The figure of St. Joseph is familiar in statuary, paintings, nativity scenes, children’s stories, Christmas plays and Catholic devotional practices. He has most often been portrayed as quite old, a grandfather in the background of the stable at Bethlehem, a balding man with a flowering staff, and on his deathbed with Jesus at his side and with a much younger Mary standing by. What is the origin of this image?
While an immediate answer is that our knowledge of Joseph comes from the Bible, it is not difficult to see that the Scriptures make no mention or implication of Joseph’s advanced age, or other similar details. Such particulars are imaginatively supplied by certain apocryphal writings. Though non-canonical and never considered historical by the Church, such writings have had a great influence on popular devotion. Their content has entered into preaching, art, liturgy, and even patristic writings, though the latter have by and large employed a quite critical approach to them.
Foremost among these apocrypha is The Protoevangelium of James. [Note: This later title is not meant to indicate that it is a gospel or that it is prior to the canonical gospels. Indeed it presupposes their infancy stories. Protoevangelium signifies that it covers the period prior to that covered by the gospels. Its earlier title, The Birth of Mary According to James, might be clearer, or even more precise its Syriac title, The Birth of Our Lord and Lady Mary According to James.] Originally written around the middle or the second half of the second century, the aim of this book is to glorify Mary, which means her virginity must be reconciled with the Gospel phrase regarding Jesus’ “brothers.” Hence the work is attributed to James, “the brother of the Lord,” and offers the explanation that Joseph was already an old widower with children, when before the high priest a dove flies from his staff and hovers over his head as a sign of his being chosen not as husband, but as guardian for young Mary. Here too is introduced the interpretation that on learning of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph suspected that she had been unfaithful.
Subsequent apocryphal works draw freely on the story of James, adding their own embellishments. Among these are The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew which includes legends of the stay in Egypt, The Syriac-Arabic Infancy Gospel, The Armenian Infancy Gospel, and the Liber de Infantia Salvatoris. The Infancy Story of Thomas recounts numerous bizarre miracles worked by the child Jesus. The resulting composite story has Joseph as a carpenter who makes plows, yokes, other wooden tools for cultivation, and also wooden beds. At the age of 40 he marries Melcha or Escha, and during their 49 years of marriage he has four sons and two daughters, whose names are given. It is after he has been widowed for a year that the episode occurs with his staff blossoming and the dove flying out of it, thus indicating that he is divinely chosen for the twelve year old Mary. The annunciation takes place two years later. At Bethlehem, Joseph is out searching for a midwife when the baby is born miraculously without Mary losing her virginity.
A final apocryphal work to be mentioned is The Story of Joseph the Carpenter, which treats of Joseph’s last days. Strong and alert until the age of 111, he confesses his sinfulness on his deathbed and is consoled by Jesus and Mary. Jesus beckons the archangels Michael and Gabriel to come take his soul, and his body is buried in the family grave. Recent studies indicate that this work dates from the beginning of the second century, and was used liturgically by Judeo-Christians at his tomb at Nazareth for the anniversary of his death, until the Jews were expelled from Nazareth and took it with them into Egypt.
What weight should be given to these texts? From apostolic times, Irenaeus considers that “apocryphal” means “forged” and Tertullian considers it synonymous with “false.” Mary and Joseph are made into leading characters, rather than supporting participants in the great mission of Christ. The purpose of these works is apologetic, doctrinal, or simply to satisfy one’s curiosity. Though they have a certain literary worth, their stories are much too fantastic to be given historical value in their own right. A decrepit widowed Joseph does not seem capable of performing the role of husband, father and protector that is clearly ascribed to him in the Gospels. Jerome and a number of the fathers flatly rejected the central assertions about St. Joseph found in The Protoevangelium of James and in the other apocrypha which build on it.
Few of the assertions of the Protoevangelium were grounded in Scripture, and most of the portrayal is contrary to that of the Church’s official teaching as summed up most recently in the Apostolic Exhortation Guardian of the Redeemer by Pope John Paul II. The fact that this story was so influential particularly during the first fifteen centuries, however, probably accounts for the sparsity of devotion during those centuries to the man closest to Jesus and Mary.