Joseph, saint and servant, can be known better by 21st century Christians, but not without insights from the social sciences.
Today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Today we remember Joseph the worker. Joseph the saint. Joseph the father and husband. Hopefully we will one day recognize “Joseph the highly misunderstood.” Although unintended, two thousand years of theological and devotional freight can have a distorting affect.
The New Testament says so little about Joseph. But learning about the cultural world of the Bible helps us to understand much in way of direction in understanding him honestly and respectfully. How can we see Joseph in an historically and culturally plausible way?
Joseph: Probably Mary’s First Cousin
Saint Joseph was probably Mary’s patrilateral first cousin. We can know this because patrilateral first cousin marriage is the ideal marriage arrangement in the Middle Eastern world of the Scriptures, a culture that has not changed significantly in 4,000 years. In other words, an Israelitie male’s ideal marriage partner is his father’s brother’s daughter (see Genesis 24:4, 15, 24, 47).
Joseph was Betrothed, not Engaged, to Mary
A key distinction difficult for 21st century American Christians to make is that between our culturally familiar “engagement” and ancient “betrothal.” Engagement, a process unknown to the ancient world (sorry NRSV Matthew 1:18!), happens between two self-selecting partners agreeing to discern individualistic marriage in the near future. In contrast, betrothal is biblical and therefore collectivistic, having to do with marriage unions arranged by families.
In fact, biblical marriage ( = ancient Mediterranean marriage) is the union of two families, not a couple of people, and is the pooling of their collective honor. Therefore the bride and groom in biblical marriage merely represent the families and are not considered as individuals.
The marriage contract was initiated at betrothal (the ratified arrangement of the children). Later on, when the male (Joseph) accompanied by his men came to collect the bride (Mary) around the time of her menarche, they brought her into his father’s home for a week-long (or longer) wedding. Thus the contract was completed only with the display of the blood-stained sheet (Deuteronomy 22:13-29).
Biblical marriage was always patrilocal—whether single or married, sons would always live with their father. These factors contribute to the reality why in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural world, the weakest emotional bond is that between husband and wife. Recall that whenever you see recent sentimental (and ethnocentric to Western culture) religious art about the Holy Family. Any honest consideration of the historical Joseph must take this into account.
Unlike 21st century American Christian marriage, biblical (i.e., Mediterranean) marriage was arranged generally by mothers in private. Fathers ratify the marriage publicly. Consequently, parents were seen to be acting in proxy for God, in the name of God (Matthew 19:6). Thus, “God’s will” means your father and mother choosing. Biblically speaking, just as God selected your parents, so our Biblical ancestors thought, God must also selects your marriage partner. Because of this, Jesus agrees with the Middle Eastern truism about marriage (Mark 10:9).
American Christians find this repugnant. Ours is the most individualistic culture ever. We celebrate autonomy and free choice! Not so our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith. Just as children don’t choose their parents, so in the Bible also they do not choose their spouses. Consequently, any honest consideration of Joseph and Mary must take this cultural information into account.
Joseph was Considered a Humiliated Village Idiot
According to “Matthew” (who would never invent this shameful, embarrassing, and terrifying story), before Mary moved into the patriarchal compound, “she was found with child.” Context scholar John Pilch reminds us that we Americans often fail to catch the passive voice—”Matthew” means to tell his audience that others found out Mary was pregnant. But how? Pilch invites us to consider the prescription in Torah about dealing with menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-33). Just like there was only one oven in the village, so too there was only one communal bath. Did Mary attempt to hide the fact of her pregnancy? Did she not show up at the bath when the other women came all together?
In the Middle East of biblical times just like today there, women are the intelligentsia of the village. Perhaps cleverly Mary did try to hide the fact of her pregnancy—but the other women would know. Their mothers would then know. The gossip network—prepubescent boys and girls—would spread her shame everywhere like wildfire. Then the village men would learn about it. Probably, at last, Joseph would learn about it. To all he would look like a cuckold, a village idiot and laughing stock!
Any honest consideration of who Joseph was must take this cultural information into account.
Joseph—The Righteous One
Readers/listeners of “Matthew” are alerted by the anonymous sacred author that Joseph was “a righteous man.” This says so much to an ancient Israelite audience in the Matthean Jesus group! Joseph knows Mary’s child cannot be his. To accept that child as his would therefore make Jospeh a thief, and this would displease God. Displeasing the God of Israel is intolerable for the biblical “righteous man.”
