Having studied Joseph in each of the Gospels independently, we can now see how they inter-relate. Who is the man Joseph behind these individual portraits of him?
Before attempting an answer to the above question, there are four difficulties encountered in comparing the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Since they regard details concerning Joseph’s biography, it is good to address them here.
Throughout history heroic attempts have been made to harmonize the differing genealogies (Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38), but no compelling argument has been found to show this is possible. A certain artificiality exists in each. In Matthew striking parallels found between Joseph of Nazareth and the patriarch Joseph make it small surprise that the fathers of both are named “Jacob” (Mt 1:16; Gen 35:22-24). In Luke strong resonances with 1 Samuel throughout the infancy narrative make the name of Joseph’s father, “Heli,” recall the priest who deals with Hannah and Samuel (Lk 3:23; 1 Sam 3:1). Be that as it may, it seems the differences must simply be accepted with the admission that either Matthew or Luke or both lacked sufficient, accurate information to supply an authentic fully detailed genealogy, and that quite probably such detail was not essential to their purpose. Whether going back to Abraham or all the way to Adam and God, the two genealogies show absolute agreement in the central purpose of showing that Joseph, a descendent of David, is the genealogical but not the biological father of Jesus, and conveys Davidic descent upon him.
Many biblical commentators today emphasize that Matthew gives no hint of the annunciation to Mary, as Luke reports it, and that Luke shows no knowledge of any annunciation to Joseph, as Matthew reports it. It must be noted, nevertheless, that the accounts of the two annunciations exhibit no open contradictions that make harmonization impossible. The announcement to Mary comes at the time of conception and awaits her consent (Lk 1:26-38). The announcement to Joseph comes after the conception and seeks his cooperation (Mt 1:18-25). Reading either one of these two Gospels without knowing the other, one could conclude that both Mary and Joseph were people of faith who cooperated with God’s plan, and therefore each of them would have to have some communication of God’s will for them in the face of this extraordinary occurrence. The method of examining each evangelist in isolation has many advantages for understanding his meaning. Yet if both communicate inspired truth and if our revealed knowledge of Jesus Christ is found in no one book alone, but rather in the whole of Scripture, then it is helpful and necessary to think also in terms of complementarity and of a total reality that goes beyond any of the individual portrayals of that reality. Here an attempt at harmonization leads to a truth more complete than that presented by either Matthew or Luke, without overlooking the purposes of either: Joseph and Mary both received unique vocations with respect to the Son of God and both responded in faith and obedience.
Luke seems to portray Mary and Joseph as living at Nazareth (Lk 1:26; 2:4,39) and going to Bethlehem only because of the census. Matthew, on the other hand, never mentions Nazareth until the return from the flight into Egypt, stating only that the birth occurs in Bethlehem (Mt 2:1), and then mentioning that Mary and the child are in a house there when the wise men visit (Mt 2:11). The apparent conflict between these details should not be overstated. Matthew does not say when they occupied the house at Bethlehem, nor how soon after birth the visit of the magi occurred, nor even if the house was theirs. Both evangelists agree that the birth takes place at Bethlehem and that Jesus is raised at Nazareth. Where Joseph and Mary lived during the time immediately before and after Jesus’ birth is not of major importance for either narrative, though it is part of the greater general difficulty of chronology.
Luke has Mary and Joseph returning with Jesus to Nazareth immediately after the purification and presentation, which according to Leviticus would be on the fortieth day after birth (Lk 2:39; Lev 12:3-4). For Matthew it seems that they come to Nazareth only after the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, and the death of Herod (Mt 2:22-23). The rites performed in the temple as reported by Luke seem to contradict Matthew’s portrayal that all Jerusalem is upset and Herod is desirous of killing the child (Lk 2:22; Mt 2:3,13,16). There is no possibility of forming an exact chronology which literally takes these varying details into account. A failure to meet the standards of twentieth century eye-witness chronology, however, is not in itself sufficient to totally discount the historicity of the events.
Since Matthew and Luke seem to have had independent and incomplete sources relating different actual events surrounding the birth of the Savior, it would have been natural for them to fill in certain details consistent with their theology and structure for the sake of writing a narrative to relate those events. Given such a process, it becomes impossible to discover with certitude which details are inaccurate adaptations for the sake of the narrative, but it is equally impossible to prove categorically that major events reported never occurred. While total harmonization is not possible and maybe not even too useful, there must be noted at least the possibility that the principle events related in the two Gospels could have all happened in the early years of Jesus’ life. With minor changes of timing for moving from one place to another, for example, one can imagine a trip from Bethlehem to the Jerusalem temple and back, before the visit of the magi and the news of Herod’s plot necessitates the escape into Egypt, while the later visit from Nazareth to the temple would have happened after Herod’s death and the news of the birth of a rival king had been forgotten. The example of such a solution serves at least to caution one from over-emphasizing the inconsistencies in the two narratives.
Despite the difficulties mentioned above, Joseph’s identity in the Gospels is quite clear and consistent. He is present for what he contributes to the identity of Jesus. The reality of the Incarnation required the Son of God to share the human condition by having a human heritage and an upbringing by a human father. The evangelists communicate the truth about Joseph’s manner of fulfilling his role as father to the Messiah. With regard to this role, there is emphatic agreement.
The following conclusions about the person of Joseph can safely be drawn from the New Testament data. They are divided into three general categories.
- Joseph was betrothed to Mary when the conception occurred, but had no sexual relations with her.
- After the conception Joseph took Mary into his home as his wife.
- Joseph and Mary together shared their faith in the mystery and cooperated in fulfilling their mission to be parents to the Son of God.
- As spouses Joseph and Mary showed each other all the love and affection that resulted from their experience of God’s love and that contributed to providing a loving human family for Jesus.
- Because of the betrothal, Joseph was true, legal, genealogical father to Jesus, without being his biological father.
- Joseph was of the line of David, and therefore passed on to Jesus the Davidic descent prophesied for the Messiah.
- Joseph was in Bethlehem for the birth of Christ.
- Joseph participated in naming the child “Jesus,” “Savior.”
- Joseph exercised his role as father with affection, provided for the child, was concerned for his well-being, protected and defended him, educated him in a profession and in the practice of obedience and religious observance.
- Joseph was a carpenter, or worker in some other hard material.
- Joseph lived in Nazareth of Galilee, and was therefore religiously, socially, and economically marginalized in the eyes of the Jerusalem authorities.
- Joseph raised Jesus at Nazareth in a way that appeared totally ordinary.
- People knew Jesus as Joseph’s son.
- Joseph never competed or interfered with Jesus’ mission, but faded from the scene when the time came to proclaim his divine Sonship, presumably having died by then.
- Joseph was the last in the line of patriarchs who awaited fulfillment of the promise, and was especially prefigured by his Old Testament namesake.
- Joseph was the recipient of divine communication, whereby he received a special vocation to function as husband to Mary and father to Jesus.
- Joseph was a man of exceptional faith, justice, and obedience.
- Joseph was a model disciple, an anticipation of the Church.
- With Mary, Joseph cooperated in the mystery of the Incarnation in a unique way shared by no one else, not even the apostles.
The New Testament unquestionably presents the person of Joseph as the just and obedient son of David, chosen by God as husband to Mary and father to the Son of God and Messiah. He is father as a result of his betrothal and his response to the divine call. With Mary he is an unparalleled model of faith-filled collaboration with God’s designs. He is an example of obedience to God, who in Jesus became subject to him.