Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thinking About Joseph The Carpenter

Thinking about the Nativity has, I believe quite logically, gotten me to thinking about parenthood. And as a father, and in particular the father of an adopted child, my attention has turned to Joseph, the earthly and legal father – some would say foster father or stepfather -- of Jesus.

Who was this man? Compared to Mary, about whom, thanks to Luke and centuries of veneration in the Catholic church, we have a wealth of information, Joseph is a cipher. There are few data points about him; in a book as abundant as the Bible, it seems surprising that so little is said about such an important figure. We know more about Barack Obama’s father than we do about Jesus’.

If one looks to the canonical gospels for guidance, one sees a Joseph who is, quite literally, the strong, silent type.

In the canon, Joseph has no voice. Even in Matthew, where he is the conduit for the Annunciation, he receives messages and acts on them, but does not speak. He is present at the birth and circumcision of Jesus, and at his presentation to the priests in the Temple, but remains silent, although Matthew says that he named Jesus. In Luke, we learn that he was alive at least up until Jesus’ 12th year, but although he returns to Jerusalem to search for the missing child, it is only Mary who speaks to her son when they catch up with him. We can surmise that he was a man devoted to both God and family, but little else. Maybe that’s enough, but it leaves me curious.

In Matthew 13:55, the Nazareth townspeople refer to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son,” without using Joseph’s name. The comparable passage in Mark (3:15) refers to Jesus himself as “the carpenter” ; Mark, whose gospel does not include a birth narrative, nowhere mentions Joseph. Only Luke, who recounts the same story of Jesus’ sermon in the Nazareth synagogue in 4:22, has the townsfolk calling Jesus “Joseph’s son”. John does not name either Joseph or Mary, although the mother of Jesus is central to two important episodes unique to his gospel: The wedding in Cana and the handing over of the mother’s care to “the beloved disciple” at the cross.

Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus also had a brother named Joseph - or Joses or Yosef, depending on the translation you are reading - presumably named after his earthly father, although nowhere do we learn anything more about this sibling (or kinsman, if one subscribes to the view that these named brothers and unnamed sisters were actually cousins).

Because his occupation is given as carpenter, Joseph has become the patron saint of workers, in those churches that recognize patron saints. Due presumably to the flight to Egypt, he also has been recognized as patron saint of immigrants. And of course there are all sorts of St. Joseph institutions – and even a brand of aspirin – named for him.

In extra-Biblical texts such as the Infancy Gospel of James, Joseph gains a voice and some personality. In this story, from which we also get the nativity of Mary, Joseph is selected by the Temple priests to be Mary’s husband. Mary, according to James, has been raised in the Temple, to which her parents dedicated her at the age of three. When she reaches 12, marriageable age in those days, the priests begin to worry about the chances of keeping her pure and determine to find her a husband. The local widowers are asked each to bring a rod to the Temple, and whoever’s rod shows a sign will be chosen for Mary. Joseph’s rod sprouts a dove that settles on his head (my goodness, what Freud could do with that). Mary is given to him as a “ward.”

Joseph protests at first that if he takes in this young girl, he will become a laughingstock, but ultimately he takes her in then leaves her at home with his sons from his prior marriage while he goes off to build houses. When he returns, he finds Mary pregnant.

What follows is a very human account of Joseph’s anguish at this finding, an anguish that turns to acceptance of both the situation and of his charge to protect both the mother and her miraculous child. Joseph’s internal conflict is described in his words:

“With what sort of countenance shall I look to the Lord God? What shall I pray
concerning this maiden? For I received her a virgin from the Temple of the Lord
God, and I did not guard her. Who is he who has deceived me? Who did this evil
thing in my house and defiled her? Is not the story of Adam summed up in me? For
just as Adam was in the hour of his giving glory to God and the serpent came and
found Eve alone and deceived her, thus it has also come about for me … If I
should hide her sin, I will be found disputing the law of the Lord; if I show
her to the children of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her is angelic
and I shall be found delivering innocent blood to the judgment of death. What
therefore shall I do with her? Shall I put her away secretly from me?”

At this point, Joseph receives the angelic annunciation of his mission, a flash of insight that leads him to his decision to serve as protector, husband and father.

The story proceeds in a way we would all find recognizable. The Temple hierarchy finds out about Mary’s pregnancy, a great scandal ensues that has both Joseph and Mary branded as wanton, and the priests demand that Mary be returned to the Temple. What may not seem as familiar to us today is that Joseph and Mary are, separately, given some sort of drink and told to consume it out in the desert. Each miraculously returns healthy and intact, and that is seen as the necessary sign that they are telling the truth. The priests celebrate and all is well – at least until the next paragraph, when we begin the Lucan story of the census and the trip to Bethlehem.

Joseph also figures prominently in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where he is portrayed as a good father, taking his young son aside after he strikes a playmate dead to counsel him about his naughty behavior, to which the sassy young Jesus responds: “I know that these are not your words, but on account of you I will be silent. However, they shall bear their punishment.” Then he strikes the outraged villagers blind. Now that pisses Joseph right off; he tugs Jesus hard by the ear and again the mouthy child talks back again: “It is fitting for you to seek and not to find. You have acted very stupidly. Do you not know that I am yours? Do not vex me.” A local teacher, presumably one of those blinded, overhears this and, astonished to hear a child talking to his father this way, asks Joseph if he can instruct the boy. Jesus immediately exasperates the teacher with a display of wisdom beyond his years, to the point where he hands him back to Joseph and urges Joseph to “take him away” for safekeeping. The child Jesus is pleased as punch that he has outwitted the teacher, and after boasting about his powers, restores the villagers to good health. Oy.

Later in the story, a somewhat more mature Jesus saves his father from financial loss. Joseph is making a bed for a rich man and accidentally cuts on of the beams too short. Young Jesus stretches the beam out to proper length, prompting Joseph to marvel that, “I am blessed because God has given this child to me.” A typical proud father, I would say.

In these non-canonical accounts, Joseph comes across as a good dad and a good husband, loving and faithful to both God and family, but also as very human. As silly as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is, I like the way it depicts Joseph (especially that moment where he momentarily loses patience and pulls Jesus by the ear – I suspect every parent can relate to that).
As an adoptive father, I resent it whenever someone suggests that my daughter is not my own, or that my love for her might be different than the love a father has for a biological child. I know that the moment I laid eyes on her, in the hospital with her birth mother, every protective and loving instinct I had rushed to the forefront. She was and remains my child as fully as if my wife had given birth to her.

I suspect Joseph felt the same love toward Jesus. It’s part of the natural order, I think, that whether a child is born to us or given over to us, we give ourselves over to nurturing. The survival of our species depends on it. And love is love. It doesn’t know degrees or distinctions, it just is.

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