There are two kinds of Israelite “holy men” or “righteous, the şaddiq and the hasid. Whereas the şaddiq was an ordinary Israelite male doing his best to follow God’s law and instruction, the hasid went beyond, obsessed with pleasing the God of Israel. Pilch gives the example that while a şaddiq would be okay with merely washing the palms, the hasid goes beyond mere fulfillment of the obligation, washing beyond his elbows (Mark 7:1-5).
Whether şaddiq or hasid, Joseph knew that because she was pregnant already, there was no way Mary would be able to produce a blood-stained sheet to display before the wedding guests. Therefore, there was no way to consummate the marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-29). Shame would fall on both families. In all likelihood, Mary’s father and brothers would kill her, and blood feud engulfing the entire village would soon follow. Joseph also did not wish to submit Mary to trial by ordeal (Numbers 5:11-31).
The situation was impossible. What could Joseph do to escape this terrifying circumstance? Any honest consideration of who Joseph was must take all of this into account.
Joseph the Shaman
In crisis and humiliated, Joseph was stuck. But the Matthean infancy narrative relates that Joseph “the righteous man” somehow discovered a solution beyond these dismal choices.
Mediterranean people like Joseph often solve seemingly impossible dilemmas and crises in ways most different than Americans do. Frequently, the solution to a problem will present itself in a dream. Dreams are one type of altered state of consciousness (ASC) experience in the Bible whereby people receive new information, or new directions, or commissionings. From Adam (Genesis 2:21) to Revelation (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10), the Bible is filled with ASC experiences whereby God communicates with human beings.
According to “Matthew,” Joseph learned that the God of Israel was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy in his ASC experience or dream. Despite the fact that he was two millennia early for amniocentesis, Joseph also discovered the gender of the child to be born. He also learned the name he was to give the child! Strange to Americans and our anomalous society, such experiences happen regularly and routinely throughout eighty to ninety percent of present world cultures. Once awake (Matthew 1:24), Joseph did what he was instructed to do in his dream.
All this means that at the wedding, Joseph must have pretended that Mary wasn’t pregnant. He took his bride into his father’s home, as was done in all Galilean traditional weddings practiced for millennia. Before the celebrating village assembled there, he lied and presented a faked blood-stained sheet. In all likelihood, no one was fooled, but everyone behaved respectfully so as to avoid blood feud. In the world of the Bible, secrecy, lying, and deception are perfectly legitimate means to defend honor (valued more important than life itself). Any honest understanding of Joseph must take this cultural information into account.
Joseph and the Mother of Jesus
How do you imagine Joseph acting as father to Jesus? Do you see him as a 21st century American daddy-figure? If so, you need to take off your American cultural lenses through which you interpret him because you are committing identity theft on Joseph and Jesus. Ancient Middle Eastern North African (MENA) fathers were absent from a boy’s early life. It was disgraceful for an adult male to hang about the house. Sorry, different culture folks!
Despite the fact that Mary was probably Joseph’s patrilateral first cousin, don’t think that she would ever have been fully accepted into Joseph’s father’s (her uncle’s) home and family. This would be so even without the shameful situation of her early pregnancy. The ancient MENA wife was always suspect and never truly fit in. Torn from her family of origin, her loyalties were expected to be divided. This sorry state of affairs and her voiceless lot remain that way until she bears a son, her “social security” (1 Samuel 1:8).
This helps explain why, throughout the Mediterranean world, the closest emotional bond is that existing between mother and firstborn son. The mother has no voice without him. Therefore she will smother him every chance she has, conditioning and manipulating him to do her will, spoiling him throughout his prepubescent years in ways most strange to Baltic personalities. In fact, Western 21st century introspective people would call this kind of intense relationship codependent personality disorder.
Before Puberty, Biblical Sons are Spoiled in Eden
In the Biblical or Mediterranean world, all women in the patriarchal compound—mother, sisters, and all other females) dote upon the prepubescent boys, spoiling them rotten. All male role models are absent until adolescence (puberty). While Israelite girls had no childhood whatsoever, village boys until puberty got pampered, pleasured, embraced, and drowned in warmth.
In the Biblical world boys breastfed double the time given to girls. Note how the heroic mother in 2 Maccabees 7:27 tells her son that she nursed him for three years. Three-year-old children bite with teeth and they can speak! They can say to their mother, “Feed me!”—Israelite three-year-old boys did this, and got fed posthaste. As far as the village women were concerned, the word of an Israelite boy was their command, effectively calling to action service.
