Day?
This ambivalence can also be noticed in much of the art throughout the centuries. The depiction of Joseph in the history of art speaks volumes. Most depictions of the nativity place Joseph either at the margins or in the background; in several he is absent; and in most he is a fairly old man (cf. Sacra Famiglia by Michelangelo). The biblical witness, however, does not give any indication regarding Joseph’s age. Such a figure is not exactly what one would expect to be an ideal patron for fathers.
A brief look into the gospels paints a similar picture. Joseph doesn’t quite feature as the main character of the story. Mark doesn’t mention him at all. While Matthew places him center-stage in the first two chapters, Joseph soon disappears from the scene. After Jesus’s teaching in the synagogue of Nazareth the people wonder “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55). Joseph is not mentioned by name, but this reaction at least includes him indirectly. Matthew amends Mark’s text: “Is this not the carpenter?” becomes “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” Both of these evangelists clearly identify Mary as Jesus’s mother.
In contrast to Mark and Matthew, Luke pays special attention to Joseph as Jesus’s father. The scene in the synagogue of Nazareth, which is described by all synoptic gospels, ends with a different question in the gospel of Luke: “Is this not the son of Joseph?” (Luke 4:22b). Whereas Mark does not even mention Joseph, Matthew does so only in allusion to his profession. Luke stands out by including Joseph and not mentioning Mary in the rhetorical questions that follow Jesus’s sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. While Mark and Matthew seem primarily concerned with Jesus being identified as the son of Mary, Luke includes Joseph in the picture. But what is his place in that picture? A brief look at three different texts from the gospel of Luke may clarify this question. These texts suggest that Luke reconfigures Jesus’s relationship to different “Josephs” in order to highlight Jesus’s divine sonship. This exegetical-theological conclusion seems to be reflected in later receptions of the gospel and may transform the meaning of fatherhood itself.
The name “Joseph” occurs often—and in numerologically prominent places—in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38). No other name occurs as often as his: three different individuals in the list of 77 names carry his name. Another one is called Josech, which may be another allusion to his name because it looks and sounds alike in both Greek and Hebrew. Counting from Adam, the name Joseph appears in positions 42, 70 and 76. The former two are multiples of seven. In both cases, seven generations further on, the name Jesus is found: positions 49 (7×7) and 77 (7×11). Jesus, who stands at the beginning of that genealogy, is clearly depicted as the son of Joseph. This is confirmed by the fact that “Joseph” stands both in position 70 and 76, preceding Jesus in position 77 on two levels.
This, however, is all relativized by the introduction of the genealogy: “He [Jesus] was, as was assumed (ἐνομίζετο), the son of Joseph” (Luke 3:23). The baptism scene which precedes the genealogy had clearly identified him as the son of God. (Luke 3:22: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”). Following the genealogy, which runs via Joseph, the assumed father of Jesus, all the way to Adam and finally to God, we come to the same conclusion: ultimately he is son of God. Literarily speaking, the motif of the fatherhood of God frames the assumed fatherhood of Joseph.
The motif of an unproven assumption in regards to Joseph’s fatherhood is found earlier in the gospel in the narrative of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:40-52). After celebrating “Pesach” (Passover) in Jerusalem, Jesus’s family returns to their home. His parents assume (νομίζω) that he is among the travelers (Luke 2:44). In the next verse, we learn that this group consists of relatives and friends (lit. “known-ones”). When his parents realize that Jesus is not with them, they look for him among them. However, their assumption that he is among their relatives and friends proves incorrect. Mary and Joseph decide to return to Jerusalem to look for Jesus there. On the third day they find him in the temple. Mary then asks Jesus whether he knew that she and his father had been looking for him. Jesus responds with the first words he speaks in Luke’s gospel: “Why have you been looking for me? Did you not know that I have to be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48). Their assumption about “his place” is based upon blood and acquaintance—relatives and friends. On the third day they find him in another place, which reveals something about his true Father.
