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The Fatherhood of St Joseph the Betrothed

The Fatherhood of St Joseph the Betrothed March 19, 2012

In The Golden Legend by Bl. Jacobus de Voragine, the traditional approach to St. Joseph’s betrothal to the Theotokos is presented: he was an elderly man from the line of David who was chosen to be the Virgin Mary’s guardian. According to the text, the high priest of the Temple was told he would be given a sign to know who he should accept as Mary’s betrothed: each eligible was to bring a branch with them, place it on the altar, and the one which blooms would be the one who received Mary:

Joseph, of the house of David, was among the other men, but it seemed incongruous to him that a man of his advanced age should take so tender a young woman to wife, and he alone withheld his branch when the others placed theirs on the altar. So it was that nothing happened as the divine voice had predicted, and the high priest thought to consult the Lord a second time. The voice responded that only the man who had not brought his branch was the one to whom the virgin was to be espoused. Therefore Joseph brought his branch forward, it flowered at once, and a dove came from heaven and perched upon it. So it was clear to all that Joseph was to Mary’s husband.[1]

Saint Joseph was an elderly man; according to most ancient sources, a widower and a father. The brothers and sisters of the Lord are said to be the children of Joseph and so Jesus’ step-siblings. With Joseph, the Virgin Mary was to have the ideal husband and step-father for Jesus: he was wise with age and knew what was needed to raise a family so as to be a proper guide and benefactor for her and the young Jesus.

Strangely, in the West, in recent times, there has developed a theological speculation which claims Joseph was, like Mary, perpetually a virgin. There has been a kind of transference of the traditions surrounding St John the Baptist and placing it on St Joseph, leading to an idea that Joseph was greater than John. The traditional placement of John, therefore, has been replaced in Western iconography with Joseph. To praise him so, his personal integrity and holiness had to be seen as second as none. With the Augustinian tradition and its denigration of sex, it is quite understandable how Joseph would then need to be a perpetual virgin. But by doing so, strange things develop: family life is turned upside-down, fatherhood is denigrated, and virginity is suggested as a norm instead of being the higher, angelic-like existence expected for religious life.[2]

Sergius Bulgakov, in an excursus in The Friend of the Bridegroom explained the theological and spiritual concerns an Easterner has in modern Western devotionals to St. Joseph. It is to this we will turn to understand the place of Joseph in salvation history. It offers, though sometimes with a polemical overtone, a solid presentation on Joseph.

Bulgakov pointed out how, St Joseph, being born in the period of the Old Covenant, would have followed its ideals, and they did support the need for perpetual virginity.[3] Indeed, as with what we learn of Mary’s own parents, Sts Joachim and Anne, it is quite clear that a good, just follower of the Covenant was expected to have children – being married with children was the ideal, and virginity like Mary’s was exceptionally rare and indeed, quite peculiar. John the Baptist would take it on in his ministry as he becomes the emblem of the angelic virtues of monasticism, however, Joseph’s function was not as a representative of the heavenly world on the earth, but as a human father for Christ, a worldly figure.

It is, therefore, as an ideal representative of Israel, of the tribe of David, that Joseph was called to be Mary’s husband. He was to be the human representation of fatherhood. How can this be if he has not, in some sense, generated children of his own? Obviously, he has no place in the conception of Christ, but he still has to have some sense of fatherhood to be the human father of Jesus if we want to have him as a father-figure in fact (anything else would be docetical). Thus, Bulgakov wrote:

… it was precisely Joseph’s situation as the Betrothed, the protector of Mary’s virginity and the ‘nominal’ father of the Divine Infant, that required him to be truly a father. And fatherhood, certainly, canot be proper to a virgin monk who renounces the world; and it is incomprehensible why it should be proper to be a celibate husband, who for some reason would be allowed all the capacities of a father in marriage except procreation. It is here that we can find the difference between the situations of Joseph and John the Divine, even though Catholic theology likes to bring the two of them together as virgins in proximity to the Most Holy Virgin: John the Divine was only a son, whereas Joseph was a father and a husband, a protector of virginity.[4]

