Obedient Father and Jesus’ Protector

Whereas Luke omits use of the words “husband” and “wife,” he does liberally apply to Joseph the terms “father” and “parent,” which Matthew implies but never directly employs. And if Luke 3:23 adds “as was supposed” to refer to public lack of awareness of the virginal conception and divine Fatherhood, in Luke 2 it is not the unknowing, but the evangelist himself who uses the titles in an unqualified sense, even reporting Mary as explicitly saying to Jesus “your father and I” (Lk 2:48).

Luke sees no reason to “baptize” or qualify the terms. Besides providing Davidic descent for Jesus, Joseph is betrothed to Mary so as to be Jesus’ parent with her. Neither the parenthood nor the virginity are compromised or minimized. In Luke, Joseph is portrayed as true father to Jesus and functions as such in every way, though this fatherhood is virginal or non-biological, and though human fatherhood will have to be understood in subordination to divine Fatherhood.

Among the roles Joseph is seen to fulfill as father of Jesus are Davidic genealogical fatherhood, and reputed fatherhood in the eyes of the public. Joseph functions as father during the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the child in the manger (“while they were there … no place for them,” Lk 2:6-7), and the adoration of the shepherds (Lk 2:16). He undergoes the hardships of being subject to a census by a foreign ruler, having to travel with his pregnant wife and having to find a place for her to deliver. He cares for Mary and Jesus during the pregnancy and time of birth in Bethlehem. He is thereafter the one who, together with Mary, is responsible for the child being “brought up” (Lk 4:16) at Nazareth, so much so that when Jesus speaks in the synagogue there, the people are surprised, for they have known him always simply as “Joseph’s son” (Lk 4:22). It is also Joseph and Mary who see to the fulfillment of all the temple rites for Jesus. Luke presents the circumcision and naming, the purification and presentation, and the episode when Jesus is twelve. In these three passages, he emphatically shows Joseph and Mary to be models of obedience to the angel and the law of the Lord, thus also fulfilling the parental role of being faithful examples for the child.

II. 4.1 The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus

The circumcision and naming of Jesus are dealt with in one verse (Lk 2:21), paralleling a much longer section for the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist (Lk 1:59-66). Both passages are introduced with a time marker indicating the eighth day as prescribed for the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (cf. Gen 17:12ff; Lev 12:3; Phil 3:5). That Mary and Joseph would have Jesus circumcised appears quite likely according to the customs of the faithful of their time. Though a detail such as who did the actual circumcision cannot be determined, there should be noted at least the possibility that it was Joseph. The father was probably the usual one to perform the operation, as in the case of Abraham (Gen 21:4); although occasionally the mother could do it, as did Zipporah (Ex 4:25); and in later times recourse could be made to a third party, probably a medic (1 Mac 1:61). No references are found for priests performing circumcision, and Jesus’ circumcision is related before any mention of being taken to the temple.

The verse does not mention Mary or Joseph, but is phrased in the impersonal. Their role in the circumcision and naming seems to be taken for granted, however, both in parallel to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and in light of the fact that this passage serves as a transitional introduction to the following episode wherein they are the grammatical subjects seeing to the fulfillment of the prescriptions of the law. It appears curious that Luke does not say that Mary named the child. Mention of her fulfillment of the angel’s mandate to do so (Lk 1:31) would be expected, just as Luke has noted that Zechariah fulfilled the angel’s command to him to name his son John (Lk 1:13,63). Whereas Matthew clearly states that Joseph named Jesus as commanded by the angel (Mt 1:21,25), Luke says simply “he was called.” In the case of John the Baptist, it is the father’s will which prevails as the final word when the choice of the mother is questioned (Lk 1:59-63), though it must be noted also that it was the father who was commanded by the angel. In the case of Jesus, the context only leaves the impression that Mary and Joseph are cooperating so that the child be called “Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 1:21). The main emphasis is that Jesus’ parents are obedient to God’s word as communicated by the angel, just as in the following passage they will be obedient to God’s law.

II. 4.2 The Purification and Presentation

The next verse begins with another temporal marker, “And when the time came,” that introduces the passage of the presentation and purification (Lk 2:22-40), which concludes with the first statement of the child’s growth and the favor of God. The geography moves from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and finally to Nazareth. The grammar moves from the impersonal to a personal but unspecified “they” as subject (Lk 2:22), which a few verses later is seen to refer to Jesus’ “parents” (Lk 2:27). The referent of “their purification” has been questioned, but grammatically it can only be the subject of the sentence, Mary and Joseph, even though no law exists for the purification of the father.

One thinks first of the purification of the mother on the fortieth day after giving birth (Lev 12:1ff), but the Greek term used is much broader than the precise term for “purification” used in the Greek Old Testament. This broader meaning can be seen in the manner Luke’s same term is used in other parts of the New Testament (Mk 1:44; Lk 5:14; Jn 2:6; 3:25; Heb 1:3; 2 Pt 1:9). It does not necessarily refer to ritual impurity of the woman, but can refer generally to whatever rites need to be performed, including that of the redemption of the firstborn. Luke, in fact, freely combines these two different customs: the purification of the mother on the fortieth day after giving birth (Lev 12:1ff), and the presentation or consecration of the firstborn male (Lk 2:22-23; Ex 13:1,11ff), which could also be bought back (Ex 13:15; Num 18:15-16). “Their purification” thus simply indicates the participation of both Joseph and Mary in the fulfillment of the prescriptions of the law.