Later on, as men, sacred Israelite authors remembered this “beginning” of their lives. From their experience as boys, they recalled that all they needed to do to get fed was say, “feed me.” It should therefore be no surprise at all how the Priestly author could write Genesis 1:1—2:4a. In that story, God merely says, “Let there be…” and voila! It is! This is a perfect example of what St. Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries meant when they said, “all theology (God-talk) is analogy, and all analogy is rooted in human experience.” We would do well to add to this truism—“all human experience is culturally specific.”
Because of the fiercely gender-divided world with father and all male role models absent, MENA males necessarily are haunted their entire lives with a gender ambiguity. Therefore they must ever prove their Mediterranean manhood. This helps explain Middle Eastern and Mediterranean hyper-ethnomasculinity. It is literally beaten into them by their fathers so as to condition them to be unquestionably male, even to be able to languish on a cross for six hours without complaining. This would be true of Jesus and Joseph before him.
Joseph Wasn’t an American Daddy
All Mediterranean boys get kicked out the Garden of Paradise when they reach puberty. Jesus was no exception. At puberty (sometime around 12 years old), Jesus (as Joseph before him) would have literally been dragged without ceremony or rite of passage into the brutal world of Mediterranean men. Any desperate attempts to run back to the Eden of women proved futile.
Depending on how long he lived past Jesus’ puberty, Joseph would have raised the teenaged Jesus. If you really want to see this in a culturally plausible way, please read carefully Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17, 19; and Sirach 30:1-13. For additional insight as to what “Fatherhood” means in the Middle East, read carefully Mark 8:34—9:1, 14:36 and Hebrews 5:7-10. In the biblical world, love (always meaning ingroup glue) is ever mixed with violence.
Please note also that you shouldn’t really look to the Bible for advice in how to raise sons or daughters in our American setting. Not unless psychopathology and prison time be your goals! Biblical sons are guns, or rather, arrows (Psalm 127:4-5). They are physically punished to be Mediterranean heroes, avengers.
Go back again and honestly read all these verses, taking St. Thomas’ dictum about God-talk seriously—Mark 8:34—9:1, 14:36 and Hebrews 5:7-10. Focus on that “Abba, Father!” part. Now ask yourself: “into what kind of cultural scenario would a (Middle Eastern) Father (NOT American “daddy”) design such a destiny for his son?” As you ponder this, recall that for all human God-talk, including the inspired Scriptures, it’s always analogy based on culturally-specific human experience. This will help you grow this Holy Week and Good Friday.
Joseph Wasn’t Jewish
Again, Israelite boys got thrown into the harsh male world without any rites of passage. Neither Joseph, Jesus, nor any New Testament Israelite knew about the bar mitzvah. Such later important Jewish practices would not exist for another five centuries (into Talmudic times).
As explained before on this blog, any and all mention of “Jew” and “Jews” should be removed from our English translations of Bible, missals, and lectionary. They are always wrong translations. There is nothing Jewish before 500 CE. Therefore, there are no Jews in the Bible. Both the Hebrew Yehudim and the Greek Ioudaioi properly translate to JUDEANS, not Jews.
Please read John Elliott’s tour-de-force on the subject, here:
Joseph Wasn’t a Carpenter
Also the tekton Joseph wasn’t really a carpenter—peasant village artisan is more precise. Joseph probably would have spent his last years working in Sepphoris with his sons (those from his first marriage and Mary’s son Jesus?) on Herod Antipas’ various building projects.
Such an artisan would have to travel outside his village for work, were his family not to starve. Travel for work outside one’s village was deemed social deviance. And Joseph as well as Jesus would be seen in village squares hoping to get hired as ergatai, day laborers. The prayer “give us this day our daily bread” is the prayer of such a starving, despised peasant. It meant, “Help me find work, Lord, or we starve!” Any honest understanding of Joseph must take this cultural and socio-economic information into account.
The fantasy religious art images of Joseph working on wood with Jesus in a carpentry shop stems from 19th century abundance and 20th century superabundance. Despite the feels, it distorts the situation of Galilean peasants and the Holy Family.
Ora Pro Nobis
Can we honestly say we love someone whom we refuse to get to know? Is it possibly to truly love someone whom we disrespect? Do you love someone if you continually commit cultural identity theft on them?
Is Joseph a saint, or holy one? Amen, he is. But we should see that saints are not always what we think of them, or make of them through lenses congenial to our cultural sentiments and values. Love IN-carnates. Love is messy, not clean and kitsch and alien to the human condition.
O real Saint Joseph, who starved humiliated at the village square, pray for us in these dark days!