It is as a father that Joseph understood the protection of his family, including the protection of Mary. It is because he had to hold the place of father in his family that he needed to truly be a father; his status was not an illusion. Marriage can be holy, and Joseph, having once been in a holy marriage, was the ideal protector of Mary’s sacred nature; it caused no defect in him: “The qualities of father and husband there were then prepared in him are not revealed in their purest form. And there was nothing unclean in this lawful marriage of long ago, for the Virgin Mary was conceived in a similar marriage.”[5] Indeed, it could be said it helped him. The temptation and desire which would normally be found in a betrothed man would not be found in Joseph: he had already experienced the fruit of such desires and so could be strengthened, through experience, from all unseemly desire to Mary as her guardian. “To be sure, sexual intercourse had receded into the distant past and even ad become impossible owing to Joseph’s advanced age; and in this sense, Joseph can be considered a spouse who leads a monastic life.”[6] As a father, he could still resemble the spiritual fathers of the desert, not like John the Baptist, but like those elder monks who found themselves in the desert after having had a normal family life.[7]

Bulgakov pointed out, moreover, that because Joseph had children, he was able to give a family life to Jesus so as to root him to the normal familial existence of humanity. “His closest relatives, then, could only have been Joseph’s children. This supports the hypothesis that Jesus’ brothers were Joseph’s children. It is for this reason that the Gospel (which is usually so spare in details, especially concerning Jesus’ childhood and family), repeatedly and specifically refer to Jesus’ brothers – not, certainly, as rationalists thin, to attribute to Jesus a fleshy origin, but to make us perfectly conscious of the fullness and authenticity of his humanity.”[8]

Bulgakov believed it was the excess found in St Jerome’s defense of virginity that founded the speculation in the West which suggests Joseph was perpetually a virgin.[9] It was, however, something said in “passing” and was “isolated in the patristic literature.”[10] Others, such as Origen, Eusbeius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St Cyril of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, St Hilary and St. Gregory of Tours promoted the belief of the elderly widower for Joseph.[11] While it might have been for honorable purposes that the West begun its speculation, hoping to promote Joseph’s integrity and holiness, it did so at the expense of fatherhood and marriage. It ignores the role of Joseph, to be the one who provides for Mary and Joseph as only one who knows fatherhood can; it removes Jesus and Mary further from humanity by making them no longer need such a human protector.[12] Joseph’s mission ends at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, at John the Baptist, when Jesus no longer needs a guardian. “Therefore, Joseph has a direct relation neither to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ nor to his preaching and ministry; and consequently he is called from this world when his human guardianship becomes unnecessary.”[13] It is for this reason he vanishes from the picture – though of course, Jesus’ human relations through Joseph, his brothers and sisters, remain. Jesus, as an adult, becomes fully himself, no longer needing protection, no longer needing someone to take care of his human needs, though he will remain human, and rooted to that humanity through his Mary but also through his step-father, Joseph, because of the family he inherited through Joseph.

St. Joseph the Betrothed, the Guardian of Mary and of Jesus, truly is a great saint. However, we do not need to speculate about him in such a way as to make him something unreal, to make him more than the man he was, for if we do so, we might end up making Jesus less of a man than we need him to be. Joseph presents fatherhood to Jesus, and, through Jesus to us. As the Holy Family represents something of what a family should be, with a father generating children and a mother having children, humanity and its families would be at a loss if we took a docetical approach to Joseph and believed he only had the illusion of fatherhood.  Theological speculation is indeed important, but we must always temper it, to make sure our thoughts do not lead us into some gnostic irreality. Joseph is human, must always be seen as human, and we can recognize his greatness in that humanity – not separate from it. We must not squash the holiness aloud in marriage: Joseph guarantees such holiness is possible, but if we remove from him his human history and turn him into an inhuman father, how are we going to encourage fathers to see in him an ideal they can hold up to?


[1] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend. Volume II. Trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 153.

[2] This, of course, also explains the Western emphasis of celibacy for all clergy.

[3] See Sergius Bulgakov, The Friend of the Bridegroom. Trans. Boris Jakim  (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2003), 178.

[4] Bulgakov, Friend of the Bridegroom, 182.

[5] Ibid., 182.

[6] Ibid., 182.

[7] See ibid., 182.

[8] Ibid., 182.

[9] See ibid., 179.

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] See ibid., 179.

[12] See ibid., 185-6.

[13] Ibid., 186.

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