Franciscan Focus

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26 August 2006

Josephology: On Joseph's Age at His Betrothal to Mary 

Previously, I'd talked 'bout my love of Joseph, Holy Husband of Mary and Virginal Father of Jesus, and said I'd be sharin' more info. about him. So, awaaay we go!

In trying to better understand the life and person of Joseph it's necessary to address the misunderstandings that're still floatin' around about him -- namely, 1) he was old, and 2) he was previously married and had kids. Happily, we have access to tons of serious Josephological resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) to help us out.

Let's kick things off by dealin' with Joseph's age: He wasn't an old, decrepit man. Studies show that he was most likely only a few years older than Mary. In addition, his youth and perpetual virginity -- though not declared dogmatically -- are echoed and affirmed throughout Church teaching and by a multitude of scholars, saints, and theologians. (We'll look at his perpetual virginity in later posts.)

So, here are some splendid resources that address the question of Joseph's age; more to come later:

"Providence chose to keep [Joseph] in a most complete obscurity during the first centuries of Christianity. Better yet: it, as it were, blurred traces of him. In our modern jargon, we would say that the operation was one of 'misinformation'. To misinform is to spread false rumors the better to lead people astray. Thus, James' Protoevangelium ... invents details about Mary and Joseph. Joseph is presented as an old man who has already been married and has had children with a former wife.

"... Such is the origin of the imagery which presents this young Jew in the guise of a pensive old man, retreated in the corner of pictures, fulfilling a function which is obviously beyond him, his role being reduced to enhancing the presence of his radiant wife."
~ Fr. Andrew Doze, Saint Joseph: Shadow of the Father, 1992

* * *

"Were any faith to be put in certain apocryphal writings (especially The Epistle attributed to St Jerome and The Gospel of the Infancy), we might think that Joseph was an old man when he married Mary. St Epiphanius was probably influenced by this idea when he unhesitatingly stated that Joseph had passed his eightieth year. Writers who accepted this theory were evidently trying to prove our Lady's perpetual virginity. Rather a detestable argument, since it attributed Joseph's continence to senility.

"On the contrary, in those days as well as in our own, such an ill-assorted marriage would have been roundly condemned and looked upon almost as a profanation. Ordinary common sense demands that Joseph be in the flower of his age so that, on one side, the fatherhood of the child Jesus might be attributed to him, and that, on the other, he would be able to fulfill the duties of protector and foster father which God was to confide in him.

"Custom in Israel required that young men be married at eighteen or shortly after. Nothing obliges us to think that Joseph was older than others. Some documentary iconographs picture him as a beardless young man. (In the catacombs of St Hippolytus in Rome he is thus pictured on a gravestone of the third century as also on the sarcophagus of St Celsus in Milan, which belongs to the fourth century.) When later artists make him appear an old man, it is probably less in order to accent his age than to underline the perfection of his virtues, especially his prudence and maturity of character."
~ Michel Gasnier, OP; Joseph the Silent, 1960

* * *

"We must ... give a few words of consideration to the disputed question as to the age of Joseph at the time of his espousals with Mary. Three opinions have been held; one of which would make our saint far advanced in years. This opinion was accepted by some of the Fathers and ancient ecclesiastical writers, chiefly Greek; and in support of it has been urged the custom prevailing among painters of representing St. Joseph as an aged man, sometimes as almost decrepit. This view has, however, been strongly opposed, not only because it had no other ground to rest upon than the statements of Pseudo-Gospels which were current in the third and fourth centuries, and were coupled with the assertion that Joseph was a widower with many children, an assertion forcibly condemned by St. Jerome and a host of other Fathers and theological writers down to the present times, but also as in itself presenting insuperable difficulties.

"As we have already observed, these apocryphal writings, while probably recording some true traditionary facts, are entirely devoid of authority, and contain, moreover, much that we naturally reject as both improbable and unbefitting.

"In the absence, then, of any authentic document on the point, it is reasonable to have recourse to arguments drawn from suitability and decorum. Now, when the tender age of Mary at the time of her espousals is considered, and the providential object of that marriage, which was to shield her reputation and to hide for a time the mystery of the Incarnation; to provide her also with a fitting companion and protector, who was to be an aid and a support to her, especially during their flight into Egypt and in all the labours and sufferings which their exile must have entailed; it would seem surprising, not to say incredible, in the absence of any solid proof, to suppose that it pleased God to select for her husband a man weighed down by the burden of years.

"Again, as regards the evidence to be drawn of Joseph's great age from pictorial representations, we may say that it has become quite valueless ever since patient research has brought to light monuments of much earlier date in the sculptures and paintings of the very first centuries. St. Joseph, the Cavaliere de Rossi tells us, is portrayed in the most ancient marbles and ivories as very young and almost always beardless. Later on, he was given a thick beard and a more mature and even aged appearance. Of the youthful representations he mentions many examples .... However, it was in about the fifth century that the habit of depicting the saint of, at least, a mature age seems to have commenced. Clearly, then, as De Rossi observes, the most ancient monuments, those of the third and fourth centuries, are so far from following the apocryphal legend that, on the contrary, they picture to us the spouse of the Virgin in the flower of his youth."
~ Edward Healy Thompson, MA; The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, 1888

See also: Josephology: On Joseph's Age at His Betrothal to Mary, Part II

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Blogger p8 said...

This is cool. I recently got a copy of "My Treasury of Chaplets." I was familiar with most of the Joseph devotions in it, but there was one I hadn't seen (and still haven't found anywhere else). It was a Rosary to St. Joseph that consists of 3 decades. There are 9 mysteries (3 each of the joyful/sorrowful/glorious kind) which can be said all in succession or on 3 separate days. But the 30 Aves are supposed to represent the 30 years Joseph spent in the company of Jesus and Mary. This would mean that Joseph died only a short time before Jesus began his public ministry, which goes along with the idea about his relative youth.

28 August, 2006 09:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this rich and well laid out resource! I love your work.

21 September, 2012 09:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information. Makes me want to do more research on St. Joseph.

08 April, 2014 13:57  

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