Citation of the law for presenting “every male that opens the womb” (Lk 2:23) evidences the reason for having noted at Jesus’ birth that he was Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7). The sacrifice which Luke reports that Mary and Joseph offer, however, is not that for redeeming the child, but two doves or pigeons, the poorer of the two options prescribed for the purification of the mother (Lev 12:6). A concern of Luke’s which far outweighs the details of the customs involved, is to relate that Jesus’ parents complied with the law of the Lord in his regard. Luke emphasizes this by his customary method of repeating important words: “according to the law of Moses” (Lk 2:22), “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (Lk 2:23), “according to what is said in the law of the Lord” (Lk 2:24), “according to the custom of the law” (Lk 2:27). If four references to the law in six verses are not enough, this scene on the purification and presentation concludes with the abundantly clear message of the passage: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, …” (Lk 2:39). Joseph and Mary are faithfully observant Jews.

Though The Protoevangelium of James and subsequent apocrypha have influenced art to show Simeon as an old high priest with a flowing beard who offers the child up to God, from Luke it appears more likely that Mary and Joseph did the presenting: “when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him …” (Lk 2:27). Simeon, who is never said to be a Levitical priest, comes into the temple and praises God, whereupon Joseph, who is called “father” for the first time and is named before the mother, marvels together with Mary and receives his blessing (Lk 2:33). Simeon, moved by the “Holy Spirit” (Lk 2:25,26,27), and the “prophetess Anna” (Lk 2:36) fulfill the role of prophecy, while Jesus’ parents are the executors of the rites fulfilling the law.

Joseph’s role as father is important here. Together with Mary he brought Jesus to the temple. He would be economically responsible for providing the offering. He and Mary present the child, marvel at the prophecy, and receive Simeon’s blessing as Jesus’ “father and mother.” Having fulfilled all the rites at the temple, he would presumably fulfill the usual fatherly role of teaching the Torah to Jesus at their home in Nazareth. This would seem to be implied in the summary verse: “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40). Jesus’ parents raise him in the law which he will fulfill (Lk 24:44).

Though Joseph’s role as human father is clearly asserted and exercised, it is also just as clearly shown to be in tension with and in subordination to God’s divine Fatherhood. Luke is careful to show the primacy of God over human parenthood, a point developed in a final episode in Luke 2, which occurs when Jesus is twelve.

II. 4.3 The Adolescent Jesus in the Temple and at Nazareth

Mary and Joseph continue fulfilling their parental obligations to the temple by an annual Passover trip to Jerusalem (Lk 2:41). During Jesus’ adolescence a type of challenge arises, signifying a new phase of transition between his childhood, during which he is dependent on his parents, and his future ministry in which he will proclaim his total independence from them in favor of his unique relationship with his heavenly Father: “… no one knows who the Son is except the Father …” (Lk 10:22). In this scene Jesus’ parents are unaware that he has stayed behind at the temple (Lk 2:43-44). They find him three days later more interested in conversing with the teachers there, than in returning with them. The bystanders are “amazed at his understanding,” and Joseph and Mary are “astonished” (Lk 2:46-48), probably at the joy of finding him there, mingled with the even greater surprise that he would be so unconcerned about their feelings. Mary’s words explain their worry by recalling the parental relationship between “son” and “your father and I,” mentioning Joseph first in recognition of his headship over the household. Jesus’ reply emphasizes the tension of the different perspectives (Lk 2:49). He is as surprised as they at the apparently opposing views, and the fact that they seem unaware of his duty to a higher authority, his “Father” (Lk 2:49).

The two occurrences of “you” in Jesus’ reply are both in the plural, indicating that he is addressing both Mary and Joseph, in reply to Mary who speaks also on behalf of Joseph. In the phrase “in my Father’s house,” “house” may mean either “household” or “temple.” Jesus’ answer implies that his parents should have known where to find him, and that God is his Father. The first words of Jesus reported by Luke communicate the all important message that Jesus is God’s Son in a way that transcends not only his being raised as son of Joseph, but even his conception in the womb of Mary. Mary and Joseph “did not understand” these words (Lk 2:50): their understanding of their present role as parents of the youth could not fathom the meaning of the transcendent mystery which he would be called to proclaim. They nevertheless accept his response unquestioningly, just as he patiently returns with them to Nazareth and is “obedient to them” (Lk 2:51). Here Luke presents a dramatic message: even with the awareness of being God’s Son, Jesus remains subject to his human parents, postponing proclamation of his divine mission until the appointed time of his baptism.

These years in Nazareth have been called Jesus’ “hidden life.” No historical detail is preserved for us. He lives his simple role as child in a family, so as to be known by the people of his town as nothing more than “Joseph’s son” (Lk 4:22). Joseph is the father who helps him increase “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). When the Son of Man is ready to begin his proclamation that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Lk 4:18), Joseph’s role is completed, and he is no longer mentioned in the Gospel. From good Joseph’s faithful care, the child Jesus learns by human experience that no earthly father would give his son a serpent instead of a fish, nor a scorpion instead of an egg. His revelation to us, though, is how much more the heavenly Father in his infinite goodness will give us the Holy Spirit (Lk 11:11-13). The Son of God obeys obedient Joseph as earthly father in preparation for faithful obedience to the mission entrusted to him by his heavenly Father.