The episode is closed with a short comment by the narrator: “But Mary kept these matters in her own heart” (Luke 2:51). This phrase occurs in one other place in the Old Greek tradition of the Hebrew Bible with the identical verb and object: “But Jacob kept these matters [in his heart]” (Genesis 37:11 LXX-B). Contextually, this phrase appears at the beginning of the Joseph narrative after Joseph narrates his dreams and Jacob rebukes him. In the story of the adolescent Jesus in the temple, we observe a similar pattern. Just like Joseph, Jesus makes an astounding and presumptuous claim: God is his father. Just like Joseph, Jesus is rebuked by his parent and the narrator subsequently states that the same parent kept the matter in her/his heart. In other words, if we take this to be an intentional intertextual allusion, which I do, then Jesus is cast in the role of Joseph. So, he does look like a Joseph.
However, having in mind the story of Joseph, we know his dreams eventually turned out to be true: his brothers—and even his father later in the story—bow to him when they come to Egypt. Following those lines, Luke may suggest that in similar ways Jesus’ claims about his divine sonship may turn out to be true, and that it is ultimately not Joseph but God who is his father. This intertextual allusion is curious because it draws on an earlier narrative about a figure called Joseph, and casts Jesus into his role. Through that allusion Jesus looks like a kind of Joseph, or a “son of Joseph.” Taking into consideration that Joseph’s claim turned out to be true, we may suspect that Jesus’s claim will as well, and thus point to his true father being God himself. Hence, the intertextual allusion to the Joseph from the book of Genesis serves a double function. It casts Jesus in the role of Joseph and, at the same time, points the attentive reader beyond this role to his divine father.
Lastly, the Lukan narrative of the empty tomb on the day of resurrection bears some striking resemblance to the story of the young Jesus in the temple. Most conspicuously, female figures also look for Jesus on the “third day.” Mary, Johanna, and other women look for him in the tomb that belongs to another figure with the name of Joseph (of Arimathea), but cannot find him there. The two messengers in the tomb ask them: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5b). Again, they look for him in the wrong place, in the “place of Joseph” so to speak, but cannot find him there. This last narrative most clearly reveals Jesus’s divine sonship. Joseph, his assumed father, is no longer part of the narrative. His namesake has provided the tomb and buried Jesus there. But on the third day he is not there.
It seems that Luke uses Joseph for his rhetorical strategy. He is the assumed father of Jesus. This assumption, however, is upended so that Jesus’s ultimate Father may be revealed. The third narrative does not directly refer to Joseph, but echoes the narrative of twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, and illustrates the main point well. On the third day he is not found in the place of Joseph. From there it dawns on Mary and the other women in the story that he is in fact the son of the living God. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Ironically, it is the empty tomb of Joseph which reveals who Jesus is.
The later artistic depictions of Joseph seem to reflect this: when he is depicted at all, he appears to the side or in the background and is usually a rather old man. He is not precisely an example of a potent father, but rather a “disappearing” one. How then can he be seen as a patron to all fathers?
Let me suggest one possible reading: the father Joseph has a son who does and does not look like the son of Joseph. There may be some resemblances, but ultimately he looks like the son of God. He is not found in the place of Joseph. To be a father, then, may mean that I have to let go of my desire to have a child according to my image. Not in my image, but in the image of God is the child made. Ultimately, I have to allow my offspring to be a child of God himself. In that way Joseph has gone ahead of us and is worthy to be called a patron of fathers. This reading does not mean that Jesus cannot be a carpenter, following in his father’s profession (though Luke doesn’t call Jesus a carpenter). Instead, Jesus’s way of preparing a table for his people may look more like a man nailed to a wooden cross and raised to new life. This sequence of events reveals Jesus’s obedience to, and vindication by, a heavenly Father who invites all people to be his children.
Tobias Siegenthaler is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews specializing in New Testament studies.
Art image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Joseph F. McCrindle Collection, Bequest of Joseph F. McCrindle, 2008, www.metmuseum.org (Open Access)